This post is part of a series on worldbuilding; links for the whole series can be found on this page.
It must seem funny that with three long posts, I haven't asked the designer to produce any content at all. The subject has been theoretical worldbuilding and no more. The assumption is usually that the designer sits down and starts doing ... something. Like the writer in Hollywood films who gets out their computer, opens a word document of some kind and starts typing.
In reality, before a writer writes, he or she takes a walk. Then another. Then stands at a window and stares. Does the grocery shopping. Sleeps. Stares vacantly at half a tomato while making dinner. And after a month of this goes by, then begins to write.
This post isn't going to ask the reader to do anything, either. Don't let the change from (1) to (2) fool you. We still have decisions to make and topography to consider. Yet, since we're creating the world for some sort of people to inhabit (not necessarily humans), there are certain design issues to consider before we move forward.
We have three templates for human habitation of a continent on Earth. I'll start with the least practical for a D&D world, Australia. Australia was settled some 40,000 years ago (though these numbers change all the time, so we could just as easily say 50,000 to 35,000 years ago). At the time of its settlement, humans hadn't developed farming or any sustenance technology beyond hunting and gathering. Australia had some large animals when it was first settled, but these were quickly killed off until none were left; during that time, and afterwards, the aboriginals never developed a sufficient food source to enable the key ingredient advancing civilisation: specialisation. A surplus of food frees a segment of the population from having to produce food, which enables them to specialise in creating new technologies. The first peoples of Australia never got there. Thus, while able to survive in Australia with great expertise, they were easy prey for the monsters, er, Europeans, who arrived and dominated the continent.
However, since those horrid events took place on a tiny scale only beginning in 1629, and on a larger scale after 1788, the two historical Australias are nothing like what's wanted for D&D. Primitive Australia has no characteristic that meets the expected technology and time period of D&D, and colonial Australia occurs far too late, in the early industrial revolution. There's not much here.
Second template. The natives of the New World came over the land bridge from Asia into the Americas sometime between 11,000 and 15,000 years ago ... after the emergence of farming in Eurasia-Africa. If the land bridge had collapsed a few thousand years later, there's every probability that migrating peoples might have brought rice and wheat seeds with them, which would have radically changed the culture of peoples settling in the New World. However, the peoples who came over were, again, hunters and gatherers.
YET, the Americas offered a great deal more than Australia. Corn, beans, peppers and a host of other plants provided a much greater opportunity for the New World to push into their own farming revolution and, ultimately, the creation of specialist classes, particularly priests and soldiers. Disappointingly, however, the New World had no cereal grains comparable with the Old World. While maize will produce an abundance of food, cool temperate climates limit yields and prolong the length it takes to grow corn ... meaning less corn can be produced in a cool climate like the continental United States. Thus advanced cultures like that along the Ohio, the Anastazi and the Algonquin tribal confederation had to rely on other foods like sweet potatoes and beans ... both of which require considerable more time and effort for less food than barley and wheat produces.
Thus, while the New World culture progressed technologically, it did so much more slowly than the technological rapid Old World. When the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese began to arrive in the 16th century — the far edge of the "fantasy" time period — they had weapons and scientific knowledge that made them vastly superior to the Old World natives.
Still, we have two possible D&D milieus from this. We have a primitive yet practical Aztec, Olmec, Mayan or Inca culture, with limited classes but a potential priest magic that could allow most of the basic character classes from the original AD&D game. And we have a transplanted European civilisation that occupies a small part of a more primitive continent, with food technology, among other things, that they've brought with them.
Let's pause a moment and ask, what's all this about? What does this have to do with our worldbuilding?
We have to ask the question, of any continent we design, "Did the people evolve from a primitive state into a civilisation, or were they transplanted? We can ask this question of the whole game world. Are these humans, elves, dwarves, goblins and what have you, travellers that arrived with their magic and gear in the last few hundred, or thousand years, and take over a place that was either occupied or unoccupied? Or are these beings who, like on planet earth, began as another species and became people after millions upon millions of years?
It matters because the organisation of political and ethnic boundaries is very, very different if different civilisations began in different parts of the world, at different speeds, as opposed to multiple cultures that arrived at different times ... and finally as opposed to one culture that arrived all at once, so that everywhere has the same degree of technology. Which is it?
Moreover, the question must be asked in relation to topography. Let me explain.
Following the development of petty farming in Mesopotamia 12,000 years ago, that began to replace hunting and gathering two or three thousand years thereafter ... that was followed by a similar adaptation by Egypt, China and the South Asia, each in their turn. Why specifically these places? Flooding. Early farming, developed from wild grains, depended upon layer after layer of silt deposited by floods, to sustain the nutritiousness of the soil. Mesopotamia received instable floods from the highlands of Anatolia, but had the benefit of two rivers that could bring water. The Nile flood was far more reliable. The Indus, the Ganges and the Huang Ho and Yangtze in China all recieved water from snow melt surrounding the high plateau of the Himalayas and Tibet.
IF we want one or more cultures that developed from a steady evolution over millions of years, then our choices in topography for our game continent must have (1) a large flooding river valley, flat-bottomed, suitable for wide-scale irrigation; (2) a logical continuous watersource to supply the flooding; and (3) some sort of high-yield practical staple grain that will produce vast amounts of food, enabling specialisation and thence the sort of technology that makes a fantasy world possible.
We might argue that if the New World native peoples had no competition, they would have eventually progressed into a fantasy time-period. This is recognising that the New World had no horses or large domestic animals to farm, which greatly reduced the amount of work they could do with primarily human-based labour. There were large mammals all over the New World 11,000 years ago. Most of these were hunted into extinction by 3,000 years ago, just as the large mammals in Australia were.
We can argue that a native American-like fantasy culture could be given horses, without the need of Europeans (where something America-like is the only human, or people-based, culture) ... but if we're going to give them horses, why not the right cereal grains as well? Consider: in the Americas, the largest food-producing bread-baskets are located around the Mississippi-Missouri Basin, the Orinoco and the Parana-Paraguay. And these river valleys flood. But no significant American culture ever existed in these places ... because the kind of food production these places could support were those located in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Aztecs and Inca located in parts of America where maize grew best: high, semi-arid regions surrounding a water supply that the natives learned to control brilliantly. Without the cereal staples of the Old World, whatever culture eventually might have formed in the New World would have to be very different in scope from what we perceive as a "medieval fantasy world."
That doesn't mean the game world we design can't go this route! It only means that IF we go this route, there's research to be done and consequences to consider, that would greatly change what's normally seen as a fantasy environment. Maize, beans and tuber production requires a much more cooperative food-producing society, just as the production of eastern rice does. Castle building, manor houses, personal wealth, private control of land and so on makes little or no sense in such a culture. If this is the choice we make on how to settle our people, we're not pursuing the same old, same old D&D world.
If we do want a transplanted culture, then something like Greyhawk (with a more logical topography) is possible. But then how did this culture get transplanted? Did they transplant themselves from another continent? And if so, what does the old continent look like, and why wouldn't these people continue to be part of that continent's culture, as the Europeans were in all the parts of the world they transplanted themselves into. It takes an immense amount of effort to transplant a culture overseas. It took the Europeans two centuries to obtain more than a foothold in most of the world ... with tropical, non-European like places being far more dependent on Europe than a fellow temperate climate like the English and French colonies. Everything in Mexico and South America was literally owned by Europe ... so none of those cultures were independently settled, like we might imagine a completely isolated Greyhawk-like world would be.
Greyhawk is an entity onto itself. Therefore, IF it's a transplanted culture, it seems much more likely it's been transplanted from a different world entirely. And if that's the case, it's less likely to have transplanted itself. That calls for some other entity to have done the transplanting, which begs the question, "Why?" Why go to this effort? What's the end goal? Are we speaking of gods who wish to bring pets to the new world, to have them serve as worshippers and amusement? If so, then what rules do these gods impose? If the goal is amusement, then surely we should define what amuses the gods most ... and assume that if the gods aren't getting a lot of that this week, that they'd want to "stir up the pot" in their favour a little. How does that feel from the point of view of the player characters?
Yes, of course, we're free to suppose some pretext like, the humans were planted here five thousand years ago, and the Others who planted them won't bother to look in for another five or ten thousand years. That makes everything neatly hands off.
I'm not saying there's a right or a wrong answer to any of these things. But if we're going to make a topographic arrangement for the humans to live in, we ought to decide if its one they grew out of naturally, like a plant working its way up between a crack in the sidewalk, or if the game world is essentially a zoo of some kind that the people were plopped into. If it's a zoo, then certainly the geographic logic can be HUGELY inconsistent and illogical, since beings with the power to transplant zoo animals can surely make the shape of the zoo whatever they wish it to be. Arguably, a zoo doesn't even need a sphere to "act" like a sphere; it doesn't need a sun, just something that "looks" like a sun. The same can be used to explain away all the matters that were brought up in Part 1 of this series.
It's entirely up to us. We are the gods here. We're entitled to produce the game world that suits our needs, and not the needs of the denizens that occupy the game world. My only ask is that we comprehend what we're doing, and why, when we settle in to design what's going on. What are our intentions? What do WE wish to accomplish? What set of possibilities best describes our motives?
Once that's settled in our minds, we can embrace those motives and move forward.