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Landscape Painting Around Dwimmermount


The Opening of The Starfall Desert

In the midst of relocating across the country and becoming a first-time father this Fall, I had been asked by the esteemed Tavis Allison of Autarch to put some of my hedge-wizard illustration skills to work for one of their projects. I had the pleasure of being asked to develop a colored hex-map showing the region around James Maliszewski‘s infamous/legendary Dwimmermount.

James had already enlisted the mapping mojo of the influential Rob Conley of Bat In The Attic to create a play-reference black and white map for the region around Dwimmermount proper, but Tavis called for a large colored map that could be printed on durable vinyl. It was to be sans locations and named areas so the map could function for mysterious player exploration and utilitarian play at the table much like the old wilderness survival map.

I had my earlier methods for making colored hexmaps, similar to the style of the Judges Guild Wilderlands map sets and detailed in my overly long series of posts on this very blog, but I wanted to stretch the process some more and see if I could move the technique into more of a hand-made affair. (At least in appearance, anyway.)

I decided to make the thing entirely of scanned watercolor paint-strokes. If it was going to be in big printed color, I thought I would savor the opportunity and forgo using the color black for creating outlines or details and try and have it look like everything was painted on in color. A lot of published game maps start life in digitized B&W and can have a “coloring book” feel to them. I wanted to see if the whole thing could be done with hand made colored strokes and textures.

In the end you can still see the digital-ness of the whole affair, and I used black for putting the hexes on, but the intent is to have it organic/quirky enough that the machine qualities don’t register to the viewer.

Hills, Mountains, Grasslands, Forest

Hills, Mountains, Grasslands, Forest

The raw painting used to create a "big" mountain pattern for use in GIMP.

The raw painting used to create a “big” mountain pattern for use in GIMP.

The steps were numerous and I won’t detail them unless there is substantial internet begging, but they involved much tracing, painting, scanning, buying a recycled socialist computer, pattern creation, GIMPing, Hawkwind, Ice Dragon, and beer.

My goal next time is to create 4 inch sized hexes with oil paint on a wood panel.


One Page Dungeon: Devil Gut Rock

This is cross-posted from my illustration blog last night. I’m sorry if this is bad form, but no one reads my illustration blog anyway and this is a free goodie for you loyal readers. I gotta do something to make up for my lack of talkie-talkie on the mule blog. – das Goat

So, in the interest of triggering more rpg game-playing in my recalcitrant friend, I challenged him to make an entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest this year. Although he is well versed in the nature of dungeon adventuring and RPGs from way back in his youth, he balks at currently playing for various reasons of time commitment and free time. However, he is quite keen on the study of structures and the creation of “game play objects” like miniature painting and particularly making war-game scenery. I knew he would be up for some dungeon design.

So I emailed him the link to the One Page Dungeon contest on a lark, realizing that we had just over a week to go before the submission deadline. But it would be fun to goad him into a competitive effort and the process would be good for my infrequent DMing as well.

After he took the bait and started discussing ideas with me, I started to look through the OPDC webpage in earnest and saw that there were actual prizes awarded and I got even more excited. And then I looked through the winning entries from the previous years and got a bit nervous. There was some good stuff, both from a visual standpoint and play-wise. It would be some stiff competition.

Oh well, I figured. I told him we should blast through the process, try and get them submitted and then take turns playing each other through the dungeons one night. (Maybe shouting over to Mrs. Greengoat about how much fun this was.) That would be the best part and I could use my entry for a future session with the notorious NY Redbox Crew.

So after too much time spent on inking my isometric map and cramming as much text as I could decently fit on a sheet of paper I was finished. I wanted a good playable dungeon and kept my visual extravagances limited for readability and clarity. Or maybe I tell myself that because the map is kinda bare.) It has inspired me to get into more isometric cartography in future endeavors.

Tools used: I inkjet printed an isometric grid straight onto Borden & Riley Paris Paper and penciled in the rooms. I used india ink with brush and pen straight over that and added the keyed numbers digitally. Wrote the text in Open Office and did layout in InDesign with free fonts. I should start using all open source software in the future. Adobe habits are hard to break. I listened to the Melvins.

Use and Enjoy:



Hexomancy: Making the perfect maps for Adventurer Conqueror King

Using the ACKS hexmap format for my personal campaign mapping. If you can squint, you can notice the random village names from Judges Guild tables like Duck Oracle and Concealed Van.

More so than most other tabletop rpgs, “wilderness travel” and hex mapping of the sandbox world is integral to the resurgent old school style of play. In a game where the players can possibly take off in whatever direction they desire, geography holds an even footing with elements like story threads as drivers of fun at the table. Having an easy and logical way to record that visual geography is a key to verisimilitude in ongoing play.

Having been tasked with cartography work for Autarch’s new Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), I found myself in the delightful position of organizing the game’s hex mapping format that we would use in published material. On one hand, I knew that I would use a type of hex-map among the many used by sandboxing players out there, but I also felt that my method should lend itself to play as best as possible. In short, I wanted to make the type of map sheets I would want to fill up and detail myself if all I had was just a pencil and an eraser and not the crazy gadzooks of watercolor, scanning and photoshopping that I sometimes overdo maps in (see above).

Another concern that I had was with ACKS’ increased emphasis on the middle and high end of play for an OSR fantasy game, the need to “zoom” from local geography to regional and continent geography was self-evident. The higher the character levels that the PCs achieve, the more of the surface of their world becomes their concern. The high end campaign would begin to rely on hex maps as much as the low end adventures would rely on graph paper for dungeon mapping.

So knowing that campaign-usability weighed heavily on my shoulders and also reminding myself of the fact that I was sweating over dinky hexagons of elven glades, I lifted design heavily from previously published campaign maps (Traveler, D&D Gazetteer, Judges Guild) and set about making three different hex maps for use in a campaign that featured three different levels of play.

The first type of map would be the smallest “local” scale containing a grid of hexes that are the traditional six mile size in diameter. This scale would be familiar to most people playing OSR games as the standard wilderness travel hexes that you could get lost in while navigating and encounter nasty wandering monsters in. I wanted these hexes to fit on a letter size page for publishing and also be used by GMs to print and use in their own campaign so I went with a map that was 25 hexes wide and 16 hexes tall. This would make hexes that were roughly half an inch across on the printed page and allow players and GMs to draw their own details in as well as give some room for some pretty map art to be published in any future ACKS campaign or adventure books. Readable details at the local level is what is needed. I also added a larger 24 mile hex-grid over the top to provide an easy way of zooming in and out of the larger map scales shown below. I put coordinate numbering on the small hexes similar to the Judges Guild/Traveler sector maps so any text reference could point to an exact 6 mile hex in the game-world. This resulting “local” size map is roughly 90 miles tall and 150 wide, giving a surface area that can encompass of a couple US counties.

The next standard map would be the “regional” map comprised of four of the smaller “local” maps at. This size map gives a good feel for the DM planning of the relationship between local areas and for mid-level journeys by player characters. The 48 x 32 hex-grid fits precisely into the suggested “starting” sandbox area that many DMs create at the outset of a sandbox campaign. The GM just has to provide the rough geography or fill the hexes with quick icons reminiscent of the old Basic D&D Gazetteer and then pick out one of the quadrants for mapping out the level 1 character’s home base and dungeons at the local scale. This regional map is 192 miles tall and 280 miles wide, giving the total surface area of a typical US state.

The last and grandest map is the “continent” hex-map made up from 24 mile hexes in a 48 x 32 grid. This map is It is roughly 768 miles tall and 1152 miles wide and has the surface area of roughly half of the continental United States. It contains 16 of the region size maps and 64 of the small local maps. It features a coordinate grid so you can effectively specify any small 6 mile hex location on your continent by listing the coordinates of the local map and then the numeric hex coordinates. For example:
Dungeon of Pain – C7-0535
Very nice in a Traveler UPP sort of a way.

In the end, It is all a very modest organization on a simple convention used by players over the last 30+ years but the little extras made a tight system for zooming in and out of the campaign world and it also gave the the right hex sizes for drawing pretty maps for both publication and the play table. It all might be a bit too obsessive by some player’s tastes but we all know in the OSR that rules and standards are there to help player and not hinder fun. So please use and abuse them hexes as you will, they are free to download from Autarch’s website here.


The Post Where I Give You Awesome Map Graphics

That is, if you think that by awesome I mean a recreation of the art and design methods of late-seventies RPG game maps. Awesome in a way that Red versus Blue of the generic cold war armies on a Tactics II game board are awesome.

If you will recall from my last stint of map posting, I explained the whole process of generating a random and unique regional hex map for use in a starting sandbox style campaign. It was a homage (copy) of the same style of region maps that were put out by Judges Guild in the late seventies for their Wilderlands of High Fantasy series.

Towards the end of the process, I bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t exactly replicate their graphic style in my final map iteration. The designers at Judges Guild used a combination of hand-inking on a full size sheet and screen tone to produce their textures and shapes on their large 48″ x 36″ maps.

Photo-mechanical printing to capture a full size drawn map seemed a little severe for my purposes and screen-tone is generally only used in Japanese manga as a carry over from pre-digital illustration days. I had already found some digital textures on the internet that someone had lifted off of old wargame designs that would take care of my forests and rough patches. Those were good, but there were still a bunch of tone patterns that were impossible to locate, to say nothing about the mountains and hills that were hand drawn directly on the old JG maps.

So to satisfy my own obsessive sense of needless design (it is a DM eyes only map, no one will get to see it.), I created a bunch of repeating digital patterns to simulate the inking and screen-tone that I could find on the old maps and loaded them into my imaging software for my personal mapping enjoyment.

And the good news is that I am giving them all to you.
They include such top hits like:

  • Forest
  • Grasslands
  • Coast and River Rough Patches (sand)
  • Rolling Hills
  • Rough Hills
  • Mountains
  • Swamp
  • Desert (I am quite proud of all the little palm trees)

And a couple different encounter symbols for :

  • Villages
  • Castles
  • Lairs
  • Ruins

All the patterns are scaled to perfectly fit the 48″ x 36″ 150 dpi hex region map that I am also including in the attached zip file.

Here is the link.

Or try here.

Or maybe here.

See the included readme for further instructions about how to use them in your graphics program. However be forewarned, it still takes a lot of fiddling with layers and brushing and erasing hills to get it to look good. It is no Campaign Cartorapher. It looks particularly good when you lay the whole business over your enlarged watercolor painting. But it also looks just fine in B&W like the old Judges Guild maps.

Enjoy and map-on through your 70’s fantasy lands. Listening to Hawkwind helps the process along.


Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft – part 6

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.

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Double the black outline on large or important feature like big volcanoes or skull-shaped mountain edifices.
  5. Erase all the pencil marks off the page with a white vinyl eraser, the blank ink should all stay put.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.


Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft – part 5

This is the fifth installment in my series of posts on making a sandbox-style region map using automatic drawing methods and vintage Judges Guild random tables. We have gone through these steps so far:

  1. Create a nebulous outline of a continent map with scribbles and loose pencil drawing.
  2. Use a cheap watercolor kit to randomly splatter our map with terrain colors and then paint in all remaining white paper with chosen color areas.
  3. Make a high resolution scan of our loose painting and zoom in on a region to map.
  4. Use free graphics software to place a hex grid on our chosen map region.
  5. Use old Judges Guild random tables and maybe a computer script to roll our encounters for each hex and determine if they are a Village, Castle, Ravaged Ruin, or Lurid Lair.
  6. Draw in loose roads to connect villages and castles with compatible alignments.
  7. Start to think of the narrative reasons for differences in alignment and race between populated areas.

What we have so far is a map like this:

We have come to a loose understanding of an adventuring region of about the size of New York State or just shy of the surface of Oregon. We know where the major attractions and mysteries lay. We know which ones are bad/chaotic and which ones are good/lawful. We don’t have their names or their specific details, but these can be rolled up on the fly as the PCs travel  through the land. What we really need is a solid chunk of tight territory with more information that can serve as a home-base region for a new campaign.

I am in some old red-box style campaigns that have stretched for multiple years of play and I don’t think we ever got the itch to strike out overland, long distance, all at one go. It is always a gradual expansion of known territory. Maybe the big sweeping exploration is for level seven and higher, where you can fend off the frightening probability of OD&D wandering dragons,  but I know that a “Keep on the Borderlands” or “Nentir Vale” size area is a good starting point for a beginning campaign.

The time has come for us to draw in some hard features on a hex by hex basis. We need to name our places, determine our inhabitants, and find their relationships to drive the interests of our players that stalk the six-sided wilderness.

For this next step, we need to use our digital wizardry to zoom in even more. I picked a likely spot, as shown by the red outline above, and cropped down. Like my first printed region map that I used to mark encounters on before, I made a letter-sized inkjet print of my image. The numbered hexes are still in place from when I overlaid the main region map. I clipped a piece of clear acetate over the print-out and used a technical pen to doodle in my features. You can draw directly on the printout if you desire, I just drew on the transparencies so I could scan the doodles in again and layer it cleanly over my map in my graphics program. At this point you could even remake the entire map using your own digital cartography brushes in GIMP or other mapping programs of your choice. But, as you can probably tell, I like the touch of the hand so I went at it and came up with this:

The first thing that I did was to consult my main region map and find out where my encounters were. I made up a consistent little map symbol for Castles with a little tower , Lairs with a little cave, Ruins with some crumbling structure, and Village hexes had some square dots that seem to indicate a building plan. I admit that the villages look a little unclear but I was trying to ape the B&W cartography of the Wilderlands Of High Fantasy Maps and failed. I like my little towered city better in the center.

After the main encounter symbols went down, I connected villages and some castles with road systems represented by dashed lines. I tried to imagine the paths of least resistance while traveling through the splotchy terrain and then also started to put rivers, mountains, and forests in where I thought the color of the paper demanded it. Notice how I put a high pointy mountain symbol on all the dark gray watercolor spots and then the smaller hill features around the other rough spots. In the process, I saw a yellow patch of  earth on the south-east corner of the map and decided that some hills would form a rain-shadow over an arid section of the region. I guess I have some rudimentary weather patterns now.

The rivers should be placed so they are always flowing downhill in some manner, so I usually started them in mountains or hills and had them flow through or by villages on their way to the ocean. Creating the roads first reminds you to draw in a bridge or a ford in the waterways when you need to. It is better to put the information on the map so you won’t forget about it later. I made a shadowy outline of the forest and decided it would represent a real thick wood. There would be trees and sparse copses in many hexes but I wanted the big green spots to be unbroken forests. All the blank hexes would be either plains, or scrub, or grasslands, or gentle hills. I guess I could also come up with symbols for those hex types but I liked the effect of the color popping through the map.

So there, I had my complete home-base region all mapped out. All I needed to do now was make a dungeon or three, name some villages and inhabitants, figure out who occupied the ruins, castles, and lairs and then create some relationship maps to goad the PCs into investigation or activity. (Village A is bothered by lair B, castle C is guarding ruin D, etc.)

The drawing and symbols are not all consistent or neat, but I was doodling directly without practicing much so I think it came out alright considering. The information that the map contains is what is important. You shouldn’t have to worry about how your map looks unless your players are going to see it, like a handout map.

So tune in for the sixth and final part of my sandbox mapping posts… the Player Handout Map.


Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft – part 4

So for my Ouija-board-esque method of sandbox mapping, I had made a hex-grid of my chosen region and I applied the nebulous hues of the terrain with a kid’s watercolor kit. I now needed to provide more details for adventuring like roads, rivers, villages, mountains, hills etc. The first step was to go straight to my Judges Guild encounters that I rolled up using my junky little python script. It gave me a final printout with about 150 different villages, castles, ruins, and layers listed by hex coordinates that I could place right away without looking at the underlying terrain colors. I did not have details of all the encounters. The lairs and ruins could be rolled up later, but the castles and villages were really important in that they had an alignment and a race associated with each listed encounter.

I printed up my freshly hexed map on my inkjet printer (photo matte paper is great) and then clipped a piece of clear transparency to it, like the clear plastic you get for overhead projectors. With the transparency I could write and sketch in the details with a permanent marker and then I could scan it in again for whatever reason. I went down the hex columns on the map and looked for the proper coordinates for each of the encounters on the programmed list and marked a V, C, L, or R in a fine point marker. Any encounter that landed in the water would become an Idyllic Isle, but the rest pretty much stayed where the “fell”. (You could also place the letters on the hexes with the image layers of GIMP, but I felt like using my hands for my mapping and locating.)

Evil castles or villages would get a red circle and good villages and castles would get a green circle. Right away, I had clumps of good settlements and clumps of evil settlements that could suggest some type of politics or borders in my small local region. I could start putting in dotted lines to connect the villages and castles with roads and start wondering about how the encounter placement worked in a narrative sense. Why would an evil hobgoblin settlement be right next to a lawful-good human settlement? Maybe there is a siege going on, maybe the Hobgoblins are a large mercenary camp that defends the larger human village. Why are there evil dwarves occupying this castle? This sandbox style of planning is all about divining some type of meaning from what the random results provide. There is always the ability to fudge, but the whole point of the method is to provide a springboard to your interpretations.

So I had a rough idea about what encounters goes where on the region map, and I could continue to flesh out the whole area, naming all the villages, placing all the roads, and placing the definite terrain and rivers all within a hundred or so miles of the characters. But then again, do I really need 150 encounters and surrounding terrain detailed to begin play? I didn’t think so. And besides, one of the key tenets of sandbox play is to structure details around what the players start to provide. We needed to leave room for the screwed up village that one of the PCs originates from.

With this in mind, I decided to zoom in even more, and save the fiddling for a tighter focus map, something I would imagine as being a good “home-base” area like The Keep On The Borderlands or something of that nature. It was time to start drawing in map symbols and naming stuff in a small locality…

Continued to part 5…

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2017
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