If you’re like me, you’re familiar with the Paris catacombs. They’re not the only such network of tunnels and many exist all over the world. Unlike limestone caverns, which are formed through the natural actions of nature, a large number of these tunnels were expressly for the purpose of mining limestone for the use of construction. As a result, they occur alongside populated areas like Paris, Maastricht, and Odessa.
An article in the Atlas Obscura discussed the entry for the Odessa Catacombs. Like the Paris catacombs, they were used to extract limestone, though apparently of a somewhat more recent vintage, dating back to the 1600s and with the greatest activity in the 1800s.
That anachronism aside, any section of the catacombs might be used by a gamemaster looking for a subterranean map. Even that might not be a stumbling block, given how many high-fantasy settings are littered with buildings owing more to the likes of Neuschwanstein Castle than to early medieval castles.
As caves go, the Cave of Dunmore in County Kilkenny, Ireland, is a bit on the small side and not too terribly exceptional. As real-world locations go for the basis of game settings, there’s almost more going on in the visitor center than there is in the actual cave, apart from the somewhat dramatic sweep of the entrance that drops down steeply to the subterranean opening.
The story behind the cave and its history as the site of a Viking massacre is far more interesting and provides plenty of fodder for adventure, particularly if the dark atmosphere and reputation among the inhabitants is played up. For the gamemaster in a hurry, it’s relatively easy to make or find maps of limestone caves that are much more extensive and adapt them for adventure and to borrow all the description needed.
“we having, when led to the cavern for scenic illustration of the facts of this history, adventurously plunged our hand into the clear water, and taken therefrom a tibia of unusual length; and, indeed, the fact that such human relics are there to be seen, almost a quarter of a mile from the light of the earth, must, if we reject the peasant’s fine superstition, show us the misery of some former time of civil conflict, that could compel any wretched fugitive to seek, in the recesses and horrors of such a place, just as much pause as might serve him to starve, die, and rot.” – from the Dublin Penny Journal, 1832.
Colorized image of Cave of Dunmore via Moja Zielona Irlandia from the original in the Dublin Penny Journal
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One of the things I like as much as maps and geography is linguistics and anything related to the study of language. When it comes to maps, the naming of places is something I’m particularly fond of. Contrariwise, there’s nothing worse than encountering a map for a book or game adventure littered with the most overblown of PanCeltic place names or where the naming is intended to sound exotic through the addition of apostrophes (or sometimes both!).
I think one of the best ways to learn how to create realistic maps is to study real maps and to study why certain places are named the way they are. Names evolve and change over time as successive peoples enter an area and either use existing names given to places by their predecessors or attempt to translate them in some fashion. In some cases, the two cases (descriptive versus folk etymology) can be very hard to differentiate.
For those creating their own maps, there’s much more flexibility in the etymology of place names and the opportunity to play with the names while simultaneously developing the place names, cultures, history, and language of the area. Descriptive names are easy and incredibly common. Rivers are often named simply “River” such as England’s Thames, Tame, and Teme, and also Avon from a different root. The Atlas of True Names translates the Thames as Darkwater, but that seems more like over-etymologizing since the original root can be used to mean “dark” or “river”, implying that it would be more like a river in the sense of a dark and deep-flowing body of water, much like brook and torrent describe two very different types of streams. Other rivers are simply “river” with the addition of an adjective, such as Mississippi derived from the Ojibwe misi-ziibi (“great river”) or Tolkien’s Anduin and Brandywine (Baranduin).
Darkwater (River Thames) from the Atlas of True Names
So whether your fictional kingdom’s river is called The Long River or Darkwater or, simply, The River, there’s no wrong way to do it. Though I beg aspiring fantasy cartographers to not be too liberal with place names like Skull Mountain or Ul’za’kamm’dng. Simple and consistent is always better and you can get a lot of mileage out of simple fantasy base roots for river and mountain. For myself, I prefer Ered Luin to the Blue Mountains, but that might just be because I’m a fan of Elvish etymology, even if it is pretend.
One of the things I liked about Aftermath’s Operation Morpheus is the idea of exploring Sydney University or a version thereof that’s been reimagined as a place for an adventure. Most of the adventure takes place in the (imaginary) bunkers underground, vast complexes of offices, labs, and facilities that have survived.
From a mapping standpoint, it’s great that there’s so much to explore, all mapped out and detailed enough to allow the gamemaster to easily expand upon. On the other hand, because it’s a game adventure, much of the detail and quirkiness of the corresponding real places has been ironed out. For example, the Biochemistry and Microbiology building is reduced to a square and smaller buildings have eliminated entirely.
The University of Sydney side-by-side real world and Operation Morpheus map details
For me, the real missed opportunity is that there’s no network of tunnels typical of many universities, at least in the United States. While the adventure layout means that the party must venture to the surface and gain access to other buildings to explore other complexes, navigating tunnels would allow for more three-dimensionality below the ground and provide additional smaller areas to explore. Perhaps I’ll try creating a map or two of my own to explore some of those ideas.
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Back when I wanted to be a published gamer, I submitted an adventure to Dungeon Magazine. It was my one and only submission and left something to be desired in terms of length of play and ways to draw the player in, being a foray into an adventure for TSR’s recently-published Oriental Adventures and being a little too heavily influenced by the adventures published for FGU’s Bushido, particularly Valley of the Mists. For the creation of the map accompanying the adventure, I wanted to create something that had a little more polish than my typical hand-drawn maps. I had been reading the Lensman manga, which I believe was the Moribi Murano version from the anime of the same name, and I learned about using screentone cut to shape to for shading. I duly made a trip to the University Bookstore and acquired sheets with the patterns I needed to fill the areas on my map with forest.
In this day and age, it’s far easier to accomplish the same effect digitally using texture fills or brushes with the designs you want. It’s also much less time-consuming than painstakingly cutting shapes using an X-Acto knife. I acquired old-school Letratone textures for forests, mountains, and more, created as tiles from scans of the original sheets by John Cooper. The look definitely evokes the feel of the original first-edition area map, but I think it works a little better in color. I’m not sure if it’s the feel I’m looking for on my Gamma World map I’m redesigning, but I love the look and the possibilities, so I may find another project to use it on.
Original 1st Edition Gamma World area map
Gamma World forest from original map
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Creating and editing digital maps are great for repurposing maps on demand. I’ve never been fond of hex maps outside of their uses for wargaming, but I’ve enjoyed all the iterations of the maps in the various editions of Gamma World. The maps of the United States post-apocalypse are primitive, yet evocative of a shattered landscape populated by various cryptic alliances that, to me, are more interesting that those portrayed in something like the Morrow Project.
In my campaign, cryptic alliances exist as purely political divisions rather than something like as groups that may or may not control territory. A good example would be the Created, the alliance of androids that infiltrate other groups to further their own agenda. Though not shown on the map, I can imagine such a group existing in my world as a machine-dominated nation with human and mutated animal inhabitants who live alongside them with a philosophy like the Followers of the Voice, subservient to their metal masters.
Not shown on my map are the modern day locations what, to the typical Gamma World inhabitant, would be the ruins of the Ancients. In keeping with the style of the original 2nd Edition map, I also only showed the areas of direct influence of the different groups since it’s difficult to show overlap with the style (such as the disputed region that exists between the Eleveners and the Death Groups that is, instead, left entirely unshaded). I also primarily followed the hex grid for areas of influence since it flows more naturally around the mountains that naturally divide regions rather than following rivers.
Gamma World original campaign hex map showing political divisions and features
Gamma World 2nd edition west coast showing the Brotherhood of Thought cryptic alliance
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The Psi World game from FGU checks all the boxes. Dystopian future with possible cyberpunk overtones? Check. Persecuted minorities with psychic powers who are feared and hated for no reason? Check. Adventures that involve running from government forces and nefarious corporate-types with secret agendas? Check.
While many of the books on this list are about aliens with psychic powers living among us, they have more in common with the psionic humans in other books than their alien heritage would suggest. On the other hand, I’ve omitted books where the powers are simply technological in nature, such as Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy or Linda Nagata’s The Bohr Maker. Similarly, the X-Men graphic novel God Loves Man Kills fits the genre tonally, but veers into the realm of superheroes rather than focusing on individuals whose powers are primarily mental and who are often limited in the strength of those powers or in the variety available to them. These are the books that inspired me and from which I drew the inspirations for the games I’ve run in this genre.
Truth is always stranger than fiction and never more so than when looking at maps of places that have been touched by human hands. Filling swamps for warehouses and dredging of rivers for the passage of boats, as just one example, results in highly regular looking waterways and coastlines. Which is why a recent Twitter thread by James L. Sutter about New Orleans is so entertaining. The canal he points out particularly caught my attention because it’s such an absurd feature, but it’s part of a set of features that constitute the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and it joins up with the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River – Gulf Outlet Canal, where all three waterways allow traffic between Lake Ponchartrain and different parts of the Gulf.
New Orleans canal – James L Sutter tweet
That’s neat and all, but not so relevant to a fantasy setting that posits a High Medieval level of technology, even with the addition of magic and perhaps some manner of gargantuan beasts to assist with engineering tasks like dredging. But features like this, all criticism about “realism” aside, make for some fascinating visual accents and the most efficient way of moving people and goods is in a straight line. So if justifying canals in a straight line covering many tens of miles seems problematic and your setting doesn’t have the remains of some sort of advanced empire or forerunner civilization, consider an application of what exists in the setting. A nation with advanced engineering know-how can overcome a great deal of obstacles to built impressive roads, particularly in areas that are relatively flat, such as the roads built by the Romans in southern England. A large population dedicated to a single task, either united by a cause or enslaved to a smaller group of overseers, might overcome their deficit of expertise by simple brute force. Think, for example of the underground highways of the dwarves or the similar passages carved by Drow thralls in a traditional fantasy setting.
No matter what you do, creativity is the key and don’t limit your maps through lack of imagination. Conversely, I’ve seen so many maps of allegedly fantastic places that look like they were laid out by robots, ignoring terrain features and the simple wherewithal of the inhabitants to construct these ruler-straight roads and waterways. It’s the reason I hate the map of the Beklan Empire from Shardik by Richard Adams where roads and rivers often run in straight lines including one road that inexplicably arc from north to east in order to cross a river three times for no readily-apparent reason. In fairness, it’s been some time since I read the book, so I can’t recall if any of the setting features or origins are logically explained.
A previous post, in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons Appendix N, focused exclusively on books. However, on further reflection, I felt I would contribute a separate list on visual media that might also provide inspiration for a Gamma World game.
There are many movies I grew up with and some I watched much later. One particularly sadistic gamemaster was fond of A Boy and His Dog and the aesthetic from his games as a result of that movie found its way into my own games. It was only much later, after I’d acquired a taste for the fiction of Harlan Ellison that I watched the movie.
So while this list includes direct influences and influences that filtered through to me from others, not listed are dystopian future films like Alphaville or Divergent, nor are films like Twelve Monkeys or La Jetée, nor Doctor Strangelove or Whoops Apocalypse. There are a number of films of varying quality that may appeal, though the quality varies wildly (Yor, the Hunter from the Future, anyone?)