Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To Make a World

I remember that the time between playing D&D and running D&D took, for me, about six weeks. In those days we all took a shot at the game; it was comparatively simple for anyone to run, as the campaigns were all hack and slash. Even the modules were that way. My first game had been Labor Day weekend, 1979, a few days before I began high school. By Christmas I was deeply into the game.

I remember trying to explain it to my parents, who had always been board game fanatics; but this game made no sense to them. How did the rules work? How could you tell who had won or who had lost? I remember one fateful evening I made the mistake of trying to run my parents in an adventure…which was disastrous. Generationally, there was no common ground there.

The first “world” that I ran was really a hodgepodge of other worlds, things that my friends and I had agreed on. But being a geographical freak (I could name all fifty states and their capitals when I was 7), I was anxious to try a hand at my own world.

For reasons that any 15 year old boy would understand, I was infatuated with John Norman’s Gor novels…this long before the world of Gor had been grafted onto a BDSM fetish group. I liked the structure of the world, with cities, culture, monsters, political relationships and adventure. The slavery thing was somewhat secondary to my purpose—nice for the books, but immaterial for D&D.

As the books have no map, I pieced together the locations of Ar, Koroba, Thentis, Tor, Port Kar…and the islands of Tyros and Cos, along with the northern lands, the southern steppe, the great Thassa, the Sardar Mountains and so forth. If you’re familiar with the books you know these places—you may not have a visual image of the lay of the land. I still do, in my mind’s eye, although I lost my original map literally decades ago.

I ran Gor for about a year…without much success, as my players had not read the books and for them the city names were just names. More than that, being used to complex maps of the Earth, I could not help noticing that my designed Gorean world was somewhat lacking in details. What it amounted to was a few lines and a few groups of mountains, with cities spackled all around, all hundreds of miles apart. I could fill up the spaces with names of plains, forests, rivers and such, but these were just names as well. The adequate information to explain away those gaps just didn’t exist in the books. I’d have to somehow invent them on my own…and to do that, I might as well just start fresh with an original world.

I had available a pre-made world that I could buy from TSR, the company that sold D&D originally. But that wasn’t interesting. My interest in maps and geography demanded that I make my OWN world—which would, I thought, be tailored to whatever campaigns I wished to run.

I sketched out a plan on six maps, based on the concept of a large, central sea surrounded by arable lands—and beyond, inhospitable desert, mountains or snowfield. The farther one trekked from the sea, the less hospitable the environment, the exact nature dependent on how far from the equator one was. Thus, political structure was dependent on control of the sea and access to other markets.

I ran this world for almost four years, up until 1985. Generally, as a D&D world, I’d say it was as successful as most I’ve seen. I was involved quite a bit with various role-playing conventions that occurred in the city, and for a time I made a little money designing original “worlds” for other DMs who admired mine and wanted something similar. I carefully drafted and sketched out the mountains, rivers and forests of these worlds in a style similar to a 16th century cartographer, and sold them for a $100 apiece. I’d ask if they wanted a single continent, a group of islands, deserts, mountains—similar to the structure of a Civilization IV world. Each 24x30 inch map typically took about four evenings (24 hours) to draw.

My own world, of course, was six of these maps. Most players didn’t have the money to pay me for more than one sheet; altogether I did about six different maps for people, two for which I never received payment. I was doing it for “friends”…so I didn’t ask for money up front.

My reasons for giving up on my second world were this: I simply could not present the world as real. No matter how I tried, in reality my players could not help thinking of each city as just “the city” or each forest as “the forest.” It did not matter that the cities had names like “Forcrest” or “Juba”…the names did not convey identity. I would have to describe the huge port city of Forcrest as a kind of London, or the jungle city of Juba as being similar to Delhi. The jungle itself would have to be described as being like India or Africa. Or the vast eastern desert being like the Sahara. In short, I needed examples from the real world to make my world “real.”

Whereupon I realized that solution to this was to simply adopt the real world as my D&D world.

The idea was not embraced immediately. Most players feel that somehow an original world lends itself to a greater mystery, or that the real world is so suffused with tiresome reality that it cannot be “magical.” But as a dungeon master, the benefits of choosing to run using the real world as a template were immediate.

I did not need to limit the world to its actual condition, after all. Magic could continue to exist, non-human races and monsters could exist in whatever degree I wanted, history could be rewritten. What I gained in return were thousands of ready-made maps in whatever scales might be available at the local library, along with detailed floor plans for world-wide structures; complex mountain systems with easily identified river networks which made—by example—geologic sense. And finally, when I told a party that they had just arrived in London, there was no need whatsoever to describe the culture to them; it was immediately absorbed. They knew what the people would be like and what to expect.

My first plan set the world in 1500; later, when I decided I would rather have a somewhat settled New World, I changed that to 1650. The world is not what it was in 1650—I have made plenty of changes. In other ways, it is very similar.

And detail? Rather than twenty or thirty cities, as a typical D&D world might have, my world contains more than forty substantial settlements in Wales alone. All with histories, street names and family titles. And I have never run a party in Wales. I have been running the real world as D&D since 1986, and have not remotely used all of it. The campaign I ran up until 1996 went from Yugoslavia to Spain, to West Africa, the Caribbean, to Ireland and then back to Portugal. My present campaign began in Russia and has moved down through Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Transylvania. The party goes where it wants and I have the world ready to greet them.

And now there’s the internet. If I need a picture of a particular group of mountains or a forest or wherever, I have tourist photos and I have Google Earth. I have weather data coming out the yin yang. I have everything I need.

As such, my world has become a very complex place. Just the sort of place where I feel at home.


  1. When I was younger and playing (in the early 80's also) I found the library to be a huge resource for maps for D&D as well. We didn't play in the real world setting, but we sure did use the maps.

    Any map with a scale of 10,000:1 or even 50000:1 could be transformed into a fantasy map with a photocopier, a printer, a glue stick - to glue new names to existing cities, towns, lakes, etc... Run that through the photocopier again and you had a new map.

    While the real world sample might be Greece, it was easy enough to modify it to become the Island of Murth, or whatever it needed to be. Our map grew and grew out of samples from the real world. It was a quilt like thing that could be expanded upon ad infinitum. One entire wall of the basement was devoted to piecing our world together. When the game shut down 8 years later in 1990 (the year we all graduated and left for various Universities) we had covered the wall, filled several 2" binders with photographs and geographical data, floor plans and ancillary maps. I majored in Geography when I got to University because of this.

    I drew out the world by hand one day on a 30 x 50 piece of grid paper. That map is all that remains of the original world today.

    With access to the Internet a collection like that is kind of a strange concept. Replaced by pages of bookmarks, photoshopped collections of maps, and various cartographic programs, the large scale world map pieced together with tape and tacks is gone. Too bad. I think that map was one of the main reasons we all played D&D. It wasn't so much about the game, but who could bring life to the map. Who could tell the story behind the map. What adventures lurked off the edges of that map? And, of course, what kind of mazes and monsters would we find once our characters got there?

    Your blog starts with the map, just like every good game of D&D. Looking forward to the next post.


  2. Sorry to put this on such an old post, but I'm new and I'm still catching up. Anyhoo...The National Geographic Channel is re-airing a series this weekend called "How The Earth Changed History". Episodes include wind, water, mountains, etc, and how they influenced the forming of cultures and civilizations. If you are into world building, this is a must see !

  3. Love the idea of using real world areas for the game. I have a tendency to start my games in a small side section of a kingdom, maybe cut off from the rest by monsters, mountains, deserts, water, ect. Then after the players get a feel for the area I open up ways for them to travel if they wish. Clear the Monsters, Forge a Mountain pass, Protect a Caravan, or freeing the harbor from an evil mages control. Only then do I start to build the world beyond the initial area. During playing I'll have NPC drop names of far away places or other kingdoms, and I'll see which ones the players seem to want more information on, so I can sketch out them in advance.


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