Writers of fantasy and science fiction books have special needs. Not only do we have characters to create from scratch, like every novelist, but we have entire worlds to build — not just the verisimilitude of the historical past, but entire planets, spacecraft, or fantastic realms. Our desks are littered with bad sketches of landscapes, terrible character portraits, and far too many scraps of idiosyncratic cosmogenesis.
You know who else has these problems? Dungeon masters.
The world of Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent games created a need for game masters, those referees who control the world of their game for their players, to make maps, create character cards, and so forth. Not surprisingly, there's an ecosystem of software to support this.
A couple of months ago, I invested in most of the software modules from ProFantasy and started playing around. I needed to design a complete secondary world for a new series, The Chained Adept, and it wasn't going to be modeled on Earth at the geology level (although I planned to keep the flora & fauna so that the readers wouldn't need to master an entire ecosystem of vocabulary).
I started by designing a planet, using Fractal Terrains 3. By providing a handful of parameters and tinkering with the results, you can create an infinite number of alien planets.
This is an entire planet. As a series, I expect my hero to get around quite a bit of it. For book 1, the action would take place in the large southern continent. First thing I would have to do is divide it into nations, complete with disputed territory.
This book is being written without a detailed travel outline. Rather than create a world that matched exactly how I wanted the story to go, I created a story to fit the built (and now immutable) world. Qitali would be a nation of grasslands and the largest river in the world, with its immense southern harbor. It would be bordered by a rift valley to the east, leading to a depression with access to a harbor fronting the great northern bay. Disputed territory would include a potential harbor in the western seas, giving the aggressive nation a unique potential to profit from worldwide trade. The nation to the west, Rasesni, would be scant of lowlands and hungry to regain the sheltered plains to its east.
By looking at the geophysical situations and advantages/disadvantages of these nations, I could imagine their character, what would drive them economically and culturally. Land is destiny, at least in part, and I let that influence the book as much as possible.
Of course, one problem is giving everything a name. I started to pepper the map with numbered spots relating to a key, and then coming up with just-in-time names as references occurred in the plot. Different nations have different languages, and while some names were descriptive in a common tongue (English), most were in languages appropriate to their culture (or the culture of the people who originally settled them, if no longer present).
Military decisions need to be influenced by the location of borders. Economies are influenced by river trade. Mountain passes are important. It's much easier working against an actual map instead of generating content that strives for verisimilitude in a vacuum.
Other software modules from ProFantasy will allow me to sketch out smaller regions based upon the overall world here defined. For example, if I want to zero in on the actual route taken during the story and produce a high-quality map for inclusion in my books, I can import this planet to a different module, extract the bit I want, and then produce something much more maplike. (The above images are just quick-and-dirty annotations for reference while I'm writing.)
I can also map down to the city and, yes, the dungeon level with other modules. For my series, The Affinities of Magic, which is based in an empire's capital city, I will probably produce at least a high-level city map, with detail around the relevant neighborhoods.
Part 2 is here.