The Six Lands of the Shattered Empire

A simple map I’ve quickly thrown together because it’s just so much easier to talk about environments and the relationships between regions when you can just point to a picture.

As it turns out, the general layout idea in my head is pretty plain and basic. Which I guess is quite fitting for the central design paradigm I’ve set myself. A world that is designed to support classic dungeon crawl adventures and puts the needs of the gameplay over fanciful explorations of an entire and unique world. This is a layout that does the job. A subarctic valley in the very North, a large expanse of temperate-cool woodlands, a rocky coastal region, large river plains prairie, rugged foothills of a great mountain range, and subtropical woodlands in the very South. The whole area is about 1,200 miles long and 400 miles wide, which is climatically plausible, given that we don’t see what the land is like beyond the edges of the map and what possible wind patterns and ocean currents might exist. The total area is not that big, a bit smaller than all of Northern Europe, and about the size of my favorite reference frame for this kind of geographic layout, the American West Coast between the Pacific and the Rocky Mountains. Though the flat ground between the sea and the mountains is much wider, but I really don’t want to go into the geology of plate tectonics. For a dungeon crawl campaign setting, this is plausible enough.

As it happens, the overall map reminds me quite a bit of the map from The Witcher. Which is probably one of the best examples of really nice worldbuiling with a unique character that only uses the most basic generic components and doesn’t really bother to go into any detail about things outside the scope of the story. Really not the worst thing to have similarities with.

How the map of Faerûn changed over time

A discussion came up about how much the map of the Forgotten Realms was changed in size over the various editions, and I sat down to finally get a definitive answer to that.

As far as I can tell, the maps for 1st and 2nd edition are identical. The 2nd edition map perfectly overlaps all the outlines of the original, just prettied up to make it look more appealing. (An attempt was made.)

Working only with image files, getting the scale for the 1st edition map right took a bit of work. The Campaign Set and The Savage Frontier mention in the text the distances between various locations. Of these 11 given distances, two are completely off from all the others and as such I discarded them. The remaining nine were all in pretty close agreement and I went with the average of those to scale the image to the same scale as the other three.

Making four overlayed layers into a comprehensible image would be an insane amount of work, so I have limited myself to a number of reference points and connected them with lines, which gives us this illustration.

As can be seen here, 3rd edition both scaled down and squished the map significantly. Even with all the major overhauls of the setting in 4th edition, the overall geography remained effectively untouched. In 5th edition, it appears they returned the overall shape of the landscape to its original form, but not its original size. Luskan and Sundabar have moved further North, but if you tilt it a bit, the distances between Baldur’s Gate, Atkatla, Westgate, and Zhentil Keep have not really changed at all.

Unfortunately, 5th edition only has a map for the Northwest quarter of Faerûn, but the changes that 3rd edition made to the rest of the map are also pretty  wild.

Visualizing populations

While considering what I would put on a map of the Savage Frontier that I would hand out to players to show the information available to their characters, I was using this original map of the North to mark which sites I wanted to include. I thought about using different sized circles for villages, towns, and major cities, and on a whim made the circles proportional to their population. (Square root of the population equals circle diameter.)

I had not expected it to come out like this. Of course, Waterdeep would be huge, but even with having seen the numbers for all the town many times over the last week, I did not anticipate this distribution of people. I had assumed that the inland road from Waterdeep to Mirabar would be the main area of population with all the black dots on the map, but aside from Yartar and Triboar, they are only tiny specks. In contrast to that, the three Rauvin cities Sundabar, Silverymoon, and Everlund really are one of the main concentrations of people in the region.

Looking at it like this, I think doing this little exercise could be really useful to get a first impression of a region when you read up on it. Actually, this area is the campaign setting I am most familiar with out off all that I know, and I still got surprised 20 years later.

Some other interesting things while I’m talking about this map. Back in 1st edition, the North Was way bigger than it has since 3rd edition. Distances have been shrunk to about 75% their original size, which reduces the total area of the region pretty much by half. Also at some point, the population numbers for Sundabar and Silverymoon got flipped around. Originally, Sundabar had a 30% larger population than Silverymoon. But with Silverymoon being more glamorous, they probably wanted to make it the shining capital of the far north. I think it being the smaller one, and the more industrial Sundabar being the larger one is actually more interesting. And did you know that  the people living on the Rauvin river are the last remnant of the Netherese? Somehow that detail never occurred to me all the many times I was reading 3rd edition material on the region.

Return of the Mapper for online games?

Have you heard the good message of our savior Gus L? I learned entirely by accident that he didn’t stop writing RPG stuff but instead has been sharing new stuff on his new site All Dead Generations for the past three years. All the stuff on the site is about what he calls Classic Dungeon Crawling, which is basically OD&D and early Basic D&D, and how that style of Dungeon Crawling is an exploration fantasy game and not a combat fantasy game. A fantastic resource that I recommend to everyone, though it comes in hefty chunks that take quite a while to chew on.

After my overall pretty great D&D 5th edition campaign last year, I was throwing the towel on trying to make dungeons work, because I just could not figure out how to make a dungeon an interesting place that is not simply a warehouse for nonsensical puzzles. All the advice I was coming across on that front was “Well, sometimes funhouse dungeons can be fun.”But now, after 20 years as a GM, I finally get dungeons!

I have seen the light!

Dungeon Crawling and exploration in general isn’t just an aspect of an RPG, it’s even more a system of multiple mechanics than I previously had realized. Treating the whole dungeon as one big puzzle that will reveal the safest ways to the best treasures when figured is a great focus draw players engagement with the campaign. Especially when there’s no plot and characters don’t get shiny new toys every time they level up.

Part of solving that puzzle often is to fully grasp the layout of the dungeon and gain the ability to pinpoint the likely locations of possible shortcuts or otherwise completely inaccessible areas. Gus mentions that having players draw the map themselves is particularly bothersome in online games, where the GM can’t peak at a player’s pencil drawn map to spot obvious misunderstandings of his descriptions. (Minor errors in dimensions are desirable though.) But I took a quick look at Roll20 and found that at least in this case, this thing is actually very easy to do.

Roll20 has the paintbrush tool, which also has a shapes tool that draws rectangles by simply clicking and dragging. As a lifelong diehard user of pencils and grid paper, I think this is actually a lot easier and quicker than drawing lines around squares with a pencil. To correct errors, you can just click on one of these shapes and delete it, without any messing around with erasers. Now I’m definitely going to bring back this aspect of the game in my Great River Campaign. At least giving it a trial run. I’ve been told that there isn’t a function like this in Fantasy Grounds, but I’ve never used that myself. Which seems like a shame, since this is something really simple and basic. Though I guess when you do your mapping like this, you might not be bothering with something as fancy as Fantasy Grounds.

The Great River, v0.2

Click to embiggen

This is literally the same river as in my previous diagram, but now made to look like an actual river. It’s composed of maps of actual rivers at different scales, some rotated or mirrored. Green dots are cities, orange dots are trade posts.

Once I overlayed a hex grid in GIMP and set it to correspond to 100 miles for the river delta, I was able to count the actual distances, and it turned out that just by eyeballing, I got amazingly close to the numbers I had drawn up with no references yesterday. The Black River and Western Green River are 200 miles shorter than I had planned, but the length of Eastern Green River and the junctions of the main branches are all only 10 miles off from what I wanted. For reference, the Black River and the Lower River are based on the Mississippi at half-length, so it’s still a really big river.

I’m not quite happy with many of the side branches and will probably bend the Black River more south to make room for a big mountain range between it and the Green River, and maybe turn the Western Green River more southwest, but other than that I am really happy with this for a first attempt.

Mapping a River for pointcrawling

While tinkering further on my Rivercrawl idea, I cam up with this notation to map a huge river network.

First I made a Melan diagram of the main river branches for my river and marked the branches in different colors, which then looks like this.

I then turned the same information into a big table. Below you have a heavily cropped down version to show the principle of how it works. The real thing I made actually has 180 rows over five pages, but most are still completely empty at this point. The principle is basically the same as in Ultraviolet Grasslands, but without the illustrations. I find this easier for river that curves and fans out, compared to the more or less straight trade routes in UVG, and it also allows to make more notes without making a huge unreadable mess. As a tool for GMs to use at the table, I think this plain look isn’t a bad thing.

Getting the whole thing set up was a bit tricky, so here’s how I did it: Since I have only three main branches at any given point of the river, I made a table with seven columns. I think you could also do it with four branches and fit nine columns on one page, but more than that probably makes the thing more a nuisance to read than a help. I found that my river has seven different combinations of parallel running branches, so I made the table with seven rows as well. At this point you first set the column widths that you want, because this will be a total bitch if you try adjusting those later. After that you merge cells together as the river branches fork and meet, which in my case looked like this.

At this point, you can simple select and row and use “add rows below” or whatever your program calls it, and you should get an identical row to the one that you had selected. Then add mile markers to the leftmost row, and you’re done.

Now to the new neat feature that I actually came up with myself. The River Ratings. Each river section row has a little field on the left side that quickly shows the GM the water conditions the players are moving into. It’s fairly self-explaining when you look at the legend above. The letter says what size categories of ships can enter that section of the river. In case of my emerging setting, it’s galley size, junk size, dhow size, and canoe size. Ships larger than that will get stuck on the bottom of the river. (The width of the river or any obstacles in the water are not considered as a separate factor for the sake of convenience. Either your ship can continue on, or it gets stuck on something.) The number indicates the speed of the current. This number is added to your ship’s speed when you travel downriver, and subtracted when you travel upriver. If the speed of the current reduces your speed below 1 mile per hour, you can’t continue by water. I had been thinking to mark the type of terrain on the riverbanks as well to calculate overland speed, but that would mess the readability of this format with too much clutter. For the setting I want to make, it’s going to be “dense forest” pretty much everywhere anyway. I did a bit of looking around for average speeds of the boat types I listed, and the numbers I went with seem to be quite realistic. They are actually leaning to the lower end, as I suspect the original numbers were based on strong ocean breezes, so it would be slower further inland.

My plan for the campaign is that there is an adventuring season of 8 month, which is then interrupted by a flood season of 4 month, where the water speed is simply too much along the whole river to get upstream. I think it would be cool to make a roll at the start of each new adventuring season to see if water levels are exceptionally high or low this year. A high river increases the size rating for the whole river by one, while a year of low water levels reduces it by one. The players might find that the expedition they had planned either needs to be canceled or attempted with a much smaller boat as the river conditions make reaching the destination in a junk or dhow impossible. You could also have a randomly determined special event that changes the water level or speed halfway through the season, which can lead to very inconvenient complications hundreds of miles away from civilization.