Tarantis Update – Colorization pt 1

First week of colorization
First week of colorization

I’ve spent much of my time this week experimenting with appearances and I have slowly advanced the colorization on the map of Tarantis.

If you are wondering what that ugly tan or yellow-brown is to the south side of the map, that is the undercoat for the grassy areas.  Having a unifying color is important and a nice friendly warm color seemed like a good choice.  Quite a bit of the color peeks through the green, grassy areas, but you aren’t likely to notice it very much.

Anyhow, I just wanted to keep a record of my progress.


Tarantis update – planning major deviations from the original vision

I’ve taken about a month away from this project.  My daughter graduated and a week later jetted off to Russia to complete her language studies in St. Petersburg.  And my weekly campaign was languishing and needed quite a bit of attention – so I’ve had little time to spare.  But I am still working on Tarantis.

One of my biggest dislikes about the original Tarantis map is that the huge sea wall that surrounded the wharf area of town seemed immense and frankly unbelievable.  I know, it is a fantasy world, but just the staff and continued maintenance on the largely submerged wall would realize such limited benefits that it did not make economical sense – never mind the original difficulty in constructing such a thing.

The original wharf area and the surrounding wall

It is also very blocky and clearly on a grid, being hyper naturally straight.  No question that this is a lawful town!

I decided to re-envision the the defenses.  Conceptually, the entire wharf area is artificial.  The harbor was dredged out and the soils were heaped creating a protective island.  The protective island was then carpeted with jagged rock and stone to prevent it from eroding.  Meanwhile, pilings were hammered in, stones submerged, and a series of towers were constructed around the docks.  These towers are normally unmanned and contain magically powered gears that pull lengthy runs of immense iron chains taut – and these chains prevent ships and large submerged objects from entering the protected harbor.  Finally, a large manned tower is located on the isle, a twin to that guarding the palace, a place where aerial mounts are housed and catapults and the like are manned to fight any seaborne threat.

The walls have been replaced with a tower system that features runs of chains to block boats and the like

I am not 100% sure that I want to do this, so I am pausing and letting this sink in.

I have also been exploring tools to colorize the town and bought Clip Studio Paint because it could import the vector files produced by my ancient version of Adobe Illustrator.  Unfortunately, it is a one-way trip – CSP can import the data, but it is not good about output that Illustrator can use.  Still, I may use it anyhow since I don’t care how Illustrator has to internally convert all the vectors into a mass shape before it can be used to colorize the map – at least with CSP I still have vector groups and pieces and it is a very mature, capable piece of software.


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.


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.


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.


Campaign Map – Initial Rough Draft

Back in December of 2015, I spent part of an afternoon with a pen and paper and sketched the outline a continent.  A few days later, I decided to run a campaign – but as soon as possible which meant using an existing campaign world. So I put the campaign map aside and concentrated entirely on how to get a campaign up and running as quickly as possible.

Now I have some breathing room, and I am back to where I started – with the outline of a continent or a super-sized island.  The need to create is overpowering most of my other pursuits.  Here is the continent outline:

Scanned image of a pen and pencil continent outline
Scanned image of a pen and pencil continent outline

The vague initial notion while sketching the outline was that this would be a world so dominated by large, nasty sea-going creatures that the only feasible naval activities would be in the shallower inner sea.  Nations would crowd around the smaller but far safer body of water and conduct trade, war, and it would be awash with the activity of the civilized races.

Needing mapping tools, I first purchased NBOS’ well regarded Fractal Mapper 8.  It is powerful enough and has a lot to recommend it.  I like a great deal it for dungeon mapping and battle-map creation, but I don’t care for the overland mapping.  It is too…fiddly for my needs.  You could (and I could and did) spend a lot of time re-sizing and positioning map imagery.

You can really blaze through world creation…

Then I looked at Hexographer and also bought it.  Hexographer is down and dirty, far less functional than Fractal Mapper, but so clearly focused on a singular task that it is both easier to use and far more goal orientated.  You can really blaze through world creation which, for my needs, is almost perfect.  I wanted to hash out the rough outline of the campaign map with the intent of coming back and drawing the entire map by hand from the diagram that Hexographer allows me to create. I’d have no problem GMing from the resultant Hexographer maps, but I’d greatly prefer to invest the time to create my own hand-drawn, highly emotive campaign map which will take a sizable investment in time and effort to create.

Here is what I’ve done in Hexographer:

Campaign map prototype
First prototype of a currently nameless campaign world

You will note that it has no river basins drawn, virtually no towns, roads, trails or national markings.  It will come – I need a little time to think on the lay of the land and how I want things to play out.  Rivers make natural borders which is why it requires more than a little time to hash-out where all of the races will be located.

I also did some checking and with a 36-mile hex, this landmass represents around 18-22% of an area the size of Australia.  Not that huge, but large enough for my needs.

I will add to this map and associated dialogue over the coming weeks and perhaps months.

A little preliminary campaign background info…

Humankind will be a young, low population race that relies heavily upon the good graces of the Elves.  The Elves, being out numbered by races that are hostile to them and having a poor reproduction rate, are more than happy to have the fast-breeding humans acting as a buffer against their enemies.

A social and political union of the Dwarf and Gnome will be the strongest non-evil force and neutrality will be well-represented.  Greed and avarice will mark their goals and they will not be the best of neighbors as a result.

Small distinctions of mapping

I spent 4 years in the US Army infantry back in the ’80s and got to spend a great deal of time in difficult terrain.  We maneuvered in the sand dunes of Germany.  Yeah, no shit, Germany has an area near Mainz that has a neighboring geological freak zone locally referred to as ‘the dunes.’

While I was in the states, I was stationed in Louisiana with the Red Devils 5th Infantry Division at Fort Polk.  Much of the land there was wet and muddy and there was a lot of wildlife taking advantage of the heavy cover. I recall the base commander’s dog went swimming and subsequently became an alligator snack.

All these year later, it occurred to me that I never really knew if I was in a swamp or marsh.  I always assumed that it was a swamp since it was inland.  Working on mapping icons, I became aware that even though I have spent a great deal of time in swamps – and probably marshes, too – I really didn’t understand the distinction between the two.

Searching the internet, I discovered this gem of an image:

Marches vs Swamps
Your tax dollars at work!

Here is a USGS graphic that does an excellent job of making it clear. Basically, swamps are dominated by hardwood trees, while marshes are marked by grasses.

What does this mean for mapping and gaming?  Well, marsh and swamp should go hand in hand – it would be impossible to have one without the other.  It would be much easier to hide in a swamp than a marsh and it would probably be easier to move through a marsh.

I also have realized that many, many terrain features will span large numbers of half-mile hexes.  Colorized hexes will have to be used to describe the core terrain.  While I don’t want to create maps that are inaccessible by those of you that are color-blind, I also don’t want to have a mountain icon stamped on every 1/2 hex.

Building a hex grid in Adobe Illustrator

Here are a set of steps that will help you to create a custom hex grid.  The instructions are for Adobe Illustrator CS6, but I suspect that they work fine back to CS4.

6-mile hex at 1 mile hex scale
The very definition of a 6-mile hex at the more commonly used 1-mile scale
  1. Start a new 8.5″ x 11″ document with landscape orientation
  2. Select the polygon tool and click on the page. Set the tool to .3” radius and 6 points.
  3. Place the newly created hexagon in the upper left-hand corner of the artboard
  4. With the hexagon shape selected, click on EFFECT → DISTORT & TRANSFORM → TRANSFORM
  5. Set Preview to ON
  6. Set Horizontal move to .45”
  7. Set Vertical move to .26”
  8. Enable REFLECT X
  9. Tell it to create 32 copies (takes us off the bottom of page)
  10. Click on OK
  11. Deselect and reselect the first hexagon (only the first can be selected)
  12. With the hexagon shape selected, click on EFFECT → DISTORT & TRANSFORM → TRANSFORM
  13. If necessary, click “Apply New Effect” button
  14. Turn on the preview
  15. Set the Horizontal move to .9”
  16. Set the number of copies to 12
  17. Click on OK
  18. (Make your changes to line thickness / style as you wish – last chance to do it uniformly.)
  19. With the hexagon selected, set the fill color to none (transparent)
  20. Select OBJECT → Expand…
  21. Select OBJECT → Path → Outline Stroke
  22. With all of the objects still selected (CTRL-A if they are not), Select WINDOW → Pathfinder and click on Unite (the first option)
6-mile hex at 1/2 mile scale
6-hex at 1/2 mile grid resolution (i.e. 12 hexes from top to bottom)

Once you have the basic components, you can easily create custom mapping sheets with the hex-grid scaled to match your needs.  These instructions were gleaned from a video over at layersmagazine.com.

Map Art – first piece done

Dispensing with mapping software, I’m getting started on building a library of images that will make me happy with my cartography.  First of many, many pieces is done…


This was lifted from a map of Paris circa 1550 and rendered as a vector graphic.  There are three other corners…. But being able to flip graphics easily, I am likely to only grab one of the bottom corners.


4/5/2016 – Completed the South-West corner.  Since it is easy enough to flip and place these, no pressing need for to create unique art assets for the missing two corners.


Campaign Goals and Hex Map Scales

I am starting to ponder all of the many parts and pieces of a self-generated campaign setting. This got me to thinking about scale mechanics and how I wanted to represent the game world.  I am a hex-crawler, so I’ve already jumped the initial hurdle of campaign map style.

It may sound a bit ambitious at first, but I am going to map at a 1/2 mile scale in detailed regions and use 6-mile hexes to display the detailed portion of the game world.  The 6-mile hexes upscale to 36-mile hexes which would be fine for the ‘lower resolution view’ of a campaign map.

6-mile super hex
A perfectly formed 6-mile super-hex displayed at 1/2 mile per normal hex.  Shexy!

The goal is to use a mapping scale that is friendly to displaying the location of villages and minor terrain features such as normal-sized lakes.  Really, any feature that isn’t on an epic scale could be comfortably depicted.

The reason that this scale is important to me is because I plan to set the campaign in an era where human affairs are dominated primarily by loose bands of City States. Placing villages, large holdings, resource points, and other important markers onto a map scaled to handle such things is critical to accurately portraying the holdings of a given City State.

City States require a network of villages to provide food production and other base resources for the dwellers of the city.  In turn, the villagers trade their food, furs, and raw materials for finished products and the city state also has men at arms that protect the small villages.  When war does come, the farmers flood the city seeking the protection of walls and warriors. Systems of roads, bridges, and towers might be employed by wealthier City States.

Anyhow, the first task is to get the 36-mile campaign map started.  I will probably focus on a smaller continent  and get going on it with a larger goal of developing a map reference system, semi-random map generation tables, and to generally get in the thick of just doing it so I can better see how I want to proceed.

So the initial goal is to build the lower level tools that I will need to build the maps.  Default hex-grid templates and a coordinate or reference system seems like a good place to start.