Campaign Design: Geography

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on April 3, 2009

All the world is a stage and you get to design it. Creating the geography for your gaming world is more than just placing mountains, streams and forest. Every decision you make during this stage of the game will effect future gaming sessions and expansions to your campaign setting. The geographic elements you work into your game world form the natural boundaries that are used to define the kingdoms and territories of your world. It’s important to get it right from the start.

In laying out the geography of your world it’s important that it makes sense. Rivers should flow towards oceans, gravity should work as we understand it, etc. Unless there is a reason it should be otherwise due to magic or some other oddity that you can explain through your world’s history.

Geographic features have names. We name our oceans, lakes, rivers, mountains and forests. You should do the same, however you need to keep in mind why you giving locations their names. If you call a mountain range the Ironspine Mountains, why are you giving them that name? Is it after a clan of Dwarves who have lived there for many years? Is the Spiderweave Jungle named that because of a rare breed of giant spiders than inhabit the jungle? Locations are given names to commemorate people or events. As you name your major geographic features you will need to come up with a brief rational for why that name was chosen. For assistance with cartography visit the Cartographers Guild for tips on designing a world map.

When you consider placement of your cities, towns and villages think about why people would settle there in the first place? What are the major resources and industries that exist in your cities? Where do the roads go? Are they straight or windy, cobbled or dirt paths? What form of trade occurs between one city and its neighbours?

If a village’s major export is timber and the forest has protective spirits like Treants what relationship exists between them which allows logging to occur. Is it antagonistic or is there an understanding in place? Think of Sauroman in the Lord of the Rings, he had an understanding with the Treants and when he broke that pact the Treants took action against him.

Similar to your cities and geographic features you need to consider where your dungeons are going to be placed. While dungeons are a necessary part of D&D they can’t just be dropped randomly into the world. Each dungeon should have a history, an original purpose that has faded into legend. Whether the dungeons is a haunted barrow of a long forgotten king or the ruins of an ancient civilization they require as rich as history as your major NPCs.

Dungeons can also exist in both rural or urban settings. The sewers of a major city that lead to the ancient sewers or catacombs of an older city make for an excellent opportunity to add a dungeon into an urban environment.

Your world may have several fantastic locations. Whether it’s a fountain that flows up, massive monoliths in an open field, or other strange magical phenomenon. They require an explanation and a reason why they fit within the game world. Like the Mournland in Eberron the cause doesn’t have to be explained, but the effect does.

What experience have you had with designing a game world? Any tips for placement or naming of locations?

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1 Rook April 6, 2009 at 1:32 am

Nice post, much food for thought. I whole-heartedly agree that every aspect of your world should have at least a minimally logical reason for being. An oddball feature that sticks out like a sore thumb with no rhyme or reason doesn’t add to the flavor of your world, it just creates a “Huh?” reaction and tends to break your player’s suspension of disbelief.

As far as naming features, one trick I’ve incorporated is to use online name generators. Once you’ve got a few cool sounding names, let them become the inspiration for the story behind the feature. Of course, this works best with a gaming world that is, for the most part, uncharted.

2 Wimwick April 6, 2009 at 12:15 pm

@ Rook
I like the idea of using name gnerators to provide the inspiration for the geographic features and dungeons.

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