So, this is my final part of a series of posts on creating a regional sandbox map. In brief, we have been using random (or even, dare I say, subconscious) systems of mapping and encounter planning to supply broad strokes of our campaign region. After this first step we have been thinking through the features that appear and fleshing them out with an eye on the narrative potential of the results. Essentially, if you roll it on the Judges Guild tables, you have to explain it somehow in the fiction of play, across a whole region the size of New York State.
At this point in the process, most of the divining and reading of the oracles is finished. We have our hex-map that has formed a core of detail around where the players have been placed in the start of the campaign. There are still many other encounters on the map that are broadly painted and ready to be fleshed out as needed when the players approach, but for now we have all the pieces that are necessary for several weeks of table play, possibly months. The only thing that is missing is a map of the region that the players might acquire in a dungeon haul or civilized area, a map made within the fiction you might say.
I always pictured my campaign for this map as a place where the players would be plopped into the landscape via a magical portal. Once they found a city they could obtain a loose map of the area but they would have no prior knowledge of the lay of the land beforehand, thereby emphasizing the hex-crawling and exploration elements.
So I made this map as a something they could buy from behind a bar at an inn, something accurate for medieval-style knowledge but not quite accurate on scales or distances. (click to zoom in)
Two things are readily apparent on close inspection: I have a trouble with good place-names and my calligraphy is not up to snuff. I wanted to just bang out the map so some of the crudeness is intentional for the sake of speed, but also notice what a difference a bit of color makes. Instead of drawing a map in pencil, giving it to the players across the table and telling them “you receive this crudely painted map”, I can now just hand them a crudely painted map. It’s not professional fantasy cartography, but the feel and saturation of real painted paper is hard to beat for a game prop.
(In defense of my naming of places, most of the village names were generated in the Judges Guild Villages Book. Dolecherry and Silent Diamond are weird but they do make my Sleeping Giant Hills sound quaint/hackneyed.)
The obvious difference is that I have excluded any map reference to ruin or lair entrances as that would take the player exploration/tracking accomplishments away from them. I suppose it is reasonable to place those on your player map depending on your campaign style but I would prefer that my player’s get there by tracking down rumors and chasing trouble.
The physical steps for creating the map are pretty simple and favor the visually-skilled DM but well within anybody’s effort.
- Take a thick sheet of watercolor paper and pencil in the locations of all the major features of your chosen map region taking into account the roads, rivers, and position of forests and mountains. You don’t need to draw in each mountain and tree, but you should outline the regions where they go. This is where you can get all odd with your distances to reflect the quasi-medieval sense of travel and distance. Emphasize the position of the larger cities and the close villages, the cartographic artists probably never left town anyway. Organize the shapes as something that is pleasing as an image and not really accurate to “life”.
- Take a black pen, I recommend a technical marker like a pigma or rapidograph, and practice making some uniform symbols for each of the terrain features that will be in your map. Notice how some of my mountains or hills look crappier than others? That is because I did not practice enough and was adjusting my style as I drew on the map.
- Draw in your symbols and features, paying close attention to the placement of your rivers, villages, castles, and cities. For example, make your expertly crafted city symbols first and then connect them with roads afterwords. Keep a look out for river crossings and mountain passes too.
- Double the black outline on large or important feature like big volcanoes or skull-shaped mountain edifices.
- Erase all the pencil marks off the page with a white vinyl eraser, the blank ink should all stay put.
- Now the fun part, get out your watercolor kit and mix up some nice greens, ochres, grays and blues to color in your nice ink drawing. Watercolor is it’s own beast. It is literally the hardest painting technique to learn (seriously, even fresco allows you to paint over). But the whole point is to have fun. My advice is to paint with the tip of the brush hairs for the details, use a napkin to knock excess water off the brush, and try painting into pre-wetted area of the paper to see the color bloom out.
- Let your map dry thoroughly for a bit and then place your painting under a stack of heavy books. (where will you get those oh gamer?) You can glue a little map-maker’s seal or a written legend in a empty area of the map.
- Give the map to the players at the table and watch them crudely mark it up as they explore and get cheeto dust all over the fine elven woodlands.
Thanks for tuning into this little series of posts and I hope you have some fun making and playing on your maps soon.