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World Building Part 1: Getting Started


Few things are as intimidating or as exciting as designing an original fantasy world. I started working on this campaign setting some 20 years ago, just before I stopped playing D&D, and have only recently come back to it and picked up where I left off. I'd like to think that the intervening years have made me a better writer and that the setting "Ur" that I started so long ago is richer for the intervening years.

It probably isn't though. The biggest difference between my writing then and my writing now is that I have more time for it now. My career has been steady for the past several years (I teach high school English in Lexington, Kentucky) and my home life is beautifully stable.

With the coming of the Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, my high school friends and I started playing D&D online using the D&D Beyond, Roll 20, and Beyond 20 platforms. My best friend from high school started DMing, and I really enjoyed playing again, along with hanging out with two of my other closest friends, telling terrible jokes, and pretending we were 14 again. (Yes, Wayne, all the prisoners are attractive women wearing Frazetta-esque chainmail bikinis - except for the ones that are just buck-nekkid...)

We hadn't been playing more than a few weeks when I dug around in my old things until I found the campaign notes I had started in the fall of 2001.

I started writing.

A year later, when Brad wanted to take a break from DMing and play for a while, I wanted to try some of the things I had been writing and revising for the past year.

Ur was born. Sort of. A little corner of it anyway...

Where to start:

From a continuity point of view, the easiest way to begin is top down. To design Ur, I decided that I wanted to approximate earth, but a little more oval - wider round the equator, so I looked up Earth's Circumference, (24,901 Miles). I considered whether to try to do something fancy like a mercator projection or Cassini-Soldner type. In the end I took the simplest option, A cylinder projection.

This meant that my planetary map would be approximately twice as long as it was tall. It also gave me my first fixed numbers. I read up on all of the available mapping software, and after doodling around with many of them, settled on Inkarnate. It was intuitive, quick-to-learn, and I liked the looks of the maps I could quickly produce with it. My next decision was what type of overlay to use (hex or grid) and what scale to render the global map in.

I chose to use the grid feature on Inkarnate. I divided the world into 4 vertical map panels, each running from North to South poles, and each showing 1/4th of Ur's surface. I set each panel as 90 rows high by 45 columns wide. This meant that each square on the planetary map equaled 140 miles x 140 miles. Put all four panels together, and you have a lovely planet roughly the size of Earth.

Next I roughed in the continents for each panel. In about 2 hours, I had a complete world rough-mapped. I had oceans and continents and islands; I had rivers, and deserts, and ice caps. I had demarcated the longitudes to establish tropical, sub-tropical, temperate, sub-arctic, and arctic zones.

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