Worldbuilding Magazine: Mapping Aurora - An RPG Case Study



Volume 2 / Issue 5 : Cartography & Navigation- Visit their site to read the full issue


Mapping Aurora: An RPG Case Study

by Cathy, the Overprepared GM

When I built my world, I started smallish, fleshing out a single culture and lavishing attention on the national map. I took the time to get the scale right, establishing a travel time of ten days as a constraint first. With that number decided, I mixed in my desired historical influences, extrapolated the physical geography, determined the population distribution, and finally set the political boundaries.

I also created smaller maps for specific adventures. The city map for the capital helped the players hunt down a missing nobleman in the campaign kick off session. The hill fort map allowed the players to investigate the mystery at the heart of the first major adventure. The blueprints for the ominous keep organized the dungeon crawl in the heart of the fens. After I had fleshed out all the low-level cartography, I moved outward, firming up the neighboring nations so that they could explore more advanced stories involving international travel, exploration, and politics.

It was easy to figure out what maps to create and what to put on each of them, because traditional maps are such a well-explored space in terms of information design. If my players are traveling or discussing things on the national level, I can just open any atlas and see that the big national maps have national and district boundaries, settlements, natural features, roads, and other points of interest. If my players are adventuring in a settlement, I can look at city maps to see that they have elements like important buildings, streets, districts, and waterways. If they need to see how a building of any size is laid out, I know that it needs to be organized by floor and depict rooms, walls, hallways, doors, and major furniture.

Regardless of scale, maps always serve a few broad functions:

  • Navigation. They show points of interest as well as navigational routes so that players can plan where they’re going and how they’ll get there. Depending on the scale, the routes and points of interest may be anything from wormholes and planets to hallways and rooms.

  • Reference. They act as a reference for important locations that the player needs to remember. By displaying it visually, a good map can indicate relationships, improve memory, and give details about what each element is. For example, cities, mountains, rivers, forests, monuments, etc. all have established conventions for how to show them.

  • Atmosphere. A good map also evokes a clear sense of place. For example, a player will have a sense for terrain when they see that their path takes them through a mountain ridge. They may have to hike through a tumbled set of foothills, scale an inaccessible and ice-capped top of the world, or traverse an unexplored jungle menaced with active volcanoes. Perhaps the players only have to tread a well-traveled trade road with inns and villages along the way. The map helps the group feel immersed in the world and roleplay better. They can look at it and make their own choices about which path to take and what preparation they need to make before setting off. Players can anticipate the types of challenges they’ll encounter and the amount of time it will take. Maps also help me stay consistent with how I present the world to the players.

As long as I only needed to chart a world with geography similar to ours, the cartography remained straightforward.  It wasn’t trivial, mind you, but the challenge was in doing it well, not in figuring out how cartography works from first principles. However, my campaign planning for later levels had them traveling beyond their home plane. I needed maps for higher level adventures that filled these same roles in navigation, reference, and atmosphere that blueprints and national atlases had in lower levels.

This expansion into the multiverse challenged my cartographic skills. I wanted the planes to truly feel different from each other, with locations in each world that simply couldn’t exist in the others. But that meant I was creating some really bizarre planes.  I needed to start from those fundamental principles of design and figure out how to apply them to new circumstances.


The first issue I wrestled with was the fundamental nature of Aurora, a plane dominated by the goddess of spring, youth, the arts, and inspiration. Since birds were sacred to her, I decided to make it a plane of air with flying denizens. I imagined floating islands with localized gravity whose buildings and streets encircled giant boulders.  The roots and branches of epiphyte trees gnarled together to form giant, floating cloud forests. Migratory flocks of alien creatures shaped like blimps and squids and jellyfish traveled long circuits between the cloud forests. In between areas of no or light gravity were sinks of higher gravity, pulling in accumulations of detritus over time. Technological cultures harnessed kinetic energy by using things comparable to waterwheels or windmills. Native species all fly, float, or cling with ease, and even human visitors could float clumsily from place to place. And winding through it all were the jet streams, unceasing wind that would push everything in regular paths. Travel from place to place within Aurora would involve both moving within a jetstream and hopping from one stream to another.

For my players to travel through the fluid space of Aurora, they would need a useful map. I ran into an immediate problem while planning: I wasn’t sure how to draw locations that changed relative to each other. National boundaries didn’t make as much sense in a place where everything moves. How could I depict the political organization of people without political boundaries? I started by trying to find real-world analogs of maps that dealt with air currents and then started thinking about other fluids, hoping to get new ideas.

I found one common approach that I called the colored, vector-lines approach, such as this picture of the Jet stream or this one of ocean currents. It shows location, direction, temperature, and strength of the currents by using colors and arrows. The visual worked and it’s an established approach (so I’d have lots of examples to learn from), but I think I prefer this image created by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which uses what I termed the flat-ribbon style. This approach shows location, direction, and temperature, and the simplification makes the overall flow much easier to grasp.

Image by NASA Jet Propulsion Labratory

Image by NASA Jet Propulsion Labratory

As much as I love JPL’s approach, it still was not quite what I needed. As with all graphics of currents, this one focuses on showing the currents with respect to the landforms around them. This indication is crucial on Earth because that’s how we establish context for location. And location is why we use maps. However, I was trying to depict a world that has no landforms, so I needed to remember that JPL design and keep looking for ideas.

My search lead me to gas giants projections, like this flattened one of Jupiter, which is comparable to a mercator projection of Earth.  Unlike with Earth however, it shows that the structure of Jupiter is composed of bands of currents. Jupiter’s winds aren’t influenced by landforms, so their structure is formed by the spherical shape of the planet, the force of gravity, and the Coriolis effect. That made sense to me as a way to envision Aurora. I could see it as a world with disjunct air currents that have rough, turbulence between them. Technologically savvy cultures could set up windmills along the borders, utilizing the constant relative wind as a source of unending energy. I could show each band as a self-contained linear graphic. Political boundaries would take place naturally within bands, but some empires might colonize into nearby bands the way Earth empires have had colonies in different continents.

Seeing the Eye of Jupiter also gave me the idea to put similar giant storms in Aurora. They would form an almost impassable obstacle in a band. The truly colossal ones might push the turbulent boundary outward, compressing everything nearby so that the currents would flow fast and narrow for many layers of neighboring regions.

The bands would travel at different velocities, so if I wanted to set specific speeds for each one, I could figure out the interval between the alignment of each pair. As a GM though, I probably wouldn’t do it. If they needed to go from a place on one band to a place in another band, I would just decide on the spot how long it takes for those locations to line up again, based on where I want the story to go.

With those decisions made, I had an approach for drawing a map (disjunct, flat bands of different lengths that connected east-west) and the list of elements for which I needed iconography:

Turbulence regions

  • Storms

  • Cloud forests

  • Boulders (including those with settlements)

  • Free-floating settlements

  • Gravity-induced collection spots (and a way to indicate strength.)

Then it occurred to me that, in a plane of air, points of interest could float at different altitudes. In fact, entire bands could overlap, flowing at different heights and winding among each other like individual noodles in a bowl of spaghetti. And that’s the next complicating factor.

Overlapping Altitudes

The more I considered the problem of depth and altitude, the more I realized I was going to have to deal with it in a number of situations. Normally maps are projections.  They take the surface area of a three-dimensional object and spread it flat so you see the entire surface at once, even if you stretch or squish parts of the surface or make cuts to spread it out. Imagine the surface of Earth being a skin, and we just take it off the world and lay it flat, taking the surface of the sphere and spreading it onto a flat planar area. In a typical map projection, we ignore anything above or below that skin.

However, with Aurora I was looking at a situation where I really needed all three dimensions. On any given latitude and longitude, there might be a handful of different points of interest at different altitudes. In a typical world, they’d be above the "skin", and I would ignore them. For Aurora, there was no skin.  There were just the immense overlapping air currents piled on top of each other and winding like a nest of serpents. If I flattened it like a typical projection, points of interest would overlap, turning the map into a confusing mess.

So I tried to think of other situations where people dealt with three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional way and ended up finding a lot of different approaches. Some of the more useful image types were blueprints, engineering drawings, subway lines, cutaway views, and exploded view images. Jet stream diagrams helped me understand the height issue as well, because what’s going on in the upper atmosphere isn’t always the same as what’s on the ground.

I got lost down the rabbit hole looking at various images, but eventually I extracted some overarching principles. As far as I could see, people take a few useful approaches when trying to depict three dimensions onto a flat drawing.

First, if there isn’t too much overlapping, draw it like a two-dimensional map, but use color, shadow, or iconography to indicate depth (for example, the Jet Stream example or this graphic of the Norwegian Current). I think this approach works best if depth is the most important thing depicted, and the rest of the information can be simplified. Otherwise, the depth/altitude information becomes hard to notice. If Aurora didn’t have many types of natural geography or had only one or two great currents winding their way through a static airscape, that might work, but I envisioned something a lot more dynamic. So, reluctantly, I let this idea go.

Second, depict it as a 3-D cutaway drawing, such as this drawing of a nuclear reactor or this one of skin. I think if the map were narrow enough that each longitudinal point only had space to fit a couple points of interest, then this would work. Drawing it well would take some serious skills and time on task, which I wasn’t sure I could devote, so I put the idea in my pocket and moved on.

Third, divide altitude into discrete layers and deal with them separately. That’s what blueprints do, such as this one of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, where each story is self-contained. If I divided the currents into layers of different altitudes, I could do a similar treatment for Aurora. The drawback is that sometimes it’s a little tough to see how the layers overlap, a problem I could ameliorate by drawing or printing out the different layers in transparency film. Then, I could look at each layer independently or stack them on top of each other as needed to see how one would line up with another if the player wanted to travel between layers.

The Multiverse

I had a plan for drawing my planes, but then I ran into another problem: how to depict the overall multiverse itself. When my players travel from one plane to the next, they would need to be able to plan their routes. They would need the interplanar equivalent of a roadmap. For a single world, I have a very good idea of how travel works because I do it all the time. I understand what information is useful to have on a map for someone going from place to place. I wasn't sure exactly what would be best for interplanar travel, however. So again, I started with a bit of research, Googling terms like “multiverse map” and “map of the planes” and looking at images those searches brought up.

Most multiverse graphics focused on acting as a cosmological reference—using design to show what planes exist and, if possible, how they’re related to each other. They seemed to be less like geographic maps and more like Venn or network diagrams. This approach seemed useful as a reference and to establish atmosphere, but it seemed fairly useless for navigation. Of course, I couldn’t resist creating a cosmological reference graphic anyway, though I wasn’t sure it would really help my players if they wanted to really understand how to travel around the planes.

Image by Cathy, the Overprepared GM

Image by Cathy, the Overprepared GM


Then I started combing through my information design books and websites to see if some other, non-map design might have been applicable. I looked through a cornucopia of graphs, charts, tables, layouts, and designs too specialized to have gotten an official name, but in doing so, I realized I needed to figure out the details of how interplanar travel worked before I tried to conceptualize an information design for it.

Interplanar Travel

After some deep thought, I decided to split interplanar travel into three categories.

  1. Poofing: I call the first category of interplanar travel the poof method, because they go “poof”, just like that. Feel free to refer to this by a more dignified name. Using the poof method, the characters can instantly travel from an arbitrary location in one plane to a location of their choosing in a different plane. I mean, they may experience some time passing, but for all intents and purposes, they just magically teleport. Examples of the poof method include using the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the Tardis from Doctor Who, or the Gate spell in D&D. If interplanar travel depends on poofing from place to place, then the players only need to have maps of the individual planes and some sort of cosmological reference. They don’t need any sort of map analog to traverse the multiverse.

  2. Portals: Using portals, there are specific places in each world that are connected to specific places in other worlds. They may be called conjunctions, coterminous planes, wormholes, doorways, gates, or some other term. For cartographic purposes, they’re all the same. These portals are part of the plane’s geography. If the portal is open or active, then travel through it is very much like teleporting with the poof method. The key difference is that players need a visual depiction of how the portals connect to each other to help them navigate. In particular, they need to be able to tell where the portals are in their plane of origin and where they connect to in their destination plane. I think flight maps, similar to what airlines have, serve as the best analog in designing a useful atlas for navigation with portals. They show all their flights as curved lines overlaying a world map. The difference is that in a multiverse with portal travel, we’d need lines to connect points on disjunct world maps.

  3. Subspace: In this scenario, characters travel by going into portals, but travel through the portal is not instantaneous. Instead, they enter a different place (I’m calling it subspace) that must itself be navigated in order to arrive at their destination. Subspace can have very different physical rules than the other planes, but all planes are connected to it somehow. Examples might be the Spire from Planescape or the Ena from Andrea Host’s Touchstone series or the Never Never from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Mechanically, this is a special case of portals where the connections all go in and out of a single world. However designing a navigational aid for subspace is a different design problem than doing so for a set of portals. Since everything goes through one area, and that area is not itself a destination, then it’s more useful to use a subway map as an analogy. Players will need a good reference of possible portal stations that connect the other planes to the subspace and enough geographic info of the subspace to navigate from portal to portal.  They won’t need a full atlas of the subspace, but have to understand enough to choose routes. Now, subway maps are problematic because they heavily simplify the design. This makes it easier to read,but the increased legibility comes at a cost of geographic realism. Since subway riders only need to know which stops to use, distance and direction can be distorted far more than in regular maps. It’s a design approach that many people will be familiar with, but requires judicious handling.

Image by Adam Bassett

Image by Adam Bassett

After some contemplation, I decided to use the subspace approach to interplanar travel. Players enter a separate subspace, Aeon, and have to navigate around that before exiting to a new plane. It can also act as a way to take shortcuts if they’re clever, connecting two places that are distant from each other by a shorter path in Aeon.

Bringing that back to Aurora, that meant that in addition to adding portal locations to the map of Pandora (the original world my characters started in) and Aurora (the plane of air), I would have to create a separate map showing Aeon.  It would initially focus on the portals and land between them. I could add lines connecting portals within Aeon to those on other planes. Eventually, if the stations and lines filled enough of the space, it might make sense to make a full Aeon atlas, but it’s more likely that we’d finish the campaign before we got that far.

Image by Cathy, the Overprepared GM

Image by Cathy, the Overprepared GM

The Takeaway

You may or may not want to use Aurora. However, if you decide to chart your own multiverse, here are some common lessons to keep in mind.

Cartography and Information Design are fascinating fields developed by smart folks. If you’re creating something new, it’s useful to look around and see what other people have created to deal with similar constraints. Take the time to nail down what you’re trying to show before you try to design for it.

The Purpose of Maps in RPGs can be boiled down to:

  1. Navigation: helping players understand how to get from place to place.

  2. Reference: because looking up all the places and how they relate to each other is easier with a picture than a list.

  3. Atmosphere: to associate qualities or characteristics to places.

Airscape Icons can mostly be the same as iconography from more traditional atlases. Floating cities are still cities, after all, though some features require new icons:

  • Turbulence regions

  • Storms

  • Epiphyte forests

  • Areas of heavy or differing gravity

  • Relative wind speed or cycle length (the time it takes a current to make a full cycle through its path)

  • Vacuum or pressure difference

Fluid planes are ones where the points of interest move in relation to each other. One approach might be to envision them either as jet streams or currents moving among stable points. Another might be to visualize them acting like gas giants with the entire airscape banded by currents moving at different velocities and separated by a turbulent transition. In either case, it’s useful to draw one map that shows all the bands and how they relate to each other physically. Then, draw each band separately as its own graphic (the same way we label cities on a world map) and create separate city maps. Fluid planes may be dominated by air, gas, or water.

Planes with altitude are those where different natural geographies may exist at each two-dimensional point. If there is little overlap, it may be possible to draw this as a more traditional, two-dimensional map and just indicate depth or altitude by color, line, or iconography. If there is a lot of overlap, then this traditional 2-D style is not practical. Instead, the most workable design organizes the world into layers at different depths. For a water world, those layers may include a surface layer, photic zone, and aphotic zone. An arboreal world may include layers like the canopy, understory, surface, and root zones, while an underground world’s layers may simply serve as depth indicators.

Cosmological charts are a useful reference to know what planes exist and how they relate to each other thematically, but they generally do little to help players navigate.

Portal maps show how different planes connect to each other through portals. They are similar to flight maps in the real world. If interplanar travel always goes through a special space that is not a destination of itself, then it may be practical to create something like a simplified subway map to help players navigate between worlds.

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Cover Image by Tristen Fekete