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Thread: How far should RPG maps follow natural laws?

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  1. #1

    Post How far should RPG maps follow natural laws?

    This discussion came up in another thread and I thought I would move it here as it is something we often discuss in the context of individual maps but not as a broader question.

    My view on the RPG vs. natural topography discussion is that it is unhelpful to take either to extremes and the 'pleasing result' falls somewhere in-between (as always):

    On one hand, you can have a completely topograhically unbelievable world with rivers running uphill, perfectly straight coastlines etc...which is fine if that's what you want, but it's not going to look 'believable.' And if you are going to violate very obvious natural laws (like gravity) then that is going to have to be consistent (or at least explained) in the game itself.

    On the other hand you can get so wound up with tectonic plate movements, climate effects, magma flows and what have you alls that you'll probably never finish your map with the phenomenal amount of calculations you will have to do. You will also be depriving yourself of the opportunity to create beautiful locations if they violate natural laws. Why not have a 300 metre high finger of rock in the middle of a plain? It's no coincidence that exotic or exaggerated landscapes contribute immensely to our enjoyment of fantasy books or RPGs. After all, it's about escapism and the unreal.

    So the happy medium is in the middle. Here are the informal rules I follow:

    1. The map has to be reasonably believable. RPGing is after all about suspending disbelief, so as long as the world you've created seems reasonably possible that's fine. If it's too unreal, it becomes too difficult to suspend disbelief.

    2. The more an element in a map doesn't follow the laws of nature (e.g. rivers defying gravity, floating cities etc) then the more that the element will need some form of explanation - (magic, dwarven machinery, moles with telekentic powers...whatever).

    3. Don't be afraid to break the rules if the result looks good. I tend to choose 'visually pleasing' over 'realistic' (although of course the less realistic something looks, the less visually pleasing it tends to be - unless it's really uber, super-cool. Sometimes you just 'know' when to break the rules.

    4. The map has to fit the story or world that you have created. That might influence your colour choices, whether you want your map to look like it's been hand drawn or shaded relief. Geographical landmarks have to appear in the right place. If place x is three days' ride from place y then you should calculate roughly what the distance should be. (i.e. not 2,000 miles or just around the corner).

    5. The map has to have an internal consistency. By this I mean if you are going to (say) paint your mountains in one style, use that style throughout the map (unless there's a really good reason not to). If you decide to draw very small islands, don't just do it one corner of the map, put them where all small islands might be found (again, you may have a good reason not to do this, but make sure you have a good reason and that reason is apparent to the person looking at the map). I find internal consistency is one of the hardest things to achieve. It applies to everything in your map, colour choices, scale, how your coastlines look, how your buildings look - everything. You just have to rely on your eyes and an objective sense of self criticism (something again I'm terrible at) to see where something doesn't fit. That's one of the reasons why posting maps up here and having other people look at them is so helpful.

    Does anyone else have any thoughts on the subject?

  2. #2
    Guild Adept Valarian's Avatar
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    I like to try and make maps that fit natural processes as much as I can make them. As an amateur RPG cartographer, with no geological or meteorological training, I make mistakes. Hopefully, they are not mistakes that are too big. In the end, I make the map for my enjoyment and to aid me in making the game enjoyable for the players. Consistency of style is good but, rather than having a homogeneous style for the entire campaign world, I've started trying to create a style for each of my cultural areas.
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  3. #3
    Community Leader Torq's Avatar
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    Really interesting issue Ravs. I also am no geologist and no matter how hard I try my world maps are simply not going to be even remotely accurate when it comes to real world factors. On the other hand we do need real world concepts to stimulate us. When you read a good fantasy novel you are awe inspired by the creativity of the land that it described, and yet if you really unpack what is going on in our imaginations, whe are using real world sensory experience to decode what we are reading. Without knowledge of how a real river flows, we are unable to appreciate the beauty of the fantasy river that is being described. In my view it is the points of contact in our own experience that give the fantasy experience its richness and depth.

    I think the same thing applies to fantasy cartography. If the map is just too bizarre from the "realism" point of view, it doesn't resonate strongly enough and we find it more difficult to buy into it. So a level of "realsim" is, in my humble opinion, essential for a good fantasy map.

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  4. #4


    I think I largely agree with you. The objective I aim for in my games is to create an environment that my players are happy to immerse themselves in. Any element that threatens the "willful suspension of disbelief" (a possibly overused phrase by this time) needs to be examined carefully.

    Although excessive attention to realism tends to bog down the cartographer so that maps are never completed, I think there is a more insidious danger. Fantasy cartography is all about the fantasy, and fantasy deals routinely with things that are most emphatically not realistic. Attempts to make a fantasy world conform to the most minute detail of real geology, etc sap the joy from playing from me. That's the reason I am not terribly interested in Paul Cardwell's Mythworld. Heroic fantasy characters shouldn't have to worry about getting infections from the minor cuts they receive while fighting skeletons in swamp water--unless the Evil GM wants to use such an infection as the basis for the next adventure, of course.

    I guess you already said the same thing in a much pithier fashion, but I was feeling compulsive this morning.
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  5. #5
    Community Leader NeonKnight's Avatar
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    Well, here is the thing.

    EVen, Wizards of the Coast, in their books, state that for Versimilutude (sp?) and suspension of Disbelief, the campaign world/locale should mirror the real world with a few caveats.

    It is after all a FANTASY world. so having a locale where the Trees Walk, or a mountain floats, or rivers flow uphill is a good if not required idea. Fantasy lore is filled with areas that defy the natural laws.

    But to take this further, while this does not quite connect to the outside world, in WotC's Dungeonscape hardcover (a phenomenal book by the way and greatly recommened, along with their Cityscape book), the dungeon is probably the one local where there SHOULD be areas that defy physics. Rooms with no gravity, floting rocks, etc. These areas are actually expected by players and oddly, no one bats an eye when they enter a room where the very walls flow with blood!
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  6. #6
    Community Leader pyrandon's Avatar
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    Great post, ravs and a well thought out list. I tend to think in terms of visual qualities of a map before I even begin to think of the geography depicted (am I alone in that?)--so that a well-drawn, creative, moodful map will cause me to "buy" ridiculous fantasies. I wonder if that should be placed on your list, or if it's more about cartography than world contruction.

    For example, we at one time had a cartographer here creating modern-world styled fantasy maps; they were beautiful in their technical, real-world visualizations. Now, I would expect from that map that no crass and blatant geographical oddities would exist, because the map is so complete and scientific. Whereas a moodier, hand-drawn/scrawled map makes me more willing to accept bizarrities. This may be just me though.

    I also think Neon has a good point in where the "rules" are being broken. We will accept some places more than others. But even in these I would say the visuals dictate the dubious mindset of the viewer.
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  7. #7
    Guild Member Publius's Avatar
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    Post Caution: Long rant-like drivel here

    Interestingly, there are some situations when you do paying work when you have a client that wants something rather specific which makes you scratch your head and say "huh?" and seems to violate that suspension of disbelief. When you do a map for an RPG that isn't yours, expect some handwaiving where you'd prefer it would not be found, and some places where the client wants strict observance to something you consider of lesser importance to the thing that got handwaived.

    I've been very lucky in this so far, in that the company I primarily work with has been very good about working with their folks from the get-go. Often, they will take what I do and work it into their stuff, sometimes the handwaive comes before there is too much investment on your part. That makes it very easy. "This is the map I do, so I do it."

    One example happened when I worked on the maps for a Post-Apocalyptic setting book. I did a lair in that one for a Wizard that had installed himself as a Warlord in a pastiche of Thundarr the Barbarian (a rather well done pastiche I might say). The artifacts of the "World that Was" are used as a basis for other things in that sort of setting. Like Chairots built out of the chasis of an old Chevy and dragged by dinosaurs, stuff like that. This is done both to connect the setting to the players and give a solid Post-Apoc feel.

    I had a couple of ideas when the Developer and I were discussing the different maps for the project. Stuff like usng a Fast-food-type place as the Ancient basis for the lair -- just because it would have amused me to have the Big Bad Guy send his Death Legion out of a McDonald's. It would have been a good gag too, but the Developer went with one of my other ideas of using an old Skyscraper as a basis for a "Wizard's Tower". So off I go in my Mr. Monk fashion to do research on what will happen to structures after the Bomb/Moon breaks/People-die-off-in-whatever and that sort of thing. Halfway through working the map out, the Developer mentions that the Thundarr setting will be a thousand years in the future.

    I say to myself: "A thousand?"

    By that time, the only structures built in the Twentieth century that are left will be stuff like bridges and that sort of thing (Medieval Castles were made of much sterner stuff time-wise and look at their present state). Skyscrapers might last a good 300-400 years, longer even with regular repair and maintenance. But a Thousand Years? Metal fatigue and such, especially if there is any groundwater and no maintenance (like you know, after the Bomb), will collapse that puppy well before then. Right away I want to start ranting, but instead I ask a few leading questions to feel him out on how committed he is to this.

    The Developers position (and it is the same one he made publicly when the issue came up on that Companies boards independently, so I am not talking out of school here) was that this was something that the genre simply used. Period. No one questioned it on Thundarr, why question it here? Seeing he was resolute and taking the path of least resistance I did the maps, just thinking in my hindbrain that those were really 1,000 seasons or maybe that the calendars got shorter or something. You know, just to trick myself into doing the job.

    But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was right and I was wrong. I freely admit that now, emphatically even. The point in game design is to create an image, a feeling, a tone. That ephemeral quality that creates a shared picture of the imaginary world into which we delve collectively. A lot of that dynamic depends on what the characters see and hear and have physically 'present' (in-game of course) to respond and react to. Thundarr with nothing but Ancient relicts that have largely disintegrated and are nearly unrecognizable isn't post-Apocalyptic, its a fantasy setting that happens to be far into the future rather than the past (like Smith's Zothique). If you want Post-Apocalyptic you need time to develop new social customs, for mutations to develop and to create a new set of myths and legends that incorporate the "Time that was...." So the thousand year period was entirely appropriate. And so too was the Skyscraper, the perfect image of the Ancients to be used as the base for a Warlord. A skyscrapper that was battered and skeletal (I used a curtain wall style building based off of the Lever Building, one of the first of that Glass & Steel type) but something that the players could say to themselves "Yup. Ruined Skyscrapper. Post-Apocalyptic."

    The map wasn't hyper-realistic, but it was appropriate. It reinforced the setting. I'm glad I didn't raise a stink (my initial reaction), because at the point I was so into getting the details that I lost sight of what it was I was supposed to do. To explain that concept a bit: I basically work "bottom-up" rather than "top- down": By which I mean that I put together a building by thinking about the guy/gal/it that designed it first and then what it was originally built for, not by saying "I need a room here" or there. This can take me a few seconds or a long time along a convulted path, just depends. Often, I find that this method gives me an unusual take on the maps I draw and helps me avoid cliches, but it also has its drawbacks. I get lost amid the details for one, which was my problem there. Also, I'm learning to change that a little, to step back and say "What is the top-down view of this thing? Have I accomplished my goals?" And sometimes this calls for me to make changes so that the thing am doing is not just logical but right for the project. The game designer has been excellent about this mental readjustment on my part, and he has shown me a lot just by talking with me. I appreciate the time he spends doing that because it isn't like he's getting paid for his valuable time.

    And there is a side-benefit from my interaction with him from his end as well. At least that is my conceit. Several of the maps I did for that project all started with a list of possibilities I sent along from the get-go and he made them better by making certain that I stayed on the right path. Maybe that contribution is no more than what the Developer gets the forums on his company website, but I Hope that I have stimulated an idea or two. I just wonder if they were good ones

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