I shall not mince my words in this introduction as I sometimes do: this series will tell you my top tips for envisaging, developing and polishing your creative worlds from the first sparkling of an idea in your head to the last click to post it all up online. What follows is nothing short of a wall-to-wall guide to storylining, mapmaking, mythos-mixing, plot-thickening, figure-creating, editing, refining, and hyping your creations to the point where people won't just make it another click in their day; they'll actually seek it out and hunger to know more about it. By the time you have finished reading this seriesI hope to have left you able to concoct a well-structured setting, map it out, make pixel art for it and then deliver it effectively to your peers online.
All In - Part 1: Ideas and Maps
I am not trying to be clichéd when I say that it all begins with an idea. Without an idea, you have no structure, no substance, no motivation around which to form your world and create your figures. Any idea, any inspiration you have can be the trigger for a vast and impassioned frenzy of creation and innovation. The trick is coming up with a good idea and then expanding upon that idea. Allow me to dig into my inner mind and pull out some random ideas I have had in the past:
-An alt-history Russian invasion of Western America in the late 1800s
-Colonial battles over a miniature Atlantis-style continent in the Atlanic Ocean
-The Greeks were right and there is a second Earth, Antichthon, acting as a "balance" forever obscured from terrestrial sight by the sun
-Wars between nations based around armoured trains and railcars
-Dieselpunk; i.e plucky pilots, huge airships and epic journeys of exploration
-Anbarium, a strange mineral which gives off an electrical energy
-Space is not a vacuum but rather a more stable Aether
-A lost tribe of technologically advanced Mayans with a Dark Void vibe to them
Once you have these ideas, you can build upon them. What I like to do is see how various ideas fit into each other's schemes. For example, from the ideas above, what if the Russians invaded Western America after the Civil War to take advantage of the U.S Army's weakened state and secure the goldfields but did so by a new method, the armoured railcar, which could besiege cities and carry armed troops great distances while engaging in some pretty epic quasi-landship battles? Right there we have a lot to work on; location, story, figures etc. But then we can try and expand upon this further with other ideas. Maybe this conflict led to new levels of development which culminated in a dieselpunk world. Maybe they built their airships to voyage into space, into the Aether, and in doing so they found an Antichthon on the other side of the sun. Maybe as the exploratory societies delved deeper, it became a battle of colonial conquest not over a small continent, but rather an entire lush, uncharted planet. And as they explored with convoys supported by armed railcars, they came under attack by a race of Mayans who had somehow been transported there (by human hands or otherwise) centuries earlier, and had harnessed the power of an unearthly mineral called Anbarium to produce devastating energy weapons. Boom! Now we have a spellbinding story, a suitably wild and untamed (and easy to fabricate) landscape for factions to fight over, and some pretty neat kit for the factions to use (Energy weapons! Armoured trains! Dieselpunk!). Tell you what, why don't we run with that for now?
I know that at this stage most people will already be eagerly formulating factions and troops and the like to fit their grand idea. Stop. You will make it so much easier on yourself if you make your map first. As daunting as it may look and sound, map-making is by far the best way to instantly immerse yourself in your chosen setting. From my own experience, as you potter along charting inlets, mapping mountains etc. your mind begins to assign to them labels and ideas. That bay there? Mordecai Bay, the mind whispers. Hey, it pipes up again soon after, doesn't "the Battle of Mordecai Bay" roll off the tongue rather well? And all of a sudden, you have the pivotal Battle of Mordecai Bay, in which a squadron of German ornithopters armed with rocket-bombs humbled the mighty British Grand Fleet of the Antichthon's seven Airships-Of-The-Line in a central moment for your setting's internal mythos. Make no mistake, that is exactly how it happens and that is exactly why it pays to make the map first. Build your factions and your story from the landscape; don't try to shoehorn them later into a terrain which doesn't quite work.
Rather coincidentally (and if I may be forgiven for my prolific self-promotion here and elsewhere through this article), I happen to have a tutorial for making maps in my repertoire. It can be found here, and will teach you how to transform this...
...and thus set you on the path to creating a truly immersive and multi-layered world for your ideas and creations.
A few hours of solid work later, and we now have a map for our setting:
It is not a world map, merely part of a continent, but it should be enough to display the locations and adventures of the various factions delving deep into Antichthon. The pale section at left represents uncharted territory; this also opens up storyline ideas as parties voyage into this Terra Nullius and potentially discover new and hidden features (which may then be mapped at leisure). Thus, mapping is again a gateway to opening up new and interesting ideas for your setting before you have even begun to set them down.