C is for Cartography

UPDATE: So, I’ve decided to submit this blog post to the RPG Blog Carnival for April, which deals with… you guessed it… Cartography! If you like my post, I recommend you follow the above link and see what other cartographically inclined gamers are coming up with this month.

I am a sucker for maps and have been since I was a kid. Whether they come from an atlas, or the front of a fantasy novel, I have always loved poring over maps, wondering about place names and, if it is of an unfamiliar area, what it is like to travel from one place to another. As a kid, I found myself drawing maps a lot. I would draw spy maps of my house while plotting with my friends to secretly look in on my sister’s nefarious deeds. I also made maps of idealized clubhouses, complete with living quarters for each of my friends, secure elevators and trapped stairs that changed to a slide at the flip of a switch. I even have a vague recollection of losing some matchbox cars on a beach near Pensacola, FL because I buried them, pirate-style, and marked the spot with an X but never found it again. 

One of the things which first drew me to fantasy novels and then to role-playing games were the ubiquitous maps of each imaginary realm that generally appear at the front of any given fantasy novel and throughout any game book. In novels, the maps feel like a key to the story that follows. Sometimes they include a dotted-line foreshadowing the path of the protagonist. Even when they don’t, the details on the map provide a tantalizing hint of what to expect from the story. After all, the author would not have included something unless he intended to at least mention it in his or her tale.

When I was in late grade school (5th or 6th grade) I built my first world with my best friend, Jim. The land was called Boink, because that is what a 10 year old boy names his penultimate creation. Jim and I populated the land with countries, exotic landforms, and even more exotic creatures. We were both big fans of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, so our fantastic vision was rife with puns and other silliness. There were smurfs, who were at war with the trolls (picture the dolls). There were also creatures completely of our own imagination, like flopadinkles (head of a cow, body of a banana slug, wings of an eagle with an outboard motor strapped to its tail… I’m serious!) and keeblesnorts (my avatar on this blog is an image of a keeblesnort that I redrew in college.)

Maps continue to fascinate me today and the maps I create for my current D&D game provide both the greatest joys and frustrations. I absolutely love sitting down to map out my own imaginary locales, but I often have to restrain myself, because maps are a superfluous extra that must be put aside when more immediate game planning calls.

I am currently in the middle of creating a continental scale map for my game world. After trying and retrying numerous mapping programs from Campaign Cartographer to Dundjinni to Autorealm, I finally came back and settled on Gimp, which is an open-source (free!) equivalent to Photoshop. While searching for the ideal technique and program, I started lurking around the Cartographer’s Guild. The maps that come out of that place are simply mind-blowing, especially when you consider that most of the members make maps just for fun! If you are interested in map-making for novels, games, or just for laughs, go there and poke around. Do it! I developed my mapping technique from the amazing tutorials churned out by the CG community, and I finally feel like I’ve reached a skill-level where I can be satisfied with what I create.

You can see my map in progress above. I have finished with the landforms, and am currently working on adding cities and other man-made features. This is particularly time consuming, as I chose to build my game world from the inside out -meaning that when we started playing, I had only fleshed out the starting town and the immediate vicinity around it. Even though we have been playing for two years, I hadn’t named all the countries in the region until last week, and I’m still working on the cities. I suspect that I will soon reach a stopping point without filling in the name of every village and forest. As my players continue to adventure, I plan to add to the map, so that it traces their expanding awareness of the world we are building together.