Saturday, February 11, 2012

Frustrations in Map-Making

One of the many contributions that roleplaying has made to my life is that it is a form of escape. When things aren't going well and I want a break from reality for a few hours, I can immerse myself in a world of dice, tables, magic and evil sentient mushrooms that are 1000 times nastier than whatever I'm going through.

Today I wanted an escape for a few hours, so I decided to work on beginning to create maps for my campaign. It hasn't gone so well… quite frustrating actually.

First off, I decided I'd use the ACKS hex-maps. The four levels of zoom is really cool. I go to the ACKS section on constructing campaign settings. The text of ACKS only calls for two levels of zoom; it's frustrating to me that the ACKS hex-maps and the ACKS text aren't, as far as I can tell, strictly compatible; that is, the ACKS text's directions are for a "standard sheet of hex graph paper, 30 hexes wide  and 40 hexes long," while none of the ACKS hex-maps have exactly those dimensions, though two of them come close with 32x48 hexes. I do wish the ACKS text was written to fit hand-in-glove with the ACKS hex-maps.

So I print off the two hex-maps that have the middle two levels of zoom, as they seem to correspond to ACKS' campaign map and regional map sizes. The first step, ACKS says, is to come up with a map, so I go to Fight On! #2, where there's a set of terrain generator tables. I grab some colored pencils and start rolling on the tables. I get about four columns of hexes colored before I decide that too many types of land are looking like columns oriented along the North-South axis and scrap that idea. To be fair to the tables in Fight On!, the articles that accompany the tables indicate that these tables are intended to create settings on much smaller scales than I was generating; still, frustrating.

So then I remember that Trollsmyth has this really cool series on creating a hex-map for a sandbox campaign, and that I'd been meaning to use it whenever I got around to, well, doing what I'm doing today. I go over and check it out. First step, Trollsmyth says, in creating a map is to get the shore-line. Hmm.

I end up printing out and staring at the most zoomed-out ACKS hex-map for at least 15 minutes, which felt like half an hour. Then I remember the awesome Free Map Monday maps over at the Labyrinth; I look through the ones I've downloaded and settle on this one, as it seems like it would fit on an 8.5x11 piece of paper pretty well. I print one off in grayscale at 40% the size of the actual image and hold it up alongside the most zoomed-out ACKS map- looks like they'll fit together really nicely!

How to do that, though? Unfortunately, I have absolutely no experience with Photoshop or GIMP or anything of the sort. A low-tech solution, though, is to print the ACKS map out on a transparency, then scan/copy the map with the transparency over it. Should work great, right?

Off I go to Staples to buy a few transparencies; I know I won't be able to buy just one, but I figure buying 10 transparencies won't be so bad, since I'll probably come up with more uses for them in the future. I get to Staples and find the transparencies… and they only sell them in 100-packs and 50-packs. And the cheapest cost $50… yeah, not worth it… very frustrating.

So now I'm back at home, typing this out. While I've been typing I've figured out that the best plan is probably to tape the map to the back of the hex-map and trace the map onto the hex-map. I'm not a very good tracer, so I'm not happy about that, but I'll give it a shot.

Anyway, sometimes game-prep can be frustrating. I shudder to think of what I'd be up against if I didn't have all the resources I've mentioned in this post, and I think it's important to point out that the reason I've been encountering frustrating delays isn't because these are bad resources (quite the opposite; they're great!), but just because I haven't ever really done this before and so I'm figuring out what works for me, which is slow and difficult work. On most days that makes things like this "hard fun," but today, when I really wanted to be able to distract my brain from problems by following directions and rolling dice, because I wasn't in the mood for "hard fun,"it was just frustrating. Thanks for reading.

Also, if anyone has any suggestions, I'm open to them, as I'm still trying to figure out what works for me.


  1. How about printing your hex map, then putting the paper back in the printer and printing your map contours over it?

    If you are going the tracing route, tape it to a window during the day, so that it is backlit and you can see the lines better.

  2. Just tried printing the hex-map and the map onto the same piece of paper and it came out wonderfully. Thanks very much for the idea!

  3. Thanks for the links to the ACKS hex paper sheets. I didn't know about those.

    The Fight On! article you mentioned is Victor Raymond's Wilderness Architect? I believe it is intended to be used in a spiral out from an origin hex in the center of the paper. At least that is how I used it and this was the result I got:

    I think hex 12.14 was the origin.

    I probably need to ban myself from working with colored pencils though. That took forever. I also think I need to limit myself to a much smaller number of hexes to begin with. The idea of populating this map is just sort of overwhelming.

  4. When you say you have zero experience with the GIMP or Photoshop, I assume you have at least tried one or the other at one time, but gave up because of the huge amount you have to learn to use it?

    If you install the GIMP and start it, you can do the following:
    1. Click "File" and select "Open", then find and open the map of the coastline you want to use.
    2. Click "File", select "Open", then fine and open the hex map. Don't close the coastline image, though.
    3. In the hex map window, Click "Select" and select "All".
    4. Click "Edit" and select "Copy".
    5. Switch to the coastline, Click "Edit", and select "Paste As...", then select "New Layer". This pastes a hex-map layer on top of the coastline layer.
    6. Click "Tools" and select "Toolbox". It should switch to a floating palette of buttons, a pair of colored squares, and a row of tabs below this. One tab is the Layers tab; it's labeled with what looks like a stack of papers. Click on it.
    7. You should see two layers, one labeled "Background" and one labeled "New Layer". The new layer should already be selected. Above it is a slider for opacity, and above that is a line labeled "Mode", with a drop-down menu to the right. Click on this and change the mode to "Darken Only".
    Ta da! You now have hexes layered over your coastline. This assumes that the hex map and the coastline map are the same proportions; if they aren't, you'd have to scale one of the layers down to the other, and I'm not sure I have the energy for that right now.

  5. The Welsh Piper has an excellent system for generating hex maps that produces believable groups of terrain. I know Evan of In Places Deep uses that system for all his hex maps.

  6. @Christopher,

    so glad it worked for you. It is the same idea as printing letterhead, then printing your letter on that same paper.

    Many ways to skin a cat. Give GIMP a try, as well as another free one, Inkscape. (sort of the Adobe Illustrator of open source)

  7. I cannot recommend GIMP enough. I'm with Talysman -- getcha some and goof about with it. It's fun and rewarding and IT'S FREE.

  8. Use a window! Tape the hex grid over the map on the window glass, daytime. Light will do the transparency trick for you :)

  9. Here's my take on how to do it all in GIMP - hotkeys will be in parenthesis.

    1. Open GIMP
    2. Open the big ACKS Hexomancy PDF. GIMP ought to be able to import it on its own, just use the default settings.
    3. Using the rectangle select tool (r), select the entire hex grid. Don't select the 1 2 3 4/A B C D grid labels along the side.
    4. Copy (CTRL+C)
    5. File>Create>From Clipboard (CTRL+SHIFT+V).
    6. Layer>New Layer (SHIFT+CTRL+N). Make sure it's filled with transparency.
    6. Open the Free Map Monday map in GIMP.
    7. Image>Scale Image. Make the image small enough to fit into your hex grid image you just created.
    8. Select>All (CTRL+A) and Copy (CTRL+C)
    9. Click back to your new hex grid image. Click on the top, blank layer in the Layer Dialog so it's selected.
    10. Paste (CTRL+V)
    11. In the layer dialog, drag the new layer (with the map on it) under the layer with the grid.
    12. Select the grid layer in the layer dialog.
    13. Take the Select By Color tool (CTRL+O) and click on a white area.
    14. Delete. Now you should have a map with a giant hex grid on it. If you want the ACKS 1 2 3 4/A B C D grid, follow further.
    15. Layers>Merge Down
    16. Select all (CTRL>A), Copy (CTRL+C)
    17. Click on your original ACKS hexmap with the 1 2 3 4 grid on it.
    18. Paste (CTRL V), and align your new hexmap with the ACKS one.

    I'm sure there's an easier way to do this, but fuck it, it's 3 AM and I'm drunk.

  10. I've been away from blogging for a few days. Thanks, everyone, for the responses, links and advice. With all the recommendations, I'll probably check out Gimp or Inkscape at some point in the near future, but I'm going to finish this project all analog, I think.

    Brendan: Yeah, your map does look much better than mine did! If I ever use that method again, I'll spiral out like you did.

    Talysman: When I say I have zero experience with Photoshop or Gimp, I mean that all I have ever done with either is install Gimp on my sister's computer for her because, after graduating from high school, where she edited the yearbook, she wasn't going to have access to Photoshop anymore. ^__^

    More seriously, I very much appreciate the mini-tutorial. I will use it when I do get around to using Gimp.

    Sir Larkins: I feel like I'd seen that before but had forgotten all about it; thanks for bringing that to my attention again.

    1: Thank you, as well, for the mini-tutorial!