Let Us Speak of Geography

In which the author discusses the power of map-making in storytelling.

Geography triumphant over the Emperor.
"I am a monarch of God's creation, and you reptiles of the earth dare not oppose me." - Napoleon.

Let Us Speak of Geography

La géographie c’est le destin - Napoleon Bonaparte

Dear Reader,

“Geography is Destiny.” Napoleon said that, or at least he is reported to have said the French that I quoted above. (Perhaps he didn’t apply the concept carefully to his invasion of Russia.)

As a statement goes it makes for great military advice. It can also help out in terms of explaining historical developments:

“Wait! All these civilizations grew up around rivers!” Or “Maybe there’s such a great variety amongst the ancient Greek city-states because of the nature of the terrain that separates them from one another!” (Those are surface-level insights, but follow the link for a fascinating read on “Deep Time in World Building” by Steven Erikson.)

But “Geography is Destiny” is also great advice for helping a writer tell a story, especially when you’re writing an epic that is meant to encompass a good deal of space.

At least it helped me, back in 2017.

But Where Do I Go From Here?

When I started The Queen of Three Realms (that’s the title of Book 1 of my series, by the way), I started with characters. Those characters arose out of worldbuilding that I had been doing. Yes, I knew where they were from and I knew where they were going (at least in the most general sense).

But I didn’t know what the way looked like.

I had a vague notion of the distance, or at least an assumption about how far I wanted things to go. But if you would have asked me, “How many miles is it? How does the terrain change over time? What people live in this area?” I couldn’t have answered that question. (Well, I could have – I could have just made the answer up on the spot and that works too.)

I was just writing it out. And “just writing it” got me stalled out.

Why? I hadn’t done enough worldbuilding. Shocking, I know. We hear about worldbuilding disease all the time in fantasy writing circles: Getting lost building the world rather than writing the story. But what if you don’t have what you need built? Like, say, a map?

Now, it wasn’t as if I didn’t have my map in mind up to that point, but I hadn’t made one. Not a world map, not a regional map, not a local map. (Alright I may have had one regional map, but it wasn’t for a region I was going to be using in Book 1.)

I also had three rather good reasons for why I hadn’t made the map yet:

  1. I didn’t want to get absorbed in making a map instead of writing
  2. I don’t like making maps unless I have a regular surplus of excess time
  3. Learning map software frustrates and bewilders me (that’s why my rivers are all messed up in my working copy of the map)

So now that I needed do to some worldbuilding, I did it. I took a program called Wonderdraft and I made my map.

A working map for storytelling.
A working map for storytelling.

So here I was, planting geographical features, establishing distances, placing cultures – all these things that I had had loosely in my mind. And suddenly the story began to clarify from the where, the what, and the who that I was discovering as I laid down rivers, mountains, forests, cities, and so on.

Discovering What’s Along the Way

In Dungeons & Dragons and other TTRPGs there’s a similar (adjacent?) creative process called emergent gameplay. Here, the people, creatures, and locations help generate the story as the player characters decide where they want to go and what they want to do.

The story is made in a sandbox by player choice.

And that’s not so different from what happened as I made my map. A lot of the story took on greater clarity from seeing what could happen when the characters entered a given area. With a map made, I had done the kind of worldbuilding that allowed me to see the world that the characters were living their lives in.

But we can go further than drawing a map in this discovery process.

In my newsletter on the "Old School Renaissance of Tabletop Gaming," I mentioned sandboxing and a number of other techniques that I had discovered. Included in the resources I've been looking at, you'll find toolkits made of random tables and charts that provide inspiration when you have a question about what might be going on in this town or what the weather might be like today. And that helps with map-making as well.

Here's a simple but quite useful chart by Kevin Crawford from his free edition of Worlds Without Number where you roll a twelve-sided die three times (Who Runs It?, Significant Locals, and A Current Pressing Problem) to help give substance to a village:

Worlds Without Number, 149.

These kind of charts are useful props and aids for what game designer Matt Finch calls Deep Design. You sit down with a question, seek out a relevant chart, roll some dice and reflect on the results. It's meant to provoke your imagination and get you going, like a good conversation.

Deep creativity is a cloud-realm of diverse symbols and images; combining and diverging, seeking the unforeseen.
- The Tome of Adventure Design, Matt Finch

And, there's nothing saying I can't create my own charts and tables to roll on – if I so choose. They can be a great help getting my tires free from the mud if I need a little help getting unstuck.

Ah, Dear Reader, we must away for now. But I hope you have enjoyed this letter. Do you have any thoughts on Geography is Destiny or the Sandbox? Let me know!

Best regards,


Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

Was this email forwarded to you? Come and visit my outpost to choose a path through Perilous Realms.

Perilous Realms

Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

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