Dec 092019

I use Campaign Cartographer 3 (CC3) to draw my continent maps, which I also use for region maps by zooming in. There’s an add-on called Fractal Terrains, which can be used to generate continent shapes with the click of a button. It actually creates entire planets but I’ve typically looked for a continent that I like the look of. Mountains, hills, vegetation, and even lakes or bays, etc., are also depicted. If I don’t like what I see, another click and I get another planet. There are changeable parameters to generate more or fewer land masses, for example.

I take a screen shot of one I like, crop it to size in an image program like Windows Paint, and save it. In some cases, I take two different continents and overlay them atop each other to create a composite shape that I like. I then import the image into CC3 using their instructions for doing so. Then I use CC3’s tools to trace the continent outline. I sometimes change little features I don’t want to include, or add them.

I’ll have already decided the continent’s latitude, hemisphere, and which direction it lies from any existing continents I have. For the latter, the reason is that on Earth, tectonic activity sometimes separates one large continent into two smaller ones that appear to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle; see the western edge of Africa and the eastern edge of South America for an example. I might want to imply such a relationship between two continents.

In CC3, I use the hill and mountain tools to drop these icons over the Fractal Terrains image, though I’m free to ignore or add features that weren’t present. For a mountain range, it’s best to drop the foothill icons first because these will be farther out from the range’s center. Then I drop the mountain icons on top of the foothills, starting at the top of the range and going down. The reasons for this would be apparent if you did it in reverse yourself. Basically anything you add will cover what’s already on there, so the southernmost mountain should be fully visible but partly covering the mountain icon to its north. To achieve this, just start at the top and move down. Top to bottom is generally the way to work.

Once I have outlined the continent and mountains/hills that were depicted on the Fractal Terrains image, I no longer need the latter and can hide it in CC3. I add some major rivers and lakes. There are tools to draw rain forests, shrub land, deciduous and coniferous trees, and more. I start at the top of my continent and work my way down, adding items as I deem appropriate, with an eye for the information in this volume and with what little artistic sense I have. I add cities and towns at fresh water locations and by the ocean. I tend to use the rivers as country boundaries.

For each settlement, I give it some farmland, maybe a bridge over the rivers, and roads/trails to the neighboring settlements. Then I start filling in clear areas predominantly with trees, unless I have reason to believe rainfall is limited, in which case I give it grasslands or shrub lands. On the windward side of mountains, I put thick forest due to the rainfall. Desert goes on the leeward side, then maybe grasslands farther from the mountains as moisture is picked up in the atmosphere again. I just repeat this process as I work my way around the map, dropping icons for whatever I need.

CC3 comes with different color icons for settlements, with some blue, gold, red, etc. To help readers (and myself) understand the country boundaries, I tend to stick with one style of icon for a given country, such as the gold ones for one country and the blue ones for a neighbor. If you’re zoomed in enough, you can tell just by looking at the map what areas are in a territory. The results are good and publishable with my manuscripts, and yet I can’t draw to save my life. You can see the resulting maps at and

Dec 022019

We should decide on our initial goal: are we intending to draw a continent or the region around where our story takes places?

Continent First

For a continent, we can base the overall size on an existing Earth one or just a region, like a country (or several). A smaller area, like a U.S. state or province like those in Canada can also be used but might be designated an island. In all cases, we’ll just surround it with water instead of other land masses. This analogue can help our sense of scale, distance, and travel times.

With this decided, we can begin drawing a shape for our coastline. Nature doesn’t create straight lines, typically, so the inability to draw one is not a disadvantage. We can once again base part of this on Earth analogues. Just don’t use an entire coastline for even one side of a continent. We can take the west edge of Spain, the south edge of Britain, the region between North Carolina and Florida for the east, and the northern coastline of South America. We can also draw all of these on the “wrong” coastline. Stealing continent edges this way takes the difficulty out of this, and if you miss draw it, so much the better. We could also trace these.

We should have a general sense of what climates we want. This will determine how far from the equator the continent is.  A broad, inclusive climate range means a land mass that runs thousands of miles north to south, if the planet is at all Earth-like in size. Make this decision early because it determines which direction the prevailing winds are. And as we learned in Chapter 2, “Creating a Planet,” this predicts where rain shadows from mountain ranges develop. This affects the amount of vegetation, causing everything from dense forest to arid deserts.

But first, we’ll want to decide where those mountain ranges are, using what we learned from Chapter 3, “Creating a Continent.” Nature often places one range along the edge of a continent, with deep water (and possibly sea monsters) just offshore. Find a place you’d like this, the best culprits being on the eastern or western shores; a northern or southern range means a single climate (cold or hot) takes place in that mountain range, which provides less variety.

For a second range that’s somewhat parallel, choose a different length and starting point rather than starting at the same latitude or longitude and traversing the same distance. With a range that’s more perpendicular to existing ones, try not to form right angles like an upper case “L.” Placing empty space between two such ranges helps prevent this. Remember that there are different kinds of mountain ranges and that we can place solitary peaks, or a few in a row, virtually anywhere. We don’t have to create every mountain range at once, being able to work on one region of our map at a time, but it can be helpful to do so if we have ideas.

With this decided, and with our knowing which way prevailing winds blow at the latitude where this mountain range stands, we can determine where rain shadows and therefore deserts exist. If there’s a significant gap between two ranges that are north and south of each other, for example, moisture may get through there and cause a forest near that gap. Also, remember that smaller mountain ranges cause less of a rain shadow. Knowing these things allows us some flexibility to justify having a forest where a desert might actually lie if the peaks were taller. Using Google maps, we can look at satellite images of continents and figure out what typically happens; these show ranges, vegetation, and deserts.

We’ll want to draw some rivers that flow toward the sea, possibly stopping at a large lake first. And this fresh water is where our settlements will be, as humans cannot consume salt water without becoming sick (but we can invent a species that can). When creating a continent map, we don’t need to draw every lake; in fact, doing so would be impractical, just as every river would be. This is one justification for putting a settlement somewhere that water doesn’t appear on the map, but do this on purpose, not by accident.

Vegetation will grow around rivers and lakes, but it will also grow on the opposite side of a mountain range from the desert that a rain shadow causes. Generally, we’ll want a forest on one side, a desert on the other. However, if the prevailing winds are east to west (or vice versa), and the mountains are also running that way, then the winds aren’t being blocked by the peaks; the winds are parallel. This makes forest on each side likely, but desert on either side unlikely.

Local Region First

If we’re creating a map for a specific story, we might only need a regional drawing that focuses on the area where our story occurs. This requires knowing our story’s requirements regarding land features that impact storytelling and whether weather plays a role. First make a decision about what you need for each. Weather determines latitude, as does the need for a rain forest or frozen tundra. If only one is needed, we could move our continent north or south (depending on which hemisphere it’s in). If both cold and hot are needed, a more temperate zone or longer continent (north to south) might be needed. With this decision made, we can choose latitude, basing this on an Earth continent or country if needed for better understanding.

With latitude and hemisphere decided, we can understand which direction the prevailing winds blow. We might not be drawing the whole continent, but if we decide to place mountains along a north-south trajectory, then wind direction will determine rain shadows and vegetation locations. For example, if the winds blow east and we place a north-south range on the eastern edge, then a forest will be between the ocean and range, and a desert will be to the range’s west. If we don’t want a desert, then put the mountain range somewhere else, such as on the western edge or more east-to-west.

With such information, we can decide what land features surrounded the settlement or region where the story takes place. While our focus might be on that area, approaching development from the continental mindset helps us be realistic. We don’t need to ever draw the rest of the land mass. It does help to have some idea how much land is in either direction, however. A region at the coast has an ocean or sea available to it, and therefore shipping and trade options unavailable to a landlocked area. The number of potential allies and enemies in every direction also matters to overall mindset, but these are less mapping issues than world building ones.

Nov 252019

Whether it’s a continent map or just a region of one, we should consider the merits of creating a map and how to do so. We can create one ourselves or hire artists for a few hundred dollars, which is comparable to the cost of book covers but which can be used repeatedly.

Should You Draw One?

For a world that an author will only use for a short story or one book, a map may not be needed or worth the time, but worlds we’ll use often (across a series or not) will benefit from maps. The more the characters travel through the wilderness, the more likely this need is. Even stories that take place primarily in cities might need a regional map if the audience must follow two or more storylines that are concurrently happening in different locations that the audience struggles to understand; Games of Thrones comes to mind. A city-centric tale has little use for continent maps unless referencing nearby locations, whereupon a regional map is helpful. Game designers may need one for the same reasons, even outside of digital gaming, where it is often mandatory.

If we want to calculate travel times, a map can help us measure with accuracy, even if we decide our map isn’t drawn to scale. We can discover problems with intended time frames in our story and find adjustments that might be creative. If a journey will happen too fast, we can cause calamity to slow our travelers. We might use magic, steeds, or technology to increase travel rates. Or we can change our story. If we’d like to cite specific distances, like “it is one hundred kilometers to Illiandor by horse and it will take two days riding hard,” we can make such statements with greater confidence.

Drawing maps can be fun and may provide ideas for both stories and setting. Chapter 1 on “Case Studies” provides examples. But if we don’t want to draw one, there’s a good way around this: base locations on Earth ones. We might use England, France, and Spain as our respective countries, calling them something else. In our notes, we can just write that “Illiandor is England,” for example, and even use its geography. Readers will never know unless we provide a map with a familiar shape. We can do this on a smaller scale as well, such as using the provinces of Canada as different countries, even while changing the latitude to something balmier near the equator.

Nov 182019

Whether we’re an artist or not, creating maps has advantages. They help us visualize a location and think about what lies where. This can be anything from land features on continent or region maps, to buildings and public areas in settlement maps, cells and escape routes in dungeon maps, stations or ships (whether those vessels are wooden or space-faring), and even planets, moons, asteroids and suns on star maps. Seeing empty spaces to fill on our map can inspire invention that leads to more creativity, realism, and realization about what’s feasible or even likely, given our design. Impossible scenarios can be avoided. A map also helps us remember what we visualized, should we be absent from our story world for an extended time.

Some of us are good enough artists to include our map in published works, but even if we can’t draw, there are programs that can greatly assist us. They don’t require drawing skill; rather, the ability to place preexisting objects, like a city or mountain icon, is all that’s needed. Then we just repeat this as often as needed or desired until we’re done. And maps can be created piecemeal. Even if we don’t use such a program, we might want to hire someone to depict a location for us, and even squiggles on a page are helpful in telling an artist what to create.

Interesting Places Starting Point

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Nov 042019

Places of interest can crop up anywhere we need them to be. They can be created long after we’re already using our world or right from the first story. But if we have wars or battles in mind, we can start with these as sources of phenomena. Any fight involving titanic forces, like great magical or technological power, can be the instigator. Decide where you’d like this place to be, such as in a remote location or a central one that impacts life all around it, probably via avoidance; the latter will be a major factor in stories taking place near the location—remote locations give us leeway to invent places of lesser impact. If we have a goal in mind, such as wanting a point of origin for a monster, inventing the creature first can give us ideas on where and what caused it. If we’ve already invented several places, we can invent a different type of place, in a different location.

Creating Shipwrecks

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Oct 282019

This section talks about how to make interesting shipwrecks that are worth creating and mentioning to the audience.

Creating Ruins

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Oct 212019

Abandoned places are ripe for death by misadventure. Monsters, treasure, and items can all lure people to investigate and figure out what’s there or what went wrong. To that end, dropping clues is vital to intriguing an audience. Some of these places will be legendary while others are previously unknown. Both have their merits.

These can range from simple caves or tunnels, like a monster lair or dwarven home, to entire cities or even planets; if we want to be extreme, we can include solar systems or entire galaxies. The scale of abandonment suggests the scale of calamity that caused that abandonment, so choose accordingly. Danger is often assumed to lurk in such places, whether that danger is the new inhabitant, nature having taken over, or the remnants of the reason abandonment took place. Valuables are often assumed to have been left behind, attracting thieves and opportunists who might interfere with a band of characters going there.

Ruins are fun for audiences to watch people discover and explore. We can create mystery about what’s happening there now and what led to its demise. Clues and rumors should evoke curiosity and maybe feelings of dread, foreboding, wonder, and excitement. The more suggestive these are, the better, but it pays to have a reveal that goes beyond audience expectations regarding how cool the truth is, surpassing it. The trick to this is being coy about the truth, and inventing plausible variants on that truth, each one compelling but not as cool as the actuality.

But not everywhere needs a wonderful story. Disease, drought, climate change, natural disasters, and destruction in war are simple explanations that are the most likely culprits. Some places vanish for commercial reasons, such as over-exploitation of the resource (as in mining) or because a better commercial location usurped it, leaving a ghost town, which may have some residents after all.

Bear in mind how overgrown the location is. A rainforest or swamp quickly consumes a place so that it’s nearly impossible to find and less likely to be known; roads to it will disappear, too. More exposed locations will endure wind erosion and may become buried by sediment. An underground place won’t suffer much erosion but will instead lose structural cohesion from earthquakes, the toll of which we can tailor to our intended desire. Similarly, a mountain settlement might suffer rock falls. Sometimes people wonder why more dust doesn’t accumulate in abandoned places, but dust is partly particles from people, so no people means no more dust accumulation or the tracking in of other contaminants.

The durability of buildings is greatly impacted by their material. In less advanced settings, the roof is often the first part of a structure to disintegrate, allowing more rain and animals inside and speeding interior erosion. Stone structures could last centuries despite deterioration, but remember that locals might steal these materials for their own uses. With the advanced technology in SF, a location could last far longer, unaffected by erosion except for becoming overgrown and buried. Then again, maybe automated machines are keeping it pristine long after life has departed.

Magical or technological items are among the best ones left behind, whether by accident or on purpose. They are begging to be found by heroes, villains, or some random fool. Depending on the item, this could empower someone who shouldn’t have such power, raising them to king or overlord among their kind, such as goblins. Think of a weapon, armor, information found in books or scrolls, or a space ship or other tech, depending on your story. The object found might also be cursed. It doesn’t have to be the item responsible for the ruin existing. We might want to create a group of people who see it as their job to find, neutralize, and store these items to prevent such events.

Creating Strange Phenomena

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Oct 142019

Strange phenomena are staples of fantasy and SF, especially when the latter involves explorations of the cosmos. Space offers nebulas, radiation, and alien planet environments. We can invent all manner of experiences that have no real explanation or at best, pseudoscience to impart believability or specific effects on characters and their environment, such as an interstellar ship. Space phenomena have a great advantage in that their location is flexible; we can place them wherever we feel like it and invent them on the fly.

By contrast, singularities on a planet or other body (moon, asteroid, etc.) are typically associated with a given location. They often benefit from at least speculation as to their causes. Technological or magical disasters, resulting from experiments or battle, offer easy rationalizations and even suggest world figures or famous items that might’ve been involved. Monsters or creatures can be a result, too. Does this phenomenon influence only things that come in contact with it or can it affect nearby objects? Maybe it can compel people to approach.

We can also create seemingly unrelated phenomena in different locations but which bear some similarities, but later associate them with each other. We might also have phenomena that begat other phenomena, with no one knowing this until characters stumble upon the truth. This sort of layering adds depth while fascinating audiences as oddities they’ve experienced before are revealed to have new significance.

There might be places where magic or technology doesn’t work, is unpredictable, or is supercharged. Animals could go wild, which is a cliché, or become docile if we want a new impact. There can be locations allowing extraordinary travel, whether actual doorways, random spots, or the former built on the latter. These gateways can lead to other physical locations, supernatural ones, or an alternate reality or timeline. These methods may be predictable, controllable, or neither. Can only certain people or devices activate them? Or we can have a portal open constantly because no one knows how to close it. Beings could be summoned through them.

On Earth, we have places where strange behavior is believed to occur, like the Bermuda Triangle or crop circles. Then there’s Area 51, a rumored place for storing unusual items. The origins of places like Stonehenge or Easter Island have been debated, but we can invent similar locations and attribute fantastic reasons for their existence.

Creating Extraordinary Places

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Oct 062019
Underwater Settlements

While extraordinary to us, an underwater settlement might be commonplace on your world, if a water dwelling species exists to construct them. Are there dry areas or air pockets allowing land species to reside there safely? Or be imprisoned because there’s no way to reach the surface? Perhaps magic or technological portals allow people to enter or leave such a city. Think about what sort of industry and skills a water dwelling species might acquire if they not only have water-filled areas but dry ones, assuming they can move on land. Might they craft a large enough space to practice with weapons they’d need skills for on land?

Floating Settlements

We’ve seen cities in Star Wars, and rock formations in Avatar (italics), both suspended in the air. We can use magic, technology, or unexplained physics to do the same. Aside from this floating aspect, these settlements otherwise differ little from more ordinary communities. However, we should think about what opportunities are afforded. A flying species might be prone to inventing such places or find them very attractive. There might be few predators except the flying kind, making life safe. While no city walls will exist, what kind of aerial fortifications might be needed? Trade might be quite difficult without ships, large flying animals, or other means to transport resources. It may also be at extraordinary risk of crashing to the ground, which seems an obvious sabotage focus for enemies. How does this place protect itself from hurricanes, tornados, or strong storms? The obvious answer is that it’s only built somewhere that doesn’t experience these.

On Earth, we have Venice, which is built largely on stilts, but the impression is still of floating on water. This does not require magic or advanced technology, but we can invent a place that genuinely floats on the sea. A water dwelling species might find this accommodating and even be the ones to invent it. The setting can be a place where land and water species can interact more easily. This must occur where significant waves are rare if not unheard of, so look for a lagoon or otherwise protected inlet in waterways like bays or sounds. If there are large sea monsters that could easily wreck the place, then it won’t exist, but if there’s a new sea monster never considered before, we can have fun destroying the settlement in a story.

Other Unusual Homes

A species might build homes inside hills like the Hobbits of The Lord of the Rings. Elaborate mountain homes are a staple of fantasy dwarves. A flying species could build small homes inside enormous trees, but with no way to reach the ground so that predators, including other species, can’t access them.