Real maps are the best maps
…well sometimes. And this is one of those times.
If you’re writing RPG stuff then obviously you need to know about Strange Maps. If you’re looking for a map for your fantasy world you could do a lot worse than just grabbing Kerguelen,* AKA “the Desolation Islands” (enough maps here for a whole Sea of Os’r, BTW).
The real archipelago (with names, if you like) has a total land area of 2,786 square miles, but thanks to the fractal magic of coastlines you could make it stand in for any size you like. I particularly love the crazy folding thing going on in the north and centre, with all those fjords and mountains: a military disaster waiting to happen. Not sure what to populate it with? Strange Maps has some suggestions:
“The feral cats are rarely seen, except for those who live at the base and are almost domesticated. Most cats are really wild animals, more so than the rabbits (which are everywhere, and do much damage to the ground) or even the elephant seals laying on the streets. Kerguelen cabbage is a protected species and we are forbidden to eat it… although of course, every year people do try to prepare some. It is said to have a terrible taste!”
…and Kergolus… an animal of indeterminate species, although his furriness and quadripedality seem to suggest an affinity with… badgers, stoats and ferrets [and wolverines, natch. Ed]. But his peculiar shape was of course suggested by the outline of Grande Terre – so we could say that Kergolus is a native species, unlike all the cats, rabbits, sheep and reindeer introduced by man.
The real place is desolate but strangely beautiful, and would fit a Cthulhuvian game well. It inspired some nice early modern explorer/periplum art. The only way on or off the island is via the Marion Dufresne, a freighter out of Réunion, 3,490 km (2,169 mi) away. That’s ten days’ sailing, if the seas aren’t too rough. So it could be your perfect isolated research station horror setting (its scientist population varies from 70 in winter to 110 in summer), or Lost type island, where the PCs wreck during a yacht race gone awry. The evolution of ways to map and visualise the place lends it a nicely hallucinatory quality, like you can’t quite see what’s there.
For my needs I probably wouldn’t have it be uninhabited, though: scaling it up, I could put a whole Middle Earth or Tekumel or Korad in there, with cities and civilisations trickling down all sides of snowcapped Mount Meru and nomads raiding across the eastern plains. Maybe, in true Victorian explorer fantasy style, it’s secretly inhabited with a fauna that’s so Other we wind up calling them spirits, like Prospero’s island.
But those other little sneezes of volcanic rock off the mainland? Those are totally cartoon desert islands.
Update: This city occupies part of the ricebowl cup down in the southwest corner.
* not to be confused with this Kerguelen, which looks perfectly nice, too, but doesn’t quite have the same RPG pull, sorry.