SecWorld Tarot: My Worldbuilding Process

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you know that I’ve been working on a new project, the Secondary World Tarot Deck (SecWorld Tarot, for short). You also know that I’ve been lamenting over the lack of in-depth worldbuilding tutorials designed for writers. So I decided that I would create my own while working on my latest story. And while I haven’t decided on the format of the tutorials yet, I do want to show you what I’m talking about (and doing) for the last week or so.

When I first started writing secondary world fiction, I watched a few videos online on how to create a map. I did what a lot of writers are told to do: create the setting around the story. Draw some squiggly lines for the land masses, slap down some mountains, and scribble in some rivers wherever you need them to be for the story to make sense. Bam! You’ve got a map.

But the more I wrote, the more I started asking questions. The more I read, the more I began to wonder. And the more I learned about writing fantasy, a genre I was extremely new to in the beginning, the more things didn’t make sense.

So I started learning. And thinking. And doing a shit-ton of research. And when I decided to draw a new map, I wanted to understand how things should work on an Earth-like planet. I wanted the setting to make sense. Because the setting of a story is just as important as the characters and plot. So why shouldn’t it be just as logical, thought out, and consistent as the characters or the magic system or the plot?

One tutorial that I did find that made sense to me was N. K. Jemisin’s presentation on worldbuilding. She started with the world, and was able to come up with stories based on the setting. When I first say it, something clicked in my head. Even without being present for the actual presentation and having to rely on the slides, it made perfect sense to me.

If the characters drive the story, the world should drive the characters. And they should both be given the same amount of development.

I started focusing more on worldbuilding, and looking into how I can make my worlds more consistent and life-like. In a word, I wanted to make my secondary worlds more plausible.

All of that led me to combining writing, worldbuilding and tarot, one of my lifelong loves, into my Secondary World Tarot Deck. I knew the story that I wanted to tell, and how I wanted to tell it. So I got to work. And after a week of researching and drawing (and erasing), I’ve finally created a map for the world of my new story.

Here are the steps that I went through in order to get here.

Step Zero: The Planetary System

Before I started drawing anything map-like, I had to do some math. Which is funny to me, because I absolutely hated math in school. (Fun fact: Geography was my second worst subject. Go figure.)

As I learned while going through Artifexian’s worldbuilding videos, there are some space factors that go into how a world works. Things like the distance from the star that your planet orbits, or the moon that orbits your planet. I won’t get into it here because there’s a lot of it to get into. I’d already decided that I wanted my planet to be rather Earth-like (I’d already done the math for the planetary system). But the main thing that I used from all those videos was the axial tilt.

I started with the axial tilt of my planet because I knew that I wanted my polar region to be where our Earth’s equator is situated. (Yes, I’m weird. You should already know that by now.) So based on the math and science, I plotted my equator and found my major lines of latitude.

Axial Tilt, Lines of Latitude, and Hadley Cells

With my axial tilt in place, I could also determine the wind patterns of my world based on the science behind Hadley cells. (More on that later).

Step One: Tectonic Plates


Tectonic Plates, Subduction Zones, Volcanoes, and Earthquake Zones

I used rice to create a bit of randomness for my place, by dragging my fingers through a pile of it and tracing shapes. Then I determined the movement of each plate. That led to finding the areas where the plates converge, diverge, and transform. The areas where the plates transform, or move in opposite directions against each other (marked in yellow), are were earthquakes happen. The places where plates diverge are where your rifts occur, which creates new ocean floor.

The part I found most important were the areas where the plates converge – the subduction zones. Those are important for two reasons:

  1. They are where mountains are formed.
  2. They are where volcanoes are typically found.

So with my subduction zones and volcanoes mapped (in gray and red, respectively), I moved on to my next layer.

(Note: I did this all by hand, using translucent marker paper, because I wanted to. But the same thing can totally be done in Photoshop or GIMP. Which I’ll probably be doing from now on, once I find a way to do this next step digitally.)

Step Two: Land Masses

Land Masses, Mountain Ranges, and Volcanoes

I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard of Pangea (or Pangaea). Well, as it turns out, that was only one of the supercontinents this planet has seen. And there are some cool models on how scientists believe our present-day continents and land masses formed.

I wanted to mimic that same movement and development with my world. I used the rice method again (I actually saved the rice in a bag marked “Cartography Rice”). Only this time I started with one supercontinent. Once I traced it, I cut it out, and traced the tectonic plates underneath it.

I cut the supercontinent into pieces, then moved them around my map, following the movements of the tectonic plates and the gravitational pull of the planet. Then, once I was happy with the general placement, I covered the pieces with a new sheet of paper and dropped more rice down.

Only this time, I made sure that the rice wasn’t completely aligned with the edges of the pieces. This gave me the general shape for each land mass so that they still fit together, but it also mimicked the erosion and tectonic movement that would continue to shape a land mass after it “stopped” moving.

Once I had my coastlines, I marked the mountain ranges and volcanoes, and moved on to step three.

Step Three: Climate Zones

Climate Zones, Wind Patterns, and Currents

Remember the latitude lines and Hadley cells from earlier? Those are the important factors for this step.

The lines of latitude are the first step to marking the climate zones of the world. But they aren’t the only thing. The wind patterns and currents of the world also affect climate, as well as the terrain and atmosphere.

Since I knew that this was an Earth-like planet, I decided that the atmosphere of this world also has the same makeup of our own. I also kept the same laws of physics and junk, because I’m not smart enough to create my own (yet).  And since I had my mountains and volcanoes in place, and could see where my tectonic plates meet, I had my elevation for the most part.

So I used the latitudinal climate zones to determine wind patterns and the major currents. And with those, I was able to determine the climate zones more “accurately.”

Step Four: Terrain Map

Terrain Map

With my climate zones in place, the next step was to determine what each part of the world looked like from the ground. I plotted my rainforests and temperate forests and boreal forests and all the other types of biomes using different colors. (In case you’re wondering, rainforests are green, temperate forests are brown, and boreal forests are that light pink color.)

This layer looks almost the same as the last, which will happen. But while climate is affected by terrain and wind patterns, terrain is also affected by climate and wind patterns. So just because an area is all the same mean temperature, that doesn’t mean it only has one type of terrain. Plus I wanted to be able to see the actual terrain on a map. Because the terrain became really important in the next step.

Step Five: Flora and Fauna

Magical Plants and Animals

This layer may look a bit boring, but it was actually quite fun. Mostly because I got to put the plants and animals (and even metals) that I created in their homes.

When I first started looking into how to create my own plants and animals, a few people thought I was just coming down with “Worldbuilder’s Disease.” Even I started to question whether or not it was really necessary, or if I was just avoiding actual writing. But there was a reason for it.

We’ve already established that, just as people drive the story, the world drives the people. Characters are influenced by culture, religion, politics, traditions, and social norms, and the conflict that is created within them. But where does that come from if not the world?

Culture drives a lot of the world that we live in. And most of the world’s culture is originally based on religion. And religion began as a way for humans to understand the world they lived in. Part of that world includes plants and animals.

And since we’re talking about fantasy worlds, there will more than likely be magic involved. And the way humans interacted with those plants, animals, and magic would become a part of their religion. Which would become part of their culture. Which would become part of their politics and traditions and social norms. Which would create a setting from which conflict, and story, can be birthed.

So I create plants, animals, and metals for my world. Based on the climate and terrain of each area, I could see where not only my magical flora and fauna would live, but where primary world plants and animals would reside. This set me up for the next step.

Step Six: Human Evolution and Migration

Human Migration

According to archeology, geology, biology, and a few other sciences that I’m probably missing, the first humans evolved in Africa and migrated to other continents. From primates. So if I’m going to build a world using science, why not use that theory as the model for human evolution and migration on my own planet?

Only I decided that, with magic being involved (I plan on having two magic systems in this story), why not have two origin points for humans? You probably can’t see it, but the purple lines show the origin and migration route of people with one kind of magic, and the gray lines show the other people’s path.

I figured that, if Earth’s early humans evolved and migrated in search for food, my world’s humans would do the same. So I plotted paths that would have led the humans towards areas where they would have found food — where the plants and animals are.

This layer allowed me to plot where major cities would have sprung up once people started planting food instead of hunting it. But it also gives me a glimpse into the early history of the world. If I were to retrace the steps of the humans using dates and names, I can see when the cities were founded, and “learn about” the technological, historical, and social developments that happened there. I can find out where certain traditions began, retrace the history of a folksong or myth in this world.

I can even see how one group influenced the next, until I get to the “present day” of the story. I know what materials they have available for building, so I have a basis for what these cities looked like. I know what plants and animals are around the area, so I know what natural resources and major exports they rely on for trade and economy. I also know a little about what people look like based on how they migrated and where they settled.

Pretty sure this is my second favorite layer of this map. After the next one.

Step Seven: The Fine Details

Nearly Finished

With all the different layers in place, I finally got to the part that people tend to start with (Past Me included). I drew all my mountains and forests, and traced my major lakes and rivers. I added little details to denote the different plains landscapes: temperate grasslands, savanna, mediterranean, and desert.

Nearly Finished Closeup

I also finalized the locations for all the cities on the map. Then I decided where I wanted the story to take place.

Story Setting Continent

This continent will be where the story in my SecWorld Tarot deck will happen. I divided the land into countries in order to determine where my main characters are and where the main plot will take place.

Story Setting

This is the country where the majority of the story will take place. In my next phase, I’m going to enlarge this part of the map to use as I write the story and create the images for the tarot deck. But I’ll also know the neighboring countries, and be able to draw on my knowledge of the continent and world as a whole in order to create the cultures and religions that influence the countries in the story.

So now that all of that is in place, I can get more of an idea of what the actually tarot deck will look like. I can start gathering the symbols and archetypes of the world as I create these religions and cultures, which are based on the world that my characters live in. And as you go through the images of the tarot deck, you’ll be able to see the plants and animals and metals that I plotted in their natural habitats. You’ll be able to see the magic systems that these plants and animals spawn. And you’ll be able to see the story unfold through the images.

As I’m working on the story, I’ll also be working on the tutorial. I want to create the worldbuilding tutorial that I’ve been looking for myself. One that will help writers find their stories through the world they create. Because I can’t be the only one who wants to do that with a certain level of consistency and plausibility. I’m not that special.

I’ll be sure to keep you informed of my progress on both these projects. If you like, feel free to follow me on Twitter or Instagram. Or, you can sign up for my mailing list to stay updated.

Until then, chickadees!

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