Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mapping Dreams

This is unlikely to come as a great shock to those even casually familiar with me, but let me say it: I'm a dreamer. Virtually everything that I have done with any enthusiasm over the course of my life has been an extension of those dreams. I've worked in theatre. I've written symphonies and short stories. I play games. Dreams even shape my travel, since I yearn to see those places that most inspire my own creativity. But perhaps most relevant to the story I've lately been telling on thisforum, I spend time crafting elaborate environments where the corporate dreams of myself and others can unfold. Sometimes this is expressed as models, which impulse is amply displayed in many previous posts. At other times it comprises scratchings on paper. I sketch out notes, character descriptions, lists of names, flowcharts depicting fictional organizations, family trees, and even maps . . .

The above is an example of the sort of thing I might draw quickly for use in a single game. I'm not going to call it a "disposable" map, as I never throw anything away, but it's one that doesn't require too much time or effort but still conveys the information needed. I can look at it and use it as a visual reference as I try to get my players lost in the world. Sometimes I might even show them.

For a moment I'm going to step outside my story and along pass one small piece of information: The Compser's Cartographic Works is back in business. In fact, if you've a map you'd particularly like for a game or your wall, drop me an e-mail. I'm accepting commissions. To skip the fluff and simply see what I can do take a look here.

But if you've the time I'd like to take you on a journey of imagination through a fairy world, its history, and about thirty years of my own life. Come with me to a place I call Abithar.

It's a lengthy trip and it starts in what could be either an unexpected place, or perhaps an entirely predictable one. If you're geeky, from the U.S., and of a certain age maybe your first map looked something like this . . .

What we have here is a dungeon map loosely inspired by Abu Simbel drawb on graph paper using standard elements taken from the D&D basic set that came in the red box. Ah, the musings of the ten year old mind. Mine was quite symmetrical but with just a touch of right-brain whimsy: note the little efficiency apartment at the back and the museum the players might visit if they survive a half dozen dragons, some trolls, three horned monsters, and so forth. (The little boy brain is a goofy place.)

Like most little boys, my first character was a "fighter," as recommended by the introductory solo adventure. In spite of TSR's nomenclature, I preferred to think of him as a knight. And knights need castles . . .

. . . and castles don't float in space . . .

. . . so I had a third map. Ultimately, an eleven-year-old's fantasticalized version of Cornwall was born from this original impulse.

Abithar was an imaginative collage of every piece of fiction I'd read at that point. Places were stolen from Lloyd Alexander, Anne McCaffrey, Susan Cooper, and T. H. White, among a great many others, and dropped into my rescaled land. American boys generally have no real conception of the actual size or geography of England, so thar be mountains and dark ancient forests and many many times the acreage. The size has fluctuated a bit, alternately growing and shriking. The road distance from Abithar to Caer Dathyl, (or Dafyl, in later editions) has varied from about four hundred miles to perhaps six hundred, which is a bit larger than the two hundred driving miles between the approximately corresponding Kelynack and Bristol. Despite the coastline I eventually came to conceive of Abithar as a roughly England sized part of an approximately Japan sized country. 

For a time, I was content to draw inside these new lines. I made castles for my friends, I connected Abithar Halls to the outside world via Portsmouth and a few bridges, and I began to flesh out the other towns.

There was initially some ambiguity to the location of Abithar. It started in the South of England, but moved briefly to The Forgotten Realms, where it acquired a few new placenames and landforms.

At about this time the humble knight disappeared from the story, replaced by his son, who was perhaps my last bone-fide D&D character. As my own role changed from that of a player into the game's master the character was rewritten as king of a new realm.

One of my several complaints with the Forgotten Realms was that there simply weren't enough maps. I wanted more. The sixteen year old me set about charting my own corner of the world with tremendous care. (The careful observer will note the forms of the original village in the center of the growing city immediately below.)

Frighteningly enough, there are more. This is a good sample from the period, but I was a busy little beaver. I mapped out large cities and tiny crossroads alike. By this point Tolkien had made his influence much more known in my fantasy imaginings and while the placenames from other sources were retained you might notice his ghost hanging over a few cities. Simultaneously England crept into churches and castles alike. In the meantime, I was growing increasingly unhappy with the setting. The graduation to high school afforded me with both better research materials and more artistic, historical, and geological sophistication. A bit of sketching one day and some experiments with continents breaking up and drifting about propelled on a variety of oceanic spreading centers led me to the realization that I didn't need anyone else's landforms.

Thus the humble castle had grown to an entire globe. All that remained was to refine the new world. Names would change. New maps would be crafted. A few minor elements might even move around. Obviously interruptions would eventually be necessary to shrink the ocean extremities and fit a flat vision onto a round dream. But the basic shapes of the world and even much of its contents were now set, so I moved on to crafting its history and ultimately fitting Abithar properly into it.

And there Abithar sat for some time. In college version 1.1 I probably did more role-playing than any time before or since. Consequently I got a lot less done. Eventually a fatal error in the programing left me without a regular role-playing group, but still longing for a fantasy fix. I turned back to my own maps. I now had a big fat college research library available, and several friends who had done time in the SCA. Lined paper and crude sketches no longer seemed appropriate, so I began revising, rescaling, and generally artsifying Abithar.

This last is still ongoing. As I work on it you, dear reader, are invited to commission your own gaming map. For a quite low low introductory price I'd like to try my hand at making a map for you, suitable for hanging on your wall or handing out to your players. The place names and land forms can be very much to your taste. It can be as simple as a pen and ink line drawing or as complicated as an isometric view or even a painting. Interested parties are requested to e-mail:

Uninterested parties are given my sincerest apologies for the rough ride. All are given my thanks for their patience. I hope you have found something here to your liking.

The Composer


  1. Cool! I used to love making maps of fantastical lands when I was a kid. This brought back a few memories. Thanks for posting!


  2. No sir, thank you for reading. Glad you enjoyed the maps. You are most welcome.

  3. I absolutely do maps for books by Wistram.

  4. Absolutely fascinating collection of maps and ideas. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Thank you. It's . . . one more in my long list of rotating obsessions. I really need to pick one and run with it, but it's far too much fun to cycle through them.

  6. Those images are great, loads of fun to see. Most of us have a few drawings like that knocking around I think.

    I loved maps and vehicle cutaway diagrams as a kid, but as I got older I found that they all too often painted me into a creative corner rather than inspired context. I feel similarly about maps in comics continuities and even in books such as The Hobbit.

    When younger I pored over maps and diagrams and tried to hammer what I knew to be the actual case into line with what the diagrams/maps maintained (the running speed of an AT-AT was particularly incongruous I remember), but now I find them slightly stifling. I prefer to drive the locations by the stories now, rather than the other way around.

    None of which means that I cant enjoy a nicely rendered map of course :)