Home Campaign Design Theory
Monday, February 17, 2020
Campaign Design - Map Scale
Fantasy maps are an integral part of most role-playing campaigns, and are often included in most fantasy novels. One question that always seems to loom large is that of the scale of the map. To a certain extent, the scale of your map should determine the potential scope of your campaign. The scale of your map will also give a sense of how diverse and varied the terrain and cultures can be.
For example, suppose that you wanted to create a fantasy version of Britain for a setting inspired by the myths of King Arthur. A map 600 miles wide and 600 miles tall would contain pretty much all of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, so if you made your fantasy map that size, then you could easily make a fantasy world that would encompass what you would need. At that scale you have room for several nations - Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England in the modern period, while before the Norman conquest in 1066, the islands were divided into as many as a dozen or more. You also have room for multiple languages - in addition to a fantasy version of English, you can have fantasy Welsh, a couple versions of Gaelic, and Danish. The terrain has fields, hills, valleys, mountains, fens, and forests for characters to explore. There are limitations though. There are only a handful of cultures that could credibly exist in a space of this scale. The range of terrain is varied, but it isn't infinite. There isn't really room for deserts or vast open plains. There are rivers, but most of the rivers are relatively modest in size, especially when compared to the large rivers found in the United States. There's also not a lot of sea - the islands would occupy most of the map.
Suppose you wanted to expand your fantasy King Arthur setting to encompass the entire North Sea. If you had a map that was 1,000 miles wide and 900 miles north to south, you would not only get the British Isles and the North Sea, but all of Denmark, most of Norway, and some of Sweden. You'd also be able to have the bulk of Iceland on the map, as well as large portions of France and Germany. This substantially expands the range of elements one could include in a campaign, adding not only pretty much all of Scandinavia, but France and the low countries as well as large chunks of the Holy Roman Empire. This substantially expands the range of languages spoken and also adds some relatively varied national cultures. It doesn't add a whole lot of new variety in terrain - there are still no deserts for example. You could plausibly have some - after all, Spain lies just south of the range of this map and it is "hot and dry" (as described by Gérard Depardieu in The Return of Martin Guerre).
If most of northern Europe isn't big enough for your conceived world, then perhaps a map that covers all of Europe would be. A map that was 2,500 miles by 2,500 miles would cover pretty much all of Europe from Murmansk in the north of Russia and Lisbon in Portugal to Aleppo in Syria. Your map would cover everything from Iceland in the northwest to Turkey in the southeast, and from the Barents Sea in the northeast to the Iberian peninsula in the southwest. This sort of map gives lots of room for a wide variety of pretty much every element of a setting, from languages to cultures to terrain. One might find that such an expansive area is its own difficulty - detailing every part of such a huge map would be an enormous task, so large portions of it will likely be only vaguely defined at best. This does offer the freedom of adding stuff as you need it, so that's not necessarily a problem. On the other hand, if you are the kind of world-builder who needs everything laid out in full it could be bothersome.
A large map doesn't have to focus on Europe. If you wanted to create a version of fantasy China, then a map that was 3,000 miles wide and 2,200 miles north to south would cover the entirety of modern China. It would also capture all of Mongolia and Nepal, most of Korea, and a large portion of India as well as a lot of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand and smaller portions of a couple other countries. This map actually has noticeably more square mileage than the Europe map - sometimes I think that people fail to realize just how big China actually is - so there is a lot of room for variety, even if you stick with China as your fantasy model. Also, China is much more diverse than a lot of non-Chinese people seem to realize, so there is that as well. Once again, the very scale of this map makes detailing everything a monumental task, which can be good or bad depending upon your personal perspective.
One might want to make a campaign based upon Greek mythology, in which case, creating a fantasy version of the Mediterranean Sea would be a reasonable choice. In that case, you would want a map that was 2,400 miles east to west and 1,200 miles north to south. This captures all of the Mediterranean and all of the bordering lands, including all of the North African coastline, plus pretty much all of the Black Sea. In this case, having large areas of the map that are only imprecisely outlined is probably thematic, given that the ancient Greeks often had only a hazy idea of what existed in the far reaches of the region.
Going back to the fantasy King Artur idea, if you wanted a smaller map, you could focus your map so that your land area was only the size of Ireland. In that case, a map that was 300 miles wide by by 200 miles high would be sufficient. At this level, you can pretty much detail almost all aspects of what is on the map. The drawback is that there isn't really a whole lot of room for variety. Ireland was, at one point, divided into four kingdoms, but it pretty much has a single overarching culture and only a single native language. The terrain isn't completely homogeneous, but it is uniformly wet in nature, with bogs, forests, and hilly grasslands dominating the island. This doesn't mean that the stories set in such an area would be limited - Irish myth is a rich field to plunder - but it does mean that everywhere you go will have a lot of commonality.
The choice for the scale of your fantasy map is a decision that will affect how large and varied the elements of your setting will be. The right scale will serve to elevate and enhance your setting. Ultimately, deciding what the scale is will determine the scope of the setting. The point here isn't to advocate for a particular scale, but rather to give an idea of how big your map is at certain points by comparing them to real world examples. If you want to run a fantasy King Arthur campaign, creating a map the size of China is probably overkill. If you want to run a fantasy version of the Crusades, then a map the size of Ireland is probably too small. My advice here amounts to this: When you start making your fantasy map, figure out what sort of setting you want, and pick a scale that works with that setting.
Home Campaign Design Theory
Home Campaign Design Theory