Review: The City of Carse from Midkemia Press

I recently started a discussion asking about suggestions for prepared towns that were complete enough to be useful while being generic enough to see use in most situations.  A few hours into the responses and someone suggested Carse.

Wow, I could remember CARSE!  I remember seeing it on game store shelves – it has a cream or yellowish cover and always came in a plastic bag.  I never bought it, though I considered it many times.  Anyhow, it made me wonder what had become of Midkemia Press (the company that produced it) so I started searching with Google.

Ah yeah, the DIGITAL 3rd Edition

And I was surprised to see Midkemia Press still in existence!  Wow, they were converting their products over to digital (i.e. PDF with JPG images) and Carse was available for $5.  Heck yes!  I ponied up $9 and got Carse bundled with their CITIES ENCOUNTERS source book.

The products were mailed to me and I was a bit surprised – Steve Abrams, one of the original authors, had taken the high-road in conversions and had really cleaned up the source.  As a result, the text is super crisp and clearly more than just an OCR attempt.

Click on the text to see how clear and readable it is

The PDF is 94 pages long, with the first 66 pages being dedicated to the City of Carse.  Every building on the map – and there are lots of them – has a note or entry.  Some are undetailed (i.e. RESIDENCE with no further information), but most have several sentences of descriptive text.

There are gobs of loosely hinted at adventure hooks, taverns to carouse, things to buy and discover, and in general it is a comfortable, well-considered fantasy burg that should be easy and effective to add to any adventure or campaign.  It also has a sizable portion of the community living outside the the city walls, another nod towards realistic design which I like.

The product comes with a large image that once was the map which was placed out where players could see it.  It is not annotated.  The descriptive text also contains portions of the map and so the GM can navigate the town privately.  With electronic products, this perhaps makes a bit less sense these days, but it does lead to the town being neatly segmented in pieces that make finding an indexed item fairly quick.

The map is clean and easy to navigate

I’ll eventually be converting Carse over to Fantasy Grounds and, for me at least, this will completely flatten out the problem of locating the text for a building.  Because I will be doing this, it makes me doubly appreciative of the cleaned up text since it will copy and paste without the typical OCR errors.

Did Carse survive the test of time?  Absolutely!  For $5, it is a steal – adding a town to a campaign for the price of a Big Mac is a crazy good deal.


Gaming Terminology: Obscure mapping terms

I’ve been a fan of maps and mapping for a very long time.  I have had a huge collection of 15-minute maps dating from the late 1800’s and into the early 1950s for many years.  I have acquired quite a few of the avaiable Sanborn insurance maps for the many small communities around where I live.  Basically, I love cartography and any excuse to own an old map is good enough for me.

Recently I have discovered some embarrassing failings in my own knowledge about the words used to describe a map.  For instance, what would you call this?

I searched on ‘cartography terms’ and failed to find it.

I drew this, but at the time I didn’t even know what to call it.

It is inserted into the upper-right hand corner of a map to add some illustrative beauty to it.  But what does one call it?  I mentally thought of it as an artsy-wingding, but when you actually create one, it does make you more curious.  I searched on ‘cartography terms’ and failed to find it.  It isn’t any better when you search on ‘parts of a map.’  I eventually gave up and never found a good word to describe what I’d drawn.

map_art_labA few weeks later and completely by accident, I stumbled across the answer in a book named ‘Map Art Lab’ which details over 50 art projects related to maps and mapping.  Because these sort of additions are artistic in nature, the authors had managed to find and share the term.

Artistic mapping flourishes held away from the map are called cartouches.  It sounds like car-tooshes when pronounced.

Generally this is limited to an authors or publishers shield or badge, but might also extend to peripheral artwork away from the map, such as strange sea beasts in bodies of water or 4 windy corners.   The introductory image is an example of a cartouche.

Artistic mapping flourishes are called cartouches

As long as we are on the subject, I know of another rarely used cartographer’s term.  Most professional maps have a border going all the way around the cartography.  These are called ‘neatlines,’ presumably because they keep the map neat looking.  I’ve occasionally seen the neatline made so that it contained scale markings, making it doubly-useful, but usually they are merely decorative.


Gaming Terminology – Thorp, Hamlet, Village

I’ve always been a bit amused by some of the words that were selected early in the life of RPGs to act as ways to describe things that really were not very different.  But because they were adopted early, they’ve remained.

In this case, the words in question define the size of a village, but they should do a bit more than that.  I will make some suggestions that I’ve not seen used.

Thorp or Thorpe

A thorp is the smallest form of village and it should be used to refer to settlements that are 20-49 people in size. There is no government and possibly no businesses, with the reason for nearness often being the most basic one – the members of the budding village are family.  Common extensions for these places include -thorp, -thorpe, -porp, -dorf, and -dorp.


A hamlet is a step upwards from a Thorp, with a population of  50-199 good people.  There are still no government buildings, but a business or two are likely and several clans of folk are almost certainly living here.  Common extensions for places this size include -heim, -ham, -heem.


A true village almost certainly has a fundamental government and at least one religious structure.  The government might be as small as a mayor or it might have a small council.  A larger village might have a sheriff to keep the peace.  The village might own land, such as a communal marketplace or a place for caravans and other visitors to camp for the night.

Places of this type are not as clannish or suspicious as the smaller villages.

Villages will have 200 to 1999 people.  Common naming extensions for places this size include -stead, -place, -ville, -vale.

Closing Thoughts

Fantasy worlds are not safe places.  Thorps and Hamlets should be more common in patrolled or civilized lands, but uncommon to rare where things like goblins, orc, gnolls, and trolls would find small settlements easy targets.  Still, places have to grow, so new settlements will sprout up where there is safety and money to be made.

Places often retain the extension on their names, so it is possible for towns or even cities to carry the name given to a thorp or hamlet.

These small places should not be especially tolerant of new comers, especially those of clearly different races.  Superstition and ignorance should combine to make the less traveled villagers difficult to be around unless the place is near a larger place such as a town or city.

Protection for these small settlements will come from the larger regional government.  Particularly troublesome regions might have a temporary garrison in or near larger or strategically important villages.

Coincidentally, almost all random population systems will break things down further into 3 categories of town (small, medium, large) and into 3 categories of cities (small, medium, large).  There are no special words for each category, which makes the thorp/hamlet/village system feel like the start of an unfinished word search or something.

I’d break with the trips format and go with Burg / Town / City / Metropolis for the remaining descriptors.  Using some term that requires a google search isn’t what I would want.

As a small aside, in medieval France, a settlement of any size was considered a city if it contained a Cathedral.  Just a thought, that perhaps the names of places could reflect some important societal goal which in turn would give other some expectation about the organization and strength of will of the inhabitants.


A Judges Guild Story

Back in ’70s, I was a big, big fan of Judges Guild materials.  They produced incredibly cool stuff at a reasonable price point AND they were located within driving distance of my home.  Not that I ever drove there, but it was still inspiring to know that a smallish mid-west town was cranking out D&D materials.

At the time, I fancied myself as being a pen and ink artist and sent a few sketches off to Judges Guild along with a SASE and a letter asking them to please consider my artwork.  Being a kid of 17 years, I also called a couple of times and probably made a general ass of myself.  I think that the arrangement was that Mr. Bledsaw would mail me a check and a copy of whatever the artwork appeared in. There wasn’t much money in it, but getting D&D materials for a little ink and time seemed like a good deal – plus it got me published.

Well, I never heard back.  I moved later in the year and then life happened and I sort of forgot all about it.

Cover Judges Guild Journal 14 1979

Fast forward 35 years….  I am on the Board Game Geek and decided to type my name in when searching for credits.  To my surprise,  my name pops up as having been an author for Judges Guild Journal #14 on page 25.   Well, I had no recollection of writing anything for them, so I decided maybe it was another Tim Kilgore.  Heck, there is even a Pro-Wrestling Tim Kilgore…

Another year goes by – it is 2016 and I am DMing D&D again.  I decided that I had to know for sure and used ebay to get a copy of the Judges Guild Journal #14.  I turn to page 25 and as I turn the page a big old grin comes to my mug unbidden – right there was 2 pieces of art that I’d not seen since I mailed it in 1979.


I actually laughed and smiled for a good five minutes – it was just so nice to see these again.  They aren’t awesome – but they are mine and it just sort of took me back to a time and place, refreshing my recollection of who I once was.

I suppose that moving probably interfered with me getting anything from Judges Guild.  And while it took a long time for me to know about it, I do have to say that it is pretty cool to have made the cut and to have been published by Judges Guild.

I think that Mr. Bledsaw knew that it was a big deal to me and he included my full signature – which he had to pull from the letter I had sent – and having done that, it allowed someone to create an entry for me as an author on the Board Game Geek website.  If he’d not been so kind, I’d never have never found it.


Project Benchmark – Tarantis with Walls


This is a landmark moment in a long project – Tarantis now has walls!

Today I finished the temple section and then started working on the walls.  I eventually got about 60% around the town and then had to do something else, so I started ‘humanizing’ the map.

What do I mean by humanizing?  Well, the original map was very much laid out on a grid and has a machine-feel to it as a result.  I simply took a great deal of the town off of the grid and this makes it more friendly, more natural to the human eye.  How?  Well, I basically just rotated groups of buildings by 1 to 3 degrees then shifted them as needed so the roads continued to work.

As I built the walls, I was also careful to make sure that the lines were off at angles and also shifted the watch towers back toward the center of town so they would not provide cover to enemies.  I also constructed rounded gates and all 4 city gates use the same basic format.

It felt great to finally close the wall!  I immediately stopped working on it – I’d been going a bit longer than I should, wanting to get it finished.  I still have a long way to go before the project is done, sometimes the work itself encourages you and should help keep me working on it.


Wilderlands Map 6: Tarantis conversion completed

Using Necromancer Games / Judge’s Guild Wilderness of High Fantasy product, I converted Map 6 (Tarantis) to work inside Fantasy Grounds from Smiteworks.  I probably need to convert 2 or 3 more maps in order to run a campaign, but it is a good start.

Here is a peek of how busy the Fantasy Grounds map is when fully linked to data:

Every red pin links to the text for the location

Since I don’t have print concerns, I also took the time to reformat the text for the towns and military outposts:

A snippet of original text that becomes…
Text formating improves the readability of the provided information.

While I was about it, I also made the lists of locations a bit more valuable:


As you can see, the names of settlements stand out and I added population information.  The text shown here is what appears when the mouse hovers over a pin on the map, so loading it with a little extra information seemed like a good idea.

I also got another little side project with a random encounter table done and I will talk about that a bit later.  Finishing the overland map for Tarantis now has me eager to get the town proper converted.


City of Tarantis Progress & Plans


I’ve been steadily plodding along, mapping the original Judge’s Guild Tarantis into the new century, from scanned bitmap to sleek vector.  Along the way, I stopped and recreated the logo which I would guess was originally created by Jennell Jaquays.  I am not sure about the colors, but it should definitely tie back to the sea if possible.

As for the map itself, good grief, it just seems to go on and on.  I’ve gotten many cases of white-line fever, missing big parts of buildings and needing to go back and fix forgotten or overlooked sections.  I am working as fast as I can, but there is a certain monotony to it that becomes mind-numbing after 2 or 3 hours.

Tarantis taking form

The map above is altered from the original in the sense that I have taken everything off of the grid system.  The above image is just a quick experiment, but I plan on taking the entire city off of the harsh North/South grid system and laying the majority of the sections off at slight angles.  It already feels a bit less mechanical in nature and I will continue to work at it, hoping to give it a more humanistic, friendly touch.

I’ve finished 5 of 10 regions – and while that sounds like 50%, it is probably closer to 60%.  The temple and palace regions are fairly low detail, leaving the scholars section, the docks, and finally all of the buildings scattered around town.

Once the town is slightly rearranged and reordered, I will then address the city walls.  I anticipate needing to shift them a bit, so they will be the last thing done.  I want to study how long walls and gates were built and will try to “build” a functional city wall.

I will also NOT put walls up around the docks like the original.  The idea of navigating a ship through a narrow aperture almost made my head explode and it was my only significant dislike of the original map.

Rather than enclose the docks with a wall, I will place a man-made island that shields the port while housing a building for steersmen.  Ships will pay a fee to be steered into port and later for space on the docks.  Taxes on the cargo in the holds will be accessed before the ship can leave.

I am also debating how I am going to handle lettering.  I do plan on lettering the streets, but I am less sure about numbering the buildings.  Since I am going to use this with Fantasy Grounds, all I need to do is to place a pin and it is all good.  On the other-hand, the map will be worthless to anyone but me which would sort of suck.  So a player’s map (no notes) and a DMs map is the likely solution.

On a similar trail of thought, I am not really making any concessions towards printing.  It might be an error that I regret later, but we’re a long way into the digital age and anyone who needs a print probably can manage to convert a color image to grayscale, section the map, and otherwise take care of the problem themselves.

Medieval woodcut converted to vector

I have scoured the web for old woodcuts and plan on cleaning a few of them up a bit and converting them to vector format so they are scalable.  This is not the first one that I have done, but it is the first one that I have colorized.

Cleanly colored woodcit
Cleanly colored woodcut of “St. George Slaying the Dragon” from 1515.

I am taking on several large projects at the moment, so it is especially good to get something done!

Projects – Whats done, whats begun

Early last week I finished a 5e update for G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief.  I used the Dungeon 197 restructure as a basis, incorporated the lovely full size maps from Mike Schley, and rebuilt it targeted for 5e players at 8th or 9th level as a Fantasy Grounds module.  The players in my campaign are soon to be 6th level, so it will be a little while before they get to G1, but it is so easy and natural to include in the current story I am weaving, which is why I converted it.

I hadn’t finished G1 when I started on another conversion project.  I took on Judge’s Guild TARANTIS map 6 from the Wilderlands campaign setting and have a Fantasy Ground’s campaign map well underway.

Tarantis Wilderlands campaign map coming alive with data!  Map and data come from “Wilderlands of High Fantasy” by Necromancer Games 2005.

At this point, I’d use Fantasy Grounds even if it were not for online gaming.  It is an indispensable tool.  With the aid of Fantasy Grounds, this Tarantis map is so many times more useful to me – I can hover a mouse over a location (the pins) and get a little info, or I can click the pin and get the full entry for the point of interest.

The map comes alive with data…

I ran one Wilderlands campaign in the now hazy days of 1978 or 1979 – I got frustrated with how awkward and slow it was to get to information.  The map is on a 5-mile scale and you need to look things up quite frequently as a result.  It was a big pain and with some regret I moved on to other campaigns at a larger scale.  Well, Fantasy Ground totally destroys all of the disadvantages of the small map scale.  The map comes alive with data and I am already starting to look forward to running a campaign set in Bob Bledsaw’s Wilderlands.

As long as I was going completely insane with large scale projects, I took on another Judges Guild conversion.  As it turns out, Judges Guild published their third City State-style installment in the form of TARANTIS (JG1200).  I bought all of the Cities Products that Judges Guild released, but I did not get this one since I did not know it was a town.

A large Lawful-Evil city is contained within these pages

The overland map is not much use to me if I cannot present the crown jewel of the region which is, of course, the large city of Tarantis.  The city acts as an excellent base of operation, the city itself being an adventure hook inferno, with places and people hinting at things to do.

The city itself being an adventure hook inferno, with places and people hinting at things to do.

The primary problem with the city of Tarantis is that the digitally provided map is shit. I am not being mean – it was good back in the day, but that day was over 30 years ago and it could be cleaned up.  A lot.  Have a look:

Even zoomed in, these maps are a little hazy and indistinct. They used brown ink on tan paper, so the scans are understandably a bit weak

Because I am unhappy with the condition of the map, I have been working to convert the entire city into vector graphics.  Vector graphics are cool because they scale smoothly from small to insanely large sizes.  The most simple and obvious example of a vector graphic are the fonts that we use on computers – we size them, scale them, and tweak them all the time.  Having the city map in vector form will allow me to manipulate the graphics with ease.

So here is how the vector graphics overlay on the original map:

Same area as before, but now you can see the vector graphics overlaid on the page.

I am currently around 40% along in redrawing the city.  It is a big map, with a lot of details, many of which are often difficult to discern.  Here is a birds-eye view of the town:

The stronger, darker areas have the outlines of buildings done.  Fuzzy grey scale looks especially bad zoomed out this far.

What will I do with it once I have converted the details to vectors?  I will improve it.  It will be absolutely true to the original vision, but it will be much more pleasant and pleasing to work with.

Here are the results of about 20 minutes of tweaking and playing around:

Amazing what a little color and some shadowing can do!

Tegel Manor really set the standard for what was expected of a professional adventure map

I have now spent quite a bit of time on Bledsaw’s original map of Tarantis.  What he did was quite an achievement for the time frame.  And this is the end of his run, the last big city that Judges Guild would release.  Several years before Tarantis, another Judges Guild product named Tegel Manor really set the standard for what was expected of a professional adventure map.  Mr. Bledsaw’s materials still hold up today and they influenced a formative RPG industry.

I will share a Judges Guild story sometime in the near future.


Hexcrawl Hazards: Becoming Lost

Getting Lost

1st edition VS 5th Edition D&D

Looking back at the origins of D&D, the first edition of the game has almost 2/3 of a page dedicated to the concept of adventurers becoming lost and subsequently offers suggestions on how to handle parties that lose their orientation.  Now looking at present day, the rules in D&D5e have atrophied to less than 1/4 of a page, with very few guidelines being presented.

Given how small that section is in the 5e DMG, I’d be surprised if very many DMs concern themselves with checking to see if a party did, indeed, become lost.  Which is a shame, because exploring the unknown and traveling across vast tracts of wilderness needs to taken seriously and stopping for instructions leads to role playing opportunities.

Without a hex grid, the rules for getting lost might require a compass, ruler, pencils…

The rules in D&D1e are largely based on the intransmutable foregone conclusion that you will be using hexes on your overland map which in turn simplifies the handling things like getting lost.  Without a hex grid, the rules for getting lost might require a compass, ruler, pencils, and a discussion that that would probably consume quite a bit of space and hence we get the very slim set of rules in D&D5e.

Here, then, are D&D1e guidelines for becoming lost:

Becoming Lost: Any party not guided by a creature knowledgeable of the countryside through which the party is moving, or which is not following a well defined course (river, road, or the like), or which is not using a well-drawn and correct map, might become lost. This is determined prior to the commencement of a day’s movement.  Determination is based on the terrain….

I italicized the portion of the text that tells you when to check.  This is a bit different in the 5e version of the text which appears as:

Unless they are following a path, or something like it, adventurers traveling in the wilderness run the risk of becoming lost. The party’s navigator makes a Wisdom (Survival) check when you decide it’s appropriate, against a DC determined by the prevailing terrain, as shown on the Wilderness Navigation table. If the party is moving at a slow pace, the navigator gains a +5 bonus to the check, and a fast pace imposes a – 5 penalty. If the party has an accurate map of the region or can see the sun or stars, the navigator has advantage on the check.

In the Gygaxian original view of the possibility of getting lost, a daily check is necessary.  In the lore of 5th edition, it is up to the DM to determine when he wants to check.  This allows you to remove much of the randomness that could interrupt the telling of your collective story.  For instance, it doesn’t make much narrative sense to be riding wildly to warn a town an impending invasion of a horde of lycanthropic halflings and then suddenly take a wrong turn and get lost.

In the Gygaxian original view of the possibility of getting lost, a daily check is necessary.

You will note, however, that no preference is given to Rangers, Druids or even Wood Elves – only to those with the survival skill.  I like it because it is uniform, but it might surprise the party druid or ranger to learn that he is not the go-to source of woodland navigation without the survival skill.

All of this thus far is making fairly good sense if it does make an overt reliance upon the survival skill.  But what about the nature skill?  Why isn’t it used?

The nature skill is a knowledge of a thing – it is passive, descriptive, informational.  Survival is hands-on, the doing of a thing – it is an active skill.  Nature could, in fact, be helpful – your character might know that lichen only grow on the southern side of the rocks and stones in this region therefore be able to re-orientate the party – still lost, but now sure of their direction of travel.  There is a time penalty for getting lost (1d6 hours to re-orientate) – the nature skill could and should be used to reduce or even negate that penalty.

Becoming lost is the realization that you have been wrong about where you are

Why did the 1st edition rules specify a check first thing in the morning?  To start with, the entire day would be spent moving in a random direction.  Until the terrain changes significantly or an unexpected river or other easily recognized terrain marker appears, the party does not know they are actually lost.  This allows the DM to place the party somewhere on the map and then later inform the party that they are starting to suspect that they might not be heading the right direction.  Generally speaking, becoming lost is the realization that you have been wrong about where you are and where you have been going.  In game parlance, you must have moved unwittingly in an incorrect direction.

How does a party discover that they are moving in the wrong direction? As previously mentioned, they could encounter a terrain distinction of some sort IF they have a good map.  Cutting across roads or trails might provide them with a clue if you’d prefer to role play the discovery.  Missing expected landmarks (towns, river fords, a mountain pass, etc) is another way for the party to become aware that they are adrift in the wilderness.

Travel time in the wrong direction is needed for the party to be, by definition, lost.

The 5th edition rules say that you can check at anytime to determine if the party becomes lost, but in order for this to mean anything,  some actual travel time in the wrong direction is needed for the party to be, by definition, lost.  So I would suggest that once a party becomes lost, that at least half a day travel happens before they become aware of any hint of a problem.

Direction of travel once lost
Direction of travel once lost – expanded version based upon the diagram shown in AD&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide page 49.

I had mentioned earlier that travel provides some role playing opportunities.  If the lands are inhabited, the party would be wise to occasionally have a chat with a local.  This would allow them to get a picture of what is happening in the area that might be of interest to the party (grim hints of a lycanthropic halfling horde, for instance) while confirming their bearings.  But then, everyone hates to stop and ask for directions – according to my wife, this is especially true of men.

In terms of winners and losers, AD&D 1e -vs- D&D5e, which one is better for handling getting lost?  I prefer the clever way that D&D5e handles the checks, but I also like the more hex-centric rules and handling of being lost afforded by the older 1e rules.  Using a fusion of the two rule sets and home brewing your campaign rules for getting lost is the way to go.