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Thread: __Maps and the Narrative__

  1. #1

    Question __Maps and the Narrative__

    Hey, how ya doin'?
    I'm pretty new to the forum, but my main discussion point is this: How does geography affect a story? Besides obvious, major things like equatorial nations are going to be hotter... mountains contain natural resources... oceans are not easy to cross... major cities tend to be on coasts and rivers, what subtle, realistic details make the geography "real" to you.

    For example, something that was fascinating to me was the concept of rain shadows, this led me to realize that there is a lot to physical geography that I didn't know.

    Some example questions:
    How does geography affect warfare in a fantasy narrative? Political disputes? Culture?
    How is setting (ancient, medieval, modern-day, so on) affected differently by similar geographic features? (I suspect the invention of flight is a major point here)
    What long-term trends can totally and permanently change a biome? (where and why does one find ancient ruins abandoned?)

    I'm hoping this thread might be a good source of help to those who want realistic, heavily thought-out worlds that don't fall apart under close scrutiny.


    I have some story ideas I have been chewing on for a while now, but we can leave the specifics to another post.

  2. #2


    I don't have the time for a detailed reply, but I'd like to draw your attention to the dessication effects that agriculture has had on the "fertile crescent," which is now mostly desert. Constant tilling did two things: crops used up a lot of the moisture that had been locked into the soil—the grains that were being cultivated there used more moisture than was naturally replenished by natural forces. The lack of crop rotation sapped much of the nutrients in the soil. Since fields were not left fallow in the early days of agriculture, the earth never had the opportunity to regenerate and as time wore on, the fields became less and less fertile. Eventually, the large populations that had depended on the fertility of that land suffered starvation. In the worst cases, the land converted to desert and the cities were abandoned.

    It probably didn't help that an accepted tactic in classical period warfare was to salt the enemy's land to destroy their ability to grow food.
    Bryan Ray, visual effects artist

  3. #3


    Great stuff! I cant remember where it is now but I also saw an interesting article about settings with knights and castles and such and he was talking about how much land and agriculture is needed to support an army (or even just a squad of knights) It really was interesting, and the guy had some other brilliant ideas for rpgs, like how to keep magic "special" even in a mmorpg. Any other advice anyone?

  4. #4


    The ability to attack an area but not hold it encourages cultures in which raiding is the preferred form of warfare. You're never out to conquer your enemies, only to take their resources. You see this situation in archipelagos and in places with small patches of arable land but good transportation, like Scandinavia. Although the Vikings did eventually colonize several areas of Europe at large, it was more for the purpose of having a staging ground than to take more land. Swidden agriculture (jungles) also encourages raiding, since there's not really any value in holding onto land for more than a couple of seasons. Plus, it's difficult to organize large populations when nobody stands still for very long, and smaller tribes tend more toward raids than war.

    Hmm… The amount of energy provided by the environment and the amount necessary to survive can have a strong influence on the behavior of the people. The Inuit don't have much inclination to do much other than hunt, make tools, and tell each other stories. You seldom find them fighting because they need absolutely all of their calories just to keep their bodies going in the cold. Even their hunting methods are designed to expend as little energy as possible. A society capable of producing a large surplus of energy, on the other hand, can afford to squander it in the pursuit of luxury, amusement and war.
    Bryan Ray, visual effects artist

  5. #5
    Software Dev/Rep Guild Sponsor waldronate's Avatar
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    Mar 2007
    The High Desert


    A couple of observations about desertification. It has somewhat different causes in different areas.

    In the fertile crescent, some of the major causes of desertification include (in no particular order):
    * digging of canals dries out marshes, making for good soil but lowering the water table
    * using flood irrigation on fields adds silt to the fields, raising them even more relative to the local water table
    * fields above the local water table wick up water, that then evaporates, leaving behind salts that make the land less fertile.
    * overgrazing of goats and sheep on less fertile lands denudes the land, leaving fewer roots and making the land more prone to wind and water erosion

    That last one is a major start for desertification in lots of places where there is more potential evaporation than rainfall. Plants help to hold water in the soil by both shading the soil and by providing organic material which holds moisture. Cooler soil doesn't allow water to evaporate as quickly. Soil with lots of organic material holds water well when it rains, reducing the rate of runoff from the soil. And plant roots prevent both wind and water erosion of soils, allowing a good layer of rich topsoil to form over time. When the plant cover is persistently removed or broken faster than it will regrow, water evaporates rapidly from those broken areas, meaning that plants can't grow as well there, which leads to larger patches of dead area. If sufficient pressure is put on an area over time, the ability of that area to support much in the way of plant life diminishes fairly rapidly.

    A case study in desertification is the Jornada del Muerto in New Mexico. If was originally a shrubby, semiarid grassland when Spanish explorers first found it. After settlement and grazing began, it triggered a change that resulted in the shrubby desert area we see today. The Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa is a similar case where the pressures on the landscape led to pretty severe desert and a pretty bad human cost. It does look like both of these effects could be reversed by planting more vegetation and not overgrazing it. has a nice (if somewhat political) discussion on desertification.

    When doing a model of fantasy races, it can be entertaining to make up a matrix that shows the biome type vs. race type and how they affect those biomes. The classic elfies, for example, are likely to want to modify their environment to be more full of forest, humans might tend more toward open woodland well suited to farming, while orkies might just push nearly any environment toward desert / wasteland. Running the population density of races vs. the biome types leads to some obvious migrations (assuming appropriate rules for conflict) over time, with orks pushing into surrounding areas when their population of their carrying capacity exceeds the wastelands that they've made, human pushing into elf territories in some areas, while elfies push into human lands in others. Races with a long generation time might need to adopt scorched-earth policies with regards to races with short generation times. Elfies might need to virtually exterminate orkies in the local area and run serious incursions into the ork homelands just to maintain a stable population. A couple of matrices about attitudes toward the land and other races combined with a map that evolves over time suggests some very interesting conflicts and the source of endless stories.

  6. #6

    Default Bingo!

    Exactly! In real life, stories of history often seem inevitable in retrospect, and as I get into writing, I hope that the stories I write seem as natural and inevitable as well.

  7. #7


    Something else that doesn't seem to really get addressed in detail is the way dwarves (or any mining culture really) get food, obviously they trade for goods they need, but that means there are agrarian societies loaded with dwarven plowshares, knives, etc. on the other end of the deal. And that makes mining cultures strangely vulnerable to attack and especially siege, at least thats what is seems like to me.

  8. #8
    Guild Novice 290blue's Avatar
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    May 2011
    Adelaide, South Australia


    I always figured that subterranean dwarfy types cultivated things like like edible fungi in vast underground caverns. Alternatively, they could develop terrace farms like the Inca for their hillsides; surely not all dwarfs live underground and work as miners. Mountain goats would probably be their preferred livestock.

  9. #9
    Community Leader jfrazierjr's Avatar
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    Oct 2007
    Apex, NC USA


    Also, while there are a number of edible mushroom types of plants available, there are many types of animals which live totally underground. Another option would be underground lakes/seas/etc which would have some type of aquatic life that could be fished.
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  10. #10
    Professional Artist Facebook Connected Coyotemax's Avatar
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    mmmmmmmmmm Cave Pig.... them's good eating. Best ribs EVAR!

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