Welcome, everyone, to the inaugural edition of the Gamemaster’s Screen. Technically, it’s Emerald Specter Presents the Gamemaster’s Screen, but that’s way too long, so no. Unlike the other columns that I’ve written here, too, I’m deciding not to number these, as that’ll keep them less dated and relevant forever.
I’ve decided to start this column off with maps.
One thing that almost every GM has needed at some point is a map, whether they’ve jotted something down on some grid paper for a dungeon or used an online map generator to come up with a huge online worlds. Almost always, things come down to a visual guide to a world and if you’re not creative yourself, you end up either utilizing something you’re not happy with or you ask someone to make one for you. That ends up costing you money or leaving you unhappy because the free request takes forever to be fulfilled.
Well, I’m here to introduce an alternative to both of those that I think is an ingenious way to get a map that you have control over and don’t have to rely on anyone else for… which is pretty nifty in my opinion.
Use a real place.
Wait, wait, wait… whoa, whoa, whoa… what do you mean “use a real place?” Like, trace a city or something?
I mean, if that’s how you want to roll, sure. But I’m not exactly saying that. Let me explain.
Let’s say you want a continent but you are terrible at drawing something you’d find interesting. Nothing really strikes your fancy as far as made up designs online that you’d like to “borrow” and you’re just stuck for ideas. Start using Google Maps and look around for an interesting island or two. As a quick example, I decided to search and went to Indonesia to look for an interestingly shaped island (it’s an archipelago, so there’s lots of islands there). I found Tawitawi Island:
You can certainly include the surrounding islands but for my example, I’m only after the big one. This is my continent. Now, Google Maps has all this information all over the island, including names and roads and I can certainly turn that off, I can also turn on the satellite image to get a less “cartoony” look to my new continent, too.
Now, doesn’t that look like a nice continent to have as a setting?
The first thing you might be asking yourself is: how do I take a (relatively) tiny island and make it a huge continent? The perspective kills the verisimilitude! My players will never accept this as a continent! It’s too small!
Do you read George R. R. Martin? Have you read the Song of Ice and Fire (better known to TV viewers as the Game of Thrones on HBO)? If you have, then you know about Westeros:
The big vertical continent on the left is Westeros. Does Westeros look familiar? It should, because it’s basically a real place smooshed together with another real place stacked on top of a real place.
Yes, you see it correctly. Westeros is the United Kingdom all mixed up, squished together, then stacked up and suddenly it’s a huge continent. If you didn’t already know that, then your mind should be blown because millions of people accept Westeros as a very large place. There’s no reason your island continent (in my example above) can be just as big because you control the narrative.
Now, for my example, I chose an island because an island is isolated thing that can have an ocean all around it. If your land mass doesn’t require the need of being surrounded by an ocean, then by all means choose a place that isn’t an island.
You could take part of Europe and just use a chunk that fits your geography then crop out the pieces that don’t fit your land mass. Maybe India is perfectly shaped. What if Australia has a nice geography perfect for your story, use that! There are loads of places in South and North America that have interesting biomes (from a mapping perspective) that don’t need to be using an entire continent’s worth of space for a story, why limit yourself?
But what about when the players want to go past that one place that’s off the map?
They always want to do that, don’t they? Well, why is that place interesting? Is it just because it’s off the map? Maybe that southern part of the map leads to a desert that no one has ever returned from… and when they want to go there, let them. When they don’t return, let them restart their characters from when they left to go into the desert and begin the new session with “now, let’s not be stupid again, shall we?” If they still feel the need for that challenge, my advice is to make that challenge uninteresting… it should be bland. Lot’s of people giving advice say let the players dictate where the story is but in this particular case, there’s literally nothing there! Keep it that way.
Hopefully this has given you an idea to start looking for your next map in Google Maps… but before you go, let me give you a couple of other places to look for map ideas: Mars, moons of Jupiter, moons of Saturn, Pluto… these places can also have interesting places that can be converted to continents or islands. They just require a little more coloring and editing.