Friday, September 20, 2019

Walking through your maps

TLDR: how I made a quickly-doodled map more interesting using a visual walk-through technique.

I doodled this map in my journal about a month ago. I had to plan for a game on the flight home from a week of working in another state. Long story short, I didn't end up needing this prep that night, but I liked where the idea was going and decided I might develop it as a short module in zine format.

As per my usual habit, I started working on the zine by setting up the format and styles. That seems backward, I know, but I like starting there for short zines because it allows me to size the content to the pages and work toward that ideal of control panel layout.  

Next I began developing areas, personalities, encounters, etc. I also started work on a better map by taking the photo above and importing it into Procreate, where I could trace over it and improve on it. I often switch things up like that, moving between analog and digital, and writing and art. It helps me not get bored and keep up momentum. Basically, when I exhaust myself in one area, I switch to another one that interests me. 

Anyway, the first time I redrew the map it looked like this:

It got a bit off-square due to an accidental stretch during image manipulation, which was the beginning of the impetus to draw it yet again. But in looking at it, I realized it had a much bigger problem than the fact that it was skewed. It was way too linear. 

I specifically forced my eyes to trace possible routes through the dungeon and found myself reversing a lot. No good. So next I kept the same room ideas, but sketched them out as a point-to-point set up. (Top half of image below.) Connecting some of the rooms that weren't connected before gave me the idea of developing it more vertically.

I already had in mind a long climb up to the observatory (top left) and a slow slope down to the river (top right to bottom right). But this time I decided to elevate the entire wizard's suite (bottom right cluster of rooms) to the level of the observatory and give him drop-down points into the other levels. (Why would a wizard use stairs when he can levitate!?) This elevation also makes it harder for characters to access his rooms. 

The map ended up like this. (It's rotated 90 degrees clockwise from the drawing above). More compact, more circuitous, more leveled, and generally more interesting.

The grungy dark layer is the lower level, mostly caverns. Players probably enter through the grandiose stairs down (middle of right side), and that whole grayish area is the main level. The unshaded area is the wizard's level and the circles are his drop-in points. They are just holes, but concealed below by minor illusions to look like the rest of the ceiling. 

The point of all this is that the map got WAY better when I decided to do a mental walk-through exercise: using my eyes to trace the routes in, through, and out. 

I'll let you imagine most of what is going on here as it will eventually appear in a zine, I hope. In the meantime, this visual walk-through technique can prove handy whether you are drawing your own maps or learning someone else's map, in preparation for running characters through it.


  1. Maybe there's some nasty undead (or similarly heinous but stuck beastie) up there that they pulled the stairs down to avoid?

    Whenever I encounter destroyed stairs it makes me double-want to go and see what's there...


Comments are moderated; please be patient.