Like most DMs (GMs) I know, I really like the process of building a fantasy world from scratch and the thought exercises that go along with it. So I thought I’d document the whole thing in public. I get some cool content for the website out of it, and who knows, maybe it’ll help some people out there who don’t know how to do this. Here goes…
I almost always start with a map. Sometimes I’ll have a cool concept for one of the races, or a new angle on how magic could work, but that stuff can stay in the background for now. It might influence some decisions, but we don’t really need to write it down yet.
I find that starting with a map of your world/continent/region makes the most sense because that’s the part of your world that has existed the longest. Just like on Earth, the terrain is going to influence how other things like countries are put together. Or pulled apart. For this particular project I decided to try out the rice mapping technique I’ve seen around the internet. Basically, you pour some rice (or beans, or whatever) out onto a blank piece of paper, then roughly push them into some pleasing shapes. Drawing around the resulting mess gives you appropriately rough coastlines and outlying islands.
Once I’d drawn out the coastlines for my continent I cleared away the foodstuffs and digitized it. In my case it was an iPhone picture transferred to my computer, but if you have a scanner use that. Of course, I’m going to be finishing my map off digitally, so if that’s not your thing you can keep drawing on the paper map.
I reworked the coastlines a little once I had the base in photoshop then filled in the background with a grey-blue sea colour.
Since I’m only doing one continent and not an entire world map, this is where I needed to decide what kind of climate to set it in. I want most of it to be temperate so I hit it with a quick fill of green.
But that’s a little bit boring. No continent of decent size has the same climate everywhere so I needed to introduce some other zones. Setting this particular landmass close to the equator, I decided to place a desert covering a lot of the South-East, trailing into jungle in the South-West. I also used a darker, brown-tinged green to add marshlands along some shores.
With the basic areas mapped out it was time to start on the detail. Since I’m working up from the oldest terrain features to the newest the next thing to add is some large mountain ranges. The rule I follow here is to try and copy reality as closely as possible. Water courses and seas are the low points, and between those we find the mountains. I quickly went around my map and marked the spots where mountains would naturally form on a new layer. I also used the mountain placement to separate the desert from the grasslands, creating a natural border.
On a new layer I then drew in a WHOLE bunch of mountains. Different people have different drawing styles for their maps, but I’m going for a somewhat isometric view. The one thing that all methods have in common though, is that this step takes a LOT of time.
At this stage I added in some cliffs, plateaus, and even a desert canyon. I’ve had plenty of ideas for cities and nations crop up to try and distract me, and while I may entertain them somewhat – I know that canyon is gonna be closely linked to one city – I’m making sure to finish the terrain off before I commit to anything.
In the next instalment I’ll finish off the terrain with some rivers, lakes, and forests.