A month of maps – Exile Empire

Sorry for being a day late, folks – I spent yesterday playing D&D with my crew.

And hey, speaking of that, let’s make an incredible obvious segue into tonight’s post! Because rather than rough up another map for a story I’m writing / was writing / should be writing, I’d like to talk about the map I used for my D&D game – an urban Eberron campaign called Exile Empire. It’s been pottering along erratically for more than two years, and the city map I use has been the single biggest influence on the shape of the game. And I think the way I’ve used that map can inform not just gaming but storytelling in all forms.

So put aside your novels, slip on your d20-emblazoned boxer shorts and come check out this here map of Stormreach:

stormreach

A few thoughts:

Oh, so pretty

Now that’s a proper map. It has streets and borders and funny-shaped buildings and everything. Who could help but get inspired by something like this, or this map of Freeport (partially shaped by yours truly) or any number of the gorgeous maps of Middle-Earth out there in the wilds?

There’s certainly value in an attractive map to the reader, but what value is there for the writer? How is this better than my godawful Word scribblings? Well, for one thing it’s actually interesting to look at, and anything that keeps you engaged in your work and your world is a good thing. Another strength is that it’s got genuine detail – you can see a lot more about the flow of movement and the change in local geography from this image, and that makes it easier to reflect in prose. And third, a good map does some of the work of evoking the setting for you. You’d have to read City of Stormreach to realise most of those buildings are overturned boats or hollowed-out giant stone heads, but this map still helps you communicate colour and shape, helps get across the feel of life in a seaside town that occasionally gets menaced by flying jellyfish from a dimension of madness.

Yes, that was a major campaign plotline. It was great.

Come selector 

The joy of a map with all the bits filled in – whether you did all the world building or you bought the city off the shelf – is seeing all the different places and locations spelled out for you, waiting to be used. You have the opportunity to select a story, rather than create one – or, if that’s too strong a statement, to create one using the building blocks that have already been assembled. Your world is rich in stories and potential stories; you can tease out and develop any one that you wish, leaving the rest for another time.

Is that a good way to write stories, though? Opinions will vary. I find it a difficult concept to consider – I want to write the story that explores my world and ideas, rather than just one of a variety of stories. Other writers will disagree, and want to benefit from the richness of a world that can bear multiple narratives. It’s certainly a powerful approach for writing short stories, especially if you’re sharing the sandbox with other writers – as in the old Thieves’ World series, which I also have some experience with. And it’s great for gaming, of course – which often is a lot like writing in a shared world anthology, with some co-writers at the table and others at the other end of whatever sourcebook you’re using.

The tyranny of the interesting bits

The thing about having all those engaging story elements pre-defined for you is that it can blind you to the power (or occasionally the necessity) of creating new elements in the moment. This is something I stumble into a lot in gaming – with so many toys to play with, why go to the trouble of making my own? Well, because those toys might have more direct relevance to the players, or their characters, or the themes I want to explore. And so it was with Stormreach. We had a lot of fun running around the Harbour District getting into fights, or setting fires to various taverns (okay, being in various taverns when they were set on fire), but it was when we went off the map to break a siege in the jungles that the campaign took a turn and several characters went through meaningful changes.

If you’ve put the work into creating a map, or a setting, or a court full of intrigues all before you start writing, that’s great – but don’t feel limited by the things you’ve already done. There’s always room to add a new location, introduce a new character, complicate or eliminate or double down on an existing relationship – and the stuff you make in the moment is at least as interesting to your readers/players as the stuff that was there all along. Maybe even more so.

Movement is story

When the Order of the Emerald Claw attacked Master Aedan in the Temple District, his student Slaine was in Cross, and it wasn’t until she’d come through the Marketplace that she came home to find him bleeding out. When the Storm Hammers opened a dimensional portal in the undercity, the heroes had to track down an entrance in the old Rubble Warren in Greystone. And when a giant fell taint bled lumps of diseased telepathy into the river, the adventurers had to race through a city beset by sickness and madness to hire a skiff, sail upriver and fight the horrible squishy thing.

A defined map has both locations and information about where those locations are in relationship to each other. The best stories are never set entirely within one place – they always involve movement from A to B, and that movement goes through C. The joy of a defined map is the chance to explore the transition between locations as well as the locations themselves – because that movement lets you see the world around the characters and locations, the effects events have on those interstitial spaces, and how they’re changed by the actions of the characters. It’s in that travel from one place to another that story happens and stakes raise for when you reach your destination.

Spin it round

What’s the northernmost location shown on this map? The district of Whitewash at the top? Nope – it’s the Foundry, location number 1 off to the right. That’s because the compass rose down in the bottom corner has north off to the right, while up the page is west.

For whatever cultural or neurological reasons, we always assume the top bit of the map is north, and it’s a disorienting wrench to re-align north to the left or right, and nearly impossible to spin it 180 to the bottom. If you want to disorient your readers, turn your map 90 degrees before it hits the page so that they’re always uncertain about how to translate the words ‘and then they walked six blocks north’ into something visual. However, if you prefer not to give your readers conceptual vertigo, skip the silly buggers and just make north the bit that goes up. It’s easier.

Hope y’all found that excursion into a different kind of map (and purpose for a map) interesting.

‘cos we’re doing it again in a few days, except completely differently.

Comments welcome, as always.

One thought on “A month of maps – Exile Empire

  1. Can’t believe it’s been two years. I still wouldn’t know my way around Stormreach.

    My first intro to maps was the Lord of the Rings when I was a young teenager. But I didn’t even discover there was a map until I finished Fellowship. All of a sudden Middle Earth came alive like a real place. But that map left just enough empty space to keep me interested. For a while after that I chose to read most novels based on whether there was a map.
    It wasn’t until I was older that I realised that it’s sometimes too easy to get bogged down in studying the map, and not actually pay too much attention to the writing. Kind of like reading a travel log.
    I still like looking at maps now, but only so i know where A is in relation to B and C.

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