I’ve been going through various campaign worlds, and especially the cartography thereof, and noticed something rather striking. Strictly in terms of cartography, most of the most successful fantasy gaming worlds have what I would call “interesting” cartography. Specifically, large inland bodies of water that allow for aesthetically pleasing and varied contours in what would otherwise be large dull areas of solid terrain. For instance:
The Flanaess has the Azure Sea, the Sea of Gearnat, the Woolly Bay, and of course the Nyr Dyv. All bodies of water that extend well inland, breaking up the large stretches of land with large bodies of water with “interesting” contours. Lots of bays, inlets, etc.
Faerun has the Sea of Fallen Stars, the Shining Sea, and the Lake of Steam, all of which perform a similar function. They break up large land masses and provide lots of visual texture for the lands around them.
And of course…
Given the history of the Mediterranean in the history of the world, one wonders if we would have seen any of the cultures of the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, etc. evolve if they had not had access to its waters (which, in everything up to modern times, was a quicker and cheaper way to travel long distances than overland, with certain exceptions). And if you look at it from a cartographic point of view, it certainly divides Europe from Africa with intriguing contours.
Contrast these examples, then, with something like this:
Masterful storyteller and linguist though he may have been, no one claims Tolkien was an inspired cartographer. Middle Earth is, plainly, dull in terms of its geography. If the Brown Lands had been a sea or large inland freshwater lake, connected perhaps to the Sea of Rhun to the east, I think the map would have a lot more verve.
Speaking purely on an aesthetic level, what do you think contributes to a fantasy world map being interesting?