Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Map Making Basics

Weeks of preparation: Npcs are created. Dynamic villains, and devious plot hooks are all set to paper. You’ve got encounters planned, and cheat sheets with the bad guys’ descriptions, armor classes, hit points and damage dice. What’s left?

One of the critical elements of any game world or adventure is maps. Maps offer shape and definition to the physical structure and placement of geography. With one look the GM can give an accurate assessment of how far away The Caverns of Harumph are and how much distance and time she has to work with. Likewise, the players can look at the map and decide on just how they want to get there. Should they travel The Caltrop Road or take the quicker but more dangerous route through The Swallowyouwhole Marshes? A map can help greatly with enabling your players to decide this for themselves.

NOTE: As a GM, you may consider making your players roll on whether or not their characters have ever seen a map, much less no how to read one. Take into account their character backgrounds and professions. Obviously, if they’ve taking ranks in “Profession: Cartographer” and explained that it was the family business, chances are, they know what they’re doing. Conversely, a Barbarian who belongs to a nomadic tribe would probably have never needed a map.

Many published game worlds come with a set of maps to which there are often supplemental expansions later down the road. These maps may or may not offer the level of detail that you require, which leaves you up to your own devices. Sometimes your campaign takes place in a very small area, which on the original map is less than a single hex, or perhaps you’d rather have an original map for your own game world, but you don’t know where to start.

Campaign Cartographer 3 Map Making for GamersThere are software programs you can use, like, Campaign Cartographer, but in this article we are focusing on drawing one freehand.

If you need a map of a small area of a preexisting map, you must first decide is how detailed you want it to be? The map has to be detailed enough to serve its function but not be so overwhelming that you spend the next 25 years drawing every rock and tree or detailing the door jambs in a dungeon. There should be enough room left for practicality and imagination. Remember, this is a technical document, not an artist’s rendition or portrait of the area.

The first thing you must do is determine your scale. The most common way of setting the scale is using graph paper, which can come with either squares or hexagons, wherein one square/hex is equivalent to a number of feet/yards/meters/miles/kilometers, etc. You can then take the area you want to detail from the original map and transfer that information to the new scale.

Example: You have a square and you want to see the detail in that square. You can break the square down into four equally sized and proportional squares where each quadrant of the original square is equal to one of the four corresponding new squares. You have effectively "zoomed in".

You can zoom in even further by breaking the original square down into nine, sixteen, twenty five, squares, etc. As long as the ratio and proportions remain constant, you'll be fine with your chosen scale conversion.

Now, apply the same principle when enlarging geographical elements such as rivers and forests. Once this is done you can then give the detail you wish to show. You’ll be able to show as much detail as you’d like of that building or cave, which before you simply said was “In this area here” while pointing at a black dot on a large map.

Once you've completed your map keep it in a central file so that you can build a library of maps that you can refer to in the future. For an extra kick of consistency, write a description of notable locations on the map. Keep them all together so that you don't have to do the paper shuffle later wondering where you put them.

But, what if you want to make your own maps?

Once again, it begins with scale. How grand do you want to be? Do you want to create the whole planet/plane/parallel universe from the start or do you want to start with a small area and build out from there? There is no "right" way to do this as it's a matter of mood, ambition, and time.

The merits of starting small is that you can surprise yourself with what lies beyond the boundary of your map as you add to it. You can also concentrate on finer details with a narrower scope. Limiting yourself to a small area can keep things local and even offer an unspoken and unconscious sense of personal community for your players. Naturally this is also dependant on the style of adventure but it all starts with a map...even if that map is in your head.

Creating a large area to define also has merits. It allows for grander designs and a versatility of locations. You can cover a wide range of cultures and geographies. Characters can travel far and away offering space to set their excitement. You can set the scale as vast as the entire game world or limit it to a continent or island. The idea here though is to think on a grand scale.

If you like, mingle both aspects. Make a larger overall map and then pick a smaller location within that map that you'd like to spend some time with. Again, this approach depends on the adventures you'd like to explore and present.

Once you decide on the scale of your map you have to consider the sort of terrain features you'd like your characters to be based in and explore. Will there be forest, rivers, desert, plains, mountains, water bodies, cities, something from your imagination? This consideration doesn't necessarily have to be done before you put pencil (Which, if you’re not using some computer program, pencil is the only way to go… obviously because it can be erased!) to graph paper it can be done as you're drawing it and feel the muse, so to speak. Let your imagination fly! Look at other game maps to get an idea of how you might want to portray the elements in your map if you're not sure how to do it. It's perfectly okay to borrow style from other maps.

Do yourself a favor, and just like an essay, make yourself a rough draft first. A rough draft would be a first generation of your map that captures the initial thoughts and ideas that you put down on paper. It doesn't have to be complicated or show absolutely everything. It would only be a start. After that you can refine it to be more detailed and exact. You may find that you make several evolving editions of your map before you come to the final. Whatever you do, don't settle for anything that you're not satisfied with. Strive to create something that makes you happy. You don't have to be Michelangelo to produce a good map you only need to be patient.

Okay, so now you have a map that you're proud of and it's exactly what you want...almost. What could be missing? Ah-ha! Color! If you would like your map to have some "pop" color can be very effective for that. Color also offers the ability to easily distinguish between the elements of your map. Now, this is not to say that black and white maps can't be visually stunning or useful. There are some incredible black and white maps out there. It does require a bit more artistic ability to give them the flash you might want. If you can do it, and prefer it, go to town. A pen and ink map can be quite fetching. But if you like color I would suggest using a range of colored pencils.

There are many techniques for using colored pencils for coloring. It is strongly recommended that you experiment with them first before putting them on your map. Also, take your uncolored map to a reprographics place and make a couple of copies. It would be tragic to have penciled in your map only to have it botched with color (which can be horrible to try to erase). Get comfortable with the pressure you apply to the pencil, how it distributes color, the type of tip that is on the paper, how the colors can blend to offer depth, what the color looks like on paper (it can be different than what you see on the pencil itself),etc. Your colored pencils are an extension of your hand and imagination begging for control.

The reward of accomplishment and the satisfaction of creation can be well worth the practiced efforts of making your own game maps. It'll offer physical shape and definition to an imagined world for both you and your players. Make no mistake, it does require time, patience, and practice. With continued efforts, you'll have created an impressive library of maps, and artwork that can consistently be used for your game.