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Thread: Whaddyall think about: The stories behind maps?

  1. #1
    Guild Apprentice Slipguard's Avatar
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    Jan 2010

    Question Whaddyall think about: The stories behind maps?

    So this topic became relevant to me while working on my first map Paidixira. I have a continent with two major desert regions, one of which is waaaay north of the equator. This forced a decision between whether to redo that section of the map, putting forests and grasslands in their rightful place, or to make up a story to explain the existence of such a misplaced desert. Im more a writer than a cartographer, so I went with story. My path of least resistance was to contrive a war in which Ares (this is a world run by the greek gods of our universe) burned with pillars of fire the land so completely that nothing could ever grow there again and the land eroded into a giant sandpit.

    Putting aside how possibly inaccurate and unrealistic this particular scenario is, I want to know how relevant you think this tactic is. Are the mistakes or eccentricities of a map legitimate grounds for a writer or game master to build plot and backstory? At what point can outside parties no longer suspend their disbelief? Is there any worth to taking sides in the arguments for story based maps, map based stories, or realism? What kind of rules must you establish before you can even make a map? Am I a total noob who missed this conversation before?

    Whaddyall think?

  2. #2


    There are different type of deserts: The classical deserts under a tropical (NOT the equator) like Sahara, Great Arabic Desert, Great Australian Desert and Kalahari. Then there are the deserts that lie east of a cold ocean current (Namib and Atacama). Another type are in the lee of mountains like the Gobi in Mongolia (I guess central Antarctica is a similar case). Nature leaves you room to wiggle...
    On the other hand magical and devine intervention works out in 11 cases of 10.

  3. #3
    Guild Artisan Aval Penworth's Avatar
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    I took my son to see the Hubble 3D movie last week. While we watching the hundreds of trillions of stars spreading across the universe, I thought to myself..."with that many worlds out there, virtually anything is possible." If it can rain diamonds on other worlds, surely a northern desert is a small stretch.

    So yeah, your story can explain it. Or perhaps thats where deserts form on your world due to the unique interplay of forces in that part of that universe. Or maybe that story is part of the mythology...hmm.
    Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work I go..

  4. #4
    Community Leader Facebook Connected Ascension's Avatar
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    I think most people wouldn't even notice the geographic anomalies in a map. We would cuz that's our thing but 99.9999% of the world doesn't do what we do. That's why you see messed up rivers and misplaced deserts. I can let a northern desert slide but I can't let the rivers go. For those of us who do this sort of thing, when we see the oddball terrain you have to explain it somehow and it usually falls back on magic of some sort. I consider falling back on magic to explain things as a weak argument as I tend to favor physics and science to explain the terrain. When magic comes in to play I tend to take the Belgaratth don't mess with mother nature because the amount of magic and power needed to do something is so staggeringly large it would kill the person. Sure a god might be able to do something willy-nilly but that's an even weaker argument than magic. For me, I can only suspend my disbelief so much...small areas of oddball terrain or slightly misplaced terrain. But as I said earlier, I don't think that anyone outside of The Guild would ever notice such things.
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  5. #5
    Community Leader mearrin69's Avatar
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    In my setting's continent map I have a large, sandy desert that is the result of a previous mageo-technical war between the ancestors of mankind and <spoiler omitted>. The strip was the center of human civilization on the planet at the time and it was heavily bombed from orbit. The area is still polluted with the fallout - a substance tentatively called voidstone, which acts as a mana sink and has made the place somewhat inimical to life and has some very bad effects on magic. It is, as you might expect, one of my centers of psionic activity. It's also the home to a nomadic Chinese-like culture.

    Now, I knew I wanted some of this in there when I started making the regional map but the unlikely placement of the thing comes almost purely from messing around with the map in the early stages and laying a "climate gradient" over the whole thing. I saw it and thought, "that's perfect" for a number of reasons and then fleshed out the story a bit more.

    So, for me I think it'll generally be a bit of an iterative process. I didn't *just* use story to cover for a botch in mapping...I used a happy accident to develop my story further.

  6. #6
    Guild Master Facebook Connected jtougas's Avatar
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    I consider myself much more of a writer than a cartographer as well(hence why I'm here trying to get better) and I tend to agree with Ascension to a point. Up until recently all of my maps were hand drawn so I didn't need magic to explain an odd bit of topography. BUT I also think maps can drive story. Take the World of Greyhawk setting, The Sea of Dust which is a huge desert in the Southwestern section of the continent was created by a "massive" magical battle. Now obviously in this case the story drove the map but I could easily see it going the other way. If the designers had wanted a desert there and had to explain it's existence. It gave us two of my favorite "legends". The Rain of Colorless Fire and The Invoked Devastation. and to agree with Ascension once again, the magic used in those battles was so intense that it forever altered how magic worked on Oerth. Ultimately it's your story and your map which drives which is less important than if you and your players enjoy it and it is written in such as way as to make it believable.
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  7. #7
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    as Ascension said, none of my players would note anything out of order - not even the rivers - although I notice those after joining the guild - thanks Ascension for adding that quirk to my repertoire

    I prefer normal physics also, but if magic is in play - I'd make it really weird, like a sand ocean or an inverted waterfall - might as well go all out. For a world where other physics are at play (and damn good fantasy at that) I HIGHLY recommend Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson has made a wonderful world that works differently from ours, but is very cool ... and all is explained when the trilogi is read
    regs tilt
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  8. #8


    Don't forget that you could just flip your map upside down or 90 degrees, who knows if that might help you out. I'd also say go with nature where possible but to be honest I don't worry about this all that much. Maybe when i become adept at popping out maps right and left I will.

    All the players I have played with are playing to escape reality, so they wouldn't twinge about anything. As long as I have some sort of explanation, they are good to go - bust out the swords, we have a rescue to accomplish, who cares if we can walk upside down on the ceilings.

    Now, if you are writing a book on this, I'd say you better work out your reasons a little more because there will be readers who will go ape nuts over little stuff like that.
    “When it’s over and you look in the mirror, did you do the best that you were capable of? If so, the score does not matter. But if you find that you did your best you were capable of, you will find it to your liking.” -John Wooden

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  9. #9
    Community Leader Facebook Connected Steel General's Avatar
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    I'm OK with a little "creative geography" in a fantasy map.

    I doubt any of my continent/regional maps are completely geographically accurate, but I don't think they are way off base either.
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  10. #10


    All I have to say is: Australia.
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