I can’t play the Civilization games. Call it a mental block, but when I see the different culture groups taken entirely out of context is too much to get over because those cultures wouldn’t be what they are without their historical and geographical context. Simply making the Canadians good at diplomatic endeavors is just lazy.
This attitude makes it nearly impossible for me to be good at making maps for fantasy games as well. The problem stems from the idea that you can only ask, “but what’s over the next hill” for so long before your map is an entire globe and you’ve basically created a nightmare for yourself. A video I was recently watching about map-making for fantasy games posited that most people like to make an “island” style map because it feels complete. I would argue that most people also do that because when you make a land mass but only fill a part of it, that type of design always leaves open the question of “what else is there?” Also, “why don’t we engage with it?”
I’m already struggling with this post because everything I just wrote also comes with so many caveats. Like, maybe there is a mountain range, or a desert, or a wall? Maybe there was a long-ago war and no one crosses the no-man’s land. But even if that were true… Our nation would still remember them and have stories, legends, etc. There’s a lot going on here.
When you look at the real world of our Earth, you can’t even rely on island nations to provide any real ability to isolate yourself. Most D&D worlds are farther advanced than the 800s on our Earth. And they have magic. But look at England. In the 800s, “England” was engaged in trade with continental Europe and had invaders from Nordic countries all over the place. Of course, I put England in quotes because in the 800s there wasn’t really a kingdom of England. Which is its own stew of questions and answers.
I mentioned this tutorial on map-making as well because it was interesting and well-thought-out for someone who just wanted a few quick nudges and ideas about things like, “what causes deserts” and “where do people settle” and such. But one thing it never touched on was the scale of the map. Something that should become pretty obvious to most fantasy gamers is that the “worlds” we usually play in are tiny compared to the sheer landmass and civilized portions of the Earth. European history – the source for so many D&D campaigns – wouldn’t look anything like it does without China and the Middle East. Divorced from those influences, medieval Europe would probably be quite a bit different.
Even questions about deserts and settlements really rely on scale as a first order question. Making a map the size of Greece or Scotland is a lot different than making a map with an area the size of the continent of Africa or the country of the United States. Biodiversity takes space. And making a map with a relationship to, say, the Mediterranean region is still a non-starter when you consider all of the other surrounding cultures that play into the formation of that region.
Do I think too much? Sure. Does it make mapping and world-design very difficult for me? Yes. But I find it fascinating and worthwhile as well. I may not be able to always answer all the questions right up front, but just thinking about them helps me to remember that there needs to always be something over the next ridge, to not rely on the shorthand of “earth cultures” when making up mine in a game world, and that some questions will always be unanswered.