Tuesday, March 13, 2012

State of Mapping Art

As gamers, we enjoy mapping and cartography resources formerly available only to professional publishers and print houses. Now, we have the likes of dedicated fantasy cartography software, such as Campaign Cartographer and Dundjinni, for those willing to pay. There are free-to-use web based mappers, like Hexographer. Then there are more general purpose imaging programs, like Photoshop, or the free alternative GIMP, for those willing to bend the software to their will.

I have used many of the software options available (believe me, there are many more than I listed). A competent operator can generate beautiful, professional grade maps of his setting of choice. The real advantage is the ability to make changes, corrections, and modifications to the maps with relative ease. Through the clever use of layers these maps can contain an atlas' worth of maps in a single file. Scaling is not a concern when "zooming in" to produce local maps from regional overviews. There are a ton of advantages to using these software options, and I won't decry any of them.

Nothing gets me in a gaming mood like a hand drawn map, though. Give me a hex sheet, like these from Welsh Piper, and a fistful of colored pencils, and I am in heaven. For me, there is some sort of intimate connection with the environments, lands, and peoples when I draw the map by hand. The map comes alive for me when I'm not having to "figure out" how to draw it.

Like I said, I'm not decrying the software. I enjoy making maps with GIMP. It's just a different enjoyment, and not quite as personal. As beautiful as the maps can be, software maps always have a certain degree of sterility to them. I swear I'm not saying that to be negative, it just contrasts with the deeper, investment-type enjoyment I get from hand drawing my maps.

The scaling thing I mentioned earlier isn't nearly so convenient by hand, but know what? That's ok, too. I've come to embrace the notion that I can explain differences in scale and other inconsistencies between maps as different cartographers. I've also moved away from serious scales. I find it far more immersive to describe scale loosely and rely on local concerns to define it. A map that covers a region encompassing a town and its attendant villages would like have a scale defined in days of travel, for example.

Of course, there is no reason that both media can't be used in tandem. I like the idea of using something like Fractal Terrain to lay out the "big picture" on a global scale, then hand drawing the areas of interest.

There are a lot of tools out there for campaign mapping, no matter what game or genre you're into. When you're trying to decide what to use, though, don't forget good ol' pencils and paper. As they say in baseball, "Dance with the one that brung you."

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