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Maps and Immersion

World-building on a Large Scale

By Alexis D. SmolenskPublished 7 years ago 3 min read
hand drawn on Publisher, 20 miles per hex

I have always found maps beautiful. The colors, the lines, the stark contrast between land and sea, the strange shapes of the earth . . . but in a greater sense, knowing that what's represented are millions of people, the shape, and pattern of their lives, the boundaries of their worlds, the mountains and beaches they travel to see, shown in perfect clarity. As a young boy, I used to run my fingers over my grandfather's globe, imagining what it would be like to visit each place. I still do that.

Above is a representation of my Dungeons & Dragons world, based on the real world. Early in my days as a dungeon master, I found that players had trouble identifying with fantasy worlds made from scratch; so to answer that, I transformed the Earth into a fantasy world. I have been mapping the planet ever since. Above represents a small piece of that map.

Some will recognize this as the north coast of Russia, from Norway to the Taymyr Peninsula. Hundreds of thousands of square miles where, I confess, my players will probably never tread. I have no plans to run any campaigns here. I could. I know what is on each of the island groups at the top of the map, I know what the nature of the various kingdoms are surrounding the Kara and Barents seas, I know what imaginary things are hidden in its valleys and lakes. I know who hates whom and what the civilians do, and what races they are. Gaa'Kaa, Glu'Bak, and Yak'Margug are gnolls. Biyetia is full of goblins. Samoyadia is occupied by . . . well, that doesn't matter. Safe to say, there is plenty of adventure to be had, if the players decide to pay for the ship to battle the ice and dangerous seas, or hike for untold miles overland, just to see what's there and take back unknown riches.

But this is the core of the role-playing game, nyet?

The question arises, however: if I don't plan to run it, why is it here? Why spend many hours making this map? Well, beauty for one. It is beautiful to me. But there is a greater effect that this has.

The players are dwarfed by something like this. They look at it, they see the immensity of the world, they see the effort that went into its making and they are knocked silly. Among my players, there's no chatter about conquering my world. There's no imagining that they're the greatest beings that ever lived. They see this and they stunned into silence. It is a treat just to run here, to think of themselves in Lapland, landing upon Spitsbergen, reaching the mouth of the Yenisey River. These are romantic, magical places that we already drink in the form of documentaries. The players actually get to be there.

Now, anyone can tell you, half the battle of being a DM is winning respect. Some do it with theatricality, which has its uses. Some do it with bullying. Then there are some, like me, who just work. We work for a decade, for two decades, for four decades, building the world up from the ground until it looks like something a player wants to respect.

The effect a map like this has on my players is not something that I can buy from a store. It is not something I can make in a few months. I can't record its whole design on youtube. It took years to make the map above, not only in the drawing of the lines but in learning how to draw them, and what lines to draw, to represent a real place. If the players decide to brave the Barents Sea, in their minds it won't be a pretend body of water between sketchy lines on foolscap paper. They will see this map, they will know from their experience what real Arctic seas are in the real world, and they will be there. They will drink the kool-aid and find themselves hopelessly fixed in my game world.

Just where I want them to be. That is all any artist wants. To consume the viewer and make the viewer see the world as we see it. Through our eyes.

My eyes happen to like maps.


About the Creator

Alexis D. Smolensk

For more content, see The Tao of D&D: and my game wiki at Please support my Patreon:

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