Building Map-Making Skills

For more than a decade now, I’ve always been looking for creative outlets, especially those that relate to tabletop rpgs. There’s nothing like having a hobby within a hobby.

Those endeavors include painting pewter and resin miniatures for use at the table; constructing miniature terrain using plaster and HirstArts plaster molds, making handouts — such as “parchment” letters for players; and using color pencil to create colorful handouts, often portraits of key nonplayer characters.

As I get older and my arthritis gets more pronounced, however, painting minis and gripping colored pencils has become more difficult. But, I’ve learned that the stroke of applying paint on paper is not as taxing.

So, I decided to learn how to make maps.

The tools of this trade I had at hand: Graph paper. Card stock. Pencil. Light table. Ink pens. Straight edge. Watercolor paint. Brushes.

Like all skills, this one is still being developed.

As it happened, this dovetailed nicely with the need to fill my DM’s Guild products with maps. I’ve tried various approaches, but the most gratifying has been making my own.

I know I’m in the early stages in making maps. I’m in the process of putting up the last few maps of a mega-dungeon, Blackthorn Keep, for the DM’s Guild. Some have turned out better than others. And the art of making an attractive compass rose yet eludes me.

But so far, I’ve exceeded my expectations. I’m learning about the color palette, blending paints and the process that begins with brainstorming and ends with a legible map that can be used in a gaming session.

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Haunts of a fallen fortress

Crumbling walls. Scorched earth. The wind carries the cries of calamity. Ghosts of old soldiers haunt the causeway.

It’s more than old memories that send a bone-chilling shiver down the spine of an adventurers. There’s fear in the quivering voice of the party’s scout as he reports on the way ahead. No obstacles, but the feeling of dread is palpable. Do you dare to follow the will-o’-wisp around the corner in search of loot?

Now, a real castle has a footing and foundation that likely extends only two floors down. But a fortress in a fantasy setting has a grand stair leading to a series of ever-deepening dungeons. Each level is an encounter area worth exploring. And because the ruins have stood undisturbed in the wilderness for an untold age, there’s no telling what creatures, monsters, mad wizards or brigands have occupied these lower levels.

Regardless of these other squatters, there’s never a shortage of ghostly terrors  in a fallen fortress. Specters and spirits of all sorts roam its halls, unwilling to go to the other side, guarding against mortal intrusion.

Shadows dog your every step. A stalker, invisible and malevolent, lurks within the next chamber. A wraith rises from a crypt in the mausoleum and a cursed banshee wails forlornly. Against such incorporeal adversaries, what good is a sword?

A shield may fend off the gnawing bite of a ghoul or a ghast; a bludgeoning mace may keep such grave guardians as the wight at bay. Courage against foes of flesh and bone is commendable. But it might prove foolhardy, especially when the revenant does not recoil at the holy symbol held aloft by the devout priest.

Deeper down there are even more otherworldly foes — demons that torment and devils that seek to steal your soul.

Neglect not otherworldly adversaries in your design. Torment your players’ characters with the supernatural and they’ll be longing wistfully to be facing a horde of goblins and the warrens of a tribe of kobolds.

One good NPC

One good nonplayer character can make a campaign memorable and engaging for the other roleplayers.

The NPC need not be original in its role or purpose — perhaps it is a mentor figure, patron, ally or adversary (all character types we’ve seen before) — it just has to be  someone the players are eager to interact with.

Of course, that eagerness is born from the fact the NPC rewards the adventurers in some fashion at the crux of the story.  She or he advances the story or the player characters’ own development with wit, style or even some annoyingly familiar  personality trait.

On the publication side of game design, I’ve written up hundreds of NPCs in a slew of different formats. While I admittedly struggle with developing adventure plots and narrative pacing, NPC design falls in my wheelhouse.   

Here’s my key points to DMs for taking a compelling NPC from page to the table. This is the spine upon which your NPC’s background information hangs.

Find the NPC’s voice. This doesn’t mean to talk with funny voice or with an affected accent (though that can be fun).  What it means is figure out what the NPC wants/needs to say and how/why they are going to say it.  An NPC might speak hesitently on one occasion, confidently on another, but if you find the character’s voice — their inner self — you can do these different things and it will still be the same recognizable character to the players.

Know their limits. All characters have limits, those imposed by desire, some by physicality, others by societal norms or class. Determine those boundaries and work within them. On a rare occasion an NPC might step outside one of those boundaries (I’m no adventurer, but I suppose I could go with you this one time …), but mostly they occupy a spot. Plainly, kings do kingly things, peasants do peasant things and wizards stick their noses in other people’s business.

Understand the NPC’s role in the story. All characters have parts to play in the adventuring party’s story: mentor, patron, ally, adversary. There are other roles, but the key is to identify that role in your mind and ensure that the character does that thing.  Don’t cross the streams. While in real life, we are different things at different times in a our lives and are different things to different people depending on the situation (your boss sees you differently than your pal, your love, or your child or your spiritual adviser) … but within the context of the game, an NPC is one thing to that adventuring party.

In a published game product, a lot of  background information might be presented as part of a character sketch. Even a laser-focused NPC writeup takes at about 30 words to describe the essentials.  Before presenting the NPC to the players, try assigning that background info to those three key points. That will buttress your performance, helping make it an interesting part of your game session.