This entry is part 6 in the series Lessons From The West Wing

Credit: Eurobas at en.wikipedia

It’s time for another of my occasional Lessons From The West Wing. This draws heavily on concepts put forward in a single episode, Episode 16 of Season 2, “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail”.

Some people have decried the episode as one of the weakest in the West Wing’s repetoir, others found it illuminating. As it happened, it was the first episode that I actually watched on free-to-air TV, and it hooked me pretty solidly.

The A-plot of the episode connected an act of infidelity with revelations of a Soviet Spy from the WWII era. That’s an OK plot but not brilliant. The B-plot involves world trade protestors, and that’s a lot more interesting in a lot of ways, and the summation of the principles of Oratory is also useful. But it was the C-plot that hooked me – a plot thread that doesn’t even rate a mention in the Official Companion to the series, much to my annoyance.

That C-plot revolves around a proposal by the “Organization of Cartographers For Social Equality” – a fictional organisation so far as I know – to replace the familiar Mercator-projection map with an inverted version of the Gall-Peters Projection Map – something like the one used to illustrate this article. You can find out more about this map at the Wikipedia Page and you can purchase copies of these and other unusual ways of viewing the world from ODT.

But while the map itself was fascinating, what really grabbed me were the arguements proposed for the impact of the traditional Mercator projection map on social attitudes.

Stretching A Globe to fit a square page

The problems with the Mercator Projection are shown by the illustration above, where three identical yellow rectangles are positioned, two at the top and one directly south of the first.

The second picture shows these rectangles arranged on the section of the globe indicated by the first picture, and the third shows the effects of Mercator Projection.

  • Errors Of Scale: The top-left rectangle appears much larger than the bottome left one, even though they are the same size.
  • Errors Of Location: The scale problem means that the distances between the two top rectangles are also exaggerated.
  • Errors Of Relative Position: And the distortion affects the aparrant relative position of the left-hand rectangles, as well. In fact, they don’t appear to be due south of each other any more!

Any map has one latitudinal line where the scales are perfect. Anything closer to the equator will be shrunken to fit, anything closer to the poles is stretched. There’s no way to accurately map a globe in every respect except with a scale model, ie a Globe.

Mercator Projection was first produced in 1569 works by maintaining straight lines of constant bearing for longitude and latitude at regular spacings. This makes the map especially useful for Ocean Navigation, the purpose for which it was designed. For just about any other purpose, it is deceptive.

Germany appears in the middle of the map – the central point chosen by Mercator (who was German) – when in fact it’s in the Northernmost quarter. The Zero-error line chosen by Mercator runs right through Germany, in other words, and stretches Europe to fill the top half of the map, while shrinking the Southern Hemisphere. So Mercator’s projection doesn’t just distort horizontally, it also distorts vertical size.

The Peters projection works by preserving the true relative sizes of the continents. That makes it useless for navigation purposes, as it has to distort the map in a different way to achieve this, and consequently a “straight line course” from point A to point B would actually be shown as a curve on the map – but in many other ways, it’s an improvement, at least according to the proposal aired on The West Wing.

Size Equals Importance

…at least in the mind of the beholder. Or so runs the arguement from the West Wing, at least, which argues that the distortions of the Mercator Map play on that subconscious association to distort social perceptions of the non-European nations. The specific examples cited are:

  • Greenland appears to be the same size as Africa, and Greenland is not very important, so people think of Africa as also not very important. Africa is actually 14 times the size of Greenland.
  • Europe is shown on the Mercator Map as being considerably larger than South America, when the latter is almost double the size of the former. Consequently, according to the theory, South America is diminished in importance.
  • Alaska appears three times the size of Mexico, but Mexixo is actually a fraction (100,000 square miles) bigger. So Mexico is percieved as having the importance of a single US State.

Of course there are many more, but that’s enough to go by.

It was while pondering this that I started to think about the way most GMs produce Maps.

Maps In RPGs

More to the point, we don’t do them in the ways that were common in the Middle Ages, even for our Fantasy campaigns. Instead, we go for satellite photo land-use style area maps, similar to those we would encounter in a modern atlas, simply because we havn’t thought about it.

Why do it that way? Surely the “as the crow flies” distance and absolute position of locations is not the most important thing about them?

For Fumanor, the maps that I created when setting up my original campaign are NOT topographically perfect. Instead of using an absolute distance as my guideline for drawing the maps, I used a relative travel time. I also deliberately enlarged areas that were supposedly important and shrunk areas that were not considered important.

Click on the image for a larger version

The PCs have never figured this out.

Whenever a map comes up in the game – like the one above – they have assumed that it was an “accurate” map, and that the hexes referred to a fixed distance. They even calculated that distance as 50 miles per small hex, and had me mark that on the maps as I produced them within the game.

In fact, each small hex represents Two Days’ March, or one day’s Forced March. Or, roughly a week of casual travel, or travel by wagon. A horse can cover two hexes in a day – but after a week of this, the horse will be exhausted and need a week’s rest. If you change horses regularly, you can fly across the map.

The Elvish Forest is shown to be roughly the same size as the Orcish Domain to the Northeast and the Trollheim to the Southeast – in fact, the Elves home is about 1/4 the size, end to end, or about 1/16th the area, of these two domains.

Terrain plays a big factor. The mountains on the left look huge – but they aren’t, it’s just that it takes a considerable amount of time, even following the trails that exist, to cross them. They aren’t 1500 miles across – they are barely 150 miles across – but they have been distorted in size because the terrain makes them slow going.

Once you already have a map, it’s hard to convert it to work in this way. The secret is to draw it like you would any other map, and then assume that what it is showing is the relative positions and distances and not the true positions.

A step farther

But why not go a step farther? Make marks on a map to show the relative size or importance of a town or city, as usual – but have them equally spaced apart, with a straight line for any roads or other means of transport, and – if you have to – you can show a travel time in days next to the line.

This is a far more compact and abstract map – but one that can be extremely useful. Here’s a small example:

This shows a small Kingdom with sea to the East, wastelands to the northeast, swamp to the south, and a ring of impenetrable mountains to the north and west. There’s also a forest, roads, rivers, and towns – assume that a real map of this type would show town names, as well. I could also have drawn dark heavy outlines around areas that are fortified, or not done so if I preferred. But that’s all – there’s virtually nothing about the terrain, the distances, the sights, the climate – which means that whatever needs to be dropped in, can be. The result is highly abstract and purely functional.

You can even develop such a map as a “strip” as the party travel – you indicate each road that they don’t follow, and where it goes, and anything of interest that they find along the way. Use a scale of half a cm or 1/4 of an inch for each day’s travel. This then forms the backbone for future explorations by the characters – they can branch off at any point to follow a new path. The result is something like the transport maps that became popular a few years back, like the example above (which shows the Madrid rail system).

Top And Bottom

Another arguement made in the course of the West Wing – which fell on rather less friendly ears – was that people subconsciously impose a superior capability to countries that appear on the top of a map. This arguement, if it held water, would indicate that Canada is percieved as more powerful and globally significant than the US, that Finland is seen as more important than France, which in turn is seen as more important than Spain – it doesn’t wash.

Nevetheless, it’s a fact that the most powerful nations, with a history of contributing to global civilization, generally lie in the Northern Hemisphere, while much of the third world does not.

So perhaps there is something too this, but it is easily overridden when we know better from other sources of information.

What, then, is the result if we – or more specifically, the PCs – don’t know any better? No matter how much you’ve heard about a place, it’s mever real until you go there and see it first hand. Until the characters interact with it, all a new country is to them is a splodge of colour om a map. Under such circumstances, it’s entirely possible that these ‘impressions of importance’ actually occur. In which case, GMs can deliberately play to the stereotype, or choose to invert it.

Or you can choose to avoid the question altogether by changing the directions of the map. Again, this is something that I chose to do in Fumanor, where the principle direction that orients the top of all maps is “Sunrise” and it’s opposite is “Sunset”. If you face the Sunset, then “Dexter” is to your right, while “Sinister” (named because that’s where all the trouble seems to come from) is to your left. The world has no compass or equivalent; those directions are all that they’ve got.

Even the fact that it gets hotter as one travels to the Dexter and colder towards the Sinister is explained by the fact that there are Deserts in the former direction, and tall, snow-capped mountain ranges in the latter.

In this environment, it’s not that stars move across the night sky; it’s more important that they rise and set.

So exercise a little thought in advance and look for an alternative to the obvious North-South arrangement, and you will alter your characters’ thinking.

Like Neighbourhoods

Another assumption that a lot of people make is that one country will tend to be very much like their neighbours – that the climate will be similar, and the behaviour of the people will be similar, and so on. People have a tendancy to generalise by region.

This is a fact that GMs can take advantage of, with a little thought. Putting two nations that are socially and superficially very similar can be a great way of disguising the key differences until they catch the PCs off-guard. Placing two nations far apart that are superficially very different, but are very similar when you get down to the bottom line, is another technique that can be useful.

There are, of course, good reasons why the similarity between neighbours is often a fairly reasonable assumption. Not only would they be likely to experience similar climates, as already noted, but what affects one (eg an invasion by a third, or a shortage of some particular raw material) will probably also affect the other. They are likely to trade with each other, which is a great way of subtly signposting the differences, but that brings with it an exchange of ideas and techniques that makes one seem to resemble the other more closely. They may originally have been a single nation, giving them a shared heritage, common language, and so on.

I don’t tend to think too deeply about this when designing worlds for my games, and it’s something that I think I should pay closer attention to.

Maps reflect the thinking of their makers

In the middle ages, many European maps placed the religious centre of their ‘world’ in the centre of the map. In some cases, that was Constantinople, in others it was Rome, and so on. The farther away from the centre of authority the map went, the ‘fuzzier’ it was likely to be in terms of accuracy and detail. Some mapmakers went so far as to flesh out these extremely distant regions with dogma and superstition.

Maps that were wildly inaccurate have a tendancy not to be easy to track down in modern times; we tend to ignore them, they aren’t readily accessable over the internet, and so on. There were maps that tried to reconcile Columbus’ discovery of The New World with his mistaken belief that this was a distant region of India, for example, but these are hard to find referances to.

Whenever you produce a map for the players to digest, always take a moment to consider the question of who supposedly drew the map, what mistakes did they make, and what dogam and superstition did they incorporate?

A lot of people draw their maps early in the world-building process, and use the geography to guide them in the writing of their campaign history, the defining of national boundaries, and so on. This approach certainly makes it quicker and easier to do so, but these development maps should get thrown away afterwards and fresh maps created from the descriptions and history that you have compiled. These should make no attempt to be accurate to the development maps, but should instead be accurate exclusively to the history – and the GM should have no qualms while creating that history about ignoring any inconvenient “realities” on the development maps.

Maps affect the thinking of the viewers

The final point to be made is this: what’s shown on a map has a big effect on the thinking of those who view it. They help define the relationships between nations, the geographic boundaries that divide and the geographic connections that unite.

I once came up with an idea for a campaign that I never got to play (and I’ve long since thrown away the notes, so I can’t post it – or I would). A central element of the campaign was a continent-wide conspiracy, and the first manifestation of that conspiracy was going to be the existance in each nation of that continent a small town named Jel’tvech (some spelling variations – Jelveck, Chelech, etc). These words would all mean different things within the dominant language of the nation in which they were located, often things that would not naturally occur to people as inspriration for a town name. I can only remember a couple of the literal translations now – there was “City of Shadows”, “Passionblood”, “Usurper’s Refuge”, “Crown of Eggs”… about two dozen, in all. These were all that remained of the mythic tale of the founding of the kingdoms, when they were all provinces of an Empire ruled by Lovecraftian Horrors, and of the overthrow and exile of those Horrors. But now, they were coming back…

The map that I had created – a sheet of A4 paper with a coastline in blue pen, some forests in Green, some cities in red, some mountains in black, and some political boundaries in pencil – wasn’t just a map of the area, it was to be a map of the entire campaign, of the plotlines and narrative that were going to unite the adventures of the PCs into a single structure – in other words, it was a map of the metaplot.

I never finished it; the map and notes got set aside because I saw no prospect at the time of ever using them in play (I had no D&D players at the time) and later, they were ruined when an accidentally-left-open window let the rain in.

But the general principle remains. When you draw a map, think about the residents of each city and nation that you place on it, and ask yourself how they would percieve their place in the world according to the map you have drawn?

Which reminds me of another undeveloped idea that’s relevant. Once each PC had chosen which nation of several that they were going to derive from, I was going to draw maps for them of their homelands using vector art software, then subtly change each. No one player’s map would show the political boundaries in exactly the same places; some of them would have dates that indicated that they were out-of-date, others would reflect disputed borders, and still others would be drawn by foreigners who got some of the details wrong for whatever reason. This was to be a way of bringing the background of the proposed campaign into the lives of each of the PCs in a different way. I would then generate an adventure based around each of the differences, which would establish the camapign in a way that was interactive for the players. Again, this was an idea that I never got around to developing because I would never have had the time to run it.

A map is more than a representation of the geography of an area. Take advantage of that fact.

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