I’d love to introduce you to the world of Raea, a place I’ve been visiting in my imagination for almost twenty years now. Not only have I written many stories and songs about this place, but I’ve had the opportunity to share it with many of my friends. Dozens of people have created characters in Raea and have played out epic stories there through a tabletop RPG. So in many ways, I don’t feel like I created Raea. Instead, I feel like I’m a park ranger who knows his way around. I wouldn’t be surprised to run into others who know many parts of it better than I do.
A crude map of Raea (I’m not a visual artist, so please bear with me):
I used the admittedly childlike convention of triangles for mountains, green swirls for forests, arches for hills, yellow dots for deserts, and light blue shading for bodies of water. The circled stars are capitols, black dots are towns/cities, and red dots are points of interest. The major land trade routes are in orange, and the major water trade routes are in dark blue. I left out many details, like country borders and smaller settlements, so that the map wouldn’t get too cluttered.
Whenever I create a map, I start with geography first. As discussed in Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs, and Steel, geography plays a heavy hand in the balance of power among peoples and nations–at least over long expanses of time (the short run becomes infinitely harder to predict). From there, I try my best to reason out what the weather patterns probably are based on latitudes, figure out where the natural resources are located, and then figure out where humans would most likely settle based on those factors. The process of world-building snowballs from there.
But the process isn’t entirely “bottom up” (in this case, from the land and its resources up to the civilizations built upon it). There is also a “top down” approach, one that takes into account what works well for stories. This particular map has gone through many variations based on what inspired and moved people during collaborative, improvised tabletop RPG sessions. If you aren’t familiar with what this means, think Dungeons and Dragons or the opening of Stranger Things, but using a game design of my own that is targeted to this world. Such tabletop RPGs are the contemporary equivalent of Homeric storytelling, but with a very interactive audience. In Raea’s case, certain maps lent themselves to tales that both explored the human condition (such a serious umbrella term!) and were just fun. The core characteristics of those maps kept returning, iteration after iteration.