The “Iowa Tests” were a big deal during my primary school years. The regularly scheduled public school programming was pre-empted by an anti-festival week in which recess and lunch breaks were rescheduled, a zero tolerance policy was enacted against tomfoolery, and the importance of CORRECTLY FILLING IN THE OVALS WITH A NUMBER 2 PENCIL ON THE RESPONSE SHEET was stressed with the same level of emphatic urgency used to warn about playing on train tracks or accepting a ride from a stranger.
It was enough to induce neurosis in the most laid back underachiever, never mind a kid already prone toward fits of anxiety. I fretted through every minute of these exam periods, save for the parts which involved map-reading. Something about the abstracted topography in the maps fascinated me — weird place names linked by imaginary roads and highways and bisected by the ++++++ symbol for railroad lines. These fictitious landscapes were plausible phantoms which evoked both the sense of dislocation I’d get on long family road trips and fascination regarding the terra incognita which lay beyond my small suburban Boston neighborhood.
In the weeks following the testing periods, I’d blow my entire student allotment of Manila paper on creating similar maps of my own creation, plotting out the spatial and structural relationships between imaginary communities and geographical features. Eventually I turned my focus towards plotting out the little fiefdoms my friends and I claimed for ourselves in the marshy patch of woods across from my apartment building, laying down the boundaries between the Weiss Republic, the Empire of Artie, and Scott’s Kingdom. My interest in make-believe cartography also manifested in the elaborate street grids I’d etch for my Hot Wheels cars with a fragrant green magic marker on sheets of cardboard liberated from some big ticket appliance box.
My interest faded after adolescence kicked in, only to come crashing back with a vengeance during 9th grade when I dived into the realm of Dungeon & Dragons. Mapping out imaginary landscapes was an essential part of the hobby, and one I genuinely relished. The other kids in my little gaming circle were willing to settle for the premade world-building products of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, but I insisted on crafting my own personal gameworld out of the lumpy stew of influences rattling around in my teen fanboy skull.
The fruits of those labors was a sprawling mega-map assembled from sheets of hex paper photocopied from the Expert Set and taped together in a two-by-three configuration. It has long since been lost to time, but I do remember most of the messy details — a crazy quilt arrangement of cliched kingdoms swiped from Tolkien and trash fantasy comics and movies, illustrated in colored pencil and magic marker. All the requisite cliches were featured. There was an ice kingdom, a desert kingdom, GOOD and EVIL kingdoms, and domains for all the major humanoid races thrown down without any concern for commercial or geopolitical logic. Every type of noble holding was included — “the Barony/Duchy/Empire/Kingdom/et cetera of” — suffixed with a name overloaded with apostrophes and tongue-torturing consonant combinations.
As things turned out, my group only ended up exploring a smallish section of the overall world. Fortunately it just so happened to contain the highest global concentration of dungeons, strange monsters, and high level treasure items. Funny that.
When I made the leap to Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, the urgency about preparing elaborate world maps lessened. The game had a fixed setting which was strongly integrated into the mechanics and overall tone, a doomed and grubby analogue of late medieval Europe. The leeway for tinkering with it and retaining the proper atmosphere was as wide as it was for D&D’s more open-ended approach to world-building, but I still couldn’t stop myself from trying.
The evidence can be found across multiple pages of the pad of graph paper I used during my high school and college years.
The general contours of the various maps are the same, attempts at re-working the game’s fantasy take on Europe while adding my own spin to the setting. Some of the city names remained the same, especially the ones from Bretonnia, which was (then) Warhammer’s equivalent to pre-Revolutionary France and my favorite section of the game’s world guide.
I didn’t really care much for Chaos as an external existential threat. In my revisions, the grim perilousness of the campaign world was more mundane in nature and based on the events of the Thirty Years War. After the elder humanoid races underwent their own internal conflicts and withdrew from the wider world, the human nations got caught up in a drawn-out sectarian conflict which led to decades of bloodshed and devastation. It was a handy way to explain why monstrous beasts were able to roam unchecked and lair in “civilized” lands, while providing ample ruins and lost treasures for interant sell-swords and other opportunists to plunder. To justify the scope of the strife, the map was expanded to include more geographical analogues pulled from history.
And again, the actual range of the adventuring parties’ travels ended up restricted to maybe a half-dozen contiguous squares on the map.
World-building, man. It always comes down to cooking a feat fit for thousands, then serving it to a party of six.