I feel sometimes I get run down for having a 'realistic' approach to the game of D&D, mostly because there is an implication that realism is all I want. It gets missed that I clearly use magic in my campaigns (I blew up Dachau with a demon during my online campaign, while offline I've posted about my party making a tour of the first level of the Abyss). That rankles me.
If I spend less time posting and creating profound magical aspects to add to the game, it's because I believe that these parts of the game actually work, as opposed to that which I do post about. I like the spells from the books, I don't feel the need to add new spells (except for the bard), I like the magic items list and on the whole I am happy with the degree of magic employed by monsters and other entities. Because I do not bitch and moan about these things should not be taken as an indication that I do not use them.
That said, I am of the opinion that a world based on ALL-MAGIC all the time soon becomes unbelievably dull, as it is hard to relate to. Magic is cool and all, but we are ordinary human beings playing the game and we are naturally affected by things that are familiar. It is not the magic that makes the game, it is the interweaving of conflict into the ordinary day-to-day pursuits. A plethora of magic tends to make things too easy (why bother ... the magic will do it) or too hard (why bother ... the wizard will kill us anyway). Worse still, everything ultimately devolves into the last scene from Dark City, where the wizards duel, the world is shredded, all purpose is obliterated and the character's either dead or promoted to godhood. All very well for a movie, but it quickly destroys an ongoing campaign.
So while I appreciate the excitement of places such as the City of Brass or the profundity of the Black Gate and the Land of Mordor, my tastes tend towards a surface reflecting the very mundane.
I did begin my world back in 1986, but the present incarnation - the maps I use, the approximate time-period, the economic structure and the forces at work, began in September 2004. Believe it or not, the beginning was a very small part of the world, chosen primarily because it was a fairly long way from the sea, in a semi-populated region. I wanted a land-locked area for no reason except that I had no practical rules for seagoing combat, or even random weather tables - and therefore did not want to get caught up with buccaneering adventures. Land was easier than water.
As far as civilization went, I went with an old standby - some bastion on the 'borderlands.' I had worked previously on deciding where humans resided in my world as opposed to other races, and I knew that there was a dividing line down the middle of Russia - where the humans on the west had retained the country against orcs, haruchai, ogres, gnolls, goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears ... each of whom held kingdoms in various parts of Siberia and on the near side of the Ural Mountains.
So I picked a province on the dividing line - determined by population estimates I'd made. If the territory had a population density of 1 person per square mile or better, it was human controlled - if less than that, non-human controlled. For many, I know this seems unnecessarily deliberate. Why bother making calculations at all? Why not just make sweeping gestures at maps? Well, let's put this down to my nature, my long-time experience playing with almanacs and my experience working professionally and non-professionally with statistics. I like statistics. If I can find an application for them, all the better.
That dividing line, as it happened, ran northward from the eastern end of the Black Sea - specifically the Sea of Azov - including a large portion of the lower Volga River and then veering both west and then east through lands that, then, I did not know very well. The gentle reader, I'm sure, will have heard of the Volga River, but probably not the Kama, the Vetluga, the Oka or the Sukhona. Moskva is familiar, but perhaps not Khlynov, Nizhni-Novgorod, Chernorech, Samara or Tsaritsyn. I'll give their names as they are known (and not the 17th century) during the period of Soviet occupation: Kirov, Gorkiy, Dzerzhinsk, Kuybyshev and Volgograd (or Stalingrad). That last, of course, is always very familiar.
One small territory, or oblast as it is in Russian, that I landed on was Voronezh. The city is, in the modern period, well over 400 thousand in population; my calculations gave it 5,000, making it a fair sized town but nothing immense. It was - is - 20,000 square miles, making it a bit bigger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined, half the size of Tennessee or about the size of Oregon's orchard country. There were no other comparable towns, only a dozen villages with a few hundred people each. A small hamlet, Borisoglebsk (got to love these names) had 52 permanent residents but swelled to over a thousand in the summer as it was a trading junction ... something I discovered entirely by accident.
The oblast of Voronezh was managed by a Russian count in 1650, so it became the County of Voronezh. My first hex maps of the area had a 5-mile diameter, allowing me to be quite precise. The principal river was the Don, that flowed through the center of the County on its way to the Sea of Azov. Another river, the Khoper, passed through Borisoglebsk before meeting the Don in the rolling lands to the southeast, out of the County. Most of the County was open prairie with hills - steppe.
To the west of the Don were the foothills of the Central Russian Plateau - which I'd never actually heard of before starting to map it. These are hills five hundred to eight hundred feet above the bottom of the Don Valley through the County.
The hills cover a huge area of European Russia and form a substantial barrier to travel. Most of the travel is northwest towards Moskva and southeast towards Tsaritsyn on the Volga. A large area on the east, near Borisoglebsk, is controlled by orcs; a large area on the south is controlled by outriders, the Don Cossacks, whom the Russian government was unable to control - they existed for a century as a sort of client-kingdom, paid by the Russians to attack their enemies, like mercenaries.
I saw this as a strong area to start a party. Both the cossack raiders and the orcs promised good adventuring; the hills were there to offer caves and isolated valleys for investigation. Voronezh made a good homebase for purchasing goods and Borisoglebsk was bound to be a source for violence and passion, full of caravans, gypsies, humanoids of every nature and foreigners from both the distant south and the north, all dwelling in tents and wagons.
As time went on, I added bits and pieces in an outward spiraling circle. I reduced the size of my map by using 20-mile hexes, mapping out the Don river from where it started above Voronezh all the way to where it entered the sea. I sketched out the Cossack lands, and then the orc lands, where the party ran for a time, merrily slaughtering their way across the country until getting involved in a seige at Saratov on the Volga. I worked northward and mapped out the hills west of the Volga, and then the small Gnome Kingdom of Harnia, which occupies the hills and forests of modern day Penza. From there I began to follow the course of the Oka River, which empties into the Volga, but starts in the Central Uplands west of Voronezh, near Kursk.
As I went, I researched, learned, discovered new things, got a feel for the land and a detailed sense of how it went together. This naturally influenced my long-suffering trade tables, as I realized how goods needed to be moved and how the land would affect the 'distance' between trading cities. History I had read for years began to have new value to me as I discovered - hex by hex - why Kiyev was able to remain an independent duchy for so long, and why the Greeks never expanded north of the Black Sea coast (the hinterland is too dry, the rivers largely unnavigable).
So please understand, if I emphasize overmuch on this blog the realistic characteristics of my world, it is because I am fascinated with the actual world as it exists. I am not merely inventing a world, I'm discovering one - and in the process presenting it, with magic and all, to my players. If the end result seems more granular than the ordinary world out there, it is because I'm not inventing it. This was the reason for my choosing to run in the real world in the first place.
But I still have dragons.