Monday, January 14, 2019

Mapping Psi-Wars 1: Map-Making in Theory and Practice

Making a Map

Ever since Tolkien unveiled his Middle Earth with the luxurious map of his world therein, fantasy worlds have followed suit, and I personally find it difficult to find fantasy novels that don’t include a map. This has spilled into the fantasy RPG genre, such that Dungeon Master who begins his campaign preparations by first sketching a map has become a cliché in RPG circles. One can do a quick search of the internet to find a glut of such maps and software that can make them look fantastic.

Sci-fi settings seem to have less of a close relationship with maps. Star Wars, Star Trek and Warhammer 40k all have such maps, but they don’t seem to feature nearly as prominently in the work. While sci-fi mappers certainly enjoy mapping our worlds and sectors, they seem to do so with less gusto, especially when it comes to galactic scale maps. I think this is, in part, because such maps are less visceral for readers. You intuitively understand concepts like “Mountain” and “Ocean” but “blue star” and “red star” don’t say nearly as much to you.

I’ve held off on creating a map for Psi-Wars for a variety of reasons, but my Patrons have requested it as a January topic (if you want to vote on the February topic, feel free to join us and help us build the Psi-Wars setting!), so here we are. The actual creation of a good looking map is proving quite difficult and time-consuming, so we might not see an “actual” map so much as a sketch and descriptions, but I also wanted to stop and take the time to discuss what I think the purpose of a map is, mistakes people often make, and what I’m trying to achieve with my map.



Why Make a Map?

1. Fractal Inspiration

the_only_fantasy_world_map____by_eotbeholder-d42b141-1

Behold the greatest fantasy map ever made! Though, please note that I’ve besmirched its greatness with some lines marking out some regions.

To me, this exemplifies the most important reason for a map: to inspire the reader and immediately give him story ideas as well as to tell him something about the world (and setting, themes and genres) in which he is going to play. Personally, I cannot help but see each genre popping up whenever I look at each location and I can imagine a dozen adventure ideas for this setting and, with study, a dozen more. This means the map is serving its role: you should look at it, and be inspired to run a game.

I think the core reason so many game masters start a campaign by making a map because it organizes their thoughts. It brings into focus the various campaign themes and elements they’re going to be using, and makes it visual.

I think we can layer this inspiration, hence “fractal inspiration.” When you look at a bit of a map and get an idea of what to do, you need to be able to look deeper and get the specifics of your adventure, and look more broadly and get the context of your adventure. I marked out the regions to give you a better sense of at least three scales of detail: region, land and city. In a sense, you can see how the map was created in broad lines. For example, we have a “desert” region, a “European” region, a “monster” region, a “jungle” region, etc. These follow broad themes, though here they’re mostly a mixture of genre-based themes crossed with terrain-based themes, but we see other examples, such as “elemental”-inspired maps, or historically-inspired maps, etc. Then we move deeper and get a closer look, both at our themes and areas. From regions we move to lands or countries, and we go from broad themes to specific subsets of that theme: for example, we break our desert down into mad-max-inspired “Desertpunk,” ancient Egyptian elements, and Arabian Nights themes (among others; “Crumbling Crusader-states” should probably be at least partially desert-based: themes can cross!), all genres we associate with the “desert” terrain. We can dive even deeper, creating more specific context, and on this map, that’s generally cities. These help clarify our larger genre (“Hellfire Imperium” could mean many things, but the fact that we have an “Incest and Intrigue” city definitely means it’s human, and likely Roman, given its title of “Imperium”), as well as give us a much more specific element to work with, even if we’re not directly involved with that city.

When creating our map, thus, we can “start big” and name the obvious things about our campaign (our regions), and then take each of those and name the obvious things about those themes, and then we can start to populate these more detailed areas with more specific elements, such as cities, towns, shrines, etc. In a sense, we begin with a “mind-map” and turn that mind-map into a literal, physical map of the world.

It should be noted that this does not need a literal map. You should consider using this “mind-map” method to create your setting whether or not you intend to make an actual map.

2. Beautiful Obfuscation


A good writer learns to “steal like an artist” and hide the more obvious elements of his designs, the same way an artist erases the sketch marks he used to create his work. The problem with the “inspiration” map above is that it’s obvious, and this can give the audience (including the player and GM) a sense of disconnection and disbelief. He’s obviously not looking at a real place, but a tool for his RPG campaign.


Obfuscation can help suspension of disbelief and lend a hint of character to the world. It can also beautify it, both in a metaphorical sense (a beautiful name is more appealing than a naked trope) and in a literal sense (adding beautiful topographical artwork turns a barely-translated mind-map into an artifact worth showing your players). For example, we might rename “Poncy Knights” into “Avalon” or “The Kingdom of Chevalier.” This certainly implies “Poncy Knights,” enough that you get a sense of what it’s about, but it also lends character and “sounds” more like what we’d expect on a map. We could also replace the basic splotch of color with some images of fairy-tale castles, winding roads and some churches.

Obfuscation also adds an element of mystery. If we change the name of Ancient Sumerian Awful into “The Nameless Cities,” that invokes foreboding and mystery. Why are they nameless? Are they, perhaps, named, but none dare speak their name? If we go there, what will we see? And what sort of adventures can we have? By obfuscating our intent, we give our players something to discover.

A couple of warnings about beautiful obfuscation. As with fractal inspiration, you don’t actually need to craft a map to get it. I’ve already mentioned changing the name of the “Poncy Knights” to “The Kingdom of Chevalier,” but I didn’t need to feel the need to make an actual map to do this. You can simply apply place names as you see fit, and they often create the same effect. Similarly, working out some greater details of the sorts of descriptors you might apply to travels through the countryside (perhaps it is often “sun-lit” and “clear-skied” and full of “quaint” things, like a quaint church and a quaint village, and obviously, there are many “snapping banners” and we like to talk about how “shining” everything is) without actually drawing a picture. In practice, you’ll need this more at the tabletop than you will the map. In a sense, at this stage, you’re translating from ideas to hard, concrete, useful concepts.

The second warning I want to offer is that beautiful obfuscation is usually where map-making goes horribly wrong. First, driven by the need to create insider terms, the map-maker will cover his map with useless jargon. While “Poncy Knights” doesn’t sound as nice as the Kingdom of Chevalier, if we start naming our kingdoms “Twee, Gor and Rumbleness” they tell the player nothing, especially if our fixation with accurate map-making means that the lands become indistinct and similar (just collections of mountains, roads and greenery with nothing to differentiate them). The inspiration you worked so hard to get in the first step is lost here. This can have an advantage in acting as a reward for those who do get into your world, but consider how high you want to raise the barrier for entry  There are reasons to do this, of course, and I'm not saying every such map is wrong, I only caution you on going so far in that direction that you lose sight of the purpose of your map!

Finally, I see map-maker after map-maker get hung up on beauty and spend months with Campaign Cartographer trying to make the perfect map when he really should be spending his time working on the actual campaign. Maps are useful, but their value should be measured against everything else. And ignore those sites that tell you everything you’re doing wrong with your map: never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If your map works for your group, that’s enough!

3. Geographical Realism


In the real world, we use maps to help us navigate the world, and to understand the geopolitical situations we face. This is also true of setting maps. Some games really feature travel, and so are deeply concerned with what route players will choose to get from here to there, with different routes bringing different crises and rewards with them. Many “old school” RPGs concern themselves a great deal with maps, and using them to direct travel, from mapping the dungeon in which one travels to the overland journeys one makes. If your game focuses on this, then a map may well be a must!

The geopolitics of a world often prove more important than navigation, as many genres of games handwave away travel times, but the context in which an area is often shapes stories. If we look at our original “inspiration” map, for example, we see that the Crumbling Crusader States are bordered by the Hellfire Imperium, Ravenholm, the Mountains of Madness, Ancient Sumerian Awful and “Arabian Nights.” Their most likely source of support, the Poncy Knights, are not adjacent. This tells us a great deal already, that they’re the last line of defense between a likely ungrateful Hellfire Imperium and many of the monsters of the world, with the Arabian Nights land as rivals and sometimes unlikely allies. If we set our game there, in addition to a landscape of crumbling fortresses being devoured by the desert and lonely knights and pilgrims wandering desolate roads, we can expect to see sudden Saracen incursions and paladins fighting off Lovecraftian monstrosities. We might have attempts to forge alliances with those Arabs of the south and their expy Saladin wisely setting aside his hatred of the crusaders and teaming up with them to press back the threat of the Alien Egyptians. If that doesn’t work, our tired crusaders may need to seek help from the decadent Hellfire Imperium, or the blood-corrupted counts and grey, stormy wizards of Ravenholme.

This geopolitical reality can shape the larger context of your setting, implying which flavors go well together (by their close positioning) and which tend to be highly foreign to one another (based on how remote they are to one another). Notice, for example, that the more familiar and human elements of the game lie at the center of the inspiration map, and the weirder and more extreme elements lie at the edges of the map!). Maps illustrate proximity and energy expenditure necessary to cross the border from one sort of story to another.

While I argue that inspiration is the core purpose of a map, geography represents the first moment you actually need a map.. Yes, there are ways to discuss proximity and route without making a map, but a map makes grasping these concepts so easy and obvious that it’s frankly foolish to try to forego it. If you don’t make a map and your player characters travel or have a lot of questions about geopolitical context, you’ll end up sketching out a map for your players anyway.

4. Room to Grow

planeworld_map___elemental_courts_by_levodoom_dbulvh2-pre

Maps tend to be large, sprawling affairs. They often have beautiful implications within them and can inspire you, but they should not, in my opinion, dictate every last detail. You can pick any place in the real world and get lost in dizzying detail, which is not what you want your players to do. Nor do you want to spend literally years just to create a single map for one setting. Instead, you want to lay the foundations for inspiration, and put some pointers that might inspire you further when the time arises.

Consider the above map: it only names 5 locations, but you can infer other things from the map, such as the arctic region between the Earth and Water court, or the jungles between the Wind and Water court. What are those places like? What sort of cities might they have? I think the implications are clear; we don’t actually know for sure, but we’re invited to fill the blanks in, and to contemplate how the elements might interact. Similarly, the original inspiration map names a lot of names, but actually tells you nothing. What might a city in “Desertpunk” look like? Perhaps a roving caravan-city full of colorful tents and even more colorful people who wander from oasis to oasis. What sort of cities might be in the Crumbling Crusader State? Almost certainly some sort of “holy city,” perhaps one that has been held by either the Arabian Nights land or Ancient Sumerian Awful for a long time, but now the Poncy Knights cling to it out of religious fervor. Should we need to add more, it’s especially easy to do so.

This is extra critical to do when creating a setting for other people, such as Psi-Wars, because as a setting designer, you don’t actually know what sort of campaigns people will try to run with your setting. You should use your map to point them in interesting directions, and then stepping out of the way when they decide that none of those pointers exactly provide what they’re looking for, and instead, give them some interesting blank spots on the map to put exactly what they have in mind.

The Perfect Map

Exalted, 1st Edition
I’ve seen quite a few maps in my day, but I spent a great deal of time poring over the Exalted 1st Edition map when I received my copy, and to this day, I find it one of the finest maps ever made, as it tackles every element I discussed above, and you’ll soon see how I’ve borrowed a lot of concepts for the Psi-Wars galactic map. Thus, I offer it as illustration of each concept.

First, inspiration and themes. Exalted has “five terrestrial elements,” Earth, Air, Water, Fire and Wood. Each of these elements dictate a part of the world, the “five poles” of the world. At the center of the world lies that great and mighty mountain, and this is where the world is “most stable.” The farther one gets from that center, the more extreme and governed by some other element it gets until, beyond the edges of the map, it becomes total, unformed chaos: the Wyld. This means that each direction is governed by its element: the islands of the West, the frozen North, the blistering South, and the forest-covered East. This gives us a sense of where we want to set our stories. Viking? North, of course, and a bit to the West. Abandoned jungles full of lizard men? East, please, and a bit to the south. Stories set in the deep desert with wandering nomads? The far south, of course! What about a stable kingdom? Then pick a direction, based on its elemental association, but bring it close to the center.

Second, beautiful obfuscation. Of course, the map is littered with evocative names and symbolism. It’s a bit hard to read from here, but at the cusp of two rivers lies “Nexus,” one of the most important cities of the setting, in the heart of the “Scavenger Lands” of the east. We also have cities like “Thorns” in the east, the evocative “the Lap” with an image of a great statue in the south, as well as Gem (I wonder what comes from there), or the “Coral Archipelago| in the west, “Diamond Hearth,” “Crystal” and “Icehome” in the north. These fit the regions nicely enough and give ideas as to what one might do in each, without coming out and telling you exactly what to do.

This particular map lacks distances, and I’m not sure whether or not later maps fixed that; It does give us a sense of geopolitical connection, though. The great continent in the center is the “Blessed Isle” and serves as the home for a world-spanning empire. Thus, the closer you come to the stable center, the more likely you are to find yourself beneath its boot. The edges bring you into realms more and more wild and less survivable. In between, in places like the Scavenger Lands or the Coral Archipelago we being to see elements of freedom from both tyranny and chaos, and where smaller powers might reside.

Finally, this version of Exalted leaves plenty of room to grow. It sprinkles a few cities around, and the book itself outlines some broad regions and drops a few example nations in each, but it leaves tons of room to create your own. Later iterations of Exalted seemed determined to put a stamp on every square inch of the setting and I, personally, felt it lost a lot of its sense of adventure as it did so. It turned from something that you, personally, could put your own preferred campaign into, and became something defined solely by the authors of the books. This is why I point to the 1st edition copy of the map, rather than the latter, more cluttered maps.

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