Islands of the Dreaming Sea
In a world half-remembered lies the Dreaming Sea. Hundreds of islands can be found here. Some are undiscovered, others are home to many. In an age of exploration, many have come to the Dreaming Sea to find a new home, trade, or discover. The worries of the Old World are left behind, but there are still dangers here. Strange creatures lurk beneath the waves, while corsairs prowl in the skies. Nature’s tempests will at times blot out the sun and cause great turmoil at sea.
So the blurb above describes the basis of an adventure setting I have been cooking up lately. The setting is inspired by Porco Rosso, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the Odyssey, and just generally my appreciation of the early decades of flight. The idea is that the players take the role of Aeronauts (like aviators or pilots, really) who are exploring a vast sea that has yet to been explored. Adventures can involve racing, search and rescues, delving in forgotten temples, deterring sky pirates, and bragging about all those things in the local tavern.
In this blog post, I have provided a tool for creating sectors of the Dreaming Sea. These sectors are similar to the sectors in Traveller and Stars Without Number, except they are in a far smaller scale. Each hex is 96 miles across.
For perspective, the following picture demonstrates how a grid of 96 mile hexes would look like in the Mediterranean Sea:
The end result is a stretch of sea with a bunch of islands riddled across it. While I intend to use these for my aeronaut adventures, I think they are just as usable for most games. Nothing in here is system-specific, but there is a tint of the dieselpunk genre.
The Sea Sector
For the purposes of this tool, you will need a hex map of some sort. I prefer to use an 8 by 10 hex map - click here to download one I made. The outline for the sector creation is as follow:
Place mainland, if any.
Roll between 3 and 5 d6 - the sum is the number of island hexes.
Note on the map where each island hex is, either pick locations or roll a d8 and d10 to determine the locations.
Generate each island.
Step 1 is completely optional, but it may be suitable if you intend to string together several sectors of the sea. Maybe the players start out by the mainland? In the example picture above, there are several hexes that feature the mainland.
At step 2, you are creating a number of settled or previously settled islands. Each of these islands may be surrounded by smaller or larger islands. The settlements may be recent, or they may be generations old, settled in the past by brave explorers that were forgotten over time. If you roll below 8 on this step, consider re-rolling or adding a few dice. If you roll above 20, consider breaking up the amount and deal with them over multiple prep sessions.
At step 3, just find a suitable way to allocate your islands. What I did was to roll a d8 and d10 for each island. For any “collisions”, just put the island in an adjacent hex.
Step 4 is the most intensive. What I recommend is to divide up the effort a bit, or stop whenever you feel you’re not having fun anymore. You can always pick this up again later. You can also just decide to do 5 islands you think are important - where the adventurers begin - and take it from there.
Step 4 is broken into 6 sub-steps. Each of these have detailed explanations, so I’ve put them in separate headers. Better have some d6 ready.
The first thing to consider is the length of the island. The island can be of almost any shape you like, but the length is the distance between its furthest points. To find the island length, roll 2d6 on the table below:
On Earth there exist roughly 6 island classifications. I have used those with some liberties here. To find your island’s type, roll 2d6 on the table below:
Continental islands are islands that were once part of a continent, and notably still sit on the same continental shelf. However, ages of geological activity have brought the island apart from the mainland. These islands are often large enough to support a network of settlements. Exploring the island can take days or weeks, and can be the site of many expeditions. Often such islands have sources of freshwater available, meaning they become important in the long term for explorers.
If you roll this result, but your island length is measured in feet, consider re-rolling the island’s length or re-rolling this result.
Tidal islands are considered a type of continental island, but it is mostly submerged during the high tide. These types of islands are barely liveable. Settlements on such islands are typically built on platforms with solid piles sticking into the ground below the water. Others may have taken the time to build walls and dykes to keep the water from submerging the island. Ultimately, these types of islands are difficult to settle, and any such settlements better have a very good reason to justify these troubles.
Barrier islands run parallel to a shoreline, essentially being a barrier between the open sea and its adjacent island or mainland. These islands are often narrow, built from deposits of sediment throughout the ages. These types of islands are typically settled to create a more permanent connection between its adjacent island and the open sea. The shoreline may otherwise be too shallow for ships and aerodynes, so the barrier island in question became a harbor for them. These types of settlements often have causeways that connect to the adjacent landmass.
Oceanic islands formed from volcanic activity, typically found in subduction zones or in areas of intense geological activity. Oceanic islands often vary wildly in size, and the volcano that formed them may have gone extinct or dormant centuries or millennia ago. Compared to other island types, these are often found far from the mainland. Many such islands are usually abundant for settlers, complete with good access to fish, fresh water, arable soil, and fruits.
Coral islands are formed by lifetimes of, well, corals. Corals feature exoskeletons that latch onto other surfaces, including other corals. This lifecycle causes a build-up of limestone-like materials, which eventually break the surface. In combination with sediment, coral islands can eventually become big enough to support life. Sometimes coral islands will form atolls, which are collections of coral islands that have formed around an underwater volcano. Settlements on atolls or coral islands are often dependent on trade or fishing to be sustainable. Freshwater may be an issue, though some coral islands hold potable groundwater.
Shoal islands are barely even islands, sometimes known as sandbars. Similar to barrier islands or coral islands, these islands form from sediment that settle on a shallow area. Eventually, this results in a surface that can be walked on with dry feet, but hardly more. Settlements on these types of islands are often built to support shipping and exploration, sometimes as ritual meeting grounds.
Artificial islands have been purpose-built by intelligent beings at some point in time. Often they are erected from shallow waters, but not without considerable effort. Even with modern machinery, building an island is a costly enterprise. There are many reasons to build an island in this way, ranging from strategic projection to religious motivations. Often the settlements on these islands encompass the entire landmass, with no wildlife to be found on land. If the island’s length is measured in miles, then its creators must have been very powerful, if not divine.
Islands vary in stages of plant life. Some may be too wind-swept to support anything buy hardy grass and shrub. Others may be teeming with life, with salt-resistant trees sticking their roots into the seawater. To find your island’s flora level, roll 2d6 on the table below:
Desolate islands simply do not have noticeable plant life. This may be for several reasons, but what the adventurers will see is mostly dunes of sand or outcroppings of weathered rock. The land may be fertile, with no seed having found its way here. On the other hand, the ground may be too salt to allow for plants to grow.
Arid islands are more likely to have plant life, but not in large amounts. The island retains too little water to support anything but resilient plants. The plants that do grow here may still carry useful fruits, such as coconut palms. Some arid islands may have strictly seasonal plant life, with the rain seasons causing the island to erupt with greenery.
Sparse islands feature several types of plants, maybe with parts of the island being covered in soil and plants, while other parts of the island are rocky and barren. Other islands with sparse plant life may be covered with shrubs, but feature shallow and rocky soil. These types of islands are fully capable of supporting fauna and settlements. For settlers, these islands often require constant work to sustain agriculture.
Verdant islands feature a rich plant life, ranging from full forests to grasslands. Many parts of the island will be veritable gardens of beautiful flowers and delicious fruits. Settlements on these islands will have almost no issues with raising large crops or support livestock.
Overgrown islands are densely packed with shrubs, trees, and vines. In fact, there are so many plants here that traveling across the island is difficult and slow. Jungle islands are typical examples of overgrown islands, but you may use any plant group as your basis. Settlements on such islands are often at the shoreline, constantly encroached by plants that thrive in highly competitive environments.
Weird islands are covered in otherworldly plants, or even fungi or strange corals. Strange colors and shapes are the keys here. Make it truly weird. These types of islands are often approached with suspicion. The settlements on these islands may be in some way altered by the weirdness of the flora here, or built on purpose to study it.
Based on the previous factors of your island, you may already have some thoughts about why the settlement is here in the first place. It is up to you to find an appropriate population for this settlement. Even if you roll a city, there may just be two people living here.
Ruins indicate that settlement has in some way failed. The ruins may be old, or the product of a recent disaster. Tsunamis, disease, or war may have struck this settlement. The locals may be rebuilding, or they may be desperate to escape. Ruins that have long since been abandoned become the sites of adventure and exploration instead. Maybe treasures can be found here?
Camps are largely temporary in nature, though some are on the verge of becoming permanent outposts. Maybe a ship run aground on the island? Or maybe some enterprising people have set up their camp to explore the island interior. Camps have their limitations when it comes to trade or facilities, but the locals may have useful advice.
Outposts can be anything from a supply depot to a fortress, typically with very few permanent residents. Outposts are often built to stage supplies, services, and trade to anyone who fares in the region. The residents of these outposts are typically hospitable, hedging on the likelihood that their guests may return in the future for further trade and opportunities.
Villages are fairly common sights as far as settlements go. Farming villages are typically built some distance from the shore, while fishing villages are built closer. Villages typically subsist on local resources, be it fish or crop, and have limited trading capabilities. Still, most villages are fairly welcoming to adventurers, as they may be carrying mail or news from the other islands in the sea.
Towns are less common sights, typically supported by a set of villages and specialists. Towns typically form if there is a labor opportunity along with a larger food supply. Typically a town can be built around a mine, a key trading port, or perhaps a religiously significant artifact or site. Over time, these towns accumulate enough trade and labor to become classified as large towns, supporting a population in the thousands or tens of thousands. Some such towns may be built on islands that cannot support such a population by itself, causing bulk import of food to be necessary.
City settlements are rare. With populations ranging from thousands to a number shy of a million, a city will definitely depend on a large area of agriculture. Some cities are built on rocky islands to allow for the arable islands to be tilled, while others have the advantage of being situated on a massive island. The city may have been recently built as part of an ongoing effort to support exploration in the sector. Or it could be an ancient city, partly shrouded in myth.
Now that you have established the island’s settlement, it may be interesting to determine its technological level. Island settlements and their technological level should be seen as the ‘primary tone’ on a ‘gradient’. Some settlements may be luddite-like, preferring to eschew metals, while others are home to individuals using various far-flung technologies. Most of the inhabitants in the sector have likely seen some artifacts of the most modern technologies. However, the material reality of their settlement may prevent them from just going ahead and building an advanced windjammer.
This section carries some assumptions that are relevant to my setting, and you can adjust this to your own liking. I will provide some adjustment examples at the end of this section, in case you want to use this for an Age of Sail setting or D&D’ish setting. If you imagine all the islands in the sector belong to a single kingdom or cohesive culture, you could simply pick one technology level for all islands.
To randomly determine the island’s tech level, roll 2d6 on the following table:
Neolithic tech level settlements are primarily known for using little to no metals and may depend on hunting and gathering for a food supply. The inhabitants are highly capable of crafting their own tools, knowledgeable about local flora and fauna, and quite capable of exploiting local resources. While some individuals in this settlement may have traded for metallic tools, most of them use stone-tipped arrows, spears, and clubs. While prejudicial individuals may call this settlement primitive, many will appreciate their inhabitants’ expertise and adaptability.
Ancient tech level settlements have usually mastered some, but not all metals. Some may call this a bronze age or iron age settlement. Typically they are capable of refining stone and manufacture materials in large quantities, enabling large-scale trade and housing. Metallic tools and materials also influence their boats and ships, with rivets and nails enabling longer ship beams and large sails.
Medieval tech level settlements typically master many of the metals in the world, feature quality masonry, and are capable of building large ships. Harnessing certain chemical processes, this society can produce energy-dense fuels, enabling more refined metals and substances. Machinery may be mastered here, but the power sources are likely windmills or watermills.
Industrial tech level settlements have adopted coal-powered machinery and typically enjoy many types of manufactured goods. Settlements of this tech level may often have been purpose-built by an older expedition, or have benefitted from being in a trade lane with similarly developed settlements. Settlements of this tech level often resemble Earth’s Early Modern and Late Modern periods, especially in the range of 1750 through 1914.
High Industrial tech level settlements are broadly similar to Industrial tech level settlements, but with access to more sophisticated technologies. Some may feature iron-clad ships, steam-powered machinery, and even early variants of airplanes. Others have begun to enjoy electricity and gas-powered devices. Most countries of the Old World are considered to be at this tech level. Settlements of this tech level often resemble Earth’s late modern period, ranging between 1850 and 1945.
Electrical Age tech level settlements are exotic in the Dreaming Sea, likely the result of recent innovations, a local genius, or some mysterious event. Whatever the reason, this settlement has been able to master electricity beyond what any others in the world have. This could entail electrical machinery, early computers, radio stations, and technologies that appeared in Earth’s interbellum era, typically between 1918 and 1939.
Atomic Age tech level settlements are even stranger than Electrical Age settlements - these have access to nuclear fission, advanced machinery, and computing. Where this technology and knowledge came from is unclear, but it is kept highly secret and is not shared with the rest of the world. Most of the world’s inhabitants can only gawk in awe at their creations.
If you want to use this sector creator for some other setting, here are some examples tables you could use instead:
Most islands do not come in perfect uniformity, separated by 96 mi hexes. In order to flesh out each hex, you can also add additional islands. In my scheme, each 96 mi hex holds 16 hexes that are 24 miles across, and each of those holds 16 hexes that are 6 miles across. Leaving all of these hexes empty, save for one hex, I think would be a shame. That’s why I have created the following table to populate some more islands that are nearby.
In terms of size, I interpret this as to be relative to the primary island in the hex. You can use the Island Length table if you want to be specific. Assuming you centre the main island in the middle of the hex (i.e. the middle 24 mi hex), then you can roll up some islands for the neighboring 24 mi hexes too. For simplicity’s sake, I would keep the flora and island types relatively similar to the main island of the hex, and likely not indicate any settlements on them. These islands can be the sites of later exploration, including mysterious temples and dungeons.
Sea Sector Example
As I previewed at the top, I made a sector I called the “Nellian Sector”. At first I just punched in the data on a spreadsheet, like this:
Afterwards I used the sheet proper to note down the islands and ‘draw’ them on. I chose to do it all digital, but don’t be afraid to doodle some with a pencil. You can download the sheet here.
If you find this useful, or if you have any comments about the material, why don’t you drop a comment below? Or pop over to my sleepy discord server? I would love to know if you found this useful.
Thanks for reading!