Drawing Maps Based On Cultures

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1020

RPT GM Mike G sent me this tip about treasure, and a comment about building an alien culture:

Regarding PCs getting anxious for treasure — if they are far from home, throw a big box of treasure in their lap.

It need not be a giant statue — just something they cannot easily pocket.

It gives them instant gratification, yet they have to get it back to civilization to make use of it. That can be quite a feat.

If they succeed, it will seem even sweeter given what they had to do to get it home.

Interestingly, I need to go home now and flesh out a duergar lair, as my players just started exploring it.

I have NO idea what it will look like yet, as I have never done that before.

I’m torn between whether a duergar city would look like a human city sitting in some giant underground cavern (most people do this, it seems) or just a giant dungeon, with corridors instead of streets, and series of rooms instead of houses. Not sure.

Keep up the good work. 

I responded back to Mike about building the duergar home and thought the ideas might be helpful to you, too:

Hi Mike,

I like to start alien culture-building with three basic structures:

  • Family
  • Religion
  • Government

Once you figure out a little how the duergar do in each category, you use that as guidance.

For example:

  • Communal vs. individual family structure
  • Controlling or paranoid government vs. anarchic
  • Structured religious doctrines affecting daily life vs. agnostic “choose your own adventure”

Next, I’d layer on creature traits and consequences.

For example, an evil culture might want buildings, spaces, or places where evil could get funky.

And duergar folk have that special power where they can grow to twice their size at will. So you’d want to address that in the architecture, transportation options, map scale, and more.

All creatures have basic needs — shelter, food, water. Then it’s family and reproduction. Then it’s community. Finally, if you’re a Maslow fan, it’s self-realization.

And many societies break up into classes (rich and poor, warriors and farmers, leaders and followers).

All this factors into your maps.

Creature traits will affect movement, living areas, tools, entertainment, food requirements, and more. These affect maps and architecture.

For example, Duskfall bird people who live in The Badlands have taken over a huge pillar of rock called The Rook.

Caves carved into the rock offer easy access for hundreds of feet up.

This gives these people natural protections against certain foes.

It also gives me some great culture design cues:

  • Lower classes live closer to the ground
  • Nests must be protected, so there’s a class of warrior folk who fly on patrol ready to defend the colony
  • The top is closest to the sky, so the leadership lives and governs from there
  • The birdfolk worship the sun, so religious leadership and secular leadership both rule from the top, a constant source of faction power games
  • Core interior of the pillar is safest, so food is grown and stored there
  • Non-fliers need access to serve upper levels, so ropes and counter-weight lifts exist for them
  • Families nest together or nearby which causes conflicts via displacements

From these ideas I get some map requirements:

  • A thick and tall pillar of rock
  • Thousands of nest caves carved into the exterior
  • Vertically banded levels of nests to demarcate social stratum
  • A top tier for leadership to hold court
  • An interior vertical core for food (worm farms?) and other things needing high defence
  • Exterior ropes, ladders, and cargo net style lifts for non-fliers

I hope this helps when you encounter alien cultures and ponder the map.