Author Topic: The Bones of Earth 2: A Wizard Did It!  (Read 709 times)


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The Bones of Earth 2: A Wizard Did It!
« on: January 26, 2018, 11:23:52 PM »
The Bones of Earth 2: A Wizard Did It!
By Jubal

This follows on from my previous article, the Bones of Earth, in which I look at the basics of constructing fantasy maps. In this second article in the series, I explore unnatural geographical features or settings and how to fit them into fantasy worlds. We’ll only be looking at a small selection of possible ideas – there are many more out there!

The Megacity

Generally cities and settlements come after geography; however, there is a big sci-fi exception to this, the megacity. Essentially, humanity has an effect on the landscape. This can be seen even in low-tech worlds where old barrows (LOTR) or mottes of castles can dot the landscape. The megacity is a step beyond – civilisation built on top of civilisation, layer after layer, so that pretty much all one would find beneath the city is more city. At this stage, and particularly given the large amount of land area a megacity might take up, it is worth marking out areas for such on the map. Remember that historically most of the world’s largest cities are coastal and/or based near navigable rivers. Of the world’s ten largest city areas today, only three are not on the coast. Of those (Cairo, Delhi, and Mexico City) two are on major rivers and the third is based around a former lake. Generally it is fair to say that a megacity large enough to show up on a map is going to be a coastal area or strip.

The Moving Land

Islands that act as ferries or even fly, or mountains that shift to block the path of the heroes on a quest; one of the key things that land does not do (at least not often) is move, so that’s precisely what it CAN do in a fantasy setting. You may not necessarily want to include these on your map (for example a flying island is hard to include on a static map) but if there are rules as to where the thing can go it’s worth thinking about them. Forests that move can also be an excellent example of this (in a sci-fi world you could even have forests or mountains that are regularly migratory, in which case the migration route should be worked out at the mapping stage).

The Wasteland

This is common in sci-fi particularly, though it appears in fantasy too. The magic-blasted or post-nuclear wasteland is an excellent setting; cartographically, it gives a large area which is difficult for armies or characters to cross, and which can be filled with arrays of mutated monsters and other such gribblies. Generally wastelands tend to be inland areas, in line with real desert and tundra areas, although it’s worth noting that a real nuclear wasteland would probably be a coastal region since nobody’s going to bother dropping billions of pounds/dollars/roubles/yen worth of explosives onto somewhere sparsely populated when the enemy war effort could be obliterated by dropping them on London/New York/Moscow/Shanghai.

Wastelands are likely to end at seas, large rivers, or mountains which can take the blast and prevent fallout from catastrophes spreading. It can look odd to have a wasteland covering a range of large mountains as we would intuitively expect that either the mountains would shield things on the other side from a large explosion. Logic, even in nuclear holocaust planning, is still worth using from time to time.

The World Window

World to world portals are part of huge numbers of settings. When they are big enough to be used on a large scale, they are most definitely major setting drivers. River crossings and bridges within a world are often fought over a lot as major crossing points, and that’s when if you go far enough around there are other options, or you can get boats, etc etc… when there is a trade route or raiding route which is literally the only one of its kind (or one of a very small number), it makes eminent historical sense for it to be a hugely important feature. As such, if it’s a natural part of the world (rather than having been created in a city), it’s worth considering its position at the mapping stage.

Totally Simplified World Paradigm

The Edge Chronicles are the shining example of this. The simplified world paradigm is basically the idea that you can build a world setting that does not obey any rules of physics or common sense whatsoever, so long as it’s simple enough that nobody bothers asking questions about the geography. The edge is basically a sort of peninsula (jutting off what, nobody knows) which sticks out into the sky. The base of the peninsula is all forest, then there’s a mire/wasteland, then a city at the end. That’s really literally it. This absurd setting, however, fulfils its function well; it provides a crystal-clear backdrop against which a ton of interesting biology and culture can be thrown. The map is made to give a clear range of settings, but in a stylised way – this makes it easy for characters to move between parts of the setting and encounter different things without too much worry about detail or realism.

Other possible simplified worlds could be based on a certain principle – for example, having a land with four equally sized islands representing the classical elements where water is wet and forested, air has high mountains and tall trees, fire is all volcanic and earth is low-lying vegetation, rocks and mines. Again, this completely ditches any inherent interest in the geography, but it gives an excessively neat and simple backdrop for me to put characters and cultures against which can be useful. Consider different possible ideas you could use in this way – any cultural trope can work (yin and yang, the kingdoms of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, seven deadly sins, alchemical substances, you name it).

Totally Odd World Paradigm

This isn’t so much a feature as pointing out that, above all, you can do whatever the hell you like. Take The Carpet People – the entire book is a fantasy based on the idea of civilisations rising and falling and desperate battles being fought between the fronds of a carpet. There’s references to a giant plateau famous for its mining that is pretty clearly a 1 penny piece, and so on. Equally, you could write a fantasy set amongst gods playing snooker with the planets, or set inside a computer where the characters worship the players as gods and the “map” is just a set of windows explorer directories. There are potential worlds made entirely of food where the world may centre around the problem of eating as compared to living in homes, and so on.

Generally, the suspension of disbelief thing hits in here. The more unusual your paradigm is, the harder you’re going to have to work to keep the user of viewer of the setting engaged. Also, the odder the paradigm the more people are going to focus on it – if it’s not a simplified paradigm (see above), then an odd one can easily become the gimmick or idea that your whole setting centres around. Think carefully!

Recommended Reading

The Carpet People (Terry Pratchett) – This is a good example of a very unusual setting which nevertheless works well (it is important to note that part of the reason it works well is as humour though, being essentially a work of satire rather than more serious fantasy)

[Gulliver’s Voyage to Laputa (Jonathan Swift) – the original flying island (Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726 and has been in print ever since), including probably the first ever description of aerial bombardment as a system of warfare. Chapters 17 to around 24, available to read here:
The rest of the book is also well worth a read, and covers three other important early examples fantasy settings (Lilliput, full of tiny vicious people, Brobdingrag, full of friendly giants, and the land of the Houyhnhnms, a society of intelligent horses totally governed by reason).

The Edge Chronicles (Stewart/Riddell) – Not the most serious or even best written work of fantasy fiction, but a good read and more importantly an excellent example of an unusual setting that works as a basis for serious fantasy rather than parody as referenced in the “simplified world” section.

The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...