RPG Map Design Part 1

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Aside from work, my main creative outlet over the last year or so has been roleplaying. Specifically I’ve been running a D&D campaign for a group of friends, and designing maps and encounters on Roll20 has been pretty enjoyable. Naturally, most of the stuff I’ve made for the campaign will only really make sense for the people playing it, but a handful of the things I’ve made/written might be worth posting on here.

I’ve always had a liking for in-game maps – they capture the link between the mechanics of what you’re actually doing and fictional narrative that runs in parallel to the gameplay. I.e. you might literally be navigating a level, avoiding hazards and enemies, but ‘in-fiction’ you could be robbing a bank, exploring a forgotten temple, etc.

I’m hoping to post some annotated maps that represent more complicated encounters, but for now, here are some fairly basic ones:

Arena
Pretty straightforward – a large arena with shifting terrain, to keep things interesting between encounters. Each version has four different ‘biomes’ from top left going around clockwise.
Left: Desert Mesas, Hot Springs, Canal, Grassland
Right: Volcano, Graveyard, Forest, Snowscape

Underground Market
I knew the group would be visiting here quite often as one of the main shopping areas in the campaign, and might end up involved in a scrap with the enforcers or try to sneak past them at some point, but so far things haven’t kicked off to the point where I’ve had to use it.

Blessed Crane Warehouse
And finally, an underground warehouse with a smuggler’s dock, a wine cellar, two large storerooms and a ‘war room’ (the one with several chairs around a map). The group has visited this place a few times, and most recently defended it from a group of zombies that attacked from the canal. Meanwhile, two larger monsters were smuggled into the central storeroom in a shipment of exotic teacups (most of which were sadly broken). It was pretty fun, although I don’t think the combat necessarily made full use of the encounter space.

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Maps Maps Maps

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I’ve had a bit of an obsession with maps lately or, more specifically, video game maps. You can blame Creative Arts Practice for this, making me analyse my interests and consider ways to make my work more multimedia and stuff. How dare it.

Anyway, I’ve always liked them. Especially the maps in Final Fantasy XII, for some reason. There was something about the way they looked and the way every part of the area had its own specific name that helped give every part of the place a specific flavour. Inevitably the names were things like ‘Halls of Ardent Darkness’ and ‘Demesne of the Sand Queen’, but that kind of thing sounds kickass to a certain kind of teenager.

FF12_Map_-_Nabreus_Deadlands.png

See? I’m not making this stuff up.

Young writers always get told to ‘write what you like’, and I like to think that imitating my favourite authors got me started down that particular track pretty successfully. But as a teenager playing Zelda, Final Fantasy and Castlevania and liking those, I couldn’t very well apply the same advice quite so literally. Me and high-school IT class did not get on, and even if we had done, I was a teenager, not a fully-equipped games studio.

So, for lack of resources, I drew maps. Don’t have the capacity to create and render a fully-functioning Zelda dungeon on a rainy Sunday afternoon? Well, just draw a map of it. Draw little ‘key’ symbols to show how you’re supposed to unlock the doors. Draw dotted lines so you can tell where the moving platforms are supposed to go. That kind of thing. It doesn’t look nearly as cool as playing the level would feel, but you can use your imagination to fill in that gaps. That’s how maps work.

FF12_Map_-_Ozmone_Plain.png

What was the plot of this game again? I’d honestly rather know why ‘Field of Fallen Wings’ is called that.

Towards the point – maps have come up a fair bit as part of Creative Arts Practice so far. We spent a whole seminar looking at Google Maps and Google Street View, the way they make you think about and navigate places in a certain way. And, being a hopeless nerd, this got me thinking about video game levels and their maps again. Barheim Passage from Final Fantasy XII. Dracula’s Castle from Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. Blighttown from Dark Souls. Luigi’s Mansion. Even the procedurally generated levels from Darkest Dungeon.

darkest-dungeon

Sure, this one isn’t quite so cool to look at. But when your party’s food and sanity is dwindling with every step and the next room could contain a horrifying boss monster accompanied by appropriately epic narration and backing music, suddenly you’re paying damn close attention to this thing.

The thing that struck me wasn’t really the maps themselves. Sure, sometimes in-game maps can be pretty. Mostly they’re functional – they help you visualise a space that is already harder than a real place to visualise because it doesn’t really exist at all, its fictional place represented in a game and isn’t any less fictional than the map that goes with it. They’re tools, part of the interface just like health meters, action bars and menus. So why did looking at them bring me right back into the feeling of playing those games? The gameplay, the enemies, the music – it was all vivid again. Why?

It might be a fairly specific kind of nerdy interest. I’ve always loved me a good video game dungeon. I’m also one of those incorrigible nerds who engages in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons (heaven help me) and drawing maps of made-up places was always one of my favourite parts of running a campaign. Probably most people don’t find these maps all that interesting, or at least save that kind of interest for maps of places they can relate to (real or otherwise). But still, I think I’m onto something here.

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I think it has something to do with the way they bring things together. Precisely the fact that you use them to figure out where you are and where you’re going seems to bind them in your head with your experience of navigating the place, sometimes in ways you might not expect. That’s what the confusingly laid-out and probably illegible collage-thing you just scrolled past is about. I made it in the Culture Lab as an attempt to map onto the level all the things I liked and remembered about it.

All this might seem a weird interest for someone who writes rather than draws, paints or does anything all that visual. But ultimately I think it feeds into something I’ve always had a strong interest in as a fan of fantasy (and sci-fi, and horror): world building. A certain kind of story is as much about the setting itself as it is about the people in it and the stuff that they do. Just think how popular maps of Middle Earth, Discworld and Westeros are with fantasy fans.

middle-earth-map.jpg

I’m sure a lot of people recognise this one.

But Lewis, you say, maps of Middle Earth aren’t what made LotR awesome. That’s true. And it was the music, the level and enemy design, the lore and the gameplay of those games that made their levels the experiences that they were. It wasn’t the maps. Those things aren’t even necessarily represented that well on the maps, some not at all (like music). But still, I think I’m onto something here.

Creative Arts Practice has given me a lot of food for thought regarding the different ways ideas can be represented, and the different media we can use to express them. Wouldn’t it be a kind of cool gallery exhibition that tried to capture a video game level or just a place by combining a map with all those different kinds of media? What if you were looking at the map of a level while listening to its soundtrack? That’s kind of what the idea is with these poorly-photographed collages – a first attempt at bundling some of those things together.

Its at this point that my thinking is much less collected. I have a few ideas of where I want to go with this little pet project of mine, if anywhere. One thing that has my interest is the multimedia nature of these associations.

I also think there’s good potential here for picking apart the way world-building works in games, even the tried-and-tested ‘I wonder what awful shit went down in this dungeon’ kind. Sometimes you it helps to know why this mansion’s full of the living dead, you know? (speaking of which, Extra Credit made a really cool great series of short videos about exactly that kind of world-building and level design in Baldur’s Gate).

baldurs-gate-durlaggs-tower

It may not look like much, but it turns out this area is a classic case study of good storytelling & gameplay through level design.

Finally, I’m curious about the way the way maps in video games and real maps relate, and the way we think about them. What would maps of our daily commutes and favourite places look like if we navigated them in the same way as games? I don’t know how well it would work out, but I would quite like to try a mash-up of the some of my favourite real and video game locations, or a ‘gamified’ map of my daily commute.

And… maybe I’ve just got games on the brain, but there are a wealth of associations between games and the world around us. I definitely use coffee shops the way I use save points, and the entrance to Victoria Tunnel near the Hancock Museum definitely looks like a secret dungeon entrance to me. Thoughts?

victoria-tunnel

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Image sources: Final Fantasy XII, Darkest Dungeon, Lord of the Rings, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Baldur’s Gate.