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When creating a map for a fantasy world, I typically add broad top-level descriptions for terrain. Mountains here, forests there, a river, a swamp etc.

Watch any nature documentary, and each terrain type in reality has a huge number of variations which radically change what they look like, and what it means to experience them.

I don't have time to gain qualifications in geography or encyclopaedic knowledge of all possible rock types, ages of mountains and 100s of factors that in reality contribute to how each part of a world is unique. But I'd like to improve on what I currently do.

What is a good way to organise my map-making and thinking to the next level, so that I can qualify the types of mountain, swamp, grassland, tree cover etc?

I am looking for something that doesn't overwhelm me with complexity, but that gives me more to work with when mapping and when explaining what it is like to experience the terrain for e.g. game characters when they are in it.

Clarification: I want to add the qualities when I am describing a part of the world, so the details do not necessarily have to be on the map (as symbols or colour codes) - but in that case, how can I organise myself so that the data is there for me when I need it?

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    $\begingroup$ One of the most important lessons new cartographers learn is to not include information they don't need. Be careful about cluttering the map and hiding the information that's important with unnecessary detail. Your map may need this detail to serve its purpose, but you should avoid adding it "just because". $\endgroup$ – smithkm Sep 21 '14 at 3:08
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    $\begingroup$ Is the goal to present the detailed information on the map graphically, to present detailed information in the accompanying text for a map, or to narrate a story in more detail? Your question sounds like the second (accompanying text for a map). I'd agree with @smithkm that the first (more detailed graphic representations) can create information overload. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Sep 21 '14 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ Actually I had not considered the effect on complexity of the map. The ultimate goal is better and consistent descriptions/visualisations for a story or a game. $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Sep 21 '14 at 7:08
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    $\begingroup$ For a good system of describing lots of different environments, check out the Koppen climate classification system: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%B6ppen_climate_classification. It describes climates based on the vegetation types of different areas, and does a good job of describing most of the climates on earth. You can add a description of the geography of the area (i.e. hills, plains, rivers) to this for a good description of anywhere. You can also look at Koppen maps of earth for reference as to how climates progress across the landscape. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 3 '14 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ I agree - take your map, divide into regions and find similar regions on Earth and copy their description. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Aug 5 '15 at 22:47
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Define Yourself

The easiest way may be to use terms in the language of the people in your world. That way you can define the term to mean anything. (Ex. "Jerlo" means large hills, not quite mountains). The disadvantage of this is that your readers/players never come in with a knowledge of terms. You have to explain every one. Granted, you would probably have to explain any scientific ones too, because most users wouldn't get those either. In either case, there is a decent chance users will forget them, so you might want to have a glossary stored somewhere.

Research

The other way would be to research things, and look for broad types of things. These terms wouldn't be as specific as "all all possible rock types," but they will give your users a easier time of what you're showing. You may still have to define these terms in a glossary. For example, mountains have several different varieties, volcanic mountains, fold mountains, and block mountains (see this Wikipedia article). You could use those terms and others to better define your geological resources. A lot of geological terms (many more specific than you want), can be found here, on Wikipedia. For example, the article defines aa "Dike - or dyke - a type of sheet intrusion referring to any geologic body that cuts discordantly across."
You can use this as a reference for your map.

The basis of general terms for climates are Biomes. Biomes are large areas defined by similar climate. These will have similiar abiotic and biotic features (i.e. similar plants, animals, and climate The important factors for a biome are:

  • Latitude, list starts with the poles and ends at the equator
    • Arctic
    • Boreal
    • Temperate
    • Subtropical
    • Tropical
  • Humidity, list starts with most humid and ends with least humid
    • Humid
    • Semihumid
    • Semiarid
    • arid
    • Humidity can also be defined by rainfall
    • Seasonal Variation. The rainfall is distributed roughly evenly throughout the seasons. Some places have a dry season and a wet season. Most of the rain falls in the wet season
  • Elevation.
    • Increasing elevation distributes climates similar to how change in latitude distributes climates.

Biomes are also fundamentally divide into two classifications: Terrestrial (land), and Aquatic Biomes.

You can use the above words to classify biomes even if you can't find official names for them.

There are several different official ways to classify Biomes, many of them are listed on Wikipedia.

Here is a possibly helpful graphic (from the Wikipedia article), that shows the Biomes on earth. It may help you in making your map.

enter image description here Note: The legend is linked, if you want to click the links please vist the original article.

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    $\begingroup$ re: "Define Yourself". It is said the Inuit have many words for snow, each discussing a seemingly subtle difference. When you experience enough of something, you learn to classify it to a finer granularity than others. This works at the level of culture as well. If a type of geography or weather is an important cultural feature, the language will reflect that importance. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Sep 21 '14 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ I can see how localised terms would allow me to include details in a "compressed" form, and where I resolve some things later on perhaps. But I think I am still missing a step on how to approach the research side, and understand my "palette" $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Sep 21 '14 at 7:20
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    $\begingroup$ I feel bad for doing so, but I just downvoted this. While I feel like it's a good answer, I think that as written, it's not addressing the question that's actually being asked, so it isn't a good answer for this question. Elaborating on the research section could help, since that seems to be more along the OP's lines. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Sep 21 '14 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Bobson is that a little better? $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Sep 22 '14 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ @DonyorM - Yep. Downvote removed. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Sep 22 '14 at 17:15
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If I'm understanding your question correctly, the concept you're looking for is probably a Biome or something similar.

Biomes are defined by factors such as plant structures (such as trees, shrubs, and grasses), leaf types (such as broadleaf and needleleaf), plant spacing (forest, woodland, savanna), and climate.

Effectively, you're looking for "What makes this forest different from all other forests?", and the answer is "In this region, all the forests are similar. But over here..."

There's a good graphic in that article which shows how variations in temperature and precipitation create different environments:

Biome chart

You'll need to look up each of those terms to see what is meant by them, but it's a good way to break up your forests. For example, the "Woodland/shrubland" area might count as a forest for map purposes, but it's going to be relatively light and airy, with thin trees spaced further apart, compared to a "Temperate seasonal forest which will have taller, bigger trees, and be much darker. Poking around on Wikipedia starting from the Biome article should introduce you to all the other variations, or you could check out this list with descriptions or this site which goes into a lot of the details of each area, including typical flora and fauna.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've heard the term "biome" from Minecraft, but not connected it in my mind to the kind of mapping I want to do. I think this could be an important key to me unlocking the knowledge I need on the subject, thank you. $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Sep 21 '14 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ @NeilSlater - I learned it from Dwarf Fortress myself. I don't know about Minecraft, but DF has a lot of moving parts in its world creation process. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Sep 21 '14 at 20:25
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Let your needs lead your learning

If you want to create a thoroughly realistic mixed map with lots of different terrain and plant cover types, then you need to do a lot of research, not just on the terrain types but on how they interact both long and short term. However, if your map contains things for a reason, then you can focus on those reasons rather than building an entire world from scratch. This way you just learn what you need and cut the amount of research you need to do.

If you have a story or a game that requires that certain regions be difficult to reach or travel through, or that certain creatures or monsters are restricted to certain areas of the map, for example, then you can draw your map in terms of such requirements, and then use that to drive what types of terrain and plant life are needed. Then once you know what is needed at an abstract level, you can look up specific types to see which best fits what you need.

For example, if you find that you definitely need two types of mountain, one that is impassable and one that slows travel, then you can research mountains with those characteristics, rather than read everything on all types of mountain. Similarly if you need a terrain that will prevent migration of lions, you can research lions specifically, rather than researching all terrain types to search for one that might fit.

This won't help if you want to create a truly lifelike map based on simulating tectonic movements over geological time, but if you just want a reasonably believable map that provides for a particular story, this should allow you to learn a great deal of detail about only a few things, giving you much more time to do so.

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For questions like this, I resort to the categorisation in wikipedia templates. At the bottom of the Biome article you find a list of biomes like tundra, swamp etc. Going to the bottom of the Grassland article I scroll down to the bottom and quickly find tables with words like savanna, pampas, steppe and prairie.

To the reader, words like "prairie" and "steppe" hopefully bring up more vivid pictures than "grassland", so just drilling down to synonymes via wikipedia may enrich your map.

True a thesaurus lookup for grassland bring up many of the same synonyms, but on wikipedia, more information on the habitat is only a click away, so that the fictional land can be quickly populated with suitable plants and animals.

You could also use Google earth for inspiration

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