Hookspire: The Birth of a City

Pencil drawing of the Hookspire mountain and surrounding terrain.

The re-drawn pencil sketch of Hookspire, circa 2016,prior to digital painting.

Long ago, in the Before Times, my friend James was starting up a 3E D&D campaign set in his own world he called the Empire of Zodaria. My fledgling noble/sorcerer, Mharko1, needed a backstory. My basic character concept was “spoiled scion of a powerful merchant-wizard family, chafing at the weight of future responsibility”. He wanted to get out in the world and do something beyond just the family business of buying, selling, and governing. For some people, that might have been enough. I felt like I needed to know more about Mharko and his background.

The Story

What kind of place was House Scaramanga going to have a hand in governing? A familiar trope of fantasy worlds is the city-state, often ruled over by powerful magic users. A huge inspiration was the recently-released Eberron setting for D&D, especially the city of Sharn, the City of Towers. Eberron is a high-magic campaign setting, where simple magic is a part of daily life. Magewrights are employed for mundane tasks like cooking and tailoring. Powerful families with hereditary magical Dragonmarks run houses with monopolies on certain trades. I didn’t want to copy this exactly, but I liked the tone. So I ran with it. Once I had the idea of the tone the city would have, I started thinking geography. Because what is a fantasy city without a fantasy map?

Once again I found inspiration in another D&D product; it’s like a fire that feeds itself. One of my favorite D&D adventures , Forge of Fury, was published in the 3rd-edition era. In that adventure there is a prominent geological feature known as the Stone Tooth, a spire of bare rock that sticks up out of the top of a forested mountain. I liked the visual that invoked, and super-sized it. A straight spire of rock seemed too derivative, so I bent it. It’s the kind of geologic formation that I don’t think you would see outside of a fantasy setting. I also mashed it up with the image I had in my head of Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings: a tiered city set against he base of a mountain. Sprinkle in a major water source and a coastline, and Hookspire was born.

With that basic shape, my mind continued to wander. How did the merchant-wizards rule? (A council of twelve.) How was the city laid out? (A series of walled districts, with the wealthy, noble-filled High City closest to the Hook, and the newer, but poorer Low City closest to the riverbank, and the Dockside district at the river’s delta where all the merchant ships docked and offloaded their cargos.) Is there something to the Hook other than just a mountain? (Yes.) Before long, I couldn’t help but constantly think about the city I invented. Why not spend some time fleshing it out, making it into a real thing rather than a one-off invention for a character’s backstory? Any more detail that I came up with could be fed back into the campaign becoming hooks for James to dig into for storytelling at the table.

While building our party, we decided that Mharko would be connected to Duin Gedditasht, the halfling thief played by my brother-in-law. Mharko would be the spoiled but street-smart rich kid that found friendship with the carousing scoundrel in the Low City. The Low City would be the “common” area, and the High City would be the walled-off area where the rich folks lived. Rather than just throw together a paragraph describing the relationship, I went off and wrote Let Sleeping Guards Lie2 to set the tone of their relationship. This was enough to get the story started at the table, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Hookspire.

I’m still thinking about Hookspire, of course. It continued to grow throughout the Beastly Avatar campaign (the world of Mharko and his companions), and developed a life outside of that world. Hookspire is where the Wizards Three started their walk to the civilized lands of the South, building a road along the way. Every year, in the spring, Hookspire and its citizens celebrate the Day of Swords and launch a new season of gladiatorial games, tests of strength and skill that tour a circuit at arenas throughout the region. At least one cult has made its home in the sewers beneath the city, and—depending on when you’re dipping into the timeline—the tarrasque either sleeps beneath the Low City or has already unleashed destruction upon it.

The Map

After the story…there had to be a map. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original doodle of Hookspire and its prominent geologic feature. It’s probably buried in an old filing cabinet somewhere. I’ll keep looking, and maybe it will turn up. The first detailed map I made of Hookspire was part of a “gazetteer” about the city, my fledgling attempt at turning it into a “product” that other people could use. It was very basic, but I didn’t get very far.3

A flat-colored map of the fantasy city Hookspire
It’s pretty basic, but this map established the essential elements of the city and how they were located in relation to each other.

Since I lost the original sketch, I started over based on that first detail map. Included at the top of this post is the initial re-draw I did around August 2016, attempting to re-define and update Hookspire for a really deep dive. The shapes are a little more defined, and I tried to give at least some thought (but not much!) to how things would work in the “real world”. I didn’t change the basic shape of things to much, though. I scanned in that sketch, and with the help of some fine tutorials from Fantastic Maps, I got to work. Using Photoshop and a Wacom tablet, I poured more hours into Hookspire than I had in a long time. It took me more time than I would have liked to get it to this point, but I was pretty happy with it.

A digitally-painted detail map of Hookspire
It took me more hours than I would have preferred to get this map looking even this good, but I’m still learning.

What I have so far is the basic geography, and the first details going into the High City, roads, and major fortifications (because what is a fantasy city without a wall to keep out the riffraff?). I have lots of ideas and notes for what I’d like to fill into the rest of the city, but haven’t done much more with the map up to now. One of my goals going forward is to continue evolving the map of Hookspire and its surroundings, eventually developing a fantasy world of my own that kindles stories in the minds of people that look at it.

The Journey

Some stories of the city of Hookspire have already been told, and I’ll try to relay those as I remember them. So many more stories are left to discover. An infinite number. I hope you’ll join me for the journey. As the veil begins to lift on the city’s secrets, I hope your own imagination will be sparked. Tell me what interests you about Hookspire, and I’ll try to elaborate and expand on those interests. Maybe you’ll find your own tales from the Hook to tell. Either way, I’m in this one for the long haul. I can’t help it.

  1. That would be the oh-so-originally-named Mharko Ramius of House Scaramanga. 

  2. Originally published a long time ago on my personal site at scottelfstrom.com

  3. I had a Traveller’s Guide to Hookspire planned out, but never got past the first section. 

Thank you for your support.
Become a patron

Maps & Tales is supported by patrons just like you.

I have been and will continue to release content here—free for personal use—on a regular basis for as long as I possibly can. When you become a patron through Patreon, you'll be helping me sustain this effort. You'll be helping me upgrade my tools and devote more of my personal time to creating high-quality content for your enjoyment. As thanks, I've got a few extra goodies for you, including exclusive content for patrons and custom maps—just for you!.