One tactic that can work to the GM’s advantage is to start the description of his gameworld with just a small area, with an equally small population, and work outwards from there as he has time or in preparation for planned expansions as a part of the adventures he writes, when he is ready. This allows him to work on expanding and detailing his gameworld at his own pace. A whole continent is quite a bit to start with, even if the GM is only designing the physical features. Perhaps an island might be better, a largish one so it can be self-sustaining in regards to food production and manufacture of necessaries.
The GM really does not need to worry about the details of the kingdom at large in which the PC’s live, merely come up with a name he likes for it so he can tell the players “This is your kingdom, these are your people”.
Even a single realm may present too much diversity in subject matter for the GM to nail down the details from the start, especially when the GM’s time is limited. Starting small is particularly recommended when the GM is new to the task and has no real point of reference for creating a fantasy world for the purposes of roleplay.
If the GM has even a little bit of time to spend working up some details for the gameworld, he should confine his efforts to only general information regarding the people of the characters’ native kingdom and its major regions, in addition to the smaller area he is detailing specifically for the PCs’ adventures. That way he can include some general background about the larger identity of the characters, who they are as a people in addition to their local (family) identity. The rest is better left to amuse and divert the players later, when they have the wealth, reputation, and/or station to actually live their lives on a larger, more regional or national scale.
Even a small group of countries provide an array of special problems of their own which must be addressed, politics in particular. While politics may be fun and relatively easy to establish, they rarely enter play at the beginning of a game or campaign unless the GM draws on it for his adventures, except when there is a Courtier/Courtesan character. The national royal government will touch the peoples’ lives very little in any sort of direct way in the medieval fantasy gameworld, however, and such characters of Social Trades can just as easily be attached to a local manor lord to get them involved solely in the local scene, which is far more appropriate for a starting character in the first place. In this way, the whole question of the surrounding kingdom (or sovereign duchy, or principality, or margravate, etc.) – and the whole outside world beyond it – can just be ignored in the beginning by the GM, if desired.
Instead of a whole realm, the GM doesn’t even have to go all that far in describing the gameworld environment for the PC’s, if he is ready to just sit down and play. He is free start with a (largish) village, or perhaps a smaller town (being more flexible in regards to what might be found there), or perhaps a mid-sized town and the villages within roughly 10 miles, to be used as a base of operations or “home base” for the PC’s; OR he might just map out an area about 10 or 20 miles square with forest(s), river(s), a scattering of villages and maybe a town, maybe a few hills or even a couple mountains.
This should be the locale from which all of the PC’s in the game should hail, just for the sake of providing the party, literally, with “common ground”.
Medieval kingdoms in the English style are divided down into small regions called “shires”, which are used to bring the administration of royal government to the subjects on a local level. For the benefit of the officials that administer the shires, the “sheriffs” (from their original title of “shire-reeve”), the shires are further divided into smaller administrative districts called “hundreds”. Theoretically the hundred was an area that contained roughly 100 “hides” (each equal to 120 acres) of developed and working farmland. By that definition, each hundred would be 12,000 acres, or a circle roughly 5 miles in diameter, or a square roughly 4 and 1/3rd miles on a side, BUT the acreage under plow to make up a hundred had to be tallied from the extents of the land in cultivation in a broader region due to the presence of “waste” (undeveloped land) which lay in between villages or amongst the three fields of a given village and around scattered freeholds and the demesnes of the manors. Thus the boundaries were much wider than the simple area of land under plow would indicate by itself.
A single shire can range from roughly 20 by 20 miles or so (Huntingdonshire) up to 40 by 45 miles (Shropshire), c. 40 by 60 miles (Gloucestershire), or 45 by 75 miles (Lincolnshire), but the great majority will fall within the middle of the ranges given, although the “counties palatine” (free of interference from the royal bureaucratic government, though NOT free of the ultimate authority of the Crown) generally tend to be over-sized when compared to the shires.
Following the invasion of 1066, the shires came to be called “counties”, in the Continental style used all over France, as the conquering Normans applied the more familiar (to them) French terminology. Due to the uniquely English nature of the word “shire”, it has been retained and used for the purposes of RoM in preference to the label of “county” throughout the text.
England had 43 shires. Wales was divided into 12 shires after the conquest by Edward I of England.
The smaller the population per area, the larger the areas both the shires and the hundreds of which they are composed will encompass. A shire can be composed of as few as 4 hundreds (as in Huntingdonshire) to as many as 40 (as in Gloucestershire), but will average 17 or 18 hundreds each.
Thus, the size of the area recommended above to allow the GM a quick start is just about right for a single shire, broken into 15 or 20 hundreds and containing 3 to 5 or 6 small to mid-sized towns plus one chief town where the sheriff does the king’s business, and villages scattered hither and yon within a number of manor lordships.
This narrower-focus approach allows the GM to focus on the first and following scenarios or adventures, making them as deep and richly detailed as he likes, and leaving the details of the surrounding world to fill in only as the players ask/characters actually hike/ride out to see what lies in the surrounding area. That can leave rather a flat impression on the players after the first couple games, however, which may be difficult to dispel even as details are added because they are added “mid-stream”, so to speak.
IF he has a bit more time to develop something more than just the 10-20 mile square or radius based on a town recommended above, the GM might consider directing his attention to developing the hundred surrounding the town, and the hundreds surrounding that one, or perhaps the entire surrounding shire, or draw a rough circle around this “home base” of about 20 – 25 miles in radius, c.40 – 50 miles in diameter. Inside this area, one mid-sized shire and even part of a second will fit, having 15 to 20 hundreds in it and a major borough as chief shire town, and again with 3 to 5 or 6 small to mid-sized borough towns (largely self-governing by royal charter).
Before the GM goes so far as to plot the locations for the chief towns and boroughs, the terrain in the area to be defined and detailed should be decided, the general landforms in it should be drawn. The 40-50 mile area mentioned could contain a couple good-sized mountains or be covered completely by a mountain range, with the people living by farming only in the valley floors between or raising livestock in the rough and rocky slopes rising high above, as was common in medieval Wales, Germany and Switzerland. Mountains high and fair, deep and rugged, rising through the tattered wisps of clouds can have a haunting, romantic or vaguely threatening character, a good setting for adventures and adventuring. Elevation should be considered if the coast is not nearby, and especially if there are mountains in or near, or especially if they command the entire area. Alternately, the area could be situated at the edge of the plains rising to rough hills along one side, or divided evenly between these two terrain types, or a series of downs could march across them in any direction, or maybe a pair of them slightly diverging or converging or parallel. The mountains could meet the lowlands in the area being detailed, like a piece of Scotland, where the Highlands that dominate the west meet the Lowlands that run to the east coast. The GM should consider how far the area is from a sea, or the ocean, perhaps the area is on the coast. Wetlands, marshes, or bayous can be mysterious and ominous, haunting or even romantic, or vaguely threatening in character, and the bogs, heaths and moors of the poorly drained uplands can have much the same character, which lends all such areas readily to adventures and adventuring, as well. Roads or paths are hard to maintain in these environs, and the people cling to small islands in their midst. These will have to plotted if the GM establishes such terrain in the area he is developing. The area being designed might hold a number of local rivers, or perhaps just one major one and some tributaries. This must be considered for there can be no civilization without a source of fresh potable water
Within an area of c. 25 miles radius, many of these features can be combined – a bit of coastline and gently rising coastal plain, rising into hill country punctuated with wide dales and then the first ranks of deep mountains. This affords a wealth of diverse vegetation : primary old-growth forests, scrub and tangled secondary-growth woods along with stretches of newer forest, grasslands, wastes, coastal dunes, coastal wetlands, perhaps a tidal estuary like the Thames. The circle encompasses some 1,300 sq. mi., after all.
By this time, the GM should already have mapped out the physical lay of the land, coastlines (if any in the area being detailed), plains, hills, mountains, and so on. Before getting any more specific, the GM must think about the general resources of the land, which would have appealed to the people and made them want to settle there.
Is the land well-served by waterways (man-made canals as well as natural rivers, lakes, navigable wetlands, etc.), is their a coastline for lake or sea/ocean in the area being detailed? These should be added to the map at this time if they have not been already, in accordance with the GM’s concept of how well-watered this part of the kingdom is.
Is the land well-provided with woods? Forests and woods should be added to the map at this time if they have not been already, in accordance with the GM’s concept of how provided with this resource this part of the kingdom is.
Does the land provide wide grassy plains and/or hills with good fertile soil for agriculture or is it better suited for grazing herds (horse and sheep)?
At what general latitude and in what hemisphere does it lie on a globe (north or south of the equator, as applicable), or what is its climate? This will determine the length of the growing season which, along with the previous facts regarding resources, will provide a guide to the general population the land can support.
Later on, the GM can think about the presence of special resources (details to follow) and plotting their locations.
With the basics of the physical features roughed out for the area under consideration, the GM can think about borders for the shires in the area, which will commonly follow the contours of the land, especially rivers, and locate towns and villages (high ground and always adjacent to some kind of water source), and then subdividing the shires into hundreds.
Are any of the shires represented on the marches (border) of one of the surrounding countries?
This provides an opportunity to have foreign language skills as native, and provides for a little constant tension, or an easy flow of peoples back and forth. The GM will have to determine the nature of border relations, taking note of the fact that locals living with foreigners as their neighbors for all their lives may not care one whit what the official policy and stance is between the countries, according to their crowned heads, and the state of relations at the border itself may have nothing whatsoever to do with the relationship generally indicated between the countries at large already determined. If either the general or the border relations are worse than neutral, the GM will have to consider reasons and decide for some bone of contention either between the crowned heads or between the locals (as applicable).
During the process above, the GM should give some thought to the realm as a whole, major issues such as the history of the races, especially in regards to settling the area – are there any races which will not be represented in the “home base” area? These decisions can be made general for the whole realm, rather than detailing them only for the area addressed, if desired.
If any character races presented in PC Character Generation will not be available to the players when rolling or designing their characters, it will become apparent during this part of the gameworld creation process and it will be of vital importance that the GM inform his players of any such restrictions prior to their making their characters.
This approach cuts down severely on the amount stress and guesswork involved in the pre-game planning and the work of note-writing that must be done ahead of time. It provides a strong foundation from which the GM can continue to work and develop as the game continues and the PC’s go through their various adventures. As they go about their business, the PC’s will meet people and go to places which the GM will have to create as they go, and all he must do is remember to write it all down, their names, who they are, why they are significant, what location(s) they are associated with, what business they are involved in, and what social and/or professional connection(s) makes them important, any foible or distinguishing mark, habit, or eccentricity, why the location is important and what its name is, and where it is relative to some other more familiar place, population figures (as applicable), demographics (as applicable), and the ever-expanding maps showing more and more of the known world as the characters discover and explore it, to the borders of their own kingdom and into the neighboring kingdoms, and so on.
This may sound like alot, and it probably is, BUT the expansion process takes place rather slowly. The GM can design the character’s adventures in such a way that the actual physical area they travel in the course of their adventures expands only slowly, a piece at a time, no faster than he has a chance to develop it, or at least get down on paper enough information that he can allow the PC’s into it for the purposes of adventuring, which can be just enough for him to answer most of their questions. In point of fact, alot of the actions undertaken by the PC’s in the course of play will give the GM occasion and inspiration to generate a good bit of the detailed information he will entering into his log book or journal for the kingdom in which they happen to be adventuring. It is simply the nature of the game and player curiosity.