By Adeline K. Piercy
In a desperate attempt to figure out what the world in my fantasy novel looked like, I volunteered to run a home-brew Dungeons & Dragons campaign for my friends. I turned my world into the context of our game and it challenged me to really develop the world. I had to consider political and economic concerns, and create villains, history and context that I hadn’t written before. After all of that, I got to see how other people interacted with the world–I knew how the characters I wrote interacted with it, but how would other people treat the world? I learned a lot from this process and ultimately it helped me develop the story that I had been working towards for years.
Do I recommend that every fantasy writer run a D&D campaign for 2 years to develop their story? No, not unless you really like D&D. However, there are a lot of resources online for developing the game that translate really well to fantasy world-building, including map making websites, YouTube channels on world-building, the Dungeons & Dragons website, and more.
In this series, I will be exploring how you can use Dungeons & Dragons platforms and information to develop a physical world, to create fantastic characters, and to make a world that is enjoyable for your readers.
What is Dungeons & Dragons?
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a tabletop role playing game–one person, the Dungeon Master (DM), leads the players through a world of adventure and storytelling. Each player plays a character that has their own background, skills, and capabilities.
The world that the players interact with can come from a pre-generated game, written by the professionals who designed the original Dungeons & Dragons universe and associated stories. You can find games online, such as The Lost Mine of Phandelver, or you can be extra hardcore and create your own world from scratch, as I did. It takes a lot more work to run a home-brew campaign, but as a fantasy writer trying to make a story out of a thousand ideas, it was the perfect choice to force me to weave it all together.
Map Making Resources:
As a note, none of these recommendations are sponsored–they’re just amazing resources that I personally recommend!
Map-making is a great way to start. Personally, I made my map on Inkarnate and then looked for interesting areas of the land, asking myself, “What happened here? What’s the story?” which led to some pretty cool storylines.
A fantastic video on building realistic maps can be found here, discussing tips that can help your map hold up to some scientific scrutiny. While there is always room for magical exceptions to the laws of nature, this video is a great resource for how to do it in a convincing way.
Some personal tips I learned:
- Water follows the path of least resistance
- Water comes up on land, so draw your land first and then create your shoreline with the water brush to make a realistic coastline
- Rivers almost never fork, but will often join a main river
- Observe real maps for ideas and inspiration–hoodoos, archipelagos, great lakes, mountains, and deserts are great additions
- Cities are often established near a water source
- You may need to decide whether each region supplies their own food or if there’s a “grain bin” area that exports food everywhere else–this can be something you decide ahead of time or it can be something you discover organically after the map is made
- Maps can be as simple or as complicated as you need them to be–there’s no pressure to make it elaborate if you just need a simple map to remind you where everything is in relation to each other.
Once you have a map, you can use the map to ask what happens in certain areas. Are there different kingdoms or political regions? Was there a catastrophe that affected the surrounding regions? For example, I placed a marker on one of my maps for ruins, not having a plan for that region already. The ideas that came from me dropping that icon on the map randomly led me to writing the foundational calamity that started the current era that my characters live in.
Maps are a fantastic way to create physical space for new ideas in your story and a great tool to reference as you write. They’re also great to get out of writer’s block, since you can create in a new medium that still contributes to your story.
Happy map-making, and be sure to check in for the next part in this mini-series!