There are various modes of creating terrain and wilderness for your fantasy game adventuring. They range from non-existent and abstractly planned expanses that are resolved as the game narrative dictates to obsessively planned geopolitical ecosystems that bring a whole world’s history into frame before a single player character is generated. (Tolkien has warped our collective brains.)
I came up with a method of map and region generation to fill in a traditional sandbox style of play where the player choices dictate the important details about the campaign world. I wanted a design choice that was both detailed enough to give me confidence in knowing what was ahead of the players but also a process that was “out of my hands” so the game could develop organically. My solution was a procedural method based loosely on the wonderful region atlases for the Wilderlands Of High Fantasy campaign put out by Judges Guild in the early days of RPGs.
The Judges Guild maps and atlases are great in that they had these big beautiful B&W maps (about a trimmed Arch E size , 48″x36″) of a large region of countryside mapped out in hexes that are five miles across. A perfect scale for a party traipsing through a couple hexes a day. Accompanying the region map is a brief index booklet listing the vital statistics of of the mapped towns, castles, ruins, and lairs of the depicted region but little else in the way of flavor. The result is that the players are free to march and explore as much as they want and the DM has a loose idea about the lay of the land without having to stop play and constantly consult a litany of tables. It has important details like the nature of the occupants of the castle up ahead, but the brevity of the descriptions leads itself to good improvisation. The atlases listed the encounters thusly:
- Citadels & Castles
- Ruins & Relics
- Idyllic Isles
- Lurid Lairs
Oh my god that is awesome. I wonder how Idyllic all those islands really are? Let’s check the Judges Guild Island Book from 1978 that contains the Non-Potable Water table listing. Hmm… Dysentery and Yellow fever are quite possible.
The Island Book is also an example of Judges Guild conveniently publishing the randomized tables that it used to populate its own maps. Everything from the name of a town, to the nature of ruins could be rolled up in the many tables that are spread through the Judges Guild Books. With a little head scratching I found its was really quite easy to make your own random region using the same method. It took a bit of study to look through their collection of maps for the Wilderlands campaign and work out the rough chances of the various encounters across the map size. Each hex had roughly a one in six or a one in eight chance of listing an important feature. A DM with a lot of time on their hands could roll a die for each of their 1842 hexes on the region map but I wrote a half-assed computer script that spat out the randomly determined hex coordinates and the nature of the encounter, adjusting more towards ruins for the wilds and more towards villages on a more civilized map.
So I had the nitty-gritty to populate a hex map with encounters, but I needed to provide the rough terrain that would become the mountains, forests, deserts, and coastlines of my fantastical region.
That is when I pulled out my Crayola watercolors…
(Continued in part 2)