Dungeon Dad: Map Quest

Making maps with geek kids

Written by John Barrie

mapWhenever I am starting a new campaign world, I have to begin with the maps.

I’ve known people who write epic stories, and then build the land to suit the tales in their head, but I’m just not wired that way.  I also know people who use adventures that come out of a box—and that’s fine—but again, not me.  I am certainly willing to cherry-pick the genius minds of people like Ed Greenwood or Keith Baker when designing.  But actually basing a game in their world?  To me it feels the same as if I were a player and somebody handed me a pre-made character sheet.  It might be fine for a one-shot, but if I’m going to campaign I want a hand in the creation process.

For the last several years, Thorosa was my world of choice.  I designed it to escape from Eratos, a place where I’d set adventures since the beginning of high school, and it’s been good to me.  I managed to avoid all the pitfalls of my teenage fantasy world, and let the characters tell their own stories without relying too heavily on the deus ex machina of heavily involved NPC gods.  I worked hard to clean up my shoddy continuity problems.  (Seriously, I was as bad at keeping the story straight as the X-Men movies.)  Thorosa is a great place, and I expect to see many more adventures occur there before it retires.


So I’m a teenager infatuated with Wolverine now?

That being said, I’m off to—or drawing, as the case may be—greener pastures.  A little place called The Five Kingdoms.  After years of trying to get things together, I am preparing to embark on a dungeon delve with the most enthusiastic adventurers I’ve ever met.  My children, ages ten and eleven.  Elijah has been studying my D&D books (3.5, thankyouverymuch) since he was old enough to read.  He has been fluctuating between a psion and a samurai, this week at least.  Whatever he ends up playing, he’ll find a way to min-max it.   Trysta wants to be a druid with a wolf, savage but beautiful.  These characters could have existed in Thorosa, sure, but I want to do it right.

I had lists of political intrigues several pages long—for single cities.  Dragons existed only on the fringes of the world, and wizards were more feared for their powers in parliament than for the size of their fireballs.  What led to intricate role-playing among a group of experienced gamers sounds like a cure for sleeping disorders when I contemplate presenting Dungeons and Dragons to my kids.  I want them to experience the Dungeons and Dragons I first met as a child, that place of oversized fantasy that even Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films can’t begin to match.

I’ve drawn a circle of islands in the bottom right corner of the map, the kingdom of Vith.  There are no geographical features drawn yet save for the islands themselves, and no notes on my paper about what should be there, but I knew as I traced the curves of the shoreline that this is where evil pirates will do battle against mermaids with pure hearts.  I have drawn an oddly shaped continent, not unlike a chicken leg, and as it came into being I realized that this is where they would find temples that had fallen to ruin, filled with dangers directly out of Indiana Jones.  The tiny island to the north of the Elven kingdom of Puravest seems like a perfect place to bastardize the plot of “The Elf Queen of Shannara,” since the kids have yet to get into Terry Brooks.

I knew I wanted big fantasy, but the very act of drawing the land masses, of putting branches on the tiny little trees and deciding where to put the compass symbol; these physical actions fuel my brain to create the world my children deserve.  I could have just gone all alternate-universe Thorosa and scaled back the politics in favor of the type of world I am describing, but I want a world the kids can truly call their own.  (A Terabithia of sorts?)

Besides, drawing maps is the best part.

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