Douglas Niles, a legendary name for those who hail from the days of AD&D and TSR. A man whose legacy spans from the very first Forgotten Realms novels to the creation of the Dragonlance world, Doug is a New York Times Best-Seller and his work has been read and utilized by countless roleplayers. Doug is also well known for creating the groundbreaking Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (TSR, 1986) with legends Gary Gygax and David C. Sutherland III, a book which detailed exploration of the subterranean world, a realm which was previously only hinted at and briefly explored in a few select modules. The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide finally gave DMs the ability to craft their own adventures and full campaigns in the Underdark.
Last time I talked a little about how I got to work in this industry, and mentioned I was lucky enough to land a commission in Snow White, a hardback edition of the critically acclaimed adventure from AAW Games.Snow White is a tale we all know—at least the Disney version of it—but the talented writers at AAW Games have taken a new twist on the story, while keeping true to its Hessian roots. In this article I’ll talk mostly about Snow White, but also about how I approach cartography in general.
My involvement with the project started before the Kickstarter launched as I drew two stretch goal maps for it, a treasure map styled sketch of the town of Morsain, and an isometric map of the surrounding region where the adventure takes place. The fun starts when the stretch goals start kicking in—there are quite a few of those with my name on it!
My approach on mapping a project is typically always the same. First I read the product, then plan on what style I want to use in it—maybe try few different styles first—and then start to sketch. Most of the time the client has a specific style in mind already, but Jonathan G. Nelson from AAW Games often gives me pretty free hands and doesn’t restrict me artistically (and I respect that immensely).
When it came to Snow White, I wanted to embody that magical fairy tale feeling in maps too and isometric maps are great for this kind of product. It’s certainly possible to make top-down maps in a style suited for fairy tales, but with this style of cartography it’s an easier transition. Isometric maps are more personal and have that feeling of adventure no matter what style they’re drawn in—I remember seeing some as a child and imagining myself adventuring in those locations.
If we think about isometric vs. top-down in regional maps, there are many times where isometric maps come in handy. For example, inSnow Whitethere is a large haunted forest near the town where the adventure begins. As a top-down map I’d draw it with trees, thick bushes, and round shapes, but with isometric I instead make the forest evergreen, drawing sharp and dark spruce trees to really emphasize on the haunted aspect of the area.
In my mind the key to a successful illustration—especially a map—is attention to details and patience. In cartography patience is needed as it’s often needed to draw the same thing hundreds of times. I never use copy & paste with my maps (unless the use of texture patterns for backgrounds count), because I think the effort really shows in the final image. Even when making more digital styled maps I like to make every object individually and not duplicate anything.
Copying objects does come to mind when drawing city maps, but I think that the patience to draw every house separately really shows in the end, as seen in the next examples (these are not for Snow White, but from my Rite Map Pack – City by the Sea).
That map is not meant to be looked at that closely, but I want to show on what level I want to detail my maps, even if the details don’t come out very well in the finished piece; the same thing applies to dungeon maps. Little details set the mood—objects on tables, little cracks in the floor, or just texture on the wall, like on the next examples—make a big difference at the end of the day.
Details in maps are not only for visual purposes though. When doing cartography I want to enhance some interesting locations here and there—maybe add some ruins near the mountains, a lonely tower in the middle of the forest, a waterfall in the cliffs, and so on. I think it’s good to have some additional details, not just the ones written in the adventure or source book, but something that gets the gamemaster’s imagination running. I like to think this encourages GMs to add stories of their own, or helps the PCs see the location as a living, fantastic place of adventure. Of course these are things I need to run by the customer I’m drawing the map for, but usually those extra efforts are well received.
I’m really happy to get to work on a project as large and great as Snow White, and I’ll most certainly honor that chance by giving 100% of my effort when making the maps for it. I have a lot of patience stored in me for these pieces, and promise to make them shine!
I hope you enjoyed these insights on my approach to cartography. Please go and see the Kickstarter page for Snow White, read some reviews if you’re still undecided on whether to pledge or not—it’s an awesome adventure, and with more of the enthusiastic support the gaming community has shown for it, is bound to get even more amazing!
Also feel free to comment on this page, ask away if you have something to ask, or let me know if there’s something you’d like me to write more about. Thanks for reading and farewell everyone!
This month there’s a grab bag of content from the AaWBlog for folks to enjoy! In addition to the normal magic items, traps, haunts, GM articles, sidequests and creatures you’re used to, for April we’ve got some high-quality cartography by Jonathan G. Nelson with Web Extras – Maps!
These are ideal for GMs running Rise of the Drow, but can be used by any group in the Underworld of Aventyr (or other subterranean locales). Below are a map for the Gamemaster’s eyes only, one for players to use, and another ideal for use with VTT programs!
What is Mapmaster? Mapmaster is a cartography contest open to graphic designers and artists everywhere!
If you have the chops and the skills needed to put together amazing, detailed maps, then roll initiative! Take a look at our contest guidelines and put together a basic concept map that exhibits your design expertise—no vases on night stands or anything like that, just empty rooms is fine for the first round of judging.
The second phase of Mapmaster will test your technical skills, pitting your talents against that of your peers with a detailed map for inclusion in an upcoming AdventureAWeek.com module!
Aventyr is a world combed with subterranean passages and endless caverns; make one of them yours! Caves, mushroom forests, dungeons and tunnels are what we want to see—extra points will be awarded for original and creative locations!
Who is allowed to enter?
Anyone can enter! We strongly encourage unpublished cartographers and graphic designers with minds as creative as their computer mice are deft to dive in and give this contest a shot.
Five Finalists A group of industry professionals will choose five finalists from these submissions to create a more detailed map for a second phase of judging. All finalists will enjoy a free 3-month subscription to AdventureAWeek.com, and the 1st and 2nd place winner will receive both a free 3-month subscription and their choice of two Adventure-A-Week PDFs or Fantasy Grounds II adventures.
Special Assignment Two of the five finalists will be hired to assist Jonathan G. Nelson with sections of a major upcoming print product from AdventureAWeek.com! More details to come as the end of the Mapmaster contest draws near.
Grand Prize Winner Receives a 6-month subscription to Adventureaweek.com, 6 free PDF adventures, and will be hired to provide cartography for multiple upcoming adventure releases in web, PDF, and print!
What are the requirements/guidelines?
Your final map must come in three visual formats:
GM – Map with grid on floor level only, text tags, scale, compass, title of map.
Player – Map with grid on floor level only, scale, compass. (Omit: text tags, title of map)
VTT – Map only. (Omit: grid, text tags, scale, compass, title of map)
Sent to email@example.com later than February 25thth, 2014.
Only original maps are eligible (digital or scanned).
Not an overview or overland map; a GM should either run an encounter with your submission [Hint: this is what we want to see] or use it for a party progressing through a dungeon or cave system.
Be submitted as a PSD, PNG, or TIFF attachment in full color.
Have Mapmaster [insert name] in the email’s subject line.
Include your full name and contact information in the body of the e-mail.
DOES NOT include any references to any settings not published by Adventureaweek.com, LLP. Please note that AaW does not have a license to print adventures using settings published by other companies. Any such entries will be immediately disqualified. You may refer to locations from Aventyr (the Adventureaweek.com campaign setting).
Make sure you include the following information with your entry: Full Name, Email Address, Name of Map
1. The contest is open to all.
2. One entry per person. The entry must be your own work, which has not been published previously, is not being considered for publication by any other publisher, and is original and does not infringe upon any copyrighted material.
3. All entries become property of Adventureaweek.com, LLP.
4. By entering this contest, you authorize the use of your name and likeness without additional compensation for promotion and advertising purposes in all media.
5. This contest is subject to federal, state, and local laws where applicable.
6. Adventureaweek.com, LLP reserves the right to withdraw or terminate this contest at any time without prior notice.
7. All decisions of Adventureaweek.com, LLP and the contest judges are final.