On worldbuilding, first steps

(crossposted to my gaming blog)

One of the peeves I keep as a pet is the frustration of world building. Over and over I see capitals and cities and such placed in locations that make no sense beyond “Isn’t this a neat spot.” Or worse, because it’s in the center. So I’m going to scratch the surface of world-building. Today: population centers.

Population centers developed because there was a reason to be there. The most common reason for this is trade. This is why just about every major city in the world in the 19th century or earlier was a port – either river or ocean.

I cannot tell you how often I see, and get annoyed by, rivers without cities and cities in the middle of nowhere with a river a couple days travel away.

Now there’s an interesting case on rivers that’s worth also noting, and that’s the ‘portage’ cities. Rivers have hazard zones – rapids and falls. If the water both above and below that hazard is navigable for any length by what’s considered ‘typical’ river transport then a village or perhaps a city will develop there. Provided, that is, the break is only a mile or two in length. Because distance matters.

We’re back to trade. Let’s go back to our ports. Now you’re going to draw a path from one to another that are not on the same coast or river. There are two rules.

1) The course is the easiest path.
2) Each segment should be one day’s travel. At that segment end make an evaluation as to what’s there.

One of the really annoying traits I see in fantasy maps (and to be honest think it’s a flaw in science fiction as well) is that roads are straight. They shouldn’t be, not between villages and towns and cities. They follow the easiest path – the one with the fewest and gentlest climbs, the one that has the best landmarks to avoid getting lost.

Will other, faster paths develop? Yes, but later. They’ll be put in for both trade and war, often because getting from point A to point E can be done in 3 days instead of 5 if a straight line is followed (and yes it means some of the older points whither). But as a rule they’re not going to get used by traders. Because traders don’t want to be caught outside.

So unless we’re on flat plains the road wiggles and curves such that the distance traveled is anywhere from half to 3/4 the straight-line crow’s-flight distance. And distance…

Distance is how far the traders can get in one day. Somewhere near that point an enterprising person will put a station – an inn, a feed store, a place for last minute “crap I forgot” items. Food suppliers will gradually gather round because there’s a market. Likewise suppliers of goods for those food suppliers.


Sometimes the land just won’t support all those people. Or they can’t be protected from the dangers – both natural and man-made. Sometimes it’s just too far from the major city.

But we’ve got enough now to start drawing our maps. So let’s play a little.

Draw a wobbly line down one side of a sheet of paper. I’m going to recommend using hex or graph paper unless you just like calipers or a ruler but for our first run any paper will do. This wobbly line is the coast.

Pick eight spots on the wobbly line and mark them. These are harbors – natural places for boats to come to shore and be a bit protected from the full force of the ocean.

Draw two ‘rivers’ from somewhere on the non-coast side of the paper to a harbor – each to a different non-adjacent. On one river put a mark about 1/3 of the way up. On another make one about 2/3 of the way up. These are riverports, and we’re going to give each a reason to exist.

At the city closest to the coast we’re going to give one river a second tributary. Run it to just short of the non-coast side, and for this exercise make sure it’s toward one of the other rivers but doesn’t close more than 2/3 the distance.

A second river is going to be a ‘portage’ port. To reflect this, make a mark about an inch long that is roughly perpendicular to the river and which runs through the city mark. This is an escarpment mark so make it plainly different (shading, color, pattern, whatever works for you.

If you later do other cities on rivers there are other reasons to exist did other cities give them a reason as well. In addition to escarpment and crossroad there’s crossing point. If you do this make a mark upriver (and down if you want) that’s at least an inch long that reminds you it is /hard/ to cross the river there. Why is it hard? You can play with it later, but it might be speed or width or rough terrain or a bit of a canyon or, well, that’s for you and your story later. But we’re not doing that for now.

Now we can build several roads here. There’s the coastal road, the one that’s a bit inland of the coast but roughly parallels it. There is a road that parallels each river from seaport to riverport. This exists because while barging downriver is easy, sailing upriver is difficult and often either skipped or uses a tow. And there’s a road that will connect riverports.

Let’s make that last. We’re going to assume for giggles that it takes a day for a trade train to move an inch overland – in a perfect world. We’re going to make that world imperfect.

Let’s start with the port that’s at a river junction. Estimate the point upstream that is closest to the other riverport and make a mark. This is the ideal stopping point, whether wide spot or village to be determined later. There might be terrain reasons not to use it, however.

Now here’s where we enter a little randomness. Take two dice, each different colors. One is ‘distance’ and the other is ‘accuracy’. You’re going to build your road alternating from each end.

For distance it’s high-low. One inch or 3/4 inch. This applies whether following the tributory or cutting across the land.

For accuracy it depends on whether we’re following the tributory or not. If following the river, you will stop once your segment crosses the ‘closest approach’ point (don’t turn there, go through it) OR if you roll doubles with the distance/accuracy dice. For cross country you go straight unless you roll a 1 or a 6. If you do that move your end-point for that segment 1/4 inch toward the coast or inland respectively.

If you’re using graph or hex paper add one more wiggle – your line must go from center to center. 45 degree diagonals are acceptable, ‘jumping’ from center here to center that’s one over and two up is not. Of course if you’re doing this you can ‘explain’ the short by wiggling the line a bit more so it’s always a full inch.

Now as I said you’re going to alternate from each side of this route. And as a result unless you’re terribly lucky you’re going to find the ends don’t meet. No problem, keep going. You’re going to end up with a ‘split’ route as the two routes join twice.

The merge points WILL develop small communities. There will be a reason for two routes – lake, dense forest, rougher hills, etc. And since they grew organically they’ll make sense.

Congratulations, you have a road. You have places for inns and communities. And most important it is NOT a straight line.

Now, there are a lot more roads and reasons and I’ll be covering those in a bit. I’m also going to help ‘organically’ grow nations – though they’re going to tend to be more fantasy than sf. But we’ve got a first road technique for world building and the primary reason cities and villages exist, and I’m getting tired of hearing the sound of my own typing.

So for now, have fun.

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