Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Real Life Maps, Hexcrawling, and Rustic Fantasy Names

This post is sort of a follow-up to this recent one. The excellent comments on that previous post got me thinking about this much older piece, in which I put up a link to this truly beautifully-useful tool - a vast library of old maps that you can overlay onto a georeferenced map of Britain for all kinds of different purposes. You can truly waste days, even weeks, playing with it.

But it has a direct use for gaming. Comments on my "Rustic Fantasy" entry mentioned two chief ways that a DM can convey a certain "realness" (for want of a better term) to players - granularity of scale and names.

Here's proof of that concept, and a great way to create the bare bones for a small scale D&D campaign into the bargain. This is a map of the area around Eals, a tiny hamlet close to the Northumberland/Cumbria border in probably the least-developed part of England. It's an area I know well, because I go hiking around there quite a lot and often rent holiday cottages there and thereabouts. The map is an old Ordnance Survey one from approximately 1900, at a scale of about 1 inch to a mile (the level of zoom I used in my browser might not quite make that absolutely accurate, but it's there or thereabouts). The only thing that has really changed is that there is no longer a railway line - it was victim of "Beeching's Axe" in the 1960s - but you would presumably want to ignore that for a fantasy game anyway (although not necessarily!).



So, names first. Part of the reason why I chose this location was because Eals itself is such a wonderful name for a village (what prospective DM would ever think of it?), but check out some of the other place names. Snope Common. Knaresdale. Larchet Hill. Merry Know. Softley. Town Green. Perhaps best of all, The Hill. Bear in mind that this is a couple of square miles in the most sparsely-populated region of the country. Zoom in on literally any other location in England and you will find an even greater density of real names than there is here.

Second, granularity. I spent a few minutes circling in red the potential adventure locations that leapt out at me on this map. Each settlement, obviously, would have some reason to visit it - whether it's because there's a hedge witch who lives there; an outlaw in hiding; a werewolf; a plague of brownies; whatever. So would the church at Knaresdale with its healer-cleric. Then of course there's Larchet Hill with its caves that the local people say are haunted by knockers. And one mustn't forget Knaresdale Hall, home of the Baron Knaresdale and his somewhat impoverished but proud family of eccentrics. But I didn't even circle Thinhope Burn (home of a merrow?), Small Cleugh (with a bridge with a troll underneath?), or Eals Fell (haunted by a banshee?).

You can do a similar exercise with pretty much anywhere in England. You can do Wales or Scotland too just as well, but then you encounter Welsh and Gaelic place names which may be hard for non-locals to pronounce. Once you've cordoned off a small piece of the English countryside, your starter campaign area almost writes itself.

What I also love about this is that the future of the campaign also becomes easy to think about when the players begin to want to explore beyond the immediate region around Knaresdale. What's upstream? What's downstream? What's beyond Eals Fell? Those are concrete questions the players will ask and that the DM then has to answer. Once again, the future then begins to write itself.

21 comments:

  1. My first thought was to use rail lines as Ley Lines. But then you'd have Ley intersections in towns instead of on mounds and such. Feature or bug?

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    1. Maybe the ley lines are from an ancient, bygone age. Use the railway map to determine the locations of that civilization's settlements and then create your own towns/cities in different places. Then the lines don't intersect in modern towns but on the ruins of the old people.

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    2. Maybe towns grow up around temples, which are found where Ley Lines intersect?

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  2. I can dig it. I was astonished when I discovered there's an actual river in Yorkshire called Foulness.

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  3. I find Chris McDowall’s ‘triple rule’ from Bastionland.com to also be useful here.

    Everything has Three Purposes:
    The Original: What was it originally to be?
    The Current: What is it doing now?
    The Tangent: What is its secondary use?

    I’ve long used real maps for inspiration, but not for a while. Too hard to copy and edit, 20+ years ago. A timely reminder of how good a method this is, especially with today’s tech. Thanks too for the excellent map resource.

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  4. Wonderfull (and very evocative) post. I think that it will be great if every one of us 'suggested' to his players some evocative and 'rustic fantasy' setting inspired by his surroundings. Maybe I'll do something inspired by this for my blog...

    Thanks for this posts, Noisms.

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  5. I can't get that many names on a map of the area surrounding my home town without going at least 60 miles out in each direction. The difference is spectacular.

    The maps are pretty amazing tools for name-finding, especially for names that don't just scream out "this is a fantasy world". You could probably convert large sections of the countryside into random tables, with adjustments for flavor.

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    1. I suppose in the US and Canada you get some great Native American place names to balance things out.

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  6. Even very good fantasy cartography often misses the eye-level detail that makes a DMs job of describing a place or narrating travel easier, like "The ground rises gently as the path turns eastward. Ahead, you see a small copse where three field boundaries meet." Other than deciding what tree species to go for (if your dendrophilic PCs ask), it's all there on the map for you.

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  7. I think there's something particularly evocative about place-names in Northumberland (I found some that were almost unbelievably on the nose for fantasy RPGs last year: https://hobgoblinry.blogspot.com/2018/02/dragons-on-doorstep.html). In comparison with my part of historical/occasional Northumbria, north of the border, one of the big differences is that nearly all the place names in modern Northumberland seem to be English (rather than English mixed in with Brythonic and Goidelic and even Pictish). So, to the modern English-speaker, they're that bit more immediate and vivid.

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    1. That's interesting. I've never thought of it that way, but Northumberland does have a really "Anglo Saxon" feel to its place names.

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  8. I ran a post-apocalyptic game a couple of years ago and started by drawing over a modern map of the Detroit Metro area, added high tech infrastructure like a hyperloop and mega-greenhouses, then wrecked it as convincingly as I could with a bomb. Instead of looking at the present and extrapolating a vision of the future, you could use a similar technique and "devolve" things into a medieval state by removing highways, turning railways into well-traveled trade routes, shopping malls into bazaars, etc.

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    1. From what I gather, isn't Detroit basically the post-apocalypse anyway??

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    2. More or less, yeah. It's convenient when you can find reference photos for your players using Google Street View. Detroit has decent parts too, but they're isolated from each other and often just a single block away from the dangerous areas between them. Very "points of light" actually.

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  9. If you want to go all in with real-world maps, Campaign Cartographer's Annual Volume 8 has a tool that lets you import data from the Natural Earth repository and go to town.

    https://www.profantasy.com/
    http://www.naturalearthdata.com/

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  10. Great food for thought, man.

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  11. That is actually not a railway but marks a tunnel that comes very near to the surface and which is the location of occasional break-outs of nasties out into the countryside. Over time the locals have made a rough map of the suspected direction of the tunnel but nobody has ever actually gone down into the tunnels, not yet.

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