Article by Tommi Salama
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, in Snow White there 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!