Saturday, 23 April 2016

Fantasy Map Review V: Birthright

For links to all instalments in this series, go here.

For the fifth instalment, we come to Cerilia of the Birthright setting. And I move from admiration to love.

First Impressions: I first became aware of birthright when the Birthright Conspectus was included in one of the boxed sets I bought at the time, which included the fullsized map above. It was, simply put, love at first sight. I adored the the woodlands, the mountains, the colour scheme and the stapled borders  - It seemed like a world truly alive. More than anything, it was the map that made me want to know more about this setting.

Further Thoughts: This is is still one of my favourite maps, maybe my alltime favourite. Although the scale of Cerilia is clearly more localised than Faerun or even the Flanaess, the sense of there being plenty of opportunity for exploration and adventure is developed with stunning level of detail instead - Where the Forgotten Realms gives a sense of never running out of new lands across the mountain ranges, this map gives more a sense of each set of hill having new adventure before you even reach the mountain range. And I think I like this setup better for a setting map - It makes the world feel more intimate. In fact, if this map had had a creature/location legend similar to the one in Tales of the Lance, it would be unconquerable for 'greatest of all time' setting map. A map you could run a campaign with, without even needing a setting book.

Where Greyhawk in particular inspired me for how to draw up a setting map in large scale with placing of ocean and such, Birthright sets a different benchmark that I am still struggling to emulate.  It shows how to make a map come alive through loving attention to detail. Less is often more when it comes to setting development, but not when it comes to maps. You can cut out a 3:4 pretty much anywhere on this map, at any scale, and that cutout would be a worthy standalone map on its own.

I have a good deal of appreciation for Birthright itself. It is often criticised for being bog-standard medieval fantasy, but this is what I loved about it - No one else seemed to ever have made proper actual mythic medieval fantasy for D&D - In Birthright, an Arthurian knight can engage in jousting and real-politics before riding into misty mythic woodlands for fantasy adventures. The blend of mundane mediaevalism with the mythic is something it does better than most settings. However, I sometimes find myself studying this map as if it were somewhere else, unknown, and wondering what each little stapled domain is like and what mythic vistas it holds. If I were to run a sandbox based on a pre-generated map, Birthright would be it.

Style: 5/5
Substance: 5/5

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Fantasy Map Review IV: Forgotten Realms

For links to all instalments in this series, go here.

For the fourth instalment is yet another iconic map piece - Faerun. I've gone for the 3rd edition one as that is probably the most widespread one out there and also (imo), the best.

Ed greenwood does a lot of the same things right as Gygax did with his Flanaess map. He understands that placement of seas as separators; points that cultures congregate around; and routes that open up and connects different adventuring areas really makes a difference to a good map.

He nails it with the Sea of Fallen Stars and the multitude of bays, lakes and reaches that feed into it. One boat can set sail in the sea of salt in Mulhorand in the deep south and meet up in the Sea of Fallen Stars with a vessel that started from the tortured lands near the great glacier, passing through Damara, Vaasa and Impiltur before entering the sea proper. Great stuff.

What is really striking about this map is the scale of it. It feels larger than the Flanaess and Ansalon (nevermind diminutive Middle earth) - There is a clear 'centre' in and around the Heartlands (though this is really just the northwestern corner of the map) and from there it seems there is no end to new lands around the next mountain range. Greenwood has done great work to achieve this sense of exploration and making his main adventure area, the Heartlands, sizeable and a setting in its own right, yet just a corner of the actual setting is a great move that not only informs us something about the nature of the heartlands, but tells us the Realms really are endless with opportunity for adventure and exploration.

On an unrelated side note, since this is a map review, this is also what I liked about the 2nd edition boxed set. It managed to convey the sense of distance, myth, rumour and wonder the further you went from the Heartlands. The 3rd edition book, while more coherent and exhaustive, somehow made the Realms feel quite small and explored in comparison.

Anyway, back to the map: Artistically, it's not very good. This is true of all editions sadly.  Take a look at the 1st edition map:

Looks like a first draft drawn in MS Paint. No thanks.

2nd edition wins some in terms of stylistic flavour
But the colour compositions is dull and the contrast too sharp.

4th edition makes a decent attempt at flavour with a more grainy 'painted' map.
But in the end falls flat with a colour palette that is too bland and indistinct and a style that is too obviously digital.

At least the 3rd edition map gets colour composition and contrast right - Too bad the actual drawings are about as evocative as a box of coal. In the end, it detracts from the substance as well, as I am frankly less interested in studying the map and its contents in more detail. And I am left with the impression that there are areas drawn that could have been evocative with another style that just aren't in this map.

Style: 2/5
Substance: 5/5

Friday, 15 April 2016

Fantasy Map Review III: Dragonlance

For links to all instalments in this series, go here.

Next up is another map many will know but few have praised - The map of Ansalon from the 2nd edition Dragonlance boxed set "Tales of the Lance".

First Impressions: My initial impression is not as favourable as the preceeding ones, but there are still some interesting things going on here: The gulf of the new sea tells a story about how kingdoms shape up in central ansalon. Southern Ergoth looks like a kickass island of adventure. And I want to know more about that southwestern strip of the mainland bordering Southern Ergoth.

I'd also like to know more about those island kingdoms up in the northeast corner. And what's going on around the Bay of Balifor? Besides that, the north and south just sort of... end, with wastelands at each end (plains of dust/Icewall, Northern Wastes/Nordmaar). The bloodsea puts a downer on what could have been an eastern Ansalon full of vitality. And the centre of the mainland is just rammed down with giant mountains. It's not really clear how eastern Ansalon relates to central Ansalon, if at all.

Visually, it is 'nice enough', not ugly, but nothing special. Paper material poor and falling apart from use.

Further Thoughts: I frigging love this map. Not for the way they designed the geography and placed the various realms, nor for the artistic impression - But take a good look at the map legend:

How cool is that?!? I've spent hours pouring over the placement of all these sites. mysterious places never fully explained (yet legendary enough that the names go on a map) pop up all over the place, giving new ideas about what is going on here.  Relics of old people waiting to be found. Ansalon has it going on!

And LAIRS. This map actually tells me where on Ansalon critters tend to live. Monsters have a place in the world that extends beyond the random encounter tables. My thoughts are spinning about the impact on local communities of living near giantkin or fungus(?!?). This makes the map and the setting come alive like nothing else and revolutionised my ideas of how to make an evocative gaming map.

Style: 3/5
Substance: 5/5

In terms of design and style, this map is not bad but ultimately forgettable. The exceedingly generous map legend turns a decent 3/3 map into a great one. Too bad so few have followed suit on what makes it so great.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Fantasy Map Review II: Greyhawk

For links to all instalments in this series, go here.

Second instalment in the series gives a strong showing with another iconic example - The Flanaess as depicted in the World of Greyhawk Folio from 1980:

First Impressions: It is with a certain amount of awe that I delicately unfold my original Darlene maps from the Greyhawk folio - Still in top notch shape after 35 years thanks to the sturdy paper the folio edition were printed on. From a gamer's perspective, you can't ask for more  - They are huge, sturdy enough to take to the table and have a lot going on. Not as beautiful and flavourful as Middle Earth, but still a work of art. And hex-mapped. All awesome.

Further Thoughts: The Flanaess is to me the gold standard of how to draw up a setting map. No borders are drawn and none are needed. The geography naturally points out how regions are shaped and interact with each other. You can learn a lot about the Flanaess just from this map:

The Sheldomar Valley countries obviously have close relations, being tucked in together a bit away from the rest of the world the way they are.

The Baklunish are somewhat isolated from the rest of the Flanaess. Perrenland seems almost like a kingdom list in time, sheltered in the mountains like that.

The Old Aerdy East and Old Aerdy West are somewhat cut off from having relations due to the savagery of central Flanaess - The Horned Society, Iuz and Bandit Kingdoms will put a bummer on any trade route.

Go north of all the evils lands, effectively cutting off the north from civilization, is plenty of land - Blackmoor, Cold Marshes, Barrens, Stonefist, Frost/Snow/Ice Barbarians, tiger/wolf nomads. The lands forsaken by law and civilization are sizeable and feel suitably isolated from civilised southern lands.

Appealingly, the 'safer' area to go through from old Aerdy East to Old Aerdy West is adventuring area numero uno - The Wild Coast. I love its placement on the map and its relations on the map. Anywhere is in feasible reach for an adventurer on the wild coast. The Nyr Dyv and Wooly Bay gives you plenty of means of getting around. For adventurers in the Wild Coast, the Flanaess is your oyster. The whole Nyr Dyv/Wooly Bay/Relmor Bay area is just really well constructed for bringing these lands into contact with each other and opening routes of travel.

No wonder the City of Greyhawk is such a big fish - The Nyr Dyv is obviously a really central area. The rivers flowing into it pass through 16 different countries! And itself opens into the Whoolly Bay - From there, the Sheldomar Valley and great kingdom are in reach. You could get on a boat all the way up north in Blackmoor, sail through the vast Burneal forest, across Lake Quaag in Perrenland, through Veluna and Furyondy into the Nyr Dyv, past the city of Greyhawk into the Wooly Bay and then the Azure Sea and from there set sail to anywhere from Hepmonaland to Irongate or the Hold of the Sea Princes. I love that - Simply looking at the map gives you real ideas about trade routes and itineraries.

Overall, these maps not only have great production value for gaming, the way the various nations and realms are set up against each other really stimulates immersion and the sense of possibility and adventure.

Style: 4/5
Substance: 5/5

The Darlene maps are a solid pick for best fantasy gaming map of all time and sets the gold standard for how to make a gaming map.

Fantasy Map Review I: Middle Earth

For links to all instalments in this series, go here.

We're off to a somewhat lacklustre start with perhaps the most iconic fantasy map of all - J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

First impressions: Love the style, it is immensely flavourful and says something about kind of world Middle Earth is. It makes me want to dig into its pockets and see what mysteries have been scribbled on to this piece of lore.

Second thoughts - As a setting map, Middle Earth is, geographically speaking, dull as dishwater. Just a slab of land with a coastline, a few mountains and woods dotted here and there. For an entire setting, it doesn't give you much to explore or evoke many impressions about the realms there and how they relate to each  other. Some will argue that there is more to Middle Earth than this, but not effectively so. This is the main campaign map the same way the Flanaess is the main area of Oerik and Faerun is the main area of Toril.

As a setting map, it falls flat - Just from looking at the map, this isn't a world that makes you think of endless possibilities for exploration and adventure.

Style: 5/5
Substance: 2/5

Now, if this had been a map of a country in a setting, it would have been a different story. Looking at Middle Earth as a country map, I put it at 4/5, maybe even 5/5 for substance. In fact, Middle Earth is crying out to be adapted into a kingdom.

In the south, are the rich King's lands. In the centre, sits the plains of the Duchy of Rohan. The clans of this duchy provide the cavalry forces of the kingdom. A wizard of high repute in the kingdom also makes his home there.

The northern duchies of Eriador and Rhovanion have falled into disrepair - Though the king's rangers still keep the farmsteads of Eriador safe, Chaos is creeping into those lands and elves roam the woods, while goblins keep the mountains unsafe. Besides elves, a dread necromancer in Mirkwood is also making Rhovanion unsafe. There is dragon in the easter mountains as well.

Middle earth as a kingdom is well fleshed out, diverse but not too diverse and coherent. It has just enough going on as a country map that it comes alive as its own thing, but not so much it makes you lose focus of what the realm is about. I am totally running with this and putting it somewhere. 

MAPS. It's a big thing

Man, maps. As a teenager I spent hours pouring over them,studying areas and worlds based on them. Who was neighbouring who and what areas did they have to go through to get to each other? How many day travels deep is that forest? How few roads are in that area? How many towns per days of wilderness?
I sort of left behind this level of scrutiny in my 20s in favour of more explicit and condensed information but I don't think now that this was for the better. These sort of questions are evocative and immersive. A map says a lot about the kind of setting you are dealing with.
The map of Erce has gone through a lot of evolution over the years. About a year ago I thought I had settled on the map structure, but even now I am making small changes to the continent.
Over the next few weeks, I will discuss different setting maps, how they inspire (and how they don't) and wrap it up with an introduction to the actual map of Erce,it's evolution, why it is way it is, what I like about it in particular and what I don't quite like. I think this is something really missing in the OSR / setting blogosphere that I'd like to help kickstart some discussion on. There is some discussion on the admiration of good maps. And lots of very terse discussion on how to make it realistic. But little on how to construct it to advance its potential as a gaming  map and what to put in it to inspire scenes and scenarios for the game.

What's next

The forthcoming post on the Hearthstone church is indefinitely delayed. I feel like I have plenty of good ideas about my Christianity ersatz, and plenty of ideas for making it distinct enough that it only reminds of rather than emulates, but I am stuck between a few concepts and don't have a feeling that I've quite nailed this one yet.

I've written lots of other stuff and will share in a less orderly manner than I originally planned (creative impulse follows its own schedule I am learning). But I also feel a wish to discuss some more meta like subjects. Inspirations of mine, why they inspire and so forth. So you can expect some assessment of other settings in the near future as well.