Case Study in Stealing from History

I’m learning to draw. One of the things I’ve learned is to tone the paper beforehand. Shade it with a fairly even layer of soft graphite, then rub the paper with paper towel to produce an even, light, silvery tone. This makes it possible to erase to produce highlights, darken it further for shadows, and generally give depth to the drawing. This article isn’t about creating the a stunningly memorable NPC or a devilishly clever plot. It’s about creating a campaign world to sit in the background behind those people and plots. It’s about toning the paper so your world will have high lights, shadows, and everything in between.

There are an infinite number of ways to create a campaign world. One can start from published source material, borrow from real world history, or make everything up from scratch. GMs can begin by drawing continents on a map, writing the personality for a town elder, or rolling stats for the player characters’ first antagonist. There’s no one right way to do it. What follows is a case study in creating a world by plagiarizing from our own.

I started by thinking about the kind of campaign world I wanted. First and foremost, I wanted a long-running world. This isn’t an adventure for a one night pick up game. Thirty years from now I’d like to be further expanding and detailing this same world. There are a lot of genres for games: science fiction, western, gothic horror, and more, but my own unscientific survey counts more roleplayers interested in sword and sorcery fantasy than any other niche. If I want to be playing in the same world with the other geriatric roleplayers in the nursing home a few decades down the line, fantasy’s probably my safe bet.

Second, I wanted a big canvas. Within sword and sorcery fantasy, I might want a western European renaissance setting, Tolkien-esque high fantasy, a middle eastern feel akin to the Arabian Nights, or a land similar to medieval Japan. Our own world history is rich and diverse, so why make a campaign world with any less variety?

Third, I wanted highlights of interesting detail. I wanted civilizations built on the ruins of their ancestors, just as medieval Europe had roots in everything from Vikings to Celts to the Roman empire. I wanted not just a creation myth, but several. Each country should have unique heraldry for its nobility. The pantheon should be shaped by the culture of the region; religions should span countries; churches should suffer doctrinal schisms; and beliefs should evolve over time.

I’m good, but I’m not that good. So I looked around for the best example of world-building I could find. There’s some stunning stuff out there from Anne Bishop’s black jewels trilogy to Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire Upon The Deep.” The best I found though, was us — yes, I resolved to reduce the sum total of human history, the great struggles, triumphs, and defeats of life’s rich pageant…. to fodder for my tabletop game. Such is the power I wield.

Creation Myths: The Shape of Things to Come

I always start large and work my way inward. The creation myth came first. Actually, the truth of creation came first. Then came the mythological variations. First, read a couple creation myths from real mythologies. Most of them are some flavor of creating form out of a void. Within that, there’s a lot of variety as to how chaotic the void was and what the world was like at first. To make it your own, try to put a spin on it. Maybe take two disparate myths and cross them over, or try merging the creation myth of one religion with the end of the world depicted in another. Or just charge in a different direction altogether. Most creation myths feature one or more deities or spirits deliberately creating the world; several others depict the world arising out of the sacrifice of a deity. I decided to explore what would happen if the world were created by accident, perhaps as a side effect of something more important to the pantheon.

Next, take the basic myth and start playing with alternate plots and endings. For inspiration, look at how mythologies have evolved in the real world: such as old pagan gods and goddesses being rewritten as catholic saints. What if the creator had been a trickster god instead? What would the myth look like if it were rewritten by Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the height of an opium reverie? What would the creation myth be if the truth were rewritten by an epic poet hoping to placate a self-indulgent, autocratic emperor by justifying his claims of divine heritage? Create a few more just for good measure.

Misguided Children: The Pantheon

Most fantasy pantheons are as exciting as the second half of a movie’s end credits. How many times do we have to see Propmaster, Master of Props? Or Best Boy, Who Drew the Short Straw and Got Stuck with the Underworld? They’re always the same slots to be filled with names that no one remembers two minutes later. The good news is, this means there’s plenty of material to steal for building your pantheon. The bad news is that it will take effort to make your work stand out more than yet another Radiant Celestial Lady of the Key Grip.

One way to do this is to use interesting relationships among your deities to help define them. Take the concept of a bloody god of war (like Ares) and a more virtuous goddess of wisdom and honorable armed combat (like Athena). Wouldn’t that be a fascinating married couple? Even better, what if their own priesthood weren’t really sure which one was which? Can you imagine the schisms and heresies as they try to sort out which one is virtuous and which one throws sand in the opposition’s face? In my world, the god of wind and weather absolutely despises the god of the sea. The feeling is mutual. Life is rough for sailors, who have to placate both and avoid the perception of favoritism lest they be becalmed or swallowed whole by a leviathan.

Another option is to extend the literal purview of your deities’ domains to the metaphorical. The god of blacksmithing in my world is also the god of sworn oaths and contracts. People do forge agreements after all. (I don’t mean forge as in forgery here, although they do that too.) It all started because he had an epithet of “The Honest Old Man of the Forge.” Dwarven blacksmiths invoked his name in important deals with their customers and the practice spread outward from there over the centuries.

Lastly, remember that ancient mythology was in part an attempt to explain the world in which people found themselves. Look at the unique aspects of a fantasy world that would need explanation. Demi-humans are ripe for this treatment. Why do they so often only get one god or goddess for the entire race? You don’t see a God of Humans, so why a God of the Dwarves? Can’t we at least get “Subterranean Stunt Coordinator?” Why shouldn’t dwarves experience the same confusion and existential questioning of the world around them that the rest of us do? What about a dwarven Lord of the Hidden Light, originally dreamt up to explain a bioluminescent cave fungus but by metaphor turning into a god of hope. Shouldn’t burnt offerings to the Goddess of Tunnels safeguard against collapses and sinkholes? And elves are so long lived, you’d think parents would make a strong impression on their children, spending so many centuries overlapping lives. Wouldn’t that make them prime candidates for ancestor worship?

For each god or goddess, come up with a few alternate names or pronunciations. What would it sound like if the deity’s followers were conquered by the Roman Empire and the god’s name had to be rendered as Latin? How would a German translation sound? Japanese? Are there any worldwide schisms, such as the Catholic and Protestant churches? Don’t worry too much about local variations in mythology or church doctrine. Those details can be filled in after the geopolitics have taken shape. But there’s nothing like seeing the slow dawning of comprehension when your player characters from the Italian-esque city state catch on that their sun god, Gioshen, the Fiery Charioteer is actually the same as Yu Xiang, Lord of the New Day.

The Shape of the World

A good pantheon needs a world for a playground, and I wanted a big sandbox. Worlds can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Round worlds are easy, because their physics and shapes are well understood. Flat worlds are easier to map, though, as you can ignore all those thorny issues that come from trying to represent a round world projected onto a flat surface. There’s even an RPG world shaped like a donut, where the sun rises and sets by rising and sinking straight up and down through the hole in the center — the name of that game escapes me at the moment.

I chose a flat world for ease of making a world map. I decided to draw the world map with the graph paper in landscape orientation, so the equator of my world was the row of boxes running along the long axis of the page. The long side of my graph paper was 42 squares in length. 42 squares works out to just under the circumference of the earth if each square is about 500 miles on a side.

If your pulse is racing, your eyes have widened and dilated, and you’re staring at your screen in horror shouting, “No! No! He knows not what he’s done!” then you might be a cartographer. On earth at the equator, I have to walk due east about 24900 miles to get back to my starting point. That distance decreases the farther north or south I go until I get to the poles, where there is no east: I can just turn in a circle without moving. On my flat world, the map is 21000 miles east to west whether you’re at the equator or the northern edge. That makes the my world’s surface area around 336 million square miles, whereas the earth’s is about 197 million square miles. A big canvas indeed.

Bottom line, the real world is a big place. If you start by drawing an outline of a similarly big place, you’ll have no trouble filling it with anything you want to take from geography and history.

Drawing the World

I had three problems coming up with a world map.

  1. I don’t draw very well, though I am finally starting to learn.
  2. I’m don’t want to buy mapping software.
  3. Even when I did have mapping software, I found I was fairly inept at using it to produce anything that looked good; I think this is related to point 1.

I had high hopes for this world. I wanted realistic country outlines, as though plate tectonics, weather, and erosion had all conspired to create the same terrain one sees in the real world. So I cheated. I opened up my gigantic atlas of the world and selected an archipelago of islands that looked cool. Laying a sheet of graph paper over it made it very easy to trace out the shoreline of my continents and major islands. Am I worried that my players will recognize the Philippines? Not particularly. And it provided a beautiful and interesting map without my having to come up with it all.

The next step is to add geological conditions and climate. Where are the major fault lines that cause earthquakes? Where are the active volcanos? Where does the tropical belt give way to the temperate zone? Which direction do the trade winds blow? Again, stealing from our own world is a pretty easy way to work this out. A web search quickly turned up both the climate codes in use by climatologists today and a climate map of earth. It wasn’t too hard to pick out the patterns. For example, areas nearer the equator tend to be warmer and wetter. (Yeah, I know. Duh.) High elevation often forms a barrier that changes where the rainfall goes, if not the heat, creating dissimilar climates on opposite sides of the mountain range. I suppose you could annotate this on your world map directly, but I made a second copy for this purpose.

Adding Countries

Countries are tricky. I wanted to steal liberally from human history to get a feeling of depth and background, but I didn’t want to end up with a world that looked like a snapshot of the medieval world stretched into a slightly different shape. I wanted interesting variation. What if Denmark had been the size of Russia? What if the Norman invaders had lost the battle of Hastings? What if the Italian city states had been nearer to the Korean peninsula than the Ottoman Empire? What if magic were real? There are limits, however. It would strain credibility to have countries based on the middle east dotted uniformly across the map — they share too much common culture, history, language, and interaction to be separated by oceans. Similarly, a country based on old Ireland would seem out of place surrounded by twelfth century Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Ethiopia. To solve this problem, I carved up the map into large regions: one for the orient, another for the Mediterranean, another for central america, and so on. Countries in those regions all hail from the same part of the real world, thus preserving some credibility. Within that framework, I left myself free to tamper.

To create countries, I started with a list of country names and their sizes by land area. For each country in the list, I

  1. Rolled dice to randomly pick a size for the country.
  2. Made up a fictitious name for the country.
  3. Assigned the country a space on my world map according to its randomly chosen size.

(Note added 23 July 07: An astute reader of this article noted that it would’ve been interesting to use historical sizes of countries, rather than present day sizes, as historically countries would’ve been quite a bit smaller. If I’d thought of it at the time, I probably would’ve done exactly that. Now, though, I’m unlikely to change it; it gives me an excuse to explore how the magic and fantastical creatures of a fantasy setting make larger countries possible even at a medieval technological level.)

For example, my fictitious country of Erenphalia, which is based on the history and culture of the real world United Kingdom was randomly rolled to have a size of 17 million square miles. This works out to about 26.4 squares on my world map on graph paper, and I placed it on a continent in the northwest of the world. (I have to confess I did get a little lazy here. The country sizes were really in square kilometers and I was using square miles, so I relabeled the units to square miles without doing a proper conversion.)

Having made the UK about as large as Russia – well, larger, due to the aforementioned unit non-conversion – I went down the list of countries. Ireland became Sifennia. Naples became the Rosentide Republic. Egypt became Eydia. The significance here is not so much that I renamed and resized a few countries — the benefit is that I fully plan on ripping off their histories, artwork, style of dress, and systems of government. I have ready made histories dating back to when man first stood upright and brained his fellow man with a sharp rock.

From mixing up sizes and locations, I get a certain amount of uncertainty and variation thrown in. Erenphalia is too large to just be another England — something must be different to cope with the large size of the country. Would that make it a huge empire? A loose coalition of federated duchies? A magically advanced society ruled over by wizards and sorcerers, because strong arcane magic is the only way to keep control of so large an area? The goal is to borrow heavily from history, but let creativity loose on the impact of the changes from the real world.

I wanted to start my story in the country of Vincia, loosely based on Renaissance Venice. For history and details, I turned to the real world and found a lot of fascinating stories. Like Venice, Vincia is ruled over by a doge supported by a council of nobles and influential merchants. Like Venice, the country is involved in constant struggles with its near neighbors. I’ll avoid going into a great deal of detail here — this isn’t a tutorial on the history of italian city states. Suffice to say that no matter which country’s history you want to rip off, you’ll find no shortage of heroes, villains, diplomacy, treachery, and war. And all that material comes for free before you even factor in the marauding orc tribes and the ancient, patient, plotting wyrm.

Best of all, your fictional world will have a history too. I have a back story that echoes the rise and fall of Greece and the Roman Empire. Obviously this requires a considerable amount of creative deviation from real history, both to account for it being a fantasy world and because I have my own ideas, but there’s enough context that I don’t have to spend the time to create everything from scratch. This is much better than many games I’ve played in, where there really isn’t any history behind the ancient ruins we plunder beyond, “An ancient temple once stood here. Its worshippers? Oh, they were… uh… ancient… people… yeah, very ancient. What god? Look, I don’t know — too ancient to be remembered. Would you just kick in the door and start killin’ already?”

I haven’t detailed all of the other kingdoms in terms of their fictional history and present day conditions. However, should the characters venture to some far away land without giving me much preparation time, I can improvise based on the real world character and history of the place until I have a chance to fill in the gaps with my own material.

Zooming In

Recall that each square on the overall world map graph paper is 500 square miles on a side. By numbering those graph paper squares, I can give each square a longitude and latitude. The kingdom of Vincia is in square 23×22 on the world map. I want the adventure to begin in the capitol city of Pagament, which I decided to place at the northern tip of the country; it’s a trade center on the ocean.

Much like zooming in with mapquest or google earth, each square on the world map can be blown up to a more detailed map. And each square on the more detailed map can be blown up on turn. This leads to a hierarchy of maps with the following dimensions:

  1. a full page map with each square 500 miles on a side
  2. a 20 square by 20 square map with each square 25 miles on a side
  3. a 25 square by 25 square map with each square 1 mile on a side
  4. a 25 square by 25 square map with each square 200 feet on a side
  5. a 20 square by 20 square map with each square 10 feet on a side

With the above set of maps, it’s possible to zoom in from the global map of the world down the 10 foot square maps typically used for building and dungeon floor plans. Obviously, you won’t detail every part of the world all the way down to the 10 foot square resolution. In fact, most of my world isn’t zoomed any farther than the global map. It’s nice to have the framework, though, so any maps I do put make fit together seamlessly.

Moreover, if each map is labeled with a grid, the location of objects in the world can be given using a set of coordinates for easy reference. For example, the Candlewood Trellis Inn is located inside Vincia, which is in square 23×21 on the world map. Pagament is located in 17×9 on the map with the next layer of detail. That section of Pagament is in 14×5 on the next most detailed map. And the inn itself is in 14×16 on the street map for that section of Pagament. String them all together, and the coordinates for the inn are 23×21:17×9:14×5:14×16.

This deviates a little from the real world, where we tend to describe things in degrees, minutes, and seconds of longitude before rattling off the degrees, minutes, and seconds of latitude. The system above worked a little better for me, though, because I can look at the text write-up for a place in game and fairly quickly locate it no matter which scale of map is in front of me.

Cities, Towns, and Villages

For the mechanics of creating the country and city, I turned to S. John Ross’ Medieval Demographics Made Easy: Numbers for Fantasy Worlds. I generated the demographic information for my country and city using his generation system.

For small villages and medieval manors, I used “A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe,” by Expeditious Retreat Press (love that name). There is some overlap between the two sources, and I ended up using Mr. Ross’ article for everything down to determining the number of villages in the kingdom, then turned to the book for detailing the villages (manors). The manor generation system is impressive, but it’s a bit of a pain to go through with pencil and paper. Perhaps some day I’ll ask nicely and see if they’ll let me automate it online.

People to See

What about people? It’s the characters that make a compelling story. Here too I’m stealing from the real world… or at least, real art. I haven’t found my own historical research to be as useful here. There are some wonderful exceptions, but most history books currently in my library focus on times and places in aggregate rather than individual people. Historical biographies, which do focus on individuals, are usually too much to read through just to create a single personality. Some people have success by creating characters with traits from their friends, co-workers, and fictional characters they’ve enjoyed. I’ve never gotten much out of it. I tend to play RPGs to immerse myself in a world with different people – I already see too much of my co-workers.

One way I’ve found to steal from the real world for interesting characters is to look at interesting artwork of people and make up the personality to go with it. and Deviant Art are fantastic for this. They have some work that just screams with personality.

Go Forth And Do Great Things

So what’s really been accomplished here? This is one way to prepare a frame in which you can begin to draw. You have a world. You know the truth of the creation of it, and you know what myths have filtered down through the ages. You know the names of your gods and goddesses, as well as the aliases they go by. You know the major branches of their churches. You know the climate of your world, and where the characters may get caught in an earthquake. You know where hundreds of countries, from impressive empires to tiny tribes, are located, and you have a mapping to real world countries so you can rip off language and traditions whenever you need to add extra texture to your world. You have not only a global world map but the ability to zoom in that map to any depth of detail you need. And for your first population center, you know how many people live there and what kind of services would be available. And you know enough to generate any other cities and towns that country might have.

Now go draw something.

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