How do you use idea frameworks to build a D&D world? How do you use idea frameworks to build any kind of fantasy world?
This blog is all about creating lose ‘baskets’ of ideas that logically fit together, but aren’t so hyper defined that they shut down the creative process before it’s had a real chance to develop.
RECAP:Last time in our series of How to build a D&D world we looked at how to start small and build up basic set of world concepts and I quickly threw together some random ingredients to create the story of the Zanarim - a strange goblin folk that live in the forest. This time we’re going to look at mapping out the world and how this inevitably shapes the history and the lore. This is going to take us on a deeper dive into world building, and so some intensive note taking is ideal.
Imagining as a human right
Were you one of those kids who spent their days in tedious lessons at school drawing mountains, forests, bogs and coastlines in the back of their schoolbooks or was that just me?
I suspect that I was but one of a generation of kids whose mind was somewhere else, creating something else, tuned into a completely different story - the kind of story you need to keep quiet when you’re about 13, lest the world of the everyday strangle it out of you.
Fantasy maps in school books the world over were influenced by Tolkein’s illustrator Pauline Baynes, who created the look for Middle Earth cartography in 1969, and left kids like me wondering ‘who lived there?’ or ‘what would it be like to cross those mountains,’ or ‘imagine getting lost in that forest.’
Getting lost, of course, was the point.
Map making and imagining in a world that takes the odd, unknowable creatures that we all are and tries to cram us into roles fit for alienating work in the future is a medicine for the mind. Being able to ‘journey’ somewhere else for a certain kind of high school misfit was survival in itself.
This was even before I discovered D&D, a discovery that genuinely turned out to be a life saver (though that is a story for another time). The purpose of today’s blog isn’t to reminisce, but to create and we’re going to use a random world I’ve thrown together on Inkarnate in order to do that. The purpose of today’s blog is to look at how we can use maps to create frameworks of ideas (not drilled down, super concrete concepts, not yet). The reason for this is that if we create a conceptual framework it gives space for ideas to grow and refine without being defined too early (which is the road to making things unbelievably dull).
Ok, so let’s imagine we’re using last week’s blog as an example and we need a land mass with a forest, a plain and a nearby city.
This is only a small fragment of a much wider world, an area of several hundred miles, mainly because I haven’t reached a point where I really understand the unifying global concepts of this new place that is just emerging from my imaginings. If you didn’t read last week’s blog, here’s a brief recap.
There were mystical spirit creatures living on the plains called Zanarim, and then, when the world was blitzed by a storm of magical evil gems falling from the heavens, some were transformed into tree climbing gobliny thingies called Nakarim and went to live in the forest. Humans settled on the plains many centuries ago and started to worship the Zanarim, sending a couple of them round the twist (being worshipped is rarely good for the ego) and now one, Dathos, has decided that it is time to take over the world.
Ok, so that pretty much brings us up to date, now we have to look at the world in front of us and try to explain, interpret and navigate it.
World Building Frameworks
So the easiest way to start creating a conceptual framework around your world is to ask key questions of the land and the geography.
In the above map we have large inland seas which might connect to oceans. It might be evidence of some kind of flooding event in the past. In times when the land was less navigable (in the early middle ages, for example), waterways were not seen as obstacles, but as the means by which one can travel. The Norse people sailed from the Americas to the Middle East and from North East England to the River Volga, for example. The amount of water on the map might suggest that there are entire societies that make good use of it and that trade and therefore culture is based on navigating these vast expanses of water.
This is a framework concept and here’s how it can rapidly explode into an entire world building tree of ideas.
The Lords of the Waters
This isn’t a great name for what I’m about to describe, but as you can see with this article, everything is deliberately in placeholder mode. As human and non human societies in this world have emerged, they have looked upon the control of the waves and the navigable routes across the seas as the key to wealth and power. The people of the city (which was placed there on the isthmus of land between two great seas, built it there because it connects the East Water with the West Water and the people who live on the shores of the East Water have to cross through the city to get their goods to markets on the shores of the West Water. This makes the lords of the city pretty powerful and the culture that springs up in the city quite distinct.
The people in the city see their home as the centre of the world, the lynchpin between East and West and they reserve the right to boss others around. They don’t tend to look at the plains and the forest, imagining that the things that happen there aren’t very important. They know what is important, it’s the control of the routes between East and West. The Lords of the Waters are the kings and queens who have ruled the city for a long time, and who know that protecting their people is one part of the gig, but controlling the world’s trade is the other (arguably more important) job. It makes them rich and powerful but also an entire class of merchants and mariners, who have set up trading colonies around the world, starting to transform the Lords of the Waters into emperors.
It’s important at this stage to stop drilling down and over defining because you’ll freeze up the creative process to soon. We have other pieces to introduce and crack into one another before we can start a deep dive into the micro details of the Lords of the Waters.
So now we have an entirely different axis in our world, one that barely relates to our previous dynamic (and won’t do, unless the Zanarim or the Nakarim come and cause trouble for humans). Not everything in the world needs to be hyper connected.
Who hates the Lords of the Waters?
Assuming that the city dwellers aren’t the only people in the world, let’s explore how they encounter others? FIrstly, who else is there to encounter? Other humans or non humans?
In what circumstances do they encounter other peoples? Are there other nations out there that can hold their own against the Lords of the Waters and tell them ‘this far and no further?’ or are there peoples who are less powerful who inevitably wind up getting shoved around by them a bit? Let’s go with the former first. Who might some tough guys be?
Well, in the bottom left hand corner of the map there is a range of mountains that come close to the sea. Perhaps a tribe of people who lived there built clifftop fortresses to control the all important sea routes and would rain fire down on ships that sailed through without paying tribute. Over time this little fiefdom became quite prosperous and its people could live in the mountains and have food delivered up from the plains by the proxies of the Lords of the Waters who wanted to keep that trade route open at all costs. However, one day the Lord of the Mountains was such a jerk that he demanded twice as much gold and that his son marry the Lords of the Waters’ heir to the throne, giving him greater power and recognition in The City. This was too much for the Lords of the Waters and they waged war, landing an army at the foot of the mountains a few years ago. The two sides reached an uneasy stalemate and there are great fortifications that cross the foothills and the mountains and periodic skirmishes.
Are we a bit bored with fish people? Atlantians? Yes, let’s do something different. Ok, what if we drew back into the story the falling evil gems? Imagine one landed in the West Water and corrupted its deepest depths. When someone drowns in the West Water the stone gives them a strange undead afterlife and they swim deep into the inky blackness alongside various horrific behemoths the stone has created. They drift into deep dark caverns at the bottom of the West Water and there they stay, clinging to the memories of the surface world as they slip away one by one. The evil stone loves to have his pet mortals floating down there with him and sends them up to claim a few more souls from time to time. However, if they were just mindless sea zombies that would be tedious, so let’s work with what we’ve got to liven things up a bit.
What if the floating dead, determined to cling to the memories of life and humanity began to communicate with one another in the depths of the sea. What could these creatures possibly want? Maybe to drink the blood of the surface dwellers once more (no doubt they’re very keen on that sort of thing), but also to be human again. Some might become very fond of one another and even form bonds of weird undead solidarity by existing in each other’s memories while the evil stone isn’t looking. They might find a way to return to some semblance of humanity (perhaps the evil stone has a good twin, or a different evil stone has been harnessed by a particularly talented wizard or alchemist).
Whatever the case, they’re there and in the water and they terrify normal mortal folk who don’t want a cold, watery afterlife.
So just by creating a loose framework around the ideas of water, sailing and navigation, we start to fill the world with people, ideas, conflict, culture, struggle, longing, loss, desire, sorrow and all the stuff that makes stories dramatic. It starts to give things stakes and it begins by just asking ‘why would A do B?’ or ‘why would A tribe settle at B location?’ What is motivating them to do this?
In the next few weeks I’ll keep returning to this growing world and once we introduce a few more core concepts and concept frameworks we’ll start to get into the business of defining the world and making some of these vague points really sing.
Unless of course YOU want to do it first.
Feel free to copy this map, steal all these ideas and make them way better and more detailed than any of these ramblings. This blog is a framework in itself. It is written in order to give you guys inspiration and ideas.
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