Saturday, May 21, 2016

Enjoying the Unexpected

I was looking at this world plotting post today and thinking how funny it is.  Seeing it three years later, all I can think is, "Wow, that looks like a lot of work."

It wasn't not really, but I know that I'm built for this sort of thing.  For one thing, I'm well-versed in the publisher program and I've already made hex-maps that I can manipulate as I've done there.  I wrote the post to show what could be done - and how a perfectly believable arrangement of details could be generated completely randomly, if the method is right.

But I laugh because I really got a kick of making this:

I didn't know what it was going to look like when I was finished - wasn't even sure it would look like anything.  But it was an interesting experiment because I kept stumbling across new ways to give it life as a potential game setting.  I think I learned a lot, even though of course none of this made its way into my world.

I wonder that people who describe making their world don't get more out of not knowing what it is going to look like.  I suppose that comes out of always scribing out a world without a random element.  There's just something in me that would rather investigate than originate where it comes to D&D.  Thankfully, this doesn't keep me from creating from scratch with writing: doing that right now.  But in devising something like the above, I get a real kick out of throwing dice at a table and seeing what happens.

For example, take this small part of the Sahara map I posted earlier this month:

South Algeria

Most of this map is randomly generated.  Counting just the two areas that are labeled "Tindouf," I had exactly three pieces of data upon which to build this space: the elevation, latitude and longitude of three places, one of those being the town of Tindouf in the upper left corner.  There just isn't any data available on the rest of this big, empty space (about the size of Ohio, England, Bulgaria or South Korea, if anyone is interested)  Because of that, I was left to either make stuff up or generate some result randomly.  Guess where I went with it.

To start with, it always has to be remembered that these are hexes that are largely empty of anything - just like the randomly generated example at the top, there are hexes within hexes, so the 20-mile hex (32 km) of the Tindouf map is largely representational.  The three green areas of Tindouf shown above do not mean that the oases there cover an area 20 miles across.  More likely, the two hexes without a town in them are closer to 1% of that.

However, apart from the oasis, there are two general kinds of desert: the sort where very little grows and the sort where nothing grows.  Compare this:

With this:

I wanted my desert to have character, since it would matter to the players trying to cross it.  We had an adventure in a desert similar to this with one party last year and a different adventure with another party in another desert two years ago.  So creating this detail proved important.

I started with the premise that all the hexes surrounding an "civilization" hex - one I had at least a little information for - would be "desert and scattered scrub," with succulent plants, enough life that herders could take sheep or goats to a specific hex in the desert and let them graze there awhile before before moving onto new grazing lands.  These hexes are rust-red in color because I have a lot of different vegetations to keep track of and this seemed best for part desert.  A hex that was 2 hexes away from civilization would have a 50% chance of being a potential grazing hex.  Three hexes away, 25%; four hexes away, 12.5% and so on.  Anything that was not a desert and scattered scrub was pure desert - either sandy, like the picture above, or rocky, or mountainous (like the darker red hexes in the Tindouf map), depending on what other details I could dredge up from my own atlases and online.

Information continues to be scant where it comes to the deep Sahara desert.  We can see it from space but very little of it has been properly investigated.  Names for regions are so local they don't appear on maps - or if a label appears on maps, the information on line is in a different language, with different spelling.  And all it says online about the desert is that it is a desert east or south or near such-and-such.  Sometimes there's a note that it's rocky.  That's about as good as it gets, even with google translate.

Moreover, a lot of places that my 1952 encyclopedia shows as existing are simply gone now.  The Sahara is growing and drying out and there are wadis I can see on old maps that don't show up on google earth.  They're covered in sand now.  It's a similar phenomenon to the melting of the glaciers - it is only that it's easier to get a camera crew to a glacier in Alberta to bitch about how much it has melted since 1935 than it is to find a wadi in the heart of the Sahara.

I've done this tour; it gets more expensive every year
and there is less to see.
Where was I?  Oh, getting random results.

It was probable that I'd get at least one well placed scrub-land hex between the two upper hexes of Tindouf and the one 220 miles to the southeast.  Those middle scrubland hexes make travel a lot easier because there's only a 40 mile gap of deep desert that a traveller has to cross - which is good for my game because Tindouf is one of those links between the north of the Sahara and the south.  On the whole, though a lot of the exact hexes were determined randomly, there's a nice clean path between south Morocco, Tindouf and Azawad in north Mali, which gives access to the El Mreyye grasslands (virtually a pure desert now but in the 17th century would have been a very dry Sahel climate), this being the road to Timbuktu.

It worked out for south of Adrar, as well.  Adrar is in modern-day central Algeria - but there was a route that led to it from a big trading city called Biskra (I have to link the French Wikipedia because it is much more useful than the English), which was once part of Roman Numidia.  South of Adrar the route led over the cooler Asedjrad Plateau, then down into what is now West Mali, where a big wadi called the Tilemsi made the way to Gao, another very important trade town in the old Songhai and earlier Mali empires.  Until the Portuguese broke the system, an immense amount of Europe's gold poured north from Gao and Timbuktu.

I've seen hundreds of maps of the trade routes that look like this:

I swear that the creators of these maps are just playing connect the dots between known trade towns without the least thought of the big blank spaces between.  Look at at this one detail:

Erg of Chech shown surrounded with a red line.
The 'expert' here has drawn the trade route right through the middle of the Erg of Chech, a vast sand field about the size of Texas.  No doubt, the 'expert' realizes that the camels don't cross through the middle of it but follow around the edge, but that's not really important for the map, is it?  We're just trying to say that Tombouctou and Gao both traded with Sijilmasa, which was a huge trading city that dried up and blew away sometime between 1353 and the early 16th century (it is a bit of a mystery).  It would have been reached through Adrar, which is unique in the Sahara for being one of a long string of oases conveniently strung out in a line.  To get to Sijilmasa from Timbuktu (the mapmaker has chosen to retain the French colonial spelling of the city), a traveller would have had to travel east until just north of Gao, then use the Gao route, or travel on the route to Tindouf and then northeast to get back to Sijilmasa.  Inside Morocco, the Sijilmasa road led to Fez and Casablanca; the Tindouf road led to Marrakech.  Obviously, the mapmaker doesn't care about these subtle details.

I love that I can now define the exact hexes that a traveller would take in my world (though of course, being in part random, the reality would vary by 20-30 miles north or south of the line I'll draw).  I love that I have the Sahara 'tamed' where it comes to what's out there.  I love that my desert isn't just a big empty bleh as it appears on most fantasy maps.  I love that I had no idea what to expect.

This post really has been all over the place.  Guess I just had to let myself off the chain for a bit.


Maxwell Joslyn said...

Uh-oh ... my rudimentary approach to defining trade routes so far has basically been connect the dots ... well, "tell the computer where the towns are and let it connect the dots based on finding the shortest path," but suffice it to say there's no sub-hex detail being considered yet*.

Of course I'm the one who defined how "shortest path" is calculated for the road finder, so I could go in and tweak it so that deserts and jungles are harder to cross, and so on ... but that sounds like that might be missing one of the points you're making here, which is that one ought not to just wave one's hand and say "the desert is all like this" and "the jungle is all like this."

* One day. As always there are plans for ever greater levels of detail, but for now I'm tackling the trade system that's built on top of these roads, plus my own take on a character background generator.

Alexis Smolensk said...

No worries, Maxwell. I hold real life history mapmaking to a higher standard than gaming, that's all.

Jhandar said...

Having adopted your hex map generator and used it extensively (not to the extent you have, but likely far more than the average bear and/or reader) I can attest to the joy of letting your maps randomly generate themselves. The process really creates an intense amount of depth for areas, and by proxy a wonderful amount of natural plot hooks and interesting areas for adventure, exploration and discovery.

I would encourage everyone to make a block of six 20 mile hexes, fill them using the generator, and then generate the information for that area once it is complete. The map will help shape the world and the randomness will help you create interest even if you feel at whits end. Questions like 'why is that cemetery way out in the woods?', 'What is with this grouping of five monasteries?', etc. will work to flesh out the area organically.

This may actually be a good thing to add to your DMing Tutorial section as well through a section on World Building. Although you have a great bit on it in your books too! (plug)

The Rubberduck said...

I can only really repeat what Jhandar has said.

I'm using a heavily modified version of the hex map generator, but uncovering the world one two-mile hex at a time is fascinating. I may know that this area is wooded hills with a major trade road running over them, but what is the exact terrain that decides how the road meanders? Where are the ruins of past civilizations? Are there any monsters with camps or lairs close is enough to threaten the road?