An Old School Gamer’s Take on Real-World Maps and Fantasy Campaigns 2

So I’ve been think­ing about maps late­ly.

To be fair, I think about maps quite a bit. I’ve been fas­ci­nat­ed ever since I encoun­tered my first Nat. Geo. Map stuffed inside the mag­a­zine back in the late ‘70s. The con­cept of cap­tur­ing a 3D space at a par­tic­u­lar moment in time and slap­ping down on a paper full of sym­bols kind of geeked me out. I start­ed draw­ing my own maps short­ly there­after, and I’ve never real­ly grown out of that.

The thing is, hav­ing been star­ing at maps of both fan­ta­sy worlds and the world we actu­al­ly live in I’ve noticed some­thing. That some­thing is, unfor­tu­nate­ly, a ding that can cause a loss of immer­sion. So what is that thing I’ve noticed?

Fantasy world maps always feel like they were cre­at­ed by dream­ers rather than car­tog­ra­phers.

Now, I’m not say­ing that we all need to be going out and get­ting Geographic Information Systems degrees and pur­chas­ing $500 pieces of soft­ware to be able to cre­ate pro­fes­sion­al grade USGS style 7.5 Minute topo­log­i­cal maps.1 I am, how­ev­er, sug­gest­ing that we dream­ers could use a lit­tle ground­ing in geog­ra­phy, geol­o­gy, and why real world maps look like they do.

Let’s take a look at a 16th cen­tu­ry map of the Earth.

1(source: http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​D​i​e​p​p​e​_​m​aps)

This is a map cre­at­ed by Nicolas Desliens in 1566. The first obvi­ous thing about it is that it’s “upside down”, with the North at the bot­tom and the South at the top. That, how­ev­er, is the least impor­tant thing about this map in terms of our dis­cus­sion. What is impor­tant is that this map looks like it could be some­thing straight out of high fan­ta­sy, but it is also a map that has dis­tinc­tive and impor­tant fea­tures to it. The first, and most impor­tant, is that even though the con­ti­nents are dis­tort­ed and incom­plete when com­pared to a real world map, they also show a clear geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry to them.

Even with the dis­tor­tions com­pared to real­i­ty, some­thing stands out with the shapes of these con­ti­nents. They look like they can fit togeth­er like some­what warped puz­zle pieces. The rea­son for this is sim­ple. At one point in time, they did pre­cise­ly that. Once upon a time, this:

2(source: http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​W​o​r​l​d​_​map)

Looked like this:

3(source: http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​P​a​n​g​aea)

That sec­ond map shows the ancient land mass known as Pangaea. About 300 mil­lion years ago, all of the cur­rent con­ti­nents were stuck in one big mass togeth­er. Over time con­ti­nen­tal drift set in and tore that mon­ster apart. Bits of it drift­ed this way and that, resort­ing them into the loca­tions we see today. This is why so much of the mod­ern world looks like pieces of a bro­ken plate.

4(source: http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​P​a​n​g​aea)

Look clos­er. South America and Africa look like they should be glued to one anoth­er. That’s because they were at one time. The East coast of North America has a slight curve and dim­ple pat­tern that match­es the Northwest coast of Africa. Once, you could have walked from Maine to Monaco in a cou­ple of days. Can you see how the South coast of New Guinea looks like the tab that should slip into Northern Australia’s slot? Yep. There’s a rea­son for that. Oh, and the Middle East looks like it kind of cracked away from Egypt and Sudan, right? Well, it did.

When you look at fan­ta­sy maps, how­ev­er, the shore­lines of var­i­ous con­ti­nents usu­al­ly look like they have never even dated, let alone been one with each other. If this world has ever had dynam­ics like Continental Drift, they stalled. It looks as though the world sim­ply sprang up in its cur­rent shape and form, and that’s because that’s typ­i­cal­ly what hap­pened.

There’s more to this, how­ev­er. It’s not just the coasts that are shaped as they are because of this. Most fan­ta­sy maps have moun­tain ranges strung about like jew­el­ry. They’re pret­ty, they make great set­tings for adven­tures, and they have no logic to their place­ment.

Taking a look at the map of the world we live in, things are quite dif­fer­ent, how­ev­er.

5(source: http://​www​.map​sof​world​.com/​p​h​y​s​i​c​a​l​-​m​a​p​/​w​o​r​l​d​.​htm)

The Earth has a num­ber of very impres­sive moun­tain ranges. But when you look at where they are two things will quick­ly become appar­ent. They all exist in one of two places. They are either close to coast lines with oceans, or they are close to where dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents have come togeth­er.

What does this mean? Well, check this map out.

6(source: http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​P​l​a​t​e​_​t​e​c​t​o​n​ics)

Each of those dif­fer­ent col­ored areas rep­re­sents a plate. Those plates are the things that drift­ed willy-nilly and tore apart Pangaea. Well, the entire sur­face of the plan­et is cov­ered in plates. As one plate moves it col­lides with or pulls away from the plates around it, and one of three things hap­pens. It goes over the other plate, it smash­es into the other plate, or it cre­ates a gap between the plates.

In the Americas, North and South America are both slid­ing over the top the plates to the west of them. As the Juan de Fuca plate, Cocos plate, and Nazca plate are run over the lead­ing edge of North and South America both bend upward, like a fin­ger­nail being scratched over the sur­face of a table top. Meanwhile the lead­ing edges of those other plates are pushed down into the melty-gooey parts of the earth. This means that those lead­ing edges also become melty-gooey. The mate­ri­als rise upward and push through the plate above, result­ing in vol­ca­noes like Mt. St. Helens. These two fac­tors com­bined result in moun­tain ranges like the Sierra Nevadas, Rockies, and Andes and in the vol­canic phe­nom­e­non known as the Ring of Fire (a fan­ta­sy map name if ever I heard one).

In Asia we have two of those plates smash­ing one anoth­er rather than slip­ping under and over. The Indian plate is smash­ing into Eurasia at what is for geol­o­gy a very high rate of speed. As the two smash togeth­er the buck­le and crum­ple like the front ends of two cars col­lid­ing. This upward smash is the direct cause of the most rugged, impass­able moun­tain range in the world, the Himalayas.

When plates pull away from one anoth­er the melty-gooey stuff inside the earth comes up out of the gap and becomes much less melty and gooey. Most of this takes place on the ocean floor where we can’t see it, but in a few places it has actu­al­ly been able to reach lev­els above sea level. If you look at where the North American and Eurasian plates meet near Greenland you’ll notice Iceland. Iceland is the direct result of these two plates head­ing away from one anoth­er, and it’s very geog­ra­phy direct­ly reflects this. Iceland is essen­tial­ly one giant vol­canic island.

One more impor­tant thing many fan­ta­sy maps tend to place with­out reflect­ing on the why of it is the cli­mate. One area will be desert-like, anoth­er will be forest­ed, some spots will be marshy… Again, look­ing at the map there are rea­sons for all of these things.

7(source: http://​www​.the​glob​ale​d​u​ca​tion​pro​ject​.org/​e​a​r​t​h​/​g​l​o​b​a​l​-​e​c​o​l​o​g​y​.​php)

8(source: http://​apes​na​ture​.home​stead​.com/​c​h​a​p​t​e​r​9​.​h​tml)

Alright, the first of our two real world maps here shows two things. One is the gen­er­al ecol­o­gy of the world. You can see the great desert regions of the American West, of North Africa, and the cen­tral steppes of Asia. You can see the green forest­ed regions of the American East Coast, Europe, the Brazilian Rain Forest. Grasslands, tun­dra, per­ma­nent ice fields… basi­cal­ly the gen­er­al cli­mates of the world. The other thing it shows are the ocean cur­rents. Ocean cur­rents do more than cause ships to drift; they play a very impor­tant role here. We’ll get to that later.

The sec­ond map shows the gen­er­al pat­tern of wind flow at sur­face lev­els across the plan­et. As you can see the East coast of the U.S. is receiv­ing winds from cen­tral Canada, the wind in Brazil is com­ing straight off of the South Atlantic, and North Africa is get­ting its winds from Europe.

So what does all this have to do with deserts, forests, and marsh­es?


As the winds flow across the ocean they absorb mois­ture from the air. How much of it they get to absorb depends very much on the tem­per­a­ture of the water itself. Looking at the North Pacific some­thing becomes evi­dent. The water in the North Pacific came from the trop­ics. The Japanese cur­rent (that pink loop you see) spends a lot of time heat­ing up as it trav­els from the U.S.-Mexican bor­der and all the way over into the Micronesian states before it turns upwards. It then heads north from there.

As it flows north past Japan that water is sur­pris­ing­ly warm because of its ori­gin. This means that the winds flow­ing off of Russia and into the North Atlantic can absorb a lot of water. It then car­ries this into the region between Alaska and Washington, where this water falls out of the sky. This region is extreme­ly moist, result­ing in tem­per­ate rain forests. However, as that water con­tin­ues along it slams into those mon­strous Rocky Mountains. The moun­tains dis­rupt the winds, caus­ing them to lose most of their water before they can climb up and over. By the time the winds reach the Eastern side of the Rockies they have lost most of their water. Very lit­tle rain can fall. This, then explains why near­ly every­thing between the Rockies and the Great Plains of North America are arid desert.

The Midwest and Northeastern U.S. as well as Eastern Canada how­ev­er are ver­dant and rich because those winds are able to absorb water from the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay. Though the winds aren’t able to absorb near­ly as much as those on the West Coast, they also are able to flow unim­ped­ed by any­thing more seri­ous than the barely-there Appalachians. They can dis­trib­ute the water far more even­ly, result­ing in the old growth forests the region is known for.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s winds are com­ing from some of the warmest parts of the South Atlantic. They are aimed straight up the Amazon Basin and have next to noth­ing to block them. This means they can carry vast amounts of water all the way to the Andes on the far side of the con­ti­nent, dump­ing it the entire time. So much hot water is being dumped it cre­ates the largest trop­i­cal rain for­est in the world, and has one of the largest and most pow­er­ful river sys­tems flow­ing through it.

Over in North Africa, they have a prob­lem. The winds across Europe all flow away from North Africa, tak­ing their water with them into Russia. The winds North Africa deal with orig­i­nate in North Africa itself. With no way to col­lect water they are unable to carry any with them, and North Africa remains one of the largest desert regions in the world, while Russia’s cold winds drop cold water on the flat lands, where it has dif­fi­cul­ty escap­ing, result­ing in the infa­mous marshy mud that has destroyed many an army.

So what does all of these mean for fan­ta­sy map mak­ing? It means most fan­ta­sy maps don’t stand up to inquis­i­tive minds. It also means that those which actu­al­ly con­sid­er how the entire world devel­oped and the fac­tors that effect it pret­ty much build them­selves. Dry desert winds will blow across towns that des­per­ate­ly cling to any water source they can. On a mir­ror shore­line across the ocean, vast jun­gles will line the banks of enor­mous rivers as they flow towards trop­i­cal seas. Giant moun­tain ranges will sep­a­rate nations and cul­tures where the land mass­es col­lide, and vol­canic moun­tains will spew forth from mighty crags close to the sea, wip­ing out the cities of exot­ic cul­tures built on their slopes.

All it takes is a lit­tle time bon­ing up on real world maps, and you’ll have fan­ta­sy maps that are com­plete­ly believ­able.

  1. Of course, if you do, let me know, I’ll buy a map or two off you. []

About James Hinton

James Hinton is an old school gamer from Idaho. When he isn't busy trying to force his teenage daughters to learn to play with dice he can be found screaming at MMORPG players from his porch.

2 thoughts on “An Old School Gamer’s Take on Real-World Maps and Fantasy Campaigns

  • CM30

    It’s an inter­est­ing point (and quite a few peo­ple have already writ­ten in some length about how unre­al­is­tic video game and fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture geog­ra­phy is, a whole TV Tropes page exists for that), but I have to won­der whether the real­is­tic aspects are sim­ply not rel­e­vant in the con­text of many fan­ta­sy games.

    I mean, the real world was shaped by nat­ur­al process­es in the form of con­ti­nen­tal drift and var­i­ous weath­er pat­terns, but many of these alter­nate worlds weren’t. That’s kind of the point. They weren’t cre­at­ed by nature as such, but often by sen­ti­nent deities and other god like fig­ures that cre­at­ed them specif­i­cal­ly for the pur­pose of the plot. Hyrule from the Zelda series is extreme­ly unre­al­is­tic in terms of world design, with a patch­work map that makes no sense in terms of any ‘his­to­ry’. But hey, three god­dess­es and the power of the tri­force might shape that world very dif­fer­ent­ly from geo­log­i­cal process­es in the real world. The world feels a bit ‘arti­fi­cial’ because in uni­verse, it kind of is.

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