Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Revisiting Points of Light as a Setting Ideal

My crew jumped into 4th Edition hard when it came out.  While the best thing that came out of our 4E experience was a greater appreciation for Classic D&D (BX), 1E AD&D, and the OSR movement, the non-mechanical aspects of 4E were actually well-executed, particularly the world-building.  My favorite conceit from the 4E time period was the metaphor "points of light" as a descriptor for the default type of campaign setting the designers envisioned.

4E introduced a new world (eventually called Nerath) and a default starting area called the Nentir Vale.  The premise of a points of light setting is that the world is fallen; civilized people now live in small, isolated settlements (the points of light) scattered across a dark and dangerous world.  The areas between the points of light involve dangerous stretches of wilderness, marauded by humanoids, bandits, and monsters.  Scattered ruins of prior civilizations and failed attempts to quell the wilds dot the landscape.  It's a far cry from the heavily civilized settings like Forgotten Realms or Eberron.

In fact, "points of light" as a setting metaphor has more in common with Middle Earth.  Tolkien's world is sparsely populated, there are very few settlements on the map, and journeys consist of leaving a sheltered area like the Shire or Rivendell and covering huge expanses of wilderness to reach the next settlement.

The other aspect of points of light that resonates with me is it's embrace of "the American West" as a paradigm for society and mobility.  Small groups of heroes traveling vast landscapes, dishing out frontier justice and following a loose code of honor, is part of 19th century gunslinger folklore or the ideals of the knight-errant from Medieval romances.  D&D embraces social mobility through heroic action (and recovering vast sums of gold) which aligns with the ideals of the Western and American mythology, unlike a historical game or European feudal simulator.

With that in mind, here are a pair of area maps for the setting I've been working on, The Midlands.  I still have to name mountain ranges and some natural features, but they're pretty far along.  (You can see the development of the underlying world and larger area maps from last week's posts). The Midlands consists of 7 or so small "kingdoms" dotted up and down a large valley between two sets of highlands.  To the North, the Scandians and Greats have invaded, carving out their own frontier settlements at places like Slaghold, or Jernrike.  Each hex on the map is 24 miles, so there are many days of travel between major settlements, going for that sparsely populated "Middle Earth" feel.  Original Greyhawk was similarly presented, with sparse settlements depicted with giant hexes (30 miles per hex).

The Midlands, no hexes

The Midlands, 24 miles per hex
Now that all of the broader foundations are in place (the world, the continent, the region maps) I'm going to zoom in to the area of Bernia and Harrowdale and build out a smaller scale hex map (maybe 6 or 8 miles per hex) ready for use as a sandbox.  Will be back soon.


  1. Nice work. What program did you use to draw the maps?

    1. Hi Peter - I do most of my mapping with Campaign Cartographer. It's a powerful tool with good support for gaming maps - overland, cities, dungeons. The world maps last post were with a tool called Fractal Terrains. (Pretty sure I still have Hexographer kicking around too though).

    2. Thanks, I'll look into CC. I create all my top-layer maps with Hexographer but it's nice to see something more realistic and artistic for a change.

  2. I really like the points of light framing.

    Do you have a system you like for making all of the travel rewarding? For me, travel processes and roadside encounters usually feel less interesting than whatever the destination is. I want a better way to do it, but nothing has clicked for me yet.

    1. I agree, it's hard to make travel super interesting. You need to be able change from a very high level zoom (you travel the road for 6 hours...) to a close-in zoom when an encounter happens. I like to create some random tables to give me ideas on making the local terrain and party's activities more detailed for when an encounter happens - below is an example of the technique from my ongoing Chult campaign.


      I've also heard that the 5E Middle Earth did some things to make journeys interesting, I'm hoping to read it over the next few weeks and get more ideas.