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World Building Tips Volume 2: Excerpt
13 RESOURCE MAPPING
Natural resources are materials that occur in nature—animal, vegetable, or mineral—that can be used by man. At its most basic, this is the stuff of subsistence living: food gathered or hunted in the wild, timber to build with, coal burned for a fire, and so on. In more developed economies, natural resources become things of value in themselves, for they can be harvested and sold for economic gain.
TIP: The kind of natural resources found in an area, and where you place them, will have a big impact on trade, the exploitation of those goods, and development of the region over time. It is useful, therefore, to define the location of significant resources right after you have created the world or regional map for your setting.
For example, where the climate and terrain is right, some lowlands and hill country will have stands of oak trees suitable for use in ship building. Coal deposits will be in certain kinds of geological areas (where ancient forests once grew), and gold or silver will be found in the right rock formations mainly in mountainous or rugged terrain. While clay is a common type of soil, clay that is excellent for pot-making is found only in limited areas, and at some point these places may become known for their ceramics work. Major fishing areas will be located in large lakes or off of particular areas of the coastline, usually where underwater mountains or reefs have created a fertile habitat for massive schools of fish (as in the Great Bank in the Atlantic Ocean, or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia)
You can also approach this from the opposite direction, by knowing what people use and then asking where it comes from. Let’s say a town is famed for its goldsmiths. Where are they getting their gold from? Is it produced by local mines? If so, where are they located, exactly? Or is the gold imported instead? If so, where does it come from? And so on.
Any significant resource base creates a long-term ripple effect in subsequent world development, so it is best to be mindful of natural resources at an early point in world design.
Natural Resources as Trade Goods
The lack or abundance of resources is a relative thing. A land that has no timber may be timber-poor, but not lack resources for building, because they make bricks of clay or quarry stone. Where X is not available, Y will be used instead, or X will be traded for if the need for it is great enough. This simple formula lies behind the movement of natural resources as trade goods.
TIP 2: Consider the natural resource map you have developed. The location of resources influences the crafts and skill sets that evolve in the area, as well as suggesting future import/export and trade patterns.
Where there are marble deposits there may be stone quarries; coal suggests coal mines; oyster beds mean pearl divers, and so on. Many resources may go undeveloped or ignored because societies do not value or cannot use the good (coal is irrelevant in a Stone Age civilization; beavers and their furs are merely pretty beasts, not an exploitable resource, to cotton-wearing desert-dwellers).
Where are natural resources abundant, and where are they lacking? Trade will likely develop between these regions, which also suggests what routes major roadways will grow up along.
“Buy low, sell high,” is the time-tested advice for making a profit with trade goods. Look at the resources that abound in one area: these are the goods that are likely to first be sold or traded elsewhere, where they are scarce.
The English coal trade is a good example of this process: rich coal deposits around Newcastle upon Tyne were located even in Roman times, but only saw extensive development in the 16th century, when people began to use coal for domestic heating. Later, the market boomed with the fuel demands of the industrial revolution, and coal barges were a common sight in English harbors. Colliers shipped so much coal from the region that “carrying coals to Newcastle” became a synonym for doing something that seemed completely pointless. The demand kept Newcastle coal miners employed, and made a fortune for the merchants and industrialists who controlled the trade and export of coal.
TIP 3: Consider your setting through the lens of resource availability. Who needs something they don’t have? Do dyers need special dyes? Do armorers need steel? Do shipbuilders need oak for masts? Who is resource rich (for one or more kinds of resources), and who is resource poor? At some point this will impact the economic development of the region: resource-poor areas will import what they need, and resource-rich ones will export their abundance to others.
As to placing natural resources in areas that make logical sense, this too is an essential part of the process. If you randomly place a gold mine in a flat, muddy alluvial plain, for instance (like a river delta), everyone who knows anything at all about geography and minerals won’t find that mine or its placement believable, and this damages the plausibility of your world. A detailed treatment of this is beyond the scope of today’s tip, but basically, resource placement depends upon a knowledge of geology, geography, natural history, and economic development. Luckily, if you have gaps in knowledge in these areas, you can at least do the next best thing: hit the interwebz and look for some answers there. Some useful search phrases to begin with are:
- natural resources in mountains
- natural resources in seas
- where is gold found
- where does cotton grow
…and so on.
Be discerning in the search results that you use for information: data about the modern world and current distribution patterns of something are not usually too helpful. It is better to reference historical information and articles about the origin and early uses of a natural resource. This is generally a good starting point for a fictional world. Once you have the starting point, you can develop it as you need in your own setting. Wikipedia is also a good “quick reference” resource to use, although if you want more in-depth information on a natural resource, you’ll find better information doing more searching elsewhere on the web.
Although it requires a little homework, natural resource mapping can be a fun project and adds a critical layer of depth to your fictional world. As your world evolves and things like industrial manufacturing alter the resources that are valued, you may want to update your resource map from time to time. Note what has fallen out of use and what has become newly valuable. What you establish here becomes the foundation of future trade patterns, local crafts and industries, and will even influence what is valued culturally in a given setting.
Pictured: A natural resource map for Echisano Province on the planet Casca, from my Sa’adani Empire rpg. Resources are indicated with image icons (sheaf of wheat for grain-growing region, stump and ax for timber area, etc). Click the image to download or view at larger size
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