A Matter of Cartography

Mr Tolkien has a lot to answer for when it comes to books and fantasy in general. He was very much a trope machine. Be it cementing already pre-existing notions fashioned by Fritz Leiber and Robot E Howard in the dark and grimy pulp novellas of the 30s, or birthing entirely new tropes, leaving them blinking in the cold light of an unforgiving world; forever sitting on the landscape of literature like either a fine statue or a festering turd (depending of course of your own personal outlook on the entire genre). Together these three men ultimately shaped and moulded the whole genre, it resisting with all the structural integrity of a particularly soggy sponge cake, such was the force of their words.

The Dons of the Fantasy Mafia

But words are not the really subject of my musings today; One of the primary tropes inflicted on us all for better or worse by Tolkien was that of the map. Whether it was something he alone started with the Hobbit in the crazy days of 1937 or not is somewhat moot, he certainly played a major part in its rise to its modern-day prevalence. These days it’s a rarity to open a fantasy book and not find a map on opening pages. I don’t have a problem with this for the most part, but maps are a serious business and there are some truly awful maps out there.

Drawing a map is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Too often you’ll get folk idly knocking one out without any real forethought or planning. The result is something which just looks wrong, a little too unworldly and unrealistic to be taken seriously. A map requires a certain amount of logical methodology. Where are the rivers going to go? Where should the mountains be? Realistically speaking, where would people be most likely to stick a settlement and what sort of geopolitical factors make one settlement a town and another a city? You’ve got to think about these things, because if you’re not going to then who is? It’s things like this which allow you to find the real quirks of a world, get a proper feel for the place. The alternative is the unattractive prospect of merely bolting these things onto the world after the fact like a particularly grotesque after-market body-kit. I’ve always found that with world building it’s best to start quite literally from the ground up. The process of creating a map gives a much more fluid and organic result in the end.

As you can probably tell, I like my maps. Not only is the act of drawing them extremely relaxing, but maps themselves are utterly fascinating things. I remember as a child spending hours pouring over AA road atlases or ordinance survey maps. I used to pick two random points and try to trace the roads with my fingers from one to the other. Another fun game was hunting out all the hard to find “historic battle sites” or finding the highest “raised peak” on each page. I was a very strange child.

There's not actually a thousand. The tourism board is made of lies and deceit

A lovingly hand drawn map

I’ve drawn a great many maps over the years, for some inexplicable reason I always prefer to draw them in old exercise books as opposed to plain A4 sheets. I suspect it is a fact that has a great deal to do with convenience, with exercise books you don’t need to worry about the map getting crumbled or smudged; you just close the book and you’re done. It also let’s you keep all related maps together without the need for folders. That and I’ve always liked the feel of the paper and the way the lines look with a map over the top.

The map above is the Land of a Thousand Duchies, if you’ve been keeping up with some of the things I’ve written you might recognise the names Centillis, Hacustra and Ansolita. Yes, the Thousand Duchies is home to my favourite arsonist, murder and all round bad-man. This is the home of Callis, a continent of war-torn and disparate nations; a place without centralised leadership, governance or morals; a place where bad-men thrive. I wrote Fire in the Night a couple of months before I drew this map, and the map itself was based on a concept I’d had for quite a while. The Thousand Duchies and Callis have very much evolved concurrently, both of them are in many ways a reflection of the other. Callis is a product of the society that made him and he is the sort of man who perpetuates that society.

And thus concludes my ill-conceived musings for today.

About The Rogue Verbumancer

A chemistry graduate consumed by the demons of apathy and disinterest. Likes tea and cheese. Sleeps less than he should. View all posts by The Rogue Verbumancer

2 responses to “A Matter of Cartography

  • Seneska (@Seneska)

    I love maps. It’s probably the highlight of my D&D playing, creating the geographical areas that my team promptly destroy. Rivers are my weakness, having done very little geography in my life. In fact all running water. City plumbing is particularly troublesome and occasionally I do have to just resort to “it all runs on magic”

    • Glempy

      Ah the old maxim of “a wizard did it” it solves so many problems when playing D&D, unless of course you’re the wizard doing the aforementioned “it.” Some DMs frown the more esoteric use of basic magic.

      As for rivers I used to have problems with them, I used to consistently draw them splitting into more and more rivers as I neared the coastline, which is pretty much the opposite of what happens. These days I tend to pick a few points in the higher mountainous regions and draws wiggles heading towards the coast, gradually joining them together as they go. It’s also important to remember that rivers always take the path of least resistance, which is the cause of their rampant wiggling.

      Out of curiosity what edition of the D&Ds do you tend to play?

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