Today I’m going to be talking about a technique you can use to inject your world with conflicts, situations and drama, by drawing a new overlay for your map. This technique is inspired by the Paradox Games such as Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4. You can think of Cultures as Ethnicities if it helps.
(I imagine many worldbuilders have already played these games, but if you haven’t check them out. You’re in for a treat).
What is a Culture Map and what does it do for me?
The aim of the culture map is to give you material to work with when it comes to your history. It is a way of breathing life into your world. The tool directly creates situations which you can choose to develop. Rather than working through your countries one by one, it allows you to build up several at once by almost generating situations for you. For example you might have a country that is populated by a several different cultures, bordering a country with a culture of a different group. You as the worldbuilder can take this and develop it. This country might be a diverse land with different tribal ethnic groups squabbling for power, but prevented from civil war by the threat of the neighbouring barbarians bringing with them a completely different and alien way of life.
Even though I had info on different countries, and a good idea of their culture, the political map can still look rather static. I found it hard to weave a nice history around the states. I felt like I was following a checklist, disputed succession here, ethnic minority rulers here, civil war there. I was getting caught up in how different cultures should be from their neighbours, whether there is a common religion across this region etc and a Culture Map can help overcome this.
We’re going to create something like this. You can use this on your current world or on a new world. If its your current world, I would suggest hiding the nation boundaries so you don’t follow them too much, then enabling them at the end and taking a look what has developed.
How to do it
This guide assumes you are using GIMP, PS, or program that has layers.
Duplicate your map / terrain layer. Hide the bottom one. On the top layer, erase the sea and water bodies. Follow the coast as close as you can.
Right click the layer and hit Alpha to Selection. Make a new layer, lower the opacity to about 50%. Select the new layer.
This allows you to paint on your cultures without painting in the sea, over lakes etc.
Always remember to click Alpha to Selection on on the second layer and then draw on your top layer. This way you can show and hide your cultures and your coastlines will be nice and neat.
Points to Consider
Colour in different areas on the map to show the (dominant) cultures there. I prefer to do each separate culture and then group them after into different culture groups, or religions.
- Use the terrain to guide you. People living in mountains are going to have cultural differences and traditions from those living in humid swamps, who would again have different cultures form those living on temperate plains or islands.
- Use geographical features such as rivers, mountains and the coast act as natural boundaries for some culture, but also imagine a history of culture expansion and transition as people, ideas and empires spread across the land. Allow this to guide you to smudge your cultures around your mountains and across the river. Don’t worry about how the culture came to be over here, just know that at some point in your world’s history there’s a reason, which you can discover later on if you want.
- Tough to handle terrain, where its harder to travel, tends to lead to more linguistic/cultural diversity.
Darker brown areas indicate higher mountains. Mountain ranges will form natural boundaries to cultures, such as those dividing Pink and Green. In this section of the map we have several cultures nestled around the mountain peaks .The Blue culture, in the centre, is localised in the higher regions of the mountains.
- Don’t make them too blobby or follow your Political Map too much. Cultures won’t fit neatly into political borders. They aren’t spread evenly and don’t have even populations. They can take much longer to change that nation boundaries. They can be spread across nations and be of different sizes and shapes. one culture might be large, but but its people spread across four nations and be a minority in each. There might be three separate Kingdoms all belonging the same culture type.
- Some cultures may pop up in unusual places, away from their main area. Perhaps relics of fallen Empires, or new expansion efforts?
In this section of the map, you see an area of Green culture cut off from the majority of their kin. They are separated by high mountains (brown) and the Purple culture in the lowlands. The people here are likely to want to reunite themselves with one another
- Small or remote cultures. Some cultures might resist change in more remote areas from lack of contact, strong cultural identity or sheer stubbornness. Consider putting these in remote areas, peninsulas or islands on the back side of a larger Empire.
Here there have a number of small cultures on the islands. Brown culture hugging the coast where Blue dominates. In the East, Purple holds on in to two remote areas. Perhaps they are a fading culture, once dominating the lands between them too?
Many cultures have a similarities. Several may share a religion or the same cultural roots. They have more that binds them than separates them when they consider their similarities and differences.
- Look to the terrain again. Try picture what regions might have more common ground.
- Think about your history. Rising empires will spread their culture across a region or a collapsed empire’s culture might fracture into a number of successor cultures that share a group, and a history.
Use the Fuzzy Select Tool (select area of continuous colour). Holding shift, select all cultures of the same group. Select a new layer. Then Edit – > Stroke Selection. I used 3px as width.
Show Country Borders
Drawing country borders using criteria such as those above will ensure your countries will broadly match your cultures. If you already have borders, simply re-enable them and take a look and see whats being going on.
Putting It All Together: Plot Points
Using this technique, you can generate loads of plot points or areas of history for you to explore.
Take this section of the map.
- Are there any minorities?: In this country on the southern half of the land mass there are 4 cultures. Three cultures belonging to to the red culture group, and one to dark blue. These two regions are a different culture group to the majority of their country. Are they persecuted?
- Who is in control? How is their relationship with the others?: The two large cultures are split pretty equally. They might be two large factions of the country vying for control, have a bit of a divide or a friendly rivalry.
- Common Enemy: Most of the countries on this protruding landmass are in the red culture group, they might all share an animosity to the light blue culture group, or a defensive alliance to protect one another.
- Separatist movements: In the central large country, there are a few orange cultures, and a blue region in the west. This region has a completely different culture to the majority of its country, it borders regions in other countries and borders a country where its culture is dominant. Any one of these might be cause for rebellion. All three means civil unrest is likely be very high here.
- Claims to the Land: The orange country holds lands belonging to the culture of its neighbour. That neighbour is likely to declare war at some point to free and reunite their people.
- Why is the culture spread like this?: Perhaps blue used to hold all these lands and wishes to reconquer them. Perhaps orange is a new radical religion that is sweeping from the mountains in the east and spreading across west as more and more people adapt to the new way of life.
- Patchwork Countries: These mountain regions are a patchwork mess of interweaving nations and cultures. Borders here seem particularly fluid, short lived empires might be prone here. Maybe its a region of mountain warlords constantly subjugating one another, spreading their cultures around.
So you can see how much material and inspiration a culture map can give you to develop your world and its history. It can be a great way to breathe life into your world and be another way to look at it.
Thanks for reading.