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Story-Driven Design - Way Of A Cartographer

Every fantasy games and books fan loves maps. Should love at least. It's always amazing to track adventures of your hero using your own finger on the virtual map. Starting from that map let's figure out the basic story then.

Full article with additional graphical content is also available on my personal page. Quite complete exerpt is put below:

I’ve started evaluating Unity 3D. It looked like a cheap start for Indie/Hobbyist experiments. After a couple of hours of my play with the tool set, I still have some concerns. I’m pretty sure though, that it’s really great tool for prototyping. I started with open terrain generator. Standard project Unity gives is based on that too. Isles project reveals beautiful landscapes with nice props thrown in various locations, birds flocking above you and other game elements pretty common in such sites. I cleared the project and started my own terrain. I was amazed how easy and intuitive tool they have provided. Implementing LOD based terrain generator is not hard task to do. That hidden lore was very well explained at the end of 90-ties with all possible algorithmic variations. WYSIWYG tool is natural next step tool.

Unity's toolset has options more similar to Sim City rather than game development from programmer’s perspective, which is cool by the way. I raised and lowered terrain, did some smoothing with the land’s texture. Adding material works as direct painting on the landscape. With palette of “grass” billboards and tree geometries, I can fill up terrain with some flora and other props (rocks, etc). Effects of my 2h long work still are far from a game, but it proved itself very effective in unblocking creative thought around a story.


If we think of classic adventures and especially role playing games, story is often if not usually bound to some map. Every enthusiast of fantasy books and fantasy games should love maps too. It is so amazing to track what your heroes did, making a virtual travel painted by your finger on those maps.

As I said, I clicked here and I clicked there. I raised some mountains, I dug some holes to fill them up with lakes and seas. Then I started walking around and imagination triggered even on such a primitive example. I copied map's image from top-view to a painting tool, just to think a little bit more about that map from a storyteller’s perspective. “If there is a land what landmarks it hides” was my thinking.



With Tolkienian, classic-fantasy approach to the setting, I separated some details.

I have a hilly land in the middle of the map, surrounded by land I filled up with trees (North-West). South reveals coastal area with two bays, connecting probably to some bigger sea or lake. Northern-east brings big desert or any other kind of desolated area. Southern-East brings big mountains.

Naturally middle is crowded by Men. Forest filled up with elves. Mountains with dwarfs. Desert brings only death and forgotten lore, I started adding some details there. In hilly area which cuts that desert, I added some place for some serious villains yet to be designed and figured out. In the middle of sand, we can find some Oasis with nomads and many opportunities for adventure.

There is a road ending up near that desert. I put there some small town visited often by merchants and travelers who want to cross the desert to reach some other country on the other side. No road goes to the land of elves for a reason. In the middle of the Country of Men I left big, flat and empty space. Good to place there biggest city in the area with city walls and other medieval details. Rest of the hilly country can be used to design some farmlands. Farms on hills remind me Ireland, and their rocky borders between each farm. Could be nice to put those there (Medieval economy was mostly based on farming, plenty of them should be spread around, looking gorgeous) . On the coastal area we have more civilization to describe. Big cliff with only one route to reach the top,looks good to build a castle. Big fortress for a local monarch. Maybe not a king, land seems to be too small for a kingdom, but some local duke who keeps the colony on the borderland between elves, dwarfs and who knows who lives in that dusty desert. Near the castle I added second, small town that feeds its citizen mostly from the water surrounding it. Fishers, smugglers, many different moods for adventure I believe that you can imagine in that area.

Summarizing, from simple point and click map generation we’ve got:

1) A royal colony, far, far away from the country. Ruled by local duke who keeps the land for men in very difficult neighborhood of elves, dwarfs and other unnamed villains.

2) In this very dangerous, yet very interesting area,obviously economics is based on farming and trade. Skilled merchants have their connections to kingdoms of dwarfs and those held by Elves. Most risky business of them gave a birth of legends that very rich country with ancient and high culture lives on the other side of desert. Dwarfs and Elves know more but say no word about that land.

3) Country of Men has several interesting landmarks: Royal Castle, Big city, small coastal city, small town (outpost) near desert, farms and I added some hermit hut near the shore too, just for fun.

Many spots which help start further brainstorming. We have already there details that can help start thinking forward on the real plot, a reason why would you like to put main, player character in the middle of such place.

Some triggers I’m giving as a summary:

Idea 1: Questioning a ruler of that land. Why would you like the be there as a duke. Just ruling and nothing happens? Boring. Maybe that duke was sent there for exile. King is happy that he’s far away not troubling him. How to use that for an adventure?

Idea 2: Duke is an  adventurous conqueror with no mercy to his enemies, who dreams to build his own fiefdom powerful but found himself stuck on a small territory and strong neighborhood that resists? How about helping him to win against elves and dwarfs. How about tricky intrigues merchants make to block it. If country conquer succeeds, they will loose their connections and business is at risk. From the other hand, war always equals to profit, so maybe there is another merchant guild that supports such a plan. Maybe duke is not a conqueror, maybe he’s just a Muppet playing in somebodies game. How would you put that on stage when the player character joins to the spectacle.

Idea 3 (supplementary): Lets assume that the only connection with the core country is sea. It is obvious that many of the trades merchants would like to import illegally. Answer to that is smuggling. Hidden, not so legal guilds, thieves and intrigue. How those guilds and secret organizations will handle the situation. Is that intrigue left only on a street-level murder and assault or maybe involves tricky politics on the court too?

Story has just begun, but it started simply.. from the map.

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