The More Fantastical It Can Be:
Map Talk with Jonathan Roberts
Maps do much more than tell us where we are or how to get where we’re going. Maps tell us about the world they depict and the cartographer who created them.
As RPG cartographer Jonathan Roberts says, “A good map should be functional. The primary purpose of any map is to be clear and precise. A great map manages to do this with style. I feel that if you’d be happy hanging your finished map on a wall as a poster, then you know you’ve done a good job.”
Roberts has drawn maps for a variety of clients, including Kobold Quarterly and Rite Publishing. His maps are stunning—arresting—beautiful. And fun to play on.
“Jonathan Roberts’ work is just amazing,” said Steve Russell of Rite Publishing. “He combines both functionality and beautiful art with consummate skill. I consider Rite Publishing to be graced by having him as our cartographer. Working with him has pushed me as a designer to try and create even more evocative environments.”
Below, Roberts and I talk about maps and map-making as part of a larger cartography conversation here at KQ, which has included discussions with Raph Schemmann of Campaign Cartographer and Sean Macdonald.
Jones: Where did you learn your craft? What got you hooked on it?
Roberts: I’ve always enjoyed drawing and sketching. I’ve also been DMing for years so I’ve been sketching world maps and fiendish encounters for a very long time. However these were strictly for my own use and certainly weren’t pretty. The turning point for my own map making endeavours came when I moved to Poland from the UK in 2006. I could no longer meet up with my old gaming group in person so I turned to Google and found a wonderful tool called Maptool, created and maintained completely for free by a very friendly and modest group of programmers over at rptools.net.
This was my first exposure to Virtual Tabletop programs (VTTs) and I was hooked. The side effect of this change was that now the players could see the maps. VTTs use the maps as the playing area for the game, switching between regional maps and encounter maps as the adventure progresses. My scrawled pencil maps on graph paper weren’t going to cut it anymore, no matter how much I claimed that basic maps allowed the players more freedom to exercise their imaginations…
Here’s the first ever map I used in an online game. It’s the outside area around Dory’s Warehouse in the Dungeon adventure “The Styes” by KQ’s own Richard Pett:
I decided I could do better than this and started creating proper encounter maps. I posted a couple on the RPTools site for others to use, got some good responses and was pointed in the direction of the Cartographers’ Guild.
This was the real turning point. Here were a group of people who had put together a comprehensive series of tutorials and who would provide constructive criticism and praise on any map, no matter how terrible. I decided to go with a more hand drawn style like the 3rd edition Forgotten Realms maps, rather than trying to get photo-realistic effects with textures. My first proper attempt was so successful that it made the front page of the site as a featured map! I have been a regular on the boards there ever since and I certainly learn something new there every day. It was through this site and the RPTools forums that I picked up my first professional commissions.
My first pro job was for Rite Publishing’s Living Airship, and I am now the staff cartographer for their projects. Through Rite I was recommended to Wolfgang when he needed someone for Wrath of the River King and I haven’t looked back since.
Jones: Do you prefer campaign maps or battle maps? Do you approach each differently?
Roberts: I like both types of maps. The nature of the hobby means that I get to create many more battle maps than campaign maps, so campaign maps are a nice change of pace. Battle maps are especially fun for adventures with really weird and wonderful locations like waterfall dreamscapes or the feywild. The bandit’s lair for Kobold Quarterly #9 was also fun as it gave me an opportunity to revisit a classic lair but give it a new spin (Ed: And it is available as a top-down battle map for $1!).
Whereas a battle map is a one-off map, a campaign map will be used over and over again. These are the maps that can be hung on walls and help to define the feel of the setting. I had the old hex map of Greyhawk on my wall for years, and I can’t think of that setting without picturing it. Equally the Forgotten Realms will always be defined for me by the 3rd Edition maps. I’ve had the good fortune to do a couple of world maps and regional maps for clients. The subject matter is similar in each case, but it’s fun giving each map a different style — from a huge poster map of a steampunk world on a cog to an pseudo-isometric map of an island for a new 4e campaign (see below).
The basic workflow for any map tends to follow a similar pattern, whether it’s a world map, or the inside of an inn. First of all I talk to the client and pin down the plan for the map. This usually involves getting a sketch, some of the text that will go with the map and nailing down the technical details — the resolution, how the final version will be used, the size it needs to print out at if it will be printed — that sort of thing. It’s great if I can get style reference at this stage. I take all this and figure out which features of the map are the most important and pin down their locations. These are usually terrain features that limit movement. On a campaign map this will be mountains, rivers and oceans whereas on a battlemap these will be walls, trees and cliffs.
Once I know where these are I will put together a line art map and check the location of these features with the client. This stage is the most important, as the map is first and foremost a reference tool and so it must be clear and accurate. This helps to clear up any potential issues before I attack the final stage of the process where the map is made pretty, by adding color and detailing.
An example here is the map for A Witch’s Choice by Rite Publishing. I talked to Steve Russell about the map and we considered doing an isometric view for the opening encounter. I created a rough image:
We decided that if people were using this in an online game or as a printed battle map this wouldn’t work as well so we decided to go top down instead. I put together a line art version of a top down map:
Once this was signed off, I created the colored version which went into the final product and onto RPGNow as a pdf map pack.
Jones: How much do you get to design? How much collaboration is there? Do you prefer freedom and restrictions?
Roberts: I tend not to design much of the battle maps. In these maps every element has a meaning in the adventure so if I throw a chest into a room for style then a player will open it. I try to stay as close to the original sketch and the text as possible. If something’s unclear then I check with the publisher. Making up map elements can only result in trouble!
In a campaign map there’s a bit more freedom to play around, but still, the design is important to the setting, and those decisions are usually made by the publisher. The Bandit’s Lair map for KQ9 was an exception as that was pitched as an idea to the magazine and I designed the whole map from scratch.
As for collaboration, it very much depends on the client. Companies tend to have a very clear idea of what they are commissioning so I get a brief, I provide a line art draft for sketch approval and then I submit a final draft. An exception to this would be the Cantons map for Dwarves of the Ironcrags in which there was a certain amount of back and forth about different elements that might go in or not. That resulted in a final map that I’m very proud of as well as heraldic crests that appeared in the text for each canton.
Private clients tend to be more interested in collaborative discussion as a map progresses. I’m working on a city map for a home game right now where the layout is pinned down but there’s a lot of discussion going on about the look and feel of the different areas, how the architecture fits with the technology and history of the city and similar questions. It’s a lot of fun, and should result in a really distinctive map.
For personal projects its fun to design something really unusual. A recent example was a challenge that required a temple map, so I decided to map a temple in a frozen waterfall that held a trapped dragon. It was lots of fun to do and made me try new styles and ideas.
Most of the time it’s a good idea to have clear restrictions, though. The primary purpose of the map is to convey information and that’s best done with clear guidelines.
Jones: What tools do you use (and recommend)?
Roberts: I used to use traditional media, but now I only use pencils for sketching on the subway. Digital media is much more conducive to current-day requirements for these maps. Most maps now need to fulfill multiple roles — they need to fit into a print publication, they need to be able to be printed out at 1 square = 1 inch for tabletop battle map play (with all the room labels and text removed of course) and they need to be able to be imported into a VTT for online gaming. With traditional media this is a headache, but with digital tools it’s trivial.
For my digital work I use a graphics tablet and the Gimp – a free image editor that rivals Photoshop for power.
As for recommendations, I have seen great maps put together using all sorts of tools, including sculptures! For those who are happy starting with a blank slate and creating maps from scratch with a pen, then Gimp or Photoshop with a graphics tablet will work really well. Equally, sometimes all you really need is a sketch and so I still use my notebook and a ballpoint pen for many of the maps whilst I am planning my home game. For those who prefer more automation there are a many programs such as Campaign Cartographer and Dunjinni that can create truly stunning maps with a little more automation on the computer side.
Jones: Do you apply knowledge of real world geography and geology to your fantasy maps?
Roberts: Yes, to an extent. Fantasy works best when there are clear rules. If a world has hundreds of weird and wonderful features and the explanation for each is just “oh, it’s magic” then the reader or gamer quickly loses any suspension of disbelief. Physics still works the same in most of these worlds most of the time, so rivers should run downhill, mountains should show erosion patterns and you won’t see deserts side by side with snowy plains—unless there is a good reason such as a distinct magical effect with a purpose in the story.
So the more realistic a map looks, the more fantastical it can be.
Jones: How do you balance ease of use, with complexity?
Roberts: This is an interesting one. Initially, I would say that less is more with maps. You want the important elements to be clear. However if you look at mediaeval maps of Europe, every inch is covered in names of towns, cities, rivers, mountain ranges. These are amazingly detailed maps and yet they are very usable. Realistically, it’s always possible to add more detail and complexity to a map without damaging its ease of use. The practical limit is the amount of time that can reasonably devoted to any given map.
Jones: Advice for amateur cartographers?
Roberts: My advice is to join the Cartographers’ Guild, say “hi” and browse through the tutorials. Then pitch in with a map — no matter how bad you think it is — and get comments and criticisms on it. Whatever program you are using, there will be someone on there who will help you out. The monthly contests are a great way to practice new maps and get into the habit of working to a deadline. It’s also a good way to build up a portfolio and get commission work. Many people who have won contests have gone on to work professionally. It’s also a gold mine of maps for adventures as many of the maps are licensed for home use. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Jones: Suggested print resources?
Roberts: Any of the map-heavy books from games publishers is worth getting hold of and keeping around. I’d also suggest getting hold of a copy of the Earth from the Air series. When you draw maps you’re creating images from a strange perspective — directly above. This set of photos covers the strangest places on the earth’s surface from above and is a unique reference for this type of art. Finally, I also have a book of maps of New York city over the last couple of hundred years that’s got pride of place over the mantelpiece in my living room. Artists over the years have used New York as inspiration for some spectacular maps.
Jones: Suggested online resources?
Roberts: There are loads of places to go online for useful resources. Obviously, the Cartographers’ Guild would be my first port of call. I’d also suggest tracking down maps that you like, finding out which artist created them and checking out their website. Another excellent site is Zombie Nirvana which has some useful videos and podcasts on mapmaking as well as some great maps. For maps and map elements I’d recommend www.rpgmapshare.com and the user creation area of the Dunjinni site. These are a gold mine of beautiful maps and map elements that will help anyone make very pretty maps for their games.
Oh, and my own site www.fantasticmaps.com has a selection of maps you can use and a pack of map tiles that can be assembled to create a range of dungeons. Once you have your map, check out Maptool. It’s the best way I know of gaming online, and I’ve seen people do some amazing things with projectors to really take tabletop gaming to a new level.
Jones: Lastly, online play is more common these days. How has that affected RPG cartography?
Roberts: Now it’s becoming more standard for games companies to provide versions of their maps for players without any DM information like traps and labels. It is also becoming more normal for maps to be provided at much higher resolution so they look good at a tactical combat scale.
I now make sure this is true for all the maps I create for Open Design projects:
The other difference is that the gamers who are playing online are often older. They might be looking for online tools so that they can play with groups that have moved apart or to help get a group together when they can’t arrange a physical meet up due to kids or other commitments. These gamers have less time and more money than they used to as well as having higher expectations of quality. They are often willing to pay money for gaming products that save them time and give them a high quality experience. There’s certainly a market for quality maps at high resolution that there just wasn’t a need for 20 years ago.
That’s what I try to provide with my Fantastic Maps line as well as through the maps I provide for companies like Open Design. It’s a good time to be in the fantasy cartography business.
Interested in beautiful maps by Jonathan Roberts for a set of dwarven mines? Sign up as a patron of Halls of the Mountain King!