Cartography Styles in Seekers of Lore

There are many ways to present campaign maps. Depending on the purpose, different map styles can be more appropriate than others.

Seekers of Lore is going to be very much a sandbox campaign, with a great deal of exploration. There are two primary map styles I am considering.

Artistic Maps

Vale of Elsir
Vale of Elsir, according to Nik

As a rule, I quite like ‘artistic’ maps. They don’t really try to be true to life (the scales are often way, way off), but they do try to represent various geographical features in a way that looks more or less like those being represented. There are varying degrees of stylization to them and they may or may not be strictly accurate (mountain ranges are often presented in a way that says “there are mountains here” rather than individual placement).

These are often the prettiest maps, I think. They generally show signs of individuality and variation within the map. For instance, the same types of features (mountains, cities, forests, and so on) might look slightly or even significantly different from each other. For that matter, they are probably the most amenable to personal style and rendering skill because they are uniquely drawn.

I find they work well with a ‘node crawl’ or ‘point crawl‘ (different names for much the same thing), Daniel Davis talks about a similar ‘path crawl‘, and Ben Robbins’ West Marches campaign used a vector-based navigation system. It seems quite suitable for anything where items can be placed in more or less arbitrary locations and navigated to by following a path or direction.

A couple years ago a friend (Nik) was explaining how he had a couple maps of different ends of the Vale of Elsir he was trying to use together, but was having trouble integrating because of inconsistencies. I took a run at synthesizing a new map and incorporated some other changes he asked for, and ended up with the image shown to the right.

When using maps in this style, I often end up describing locations of things by major landmarks. In the map to the right, for example, I might talk about something being in “the middle of the Thornwaste” or “to the north of Rhest”. It could be considered a fairly analog method of presenting geographical information, especially where features ‘blend into’ each other. Exact locations can be difficult to identify unless they coincide with a landmark.

My style hasn’t changed much in the intervening time, but I think some of my technique has improved, and I’m working on adjusting my palette to softer colors.

Hex Maps

Vale of Elsir Hex Map
Vale of Elsir Hex Map

Another common style for roleplaying game maps, especially for sandbox games, is a ‘hex map’ made of tessellated hexagons, each of which has an assigned terrain type. This terrain type might be mixed. A hex won’t have ‘hills’ and ‘forest’, but it might have ‘forested hills’. Each hex may also have some number of features, items of interest, within the hex.

If the artistic maps above can be considered ‘analog’, these are more abstract and ‘digital’. Each location has one type of terrain (possibly a mixed terrain), other features of interest either are or are not present, and the entire hex is treated more or less homogeneously. This is somewhat less realistic than the ‘fuzzier’ artistic map, but also much easier to adjudicate.

Hex maps have long been used in war games and the like because they are very easy to adjudicate. The terrain type often determines how far a unit travels in a certain amount of time (or how long it takes to travel a certain distance, more often in roleplaying games). It also can be used to indicate what sort of interesting elements might be present. The use of tessellated hexagons rather than tessellated squares also makes it easier to navigate in directions other than the four cardinal directions — error introduced by moving in the slightly crooked line needed to simulate travel in something other than the six cardinal directions represented by the hexagons is much less than trying to do the same with squares.

To the right is a quick, and frankly pretty crude, conversion of the Vale of Elsir map shown above. I do not find it as pretty to look at, but I can easily see how it would be easier to use for many purposes. I don’t show them here, but Hexographer allows automatic indexing of all hexes by number, making it very, very easy to key the map contents precisely. Or at least, precisely to the hex level.

This is a very functional map. For obvious reasons it lends itself well to a hex crawl, and blind exploration is pretty straightforward. It is easy to develop routines for handling exploration.

To be honest, I like this style too, when it is done well. I have nowhere near as much practice with it as I do with more artistic styles, and honestly it’s taking me some time to get used to Hexographer. In this case I think I tried too hard to represent the artistic rendered version in hex, when I would have been better served by simply redrawing parts of it. Specifically, I probably should have kept the mountainous regions, but redrawn them as parallel ridge lines rather than tracing the outline of the ‘representative mountains’.

Ah well, I’m confident it will get better with practice. And when I get a chance to replace the hex tiles I have available — I’ve got four or five styles, and right now none of them really suits my taste.

Closing Comments

These are two fairly different mapping styles, suited to different purposes. I am inclined to use hex maps in the Seekers of Lore campaign, despite my relative unfamiliarity with them. There are two reasons for this, that I will explore later in the week — Demesne-Level Play, and Exploration in Seekers of Lore.


  1. Pingback: A-Z April Challenge 2013 | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

  2. Pingback: Exploration, Seeing What There Is To See | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

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