Maps are a staple of role-playing games, yet most people barely give a second thought other than being a pretty game aid.
Mapping and world-building go hand-in-hand. Three “laws” of mapping illustrate this point.
First, there is the “Anthropology law". When you study the history of cartography, it quickly becomes apparent that maps encapsulate their culture’s highest form of technological progress. Maps are more than just representations of the world around them: they represent political and legal structures, military, demographics, and supply and demand! When you look at maps throughout history, you should realise that people died and killed for these maps. Literally.
So if you're going to start creating maps for your game world, you need to first of all think of, "What sort of maps would be possible for this world," and, "Who would sponsor these maps?” For example, when mapping Hael, we agonised for months before settling on the final design. While the map appears to be an entire planet (Orc and their descendant Daeorcs , were smart enough to realise that the world is “egg shaped,”) it suffers from fundamental errors of scale. This was intentional. The orcs believed themselves to be the centre of all creation, and that which they have not explored simply does not exist for them. We have seen these sorts of errors in many maps throughout history: just take a look at the original maps drawn of Australia! In addition, the map focuses on what is important to the people in power who could sponsor such an incredibly expensive and dangerous undertaking. So the map focuses on areas of significant strategic importance. Only then did we begin to overlay the Daeorc culture onto the map, such as the coins, skulls and fur.
By creating maps that are appropriate for the setting – as opposed to being some magically accurate satellite view - you'll go a long way to engaging the players in the very culture - the anthropology - of the world you have created. And THIS through process leads to some very deep thinking about the nature of the world you are building.
The second law of mapping is to understand that, “Civilizations are not random.” Cultures develop around resources, and maps are fundamentally guides to where resources lie. Human civilizations tend to congregate around fresh water sources and coasts, while the Orcs in a fantasy world might live in mountains, or caves. These are not random or artificially chosen places. They arise out of the natural (or possibly magical) geological principles of your world. Put simply, when you start world building, get mapping very early. The very nature of making a map will force you, as the author of the world, to work to some form of internal consistency. The nations and peoples of your world will arise out of the natural landscape which you have mapped. This will in turn lead to a clear understanding of where conflict and battles will arise. So your map also becomes your history guide.
The third law of mapping (for games) is that, your maps “Must be appropriate for the game mechanics.” One of my all-time favorite games, Feng Shui, states you can never use maps in the game because everything is going to blow up anyway! Rapture only uses the most basic of maps (blueprints) because the game encourages players to fill in the descriptions of their environments. In Savage Worlds games, like Hael, detailed maps are needed for use with minis. In High Space, we needed maps for starship battles. In each of these cases, maps have a role in the game itself.
With the above three laws, you can be certain that your maps will not only be pretty game aids, but what actually add something to your game world.
For practical mapping techniques and tricks, please visit my YouTube channel (http://www.storyweaver.com/Community/MapMakingTutorials.aspx
) and check out the mapping videos) where I have over 60 mapping tutorials. Most of the videos Feature ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer software, but I am not affiliated with that company, other than really liking their tools!