Archive for February 26th, 2010


Fantasy Maps: How I Built My Own Glantri

Maps are among the best props you can add to a fantasy game. They provide perspective. When your players look at a map, instead of trying to puzzle out your spoken directions—or simply tuning you out until they hear the words “at the dungeon entrance”—they can see for themselves what’s where and make meaningful decisions about where to go next.

Of course, not all of us have the proper artistic skills to create a good map. If, like me, you can barely draw a recognizable stick figure, you’ll need some help to make maps that will wow your players.

Obviously, one route is to get your maps from somewhere else. You can buy them, find them for free online or cajole a talented friend to draw one for you. The upside is that you’ll get a better product than you could turn out on your own. The downside is that you don’t have much control over the final product!

One great way to put a map together is to design it with a computer graphics program. I’ve been using Adobe Illustrator for this purpose. It’s especially useful because it relies on vector graphics. Instead of creating an image composed of specific pixels, you’ll create a skeleton of shapes that you can apply colors and textures to at your leisure. This means that if you don’t get something quite right, you don’t have to redo it from scratch; you can simply alter the curves of the lines or apply new textures until it looks the way you want.

My map of Glantri took about two hours to make, but most of that time was spent futzing about with fonts and trying to come up with a good way to draw mountains; the map proper came together in less than an hour. The textured background came off a disk that a co-worker lent me, but a quick web search should turn up any number of free textures online. The mountains are just strokes with an angled calligraphic brush. A rough art brush provided the forest borders, while a smoother art brush made the rivers.

The best part is that at no point did pen or pencil touch paper! Illustrator’s brush tool turns even the jerkiest movements of the mouse into smooth strokes, allowing even a clumsy fellow like me to “draw” clean, smooth lines. And there’s no need to scan the map into the computer, as it was on the computer to start with, where it can be modified, copied and mailed endlessly with no effort and no degradation of the image.

It doesn’t hold a candle to professional efforts, of course. But who’d expect it to? As long as the players like it, nothing else matters.


Just Talking: Communicating Your Character

Over at Ars Ludi, Ben Robbins brings up some interesting points about sharing one’s character’s point of view.

I think it’s very important to note that good roleplaying isn’t something that just happens, nor does it happen in a vacuum. If you want your character’s personality and backstory to feature prominently in play, you have to put something on the table. No one’s going to drag your character’s secrets out of you!

This has come up a lot in White Wolf games I’ve played in, especially LARPs, but I’ve seen it in other games as well, including old-school D&D. Someone designs their character with dark secrets—drug addictions, broken families, betrayed masters, forbidden loves, and so forth—then works so hard to cover their tracks that no one ever finds out about those dark secrets. At which point they’re puzzled and disappointed, because the whole point of having all this cool stuff in your backstory is to have it come out in play!

The point is, if it’s important to you for your character to have a Big Reveal in which Stuff Is Found Out—or even if you just want them to notice the little things about your character’s behavior and persona—you have to arrange it out-of-character. You can’t depend on people noticing your in-character clues. After all, they’re all busy with their own business, not to mention whatever the referee is throwing at the group!

Hell, I’ve done it myself, playing taciturn characters who never let anyone past their guard. But if no one else at the table knows what’s going on inside your character’s head, how important is it?

There are a number of useful expository techniques for sharing a character’s inner life with the group. These include:

  1. Monologuing: This is where you turn the old adage of “Show, don’t tell” on its arse and tell the group what’s going on in your character’s thoughts. This can be a first-person or third-person monologue. If you do this, keep it short. Non-interactive presentations on the table get boring much faster than you might think!
  2. Blue-booking: This is where you write your monologue down and share it with the group between sessions. This can be a brief excerpt or a full-on short story. Unlike a monologue, you can be as verbose as you want because you’re not stealing spotlight time at the table.
  3. Staged scene: Here you work with your fellow players and the referee to set up a scene in the game that showcases your character’s issues. This may be best accomplished troupe-style, with other players running relevant NPCs—your character’s friends, family, rivals, etc—as appropriate to the needs of the scene.

The one thing I don’t recommend is running long solo staged scenes. No matter how cool your character is and no matter how masterful a thespian you are, a two-hour scene with just you and the referee is likely to bore everyone else to tears. Solo scenes are useful, but keep them short and snappy!

Lastly, it’s important for referees to remember that if a player presents a secret in their character’s backstory, that’s a red flag indicating a point of conflict. Secrets are there to be revealed! You shouldn’t expose it directly without the player’s permission, but you should threaten its exposure on a semi-regular basis. It’s a good way to up the tension, and it offers a good avenue for giving the player a meaningful choice.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010

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