Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Crafting Plausible Maps (2015) (mythcreants.com)
285 points by fanf2 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

If you're making a fantasy world (which is not a past or future Earth in disguise), you don't have to stick to plate tectonics and volcanism as they exist on Earth. Geology varies a lot between planets, even in our solar system!

That's without even going into whatever makes your world "fantasy". Un-Earthly geology could be plot relevant (The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin). Or it could be a bit of colorful background that's still scientifically valid. Maybe you live on a tidally locked moon, or a geologically dead world with a cold core, or an ocean world with an ice crust (not of water necessarily). Maybe the locally important geological phenomena come not from inside the planet (plates, volcanoes) but outside (asteroids, meteors). Maybe your planet's liquid core has currents so strong that islands float around at meters per second and bounce off each other.

Fantasy only needs to be consistent with yourself - not with our Earth. Otherwise where's the fun in worldbuilding?

Relevant article from the same site: https://mythcreants.com/blog/should-your-fantasy-world-resem...

> Otherwise where's the fun in worldbuilding.

I think it's only fun if you operate within constraints. Choosing Earth-geology is a pretty reasonable constraint that allows you to more quickly get on to other aspects of worldbuilding (the ones that most fantasy worldbuilding focuses on anyways). What you are describing sounds more like science fiction worldbuilding! Plenty of room for overlap and deviation, of course.

I don't see a reason why playing with geology in particular should be restricted to science fiction and not fantasy.

Authors often build geologically inconsistent worlds. The article has suggestions for fixing that by changing the geology to match Earth, but that will force the climate etc. to match Earth too. I think if an author wants to build a world with a geology different from Earth that's not a bad thing - they should just notice this and make sure it's consistent and has an explanation for being the way it is.

Consistency is a constraint. Authors have unwritten contracts with their readers. You cannot destroy the readers immersion with the story with something that doesn't fit (readers will get mad and throw the book down). You cannot spend so much time explaining things that there is no action (this makes for a boring story that is never read).

A formula romance cannot solve the problem of a long standing antagonist by having the hero grab a magic wand from nowhere and kill him - readers of romance generally assume a very earth like world because the story is about the romance and changing the world to add and explain magic is a distraction. So the standard course of action is for the hero to use a gun - guns already exist and so very little explanation needs to be spent on where the hero gets the gun before the story goes back to the romantic parts the reader is interested in. That isn't to say the hero cannot use a magic wand in a romance story, but magic needs to be introduced by page 2 at the latest - and some readers will decide that they don't want to read your book because magic is involved.

Note that non-fiction doesn't have that constraint. I can introduce the magic wand used to kill right at the moment in history where the magic wand was used. Readers will go "what", and do some double checking and discover that a magic wand was actually used (more likely the research will discover that nobody knows what was really used, but it looked to observers like a magic wand so that is what everyone says), then you will go back to my story satisfied that it really happened that way despite being unbelievable.

More to the point, a speculative fiction (i.e. sf/fantasy/horror) should not needlessly multiply entities. If your story is about geology, or needs a particular geological arrangement to explain things, then by all means mention it. But if your story can use known plate tectonics, or takes place in an Earth-analog environment where the geography you want already exists, you don't need to explain it and you shouldn't bother doing so.

(There are probably exceptions. Douglas Adams could make a lengthy digression on geology interesting, amusing, and then call back to it half a book later in order to be side-splittingly funny.)

Adams' books (and, as far as I can tell, his life) tended to be almost entirely lengthy digressions--they're practically his raison d'être. There's an anecdote in The Salmon of Doubt from his publishing editor:

> There was a scene early in one book where he talked about some plates with, very definitely, one banana on each. This was obviously significant, so I asked him to explain. But he liked to tease his audience and said he'd tell me later. We eventually got to the end of the book and I asked him again, 'Okay, Douglas, what's with the bananas?' He looked at me completely blankly. He had forgotten all about the bananas. I still ask occasionally ask him if he has remembered yet, but apparently he hasn't.

I don't think sf / fantasy / horror genres are strongly related to "speculative fiction". Speculative means "based on conjecture", and conjecture means "formed on the basis of incomplete information".

Incomplete information isn't what I think is at the heart of fantasy, and usually isn't what I think is at the heart of SF either. SF is usually a story about an idea rather than a character; it's not speculation. Fantasy is usually a heightened, exaggerated world - a world with the saturation and contrast turned right up; again, not speculation.

Speculative fiction I'd place in a niche area of hard SF that is more concerned with futurism than ideas per se. That is, it's interested in predicting how today turns out with some reasonable technological advance and specifically how the world deals with that advance, whether on a global level or via a character study.

As to needlessly multiplying entities, I agree, with caveats. It's related to Chekhov's gun: don't introduce elements that don't matter (and similarly, if you rely on something later on, ensure it's foreshadowed rather than parachuted in as a deus ex machina). OTOH, a close adherence to Chekhov's gun can make stories very predictable, for people who pay lots of attention to plots. And other people come for prose style, and still others for world-building; neither of which are overly concerned with omitting details.

Sorry, as a term of art, "speculative fiction" is pretty well established as the conglomeration of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related fiction like fairy tales and superheroes.

No more than Indians would be a term of art for native Americans.

I'm sorry, but on this matter you are making a completely inapt comparison.

The usage by modern fans and critics: http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/speculative_fiction

I also refer you to all of the review series done by James Nicoll using the term as I described - http://jamesdavisnicoll.com/

There are also 34 references for you to follow in this Wikipedia article.


Sure, but your world will be deeper if you give it a strong sense of causality —or so I think. Un-Earthly geology, sure. Make sure however the layout of your map appears to be mostly a consequence of that geology. (Maybe you meant something similar with "consistent with yourself"?)

Unless throwing causality out the window was the goal all along, of course.

In support of your self-consistency point, the Bean World graphic novels have a well thought out and very interesting physical world that's nothing like real life.


If you want to actually create you own fictional map you can checkout what I consider my favourite geospatial project of all time: OpenGeoFiction http://opengeofiction.net/

Imagine an OpenStreetMap (it actually uses the same stack) where you can create your own fictional land - and where you can potentially interact with other people's creations too.

From their FAQ: " OpenGeofiction (OGF) is based on the OpenStreetMap software platform, which means that all map editors and other tools suitable for OpenStreetMap can be used to build OGF's fictional world. This world is set in modern times, so it doesn't have orcs or elves, but rather power plants, motorways and housing projects. But also picturesque old towns, beautiful national parks and lonely beaches.

Different users view OGF in different ways. For some, it's an exciting creative adventure, a challenging construction puzzle, or an epic tapestry of interwoven stories. For others, it's a relaxing meditation, an immersion in imagination, or perhaps the largest piece of artwork ever created — equal in size to the Earth itself. "

edits - It's not that immediately easy to find the good mapping - http://opengeofiction.net/#map=11/36.4055/119.2868 or http://opengeofiction.net/#map=15/1.6975/42.5115 is one example, and I find http://opengeofiction.net/history could be useful to see where people are working on.


This makes me wonder: has anyone tried using machine learning to generate satellite views of a fictional map like this? It seems like something that could be done -- because we have both the ground truth satellite data from Earth, and also a good representation of Earth's roads/map data from OSM, one should be able to infer, given an input OSM map (and some other data like lat/lon or proximity to coastlines), what a plausible satellite image would look like for that map.

Gosh that sounds a wonderful ML idea!

Not a similar project, but also on the geodata front, someone converted and georeferenced the canon maps for the Pathfinder campaign setting into Shapefiles and KML: http://dungeonetics.com/golarion-geography/index.html

And someone else used that data with Leaflet to make a tiled map and a globe: http://oznogon.com/golarion-tile/#6/35.642/0.000

> Humans (especially pre-industrial, agricultural humans) like to settle near rivers.

Apropos of nothing, back during the rush to build the transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific thought Cheyenne would become the new hub of the west and Denver would turn into a ghost town. But a quick look at a map shows the abundance of rivers and waterways flowing through Denver while Cheyenne has just a small river flowing through. Not even a railroad was enough to overcome the lack of resources around Cheyenne.

The governor of Colorado and Denver businessmen, including David Moffat, were worried that their city would be eclipsed by Cheyenne, and their own neighbor, the City of Golden, so they raised money to build the 'Denver Pacific' railroad between Cheyenne and Denver. Around the same time, 'Kansas Pacific' built a railroad from Kansas City to Denver, and Denver became a railroad junction in August 1870. Union Pacific's bridge between Council Bluffs and Omaha wasn't completed until March 1872, requiring a ferry trip across the Missouri that was a widely-recognized annoyance [1].

This railroading victory revitalized Denver at a very opportune time.

Moffat continued to dedicate his fortunes on continuing a railway directly west across the Rockies from Denver. He died in 1911 with his railroad companies largely bankrupt and incomplete, but in 1928 one of the successor companies opened the Moffat Tunnel, named in his memory, along the right-of-way he laid out. Now, the route from Denver west to Nevada is owned by Union Pacific, despite having been built by competitors to UP's (and CP's) route through Nevada-Ogden-Wyoming.

[1] http://www.cprr.org/Museum/Reports/pictures/capture_00309.ht...

Fun read. This reminds me of Rich Burlew's (of Order Of The Stick) series of articles on designing fantasy worlds: http://www.giantitp.com/articles/xO3dVM8EDKJPlKxmVoG.html

> And the fractal pattern of rivers is directional: rivers will always merge as they flow toward the coast, never split.

Interestingly, it is possible for rivers to split, sort of. Rivers naturally meander, and it is possible for two adjacent rivers to meander such that they intersect each other. Most of the combined flow will end up along the steeper path, true, but that doesn't mean the shallower path will dry up completely. For a real-world example, this is basically the catastrophe that Louisiana's Old River Control Structure has been staving off for decades.

Rivers can totally form large deltas (dozens, maybe a hundred miles wide for the largest) where the main path of the river is unclear. The Amazon, the Nile, the Rhine, and, of course, the Brahmaputra-Ganges.

Outside of deltas, it is possible, although very rare, for rivers to connect to each other and be able to transfer flow bidirectionally. The Casiquiare Canal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casiquiare_canal) is the largest such example (despite its name, it is a natural river, not man-made). It causes part of the Orinoco River to flow into the Rio Negro and thence the Amazon.

To the author's credit, I did omit a footnote that called out deltas as exceptions. But yes, such clear-cut exceptions to the rule are both quite rare and make for fascinating geography--which incidentally make them perfect for fantasy maps! :) What is Middle-Earth without the Lonely Mountain, after all?

If you like this, you'll love https://reddit.com/r/worldbuilding

https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/ is also a great community, with great discussions. Part science, part fantasy. People tedn to post long fun answers that remind me of XKCD's What If? series.

Similar, and also mightily related to the OP: /r/youfuckeduptherivers [1] has a ton of resources specifically for creating realistic rivers, mountains, settlements, etc.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/youfuckeduptherivers/

If you're interested in fantasy maps, I'd recommend https://watabou.itch.io/medieval-fantasy-city-generator as an interesting tool.

Also, if you're into tabletop RPGs, I'm going to give a shout out to my own blog - https://wail.es/

Dwarf Fortress seems to do a really good job at creating plausible fantasy maps. Mountains are created as blobs near the edges of a continent, without 90° directional changes. Rivers flow from mountain ranges to basins. Vegetation is dependent on the overall climate of a region. Settlements are created according to race-specific traits (dwarfs in the mountains, humans at rivers, elves in forests). Volcanoes are an exception, as the seem to be randomly dotted all over the map.

All in all, Zach, the Dwarf Fortress creator seems to have put some thought into the (game-wise) mundane task of world-creation.

Tarn Adams has a pretty interesting talk about procedural myth generation (starts at about 9:00): http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023372/Practices-in-Procedural

I find it funny how "fantasy" is so templated. There's a right and wrong way to make a "fantasy" map. In honesty, I want to explore the bad example at the bottom of the page. I want to know what created those very rigid and artificial looking landforms! The "good" example looks like a generic island.

Some (more than a few) years ago I was in the position of reading slush for Tor books. This was back in the day when it was all mailed in on paper. Unsurprisingly, many of the fantasy submissions came with the author's own, generally hand-drawn, map. They varied quite a bit in terms of quality, but were generally recognizable as being in the tradition of what was usually printed in fantasy novels. ("Land of the pointy mountains"). Since they were sometimes disposable copies, I took to keeping the maps in a binder. For all I know, it's still there.

Here's a Twitter account that generates interesting procedural maps: https://twitter.com/unchartedatlas

That is amazing. Also now I've learned about NaNoGenMo.

"Here Dragons Abound"[0] is another interesting take on this topic. The guy's been working for about a year now to beef up Martin O'Leary's work[1]. Fascinating read through if you start at the first post.

[0] https://heredragonsabound.blogspot.com

[1] http://mewo2.com/notes/terrain/

There used to be software called Mojoworld that would allow you to do this, using scientific modeling of various things (geology, botany, climate stuff, etc.) to make the generation realistic:


It hasn't existed for a long time, which is sad. Anyone know good (or even not so good) alternatives?

The single best resource for fantasy cartographers is the Cartographer's Guild forum. https://cartographersguild.com

Mark Rosenfelder's site is an amazing rabbithole of world-building. http://www.zompist.com/howto2.htm http://www.zompist.com/virtuver.htm He's also written The Language Construction Kit and The Planet Construction Kit.

There's some great Google Plus communities around fantasy cartography, like Map-Making in Games https://plus.google.com/communities/105897774940532146183

> Most mountains are the children of lusty continental plates, birthed from scandalous collisions between landmasses too attracted to each other for their own good.

I laughed. That was a fun read.

The reasoning on this guy's website is often pretty fascinating: http://www.worlddreambank.org/P/PLANETS.HTM -- these are entire fantasy planets. For a warm-up exercise, he started out by tilting the Earth in different ways and working out how that would affect climate and biomes.

Reminds me of this great GDC talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVGonAUUQ8c (which is more about plausible game worlds in general).

Also check out Jonathan Roberts, the artist of (among other fantasy maps) the official map folio for the Lands of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.

His blog is full of both granular and general advice: http://www.fantasticmaps.com/

And his article in the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding is my go-to reference for using cartography as a worldbuilding device: https://www.amazon.com/Kobold-Guide-Worldbuilding-Wolfgang-B...

Oshkosh was built because of the lumber industry (they would fill up Lake Winnebago, which has access to Lake Michigan via the Fox River). I think cities scale to the number of natural resources near them, and synergies as well.

This reminds me of the odd property that bends in a river are separated by about 6 times the width of a river. And this seems to happen pretty often in nature.


Way back in school they'd issue this in the form of a question to undergrads just to see how they'd model it / try and answer. I'm not sure if it's understood why the number is '6'

An ADnD 3.5 world (or its lusty +7 tectonic plates) should attempt to ascend independently of life on it. Developmental SEMATEMS-oriented maps should emphasize multithreaded geocrust processes focused on quarterly/annual reporting that makes sense to owners of spherical viewing apparatus, and that makes rewards in a twisty maze of lunch spots (subject to crafting schema.)

I wish I could take all that advice back in time and give it to JRR Tolkien. I have lost count of the number of times I have looked at a map of Middle-Earth and thought, "mountains don't do that".

Tolkien made a comment about that in one of his letters, admitting that the map was designed mostly for story purposes and regretting that he didn't research more realistic geology and such.

On the other hand, with how much trouble Tolkien had in general with finishing projects, if we waited for him to learn geology too, who knows if we would have gotten any books at all...

I just have to assume there are sinister magicks that make mountain ranges at, uh, right angles. http://www.tor.com/2017/08/01/tolkiens-map-and-the-messed-up...

One could draw a few lines at right angles on this map as well http://bogost.com/middle-earth.jpg

Amusingly that map places Weathertop fairly close to the Tap O'Noth which is ancient hilltop fortress where the stonework was vitrified (i.e. melted, apparently on purpose).

When I was a teenager reading LotR I always imagined that Weathertop was like the Tap O'Noth - it is quite a distinctly shaped hill (having a dirty great ancient fortress on top) and can be seen from a long way away.

That can be explained in a fantasy setting though. Arbitrary shapes of mountains can be attributed to ancient magic. Ancient elves and wizards might have been terraforming the geography for some reasons related to history of Middle-Earth.

The weird unnatural mountains around Sauron's area of the map might have been built by him using spells to create a "natural" protective wall from elves so he has enough time to forge the ring in secret.

If I remember correctly from the books (correct me if I am wrong), there is even a mention in the book about Misty Mountains being "built" by some ancient powerful beings (so that would explain ridiculous geology).

The Wall in Game of Thrones is also not natural, it was build using magic an is held together by the same spell that created it.

A great deal of the land west of the Misty Mountains was old Beleriand, which was the major battlefield of the War of Wrath between the Valar and Melkor (of which Sauron was merely a lieutenant to). As far as Mordor, I believe that the way those mountains are are as old as Time, since Shelob moved there sometime in the First Age after escaping from Ungoliant (her mother)

And don't forget that Middle-Earth was transfomrd from a flat world to a spherical one after the invasion of Valinor by Ar Pharazôn, which may have resulted in some deformation of the surface.

Also weren't there big stone giants living in Misty Mountains (even in the Hobbit movie there was a scene with them I think)? So that could explain a lot of inconsistent geology as stone giants could do a lot of "terraforming" during their battles. Over thousands of years they could have reshaped the original landscape.

I think you mean the Blue Mountains not Misty Mountains right? According to the map in the Silmarillion they were the Eastern border of Beleriand.

Of interest: Kirill Eskov's The Last Ringbearer. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Ringbearer)

A retelling and continuation of parts of LotR, as told by a geologist rather than linguist. See also some of the author's commentary at http://ymarkov.livejournal.com/273409.html detailing some of Tolkien's geological mistakes.

You're in good company with some folks recently discussing this on SE:


All of my fantasy maps start with drawing the Giant Star Turtle

Applications are open for YC Summer 2018

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact