Return of the Mapper for online games?

Have you heard the good message of our savior Gus L? I learned entirely by accident that he didn’t stop writing RPG stuff but instead has been sharing new stuff on his new site All Dead Generations for the past three years. All the stuff on the site is about what he calls Classic Dungeon Crawling, which is basically OD&D and early Basic D&D, and how that style of Dungeon Crawling is an exploration fantasy game and not a combat fantasy game. A fantastic resource that I recommend to everyone, though it comes in hefty chunks that take quite a while to chew on.

After my overall pretty great D&D 5th edition campaign last year, I was throwing the towel on trying to make dungeons work, because I just could not figure out how to make a dungeon an interesting place that is not simply a warehouse for nonsensical puzzles. All the advice I was coming across on that front was “Well, sometimes funhouse dungeons can be fun.”But now, after 20 years as a GM, I finally get dungeons!

I have seen the light!

Dungeon Crawling and exploration in general isn’t just an aspect of an RPG, it’s even more a system of multiple mechanics than I previously had realized. Treating the whole dungeon as one big puzzle that will reveal the safest ways to the best treasures when figured is a great focus draw players engagement with the campaign. Especially when there’s no plot and characters don’t get shiny new toys every time they level up.

Part of solving that puzzle often is to fully grasp the layout of the dungeon and gain the ability to pinpoint the likely locations of possible shortcuts or otherwise completely inaccessible areas. Gus mentions that having players draw the map themselves is particularly bothersome in online games, where the GM can’t peak at a player’s pencil drawn map to spot obvious misunderstandings of his descriptions. (Minor errors in dimensions are desirable though.) But I took a quick look at Roll20 and found that at least in this case, this thing is actually very easy to do.

Roll20 has the paintbrush tool, which also has a shapes tool that draws rectangles by simply clicking and dragging. As a lifelong diehard user of pencils and grid paper, I think this is actually a lot easier and quicker than drawing lines around squares with a pencil. To correct errors, you can just click on one of these shapes and delete it, without any messing around with erasers. Now I’m definitely going to bring back this aspect of the game in my Great River Campaign. At least giving it a trial run. I’ve been told that there isn’t a function like this in Fantasy Grounds, but I’ve never used that myself. Which seems like a shame, since this is something really simple and basic. Though I guess when you do your mapping like this, you might not be bothering with something as fancy as Fantasy Grounds.

The Great River, v0.2

Click to embiggen

This is literally the same river as in my previous diagram, but now made to look like an actual river. It’s composed of maps of actual rivers at different scales, some rotated or mirrored. Green dots are cities, orange dots are trade posts.

Once I overlayed a hex grid in GIMP and set it to correspond to 100 miles for the river delta, I was able to count the actual distances, and it turned out that just by eyeballing, I got amazingly close to the numbers I had drawn up with no references yesterday. The Black River and Western Green River are 200 miles shorter than I had planned, but the length of Eastern Green River and the junctions of the main branches are all only 10 miles off from what I wanted. For reference, the Black River and the Lower River are based on the Mississippi at half-length, so it’s still a really big river.

I’m not quite happy with many of the side branches and will probably bend the Black River more south to make room for a big mountain range between it and the Green River, and maybe turn the Western Green River more southwest, but other than that I am really happy with this for a first attempt.

Mapping a River for pointcrawling

While tinkering further on my Rivercrawl idea, I cam up with this notation to map a huge river network.

First I made a Melan diagram of the main river branches for my river and marked the branches in different colors, which then looks like this.

I then turned the same information into a big table. Below you have a heavily cropped down version to show the principle of how it works. The real thing I made actually has 180 rows over five pages, but most are still completely empty at this point. The principle is basically the same as in Ultraviolet Grasslands, but without the illustrations. I find this easier for river that curves and fans out, compared to the more or less straight trade routes in UVG, and it also allows to make more notes without making a huge unreadable mess. As a tool for GMs to use at the table, I think this plain look isn’t a bad thing.

Getting the whole thing set up was a bit tricky, so here’s how I did it: Since I have only three main branches at any given point of the river, I made a table with seven columns. I think you could also do it with four branches and fit nine columns on one page, but more than that probably makes the thing more a nuisance to read than a help. I found that my river has seven different combinations of parallel running branches, so I made the table with seven rows as well. At this point you first set the column widths that you want, because this will be a total bitch if you try adjusting those later. After that you merge cells together as the river branches fork and meet, which in my case looked like this.

At this point, you can simple select and row and use “add rows below” or whatever your program calls it, and you should get an identical row to the one that you had selected. Then add mile markers to the leftmost row, and you’re done.

Now to the new neat feature that I actually came up with myself. The River Ratings. Each river section row has a little field on the left side that quickly shows the GM the water conditions the players are moving into. It’s fairly self-explaining when you look at the legend above. The letter says what size categories of ships can enter that section of the river. In case of my emerging setting, it’s galley size, junk size, dhow size, and canoe size. Ships larger than that will get stuck on the bottom of the river. (The width of the river or any obstacles in the water are not considered as a separate factor for the sake of convenience. Either your ship can continue on, or it gets stuck on something.) The number indicates the speed of the current. This number is added to your ship’s speed when you travel downriver, and subtracted when you travel upriver. If the speed of the current reduces your speed below 1 mile per hour, you can’t continue by water. I had been thinking to mark the type of terrain on the riverbanks as well to calculate overland speed, but that would mess the readability of this format with too much clutter. For the setting I want to make, it’s going to be “dense forest” pretty much everywhere anyway. I did a bit of looking around for average speeds of the boat types I listed, and the numbers I went with seem to be quite realistic. They are actually leaning to the lower end, as I suspect the original numbers were based on strong ocean breezes, so it would be slower further inland.

My plan for the campaign is that there is an adventuring season of 8 month, which is then interrupted by a flood season of 4 month, where the water speed is simply too much along the whole river to get upstream. I think it would be cool to make a roll at the start of each new adventuring season to see if water levels are exceptionally high or low this year. A high river increases the size rating for the whole river by one, while a year of low water levels reduces it by one. The players might find that the expedition they had planned either needs to be canceled or attempted with a much smaller boat as the river conditions make reaching the destination in a junk or dhow impossible. You could also have a randomly determined special event that changes the water level or speed halfway through the season, which can lead to very inconvenient complications hundreds of miles away from civilization.

This was a mistake

If you can’t be a good example, you can at least be a cautious warning.

I’ve been thinking about how I can get myself into thinking of Planet Kaendor as a wilderness setting instead of always ending up putting all my efforts into the city states, which are supposed to be exceptional special cases in the setting and not the site of much adventure.

And in the process, I realized that the whole geographical layout that I cobbled together years ago is actually really bad.

The idea for the setting is that there are a few small clusters of civilization on the coast of the mainland, beyond of which lies a vast expanse of strange and wondrous forests. And the one thing the setting has in the way of major bad guys are the naga, who used to control much of the world in the ancient past, but are now driven back into the southern jungles where they plot their return.

Breaking down the layout for the overall geography like this immediately show the problem. The big weird forest and the naga jungles are in opposite directions? Delving deeper into the wilderness does not bring the party in closer contact with the naga, it takes them further away from them. And it doesn’t make sense for the naga to do some plotting and scheming in old ruins in the great forests because they would first have to get through the cities to get there.

I think all the way back when I came up with the general map layout, I didn’t really had much thought put into the naga yet, and only decided that I want to have them somewhere. But with the ways the ideas have morphed in the years since then, it has become increasingly impractical for the new concept.

More More Maps

I think this might finally be enough maps for now. I really am quite happy with how this one turned out. A few places still need names, and I’ll have to draw in the rivers by hand in Krita (that‘s what Inkarnate decides to exclude from the free version?!) But otherwise this is a really nice map that I’d be happy to hand out to players.

To get this coastlines, I did a composite of several satellite images. Most of it is based on the coastline of California and British Columbia, with pieces of the Sea of Okhosk, Papua, and the Solomon Islands thrown in. I find the end result to look quite convincing.

Another thing I noticed is how much the size of map icons and writing on the map affects the perception of scale. Using pretty small icons and letters, I think it looks much more like a good portion of a continent than just a single county when I had them considerably larger.

More Map Magnificence

Two years ago I made a pretty decent looking map for Kaendor in Krita and GIMP. I was actually quite surprised that it was that long ago, as I had been used to my maps constantly changing and being revised. But the overall layout and the important settlements really have not changed at all since then. Which I take to be a sign that the setting has settled into a stable state that I am more or less happy with, even in the long term. I still have not finished naming everything, but I think I’ll be getting there over this year.

Today, I made a new version of that old map, in one afternoon trying out Inkarnate for the first time. This still could use some more polish, but I really quite like how it looks overall.

I still think this actually looks too clean and pristine as a handout for a Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery setting, though. I might end up tracing the final map in Krita to give it a more scribbled and grimy look.

How large does a setting have to be?

This is North-West-Cental Europe. It it an area exactly 1,000 miles from North to South, and 1,000 miles from East to West.

Think of what comes to your mind when you hear “The Middle Ages”. Unless you have a specific, personal interest in medieval Spain, Ireland, or Russia, almost everything that you think of will have been within this area, with the one notable exception of the Crusades. Even the vast majority of all Viking stuff.

Historians generally place the Middle Ages in roughly the time from 500 to 1,500 CE, which happens to coincide with the disappearance of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, and the discovery of America and the Reformation. So it all also falls into a span of 1,000 years.

A thousand miles and a thousand years. That’s the Middle Ages as a setting for popular fiction and reference frame for Fantasy. Compared to many popular fantasy settings, that’s tiny. But there’s so much stuff in this little box. More space than you could ever possibly need to tell your stories. It certainly won’t hurt if you can give names to the distant lands that lie beyond the edges of the map, where merchants get the most exotic of their goods. But to characters dealing with their own lives inside of this box, they don’t need to be anything more than that. Things are of course different for campaigns about traveling to far away exotic lands, which certainly have their place in fantasy. But those really are the exception, not the rule.

Worldbuilding Scale References

Starting on a new map for Planet Kaendor, I made a quick comparison of how big a 2,000 by 2,000 miles area would actually be compared to Europe. Since it was really easy to do, I did the same thing for North America and East Asia as well, and might as well share them with the world.

All maps use the same 100×100, 500×500, 1,000×1,000 and 2,000×2,000 miles squares.

Turning any map into a hex map with GIMP

There are a number of programms out there that allow you to make a hex map out of hex tiles. I used one of them to make this map of the Savage Frontier five years back. However, I am not a fan of these maps, at least not as something to put into the hands of the players. I feel it creates too much abstraction in the minds of players that works against them mentally visualizing the setting of the game as an actual world. As a setting creator, I see even myself getting affected by that and it significantly hampers my work on the world.

But hexes are very useful as tools to keep track of the party’s position as it is moving through the wilderness. In most situations you want to have separate maps for the players and the GM anyway, so you can keep track of where hidden and unknown sites are located without giving it away to the players. You can also overlay a hex grid on top of the GM version of the map along with the hidden sites and other notes. The terrain type of each hex won’t always be completely clear, but that’s not really an actual issue. Make a best guess which terrain on the background image dominates, and when you don’t stay consistent between different occasions the players are passing through it nobody will notice.

Finding an image of a hex grid on a transparent background to simply slap on top of a map you have in Photoshop or GIMP has been a huge pain in the butt for most of this afternoon. But at least for GIMP I found a great solution to add a grid on top of any image.

  1. Open your image file of your map.
  2. Add a new layer: Layer > New Layer > Press “Okay”. Make sure the new layer is above the layer with the map.
  3. Open the Mosaic dialog: Filters > Distortions > Mosaic.
  4. Make sure Tile Geometry is set to “Hexagons”.
  5. Set Tile Size to your preferred size of tiles.
  6. Set Tile Height to 1 (to remove reflection effect).
  7. Set Tile Neatness to 1 (to make orderly hexes).
  8. Set Tile Color Variation to 0 (to make all tiles blank).
  9. Set Tile Spacing to 1 (or higher, if you want wider grid lines).
  10. Joints Color: This will be the color of your grid lines.
  11. Light Color: To remove shiny reflections on each hex, click on the color to open the “Light Color” dialog. Set the value for “A” to “0” or move the slider all the way to the left. Click “OK” to close the dialog. (You can’t disable the reflection, but this makes it completely transparent and therefore invisible.)
  12. Click “OK” in the Mosaic dialog to apply the grid to the player.

And that is the entire process. The tricky part is to find the right value for “Tile Height” to get the tile size that matches the scale of your map. But if the map has scale markings on it, move the view of the image to that corner of the map and try out different sizes in the Mosaic dialog until the hexes line up with it. (The “Preview” box has to be checked to see how the grid would look like with the current settings.)

The only issue I noticed is that with hexes of sizes below 20-30, the hexes tend to get a bit squashed as a result of the image consisting of pixels, but I think you’d get this with any other method to get a hex map as well, unless it uses vector images (which I doubt any map software does).