I once ran a campaign where I started with just a village and a wood; we then built the world from there as we went along, with each player contributing the history of their people. This kind of co-creation is great, but I was going to be playing this with three people who'd never played an RPG before - hence my choice of D&D 5th Edition. So I needed a framework.
Talent borrows, genius steals, we get it off the back of a lorry, no questions asked.
Realistically, I need a world that has a few kingdoms rubbing up against each other for political intrigue and the risk of war; I want some empty space for monsters and bandits and what have you; I need enough room to have some different races and cultures; and I'd like to have an area for 'noises off' - that is, an external threat that I can use for an epic threat if I need.
The solution is, therefore, this:
This is my world; it's rough, hence the crossings out, and bits and pieces will be added or moved around as the game progresses - until the characters have actually been there, it doesn't really exist in a concrete form.
Now, I know I have a few History teachers who read this blog, so you'll be recognising quite a few of the names. I have, of course, nicked Anglo-Saxon Britain almost wholesale.
Here's the seven kingdoms of the so-called Dark Ages, known as the Heptarchy:
Some of the names track across quite easily; I've given all of Northumbria back to one of the ancient kingdoms that made it up, Deira; I've shifted the kingdoms of Wales up north a little and dumped all of Scotland into 'The Northlands' which is basically shorthand for Here Be Dragons.
My basic thinking is as follows; there's enough linkages between bardic and druidic culture for me to call the Elves Welsh and declare victory, so that's a win. I'll take the isle of Anglesey and use that for something magical. Dwarves like mountains, so I'll stick them in the Pennines.
I can then use Anglo-Saxon and Old English language to name stuff, giving me the feel of a coherent culture with no back-breaking labour - so Mere for lake, the northern forest is called Northweald and so forth.
At this point, I start stealing stuff from the players. One of them has made a Dwarf and given it a Nordic sounding name. So the dwarf mines get Nivleder as a name, a corruption of Niflheim crashed into Anglo-Saxon. The Cleric has chosen a thunder god, so I can start building a pantheon around the old Pagan gods and so forth... you get the idea.
And up north? Well, I'm calling them the Skald so you can probably work out what they're going to be.
And that's enough to begin with - because now I have a sense for how this world works, I can zoom in on one area to start with. And where better than God's Own Country, Yorkshire? Or Deira, in this case.
So here's the map for the first area.
I've started with the first major settlements; I'm then going to steal settlement patterns from the Domesday Book because - again - why keep a dog and bark yourself? This means that I can very quickly get a sense for any given area and add the fantasy trappings to make it work.
That's it for the moment; if you want to hear more about how I'm going to cheat my way to a calendar, religion, culture and history let me know in the comments.