Friday, 3 May 2013

Fin de Siecle Maps of Britain and Outdoor Adventuring; Or, Yet Another Post About Wilderness Maps

I can't remember how I came across this (it may have been through somebody on Google+ - has there ever been a more serendipitous age than the one we live in?), but the National Library of Scotland has a website where you can overlay a Google map of the UK (and Belgium for some reason) with a collection of old maps spanning roughly 1750 - 1950. As well as old fashioned Ordinance Survey type generalist maps, there are also maps showing rainfall levels, locations of coal fields, geology, and railway lines. You can even fade the overlay to compare and contrast the old with the current. It's my new favourite toy.

As you may have guessed if you've been reading this blog, maps are a bit of an obsession of mine. More particularly, thinking about the use of maps in RPGs is a bit of an obsession of mine - certainly in recent months. Indeed, I'm sort of coming around to the view that 95% of the reason why I am in this hobby is that it gives me some justification for drawing, thinking about, or just gazing blankly at, various types of cartography.

We humans are signally pathetic at finding ways to emulate the sheer complexity of the geography around us. If you sat me down with a paper and pencil I could come up with an interesting looking map, I'm sure, but it wouldn't come close to matching this:

Or this:

Or this:

Let alone this:

The world out there is vast and unfathomable; there is a richness out there in its landscape alone which is impossible for us to emulate. 

I use real world maps quite a bit in my games, by simply taking the contours of the land and changing names, climate, and so on. But this tool is something else; I may never both creating another hexmap ever again. Why would you when you can print out something as beautiful, useful and interesting as these?


  1. Cool. My problem is that even if I use real maps because my maps tend to mediocrity, if I change the names they tend to mediocrity, too.

    Tree o' the House, Old Law, Guzzard, Wide Open-- None of these would have occurred to me as place names and they are so wonderful.

    1. I know what you mean. People in olden times had a genius for place names. Although there is an easy way round it - stealing real-world obscure place names. Looking at a road atlas you can find some absolute solid gold in terms of place names. (My all time favourite place name is a small village in East Anglia where my cousin lives, called "Fingering Ho!" And yes, the exclamation mark is officially part of the name.)

    2. Ha! I was going to comment on how beautiful the names were also. I like that Holy Island has a peninsular called the The Snook. Fingering Ho! is the best place name ever and it is a shame that place is not the capital of the world.

    3. There's somewhere else in the West Country called "Westward Ho!", I believe.

      I like Tree o' the House, because it doesn't quite make sense, but sounds really evocative. Wide Open is a great name; I do know another Wide Open here in the North East of England, so it must have been fairly common at one time. The North East is blessed with particularly good place names though. Favourites of mine are Brockley Whins, Byker, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Amble, and Seahouses.

    4. Another way to come up with place names in the pseudo-European dribble style popular in fantasy is to take a two word name and look both words in an Etymology Dictionary ( for example), and then pick a neat sounding related word for each of your two words, and combine them into one word. Here's a couple I just made up:

      Giant Hole : Gigas Kel : Gigaskel
      Northern Lights: Shamal Luci : Shamaluci
      Little Village: Lyt Villa: Lytilla

      Another way to use the Etymology Dictionary is to come up with a list of around 100 cool sounding words, and combine two at random, which is something I did for a lot of place names in my campaign:

      arku ("bow and arrow") blau ("blue") : Arklau
      airiz ("early") augo ("eye") : Airigo

      It's probably best if you want to go down that route to make two lists, one of verbs and adjectives, and one of nouns.

      The English version can also give you some hints as to what the location is like; for example:

      Arklau is mostly painted blue, and has a really talented Fletcher.
      Airigo has a shrine to an ancient seer.

    5. Your method is sound. I can't handle random syllables unrelated to anything. Tolkien has spoiled me. Though there is the neuroaesthetic concept of ideational mimetics which postulates that there are correlations between sounds and meaning.

      Etymological dictionaries are great.

    6. It's a cool idea.

      I agree that a proper constructed language is the only way to get really genuine sounding words. Failing that, pillaging the real world in some way, as TomP suggests, is the only way forward.

    7. The Atlas of True Names is a series of maps with the place names replaced by what are supposedly their English meanings. It gives a very Middle Earth feel.

    8. "Fingering Ho!" is actually Fingringhoe, sorry. I'm unlucky enough to live near there. But Westward Ho! is real; it's where Kipling went to school.

  2. Unless you're Jack Vance -- in which case you can seemingly do it at will.

  3. It'd be great for gaming if you could find maps that kept the details but removed all the place names.

  4. I like taking a map, inverting the land and sea, and trying to see if anyone notices.