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RPG-ology #30: Story-based Mapping

This is RPG-ology #30:  Story-based Mapping, for May 2020.


I have mentioned before that I belong to a role playing game mapping group on Facebook.  Every day people post beautiful world maps similar to the ones pictured here and ask for feedback.

I am not a cartographer; I am not an artist.  When aspiring young artists send their work to me for my opinion I send it to my art director, because my opinion isn’t worth the price of a cup of coffee on free coffee day.  If they want to know whether it’s beautiful, well, as I often say, a thing of beauty was made by someone else, and they look nice enough to me.  If they want to know if the maps make sense geologically and geographically, I can point out problems (such as those we’ve covered in previous RPG-ology articles including #5:  Country Roads, #10:  Labyrinths, #13:  Cities, and #18:  Waterways).

But if they want to know if the maps are useful, it always makes me feel like that’s not really a good question.  I can’t imagine ever having a use for them—but it took me a while to understand why.

Map by Steve Gaudreau

When I start a map, I begin with the question, Where are my characters right now?  Unless I have a good reason to think otherwise, that is the middle of the piece of paper that’s going to be my map.  (Even when I make maps on a computer I generally have a “virtual piece of paper”, boundaries of the image file and a graph paper grid covering most of it.)  This probably includes a vague notion of Where is the rest of the world?, but as Max Smart once said, “I’m not saying that the rest of the world isn’t lost, 99.”  I need a vague notion of how the characters got here which contains some information about the rest of the world, but since they’re not going to live that part in the story I don’t really need details.

What I do need is the answer to two essential questions.  The first is What is around them that they are going to want to examine?  If they are in a village, I need an inn, stables, tradesmen and craftsmen, probably a constabulary, homes of those who live in town, and probably at least one place of worship.  If it’s a city, I’ve given myself a lot more work, because there are a lot of places someone can go in a city.  In most cases I don’t really have to know how far it is from London to Paris, but I do need to know how far it is from the rooming house to the grocery store.

Map of Kaiden by Michael Tumey

The second question is Where are they likely to go from here?  Not Paris, we hope, or at least not yet.  The first place they’re likely to go is whatever place I have planned for them to have their first adventure.  That might be a dungeon, or a ruin, or an office building, or a spaceship, but whatever it is, I now have to expand my maps to show how to get from here to there, and what they will find when they get there.

There will be other places where they will go.  If they acquire valuable objects, whether jewelry or magic items or tapestries or computers, they probably need to take them somewhere to sell.  That means I need a place where people buy such things, and I need to map the road between here and there and treat that place much as the starting point, creating what they are likely to see when they arrive.  But I didn’t need any of that when the story started; I only needed to have a vague notion of where it was and what was there, so I could put the time into creating the map later.

I’ve called this Story-based Mapping because it is fundamentally about creating the world to meet the needs of the story.  I’ll give kudos to Seth Ben-Ezra’s Legends of Alyria for using this concept.  His world, Alyria, has a handful of significant landmarks—a major city, a huge library, that sort of thing.  When the game starts no one has given a thought to where they are, and there is no map.  When someone says they want to go to one of these places, the plot and the dice dictate how far it is, how difficult it will be to get there, and from that point forward we know where that particular landmark is relative to where we started.  In fact, we might have established where two such landmarks are relative to our starting point but not yet know where they are relative to each other—the plot may at some point dictate that they are adjacent to each other, or that they are miles apart in opposite directions, or that there is an impassible mountain range or waterway or chasm separating them.

This is why those huge world maps don’t interest me.  When I’m running a game or writing a story I need the map to form to what I’m writing.  If I already have a complete map of the world and suddenly I need a pirate base somewhere near my port city, I have to scour the map to find an appropriate location for such a base.  If I’m working with a story-based map, I simply have to expand the map to include the cove or island or port that provides my pirates with a safe haven, and it can be perfect for their needs and pretty much anywhere I want it to be that the characters have not already investigated.

I don’t think those huge maps are useless.  If you are creating a world for other people to use in their games, such as Krynn for the Dragonlance Adventures, having a map that shows where all the countries are located will help those other people run games in them.  But I think that something like the map of Middle Earth, while it might have been drawn from Tolkien’s mind before he started writing, arose organically from the story he wanted to tell:  I need hobbits to start in a quiet remote part of the world and travel a very long way through a lot of dangers but also a few safe spots and ultimately reach a distant dangerous place where they can destroy the Maguffin. Let’s outline what those dangerous and safe places are and where they are located, and then we can create the story to connect the dots.  So if I know what the entire story is before I start writing, I can create the entire map to fit it—but I never know the whole story, not when I’m writing it and certainly not when I’m “playing bass” for a bunch of players who are going to create the story.  I need to be able to create the world as the story needs it, not be locked into land masses and cities and waterways that were created in the hope that they would make a good place for a story.

I’ll probably be thrown out of the RPG Mapping group for this, but I hope it helps some of you understand how to approach making useful maps for your adventures.

Thanks to artist cartographers Steve Gaudreau of Map Alchemists and Michael Tumey for the use of their world maps.


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Faith in Play #21: Villainy

This is Faith in Play #21: Villainy, for August 2019.


It was a year ago, but I had a stack of articles in the queue when it happened, and decided not to disrupt the plan by answering what appeared to be a question from a Troll posted to our Facebook page (I managed to lose the link to the thread).  It was comprised primarily of the image below, and the question of what we think of it.  I think Facebook is a terrible place to attempt to hold serious discussions, but Bryan pointed him to Faith and Gaming:  Bad Things, about evil in the world, and I suggested Faith and Gaming:  Bad Guys, about playing the wicked character as a way to bring faith into the game.  I did not get a response to that, but I felt that there were valid concerns raised by the picture (I think that calling it a “meme” was wishful thinking on the part of whoever created it), even if it might have been posted by a troll.

If you can’t read the text, above the image it says

I like the villains in all my favorite movies, TV Shows, books, video games, etc.  They’re my favorite, I play the bad guy any chance I get.

The text balloon in the image itself then shows the two-faced person saying

Hi, I spend my free time promoting the opposite of my personal values.  I’m an honest person!

At the bottom it then continues

What do you mean you find it dubious that people would spend their precious free time and hard earned money on things they find morally repugnant?  I’m a really good person, I just love idolizing evil in *ALL* my recreational activities.  There’s no correlation, I promise!

And we are thus faced with the issue of whether someone who plays the villain at every opportunity is reflecting his true values and only pretending to be good in his regular relationships.  In a sense, which version of him is a role, and which is the reality?

This is the more potent a question for me, because as a novelist I am constantly creating the characters on the page, working out what they would do, and I have to understand them–and as I noted decades ago in a journal somewhere, I understand them because I find them inside me, facets of my own personality, my own identity, people I could have been, in a sense could be.  Sure, there is a degree to which I sometimes model characters after people I know, and thus I can ask myself what would Chris do, or John, or Ed, or any of the many other people whose identities contributed something to the composites that are my characters, but this only removes it slightly:  in order to understand Chris or John or Ed well enough to know what they would do, I have to find that part of me that resonates with them, in essence discovering them within myself, knowing what it would be like to be them.  So I am the heroes, but I am the villains, and the ordinary people between the extremes, the background characters, the important mentors and sidekicks, all, everyone, is found as part of who I am somewhere inside.  I have wickedness in me, enough to understand what motivates the wicked.

Arguably, though, I don’t always play the villain–that is, I don’t play the villain exclusively.  Yet I understand the villain, and I understand the appeal of playing him.  I prefer to be the hero, but I know people who usually play the villain, the thief, the rogue, the scoundrel.  (I know people who usually play the hero, as well, but that’s not the issue here.)

As we noted before, there are admirable qualities, lessons to be learned, from playing the rogue.  There are also ways, as discussed in those previously listed articles, to use playing the wicked as a means of throwing light on the truth, of bringing our faith into our games.  Not everyone who plays the villain, even who plays the villain regularly, does so because he is secretly a villain at heart.  It is possible that a particular individual finds that playing the evil character is the best way for him to show his companions just how wicked they are, and how much they need salvation.  There can be good reasons to play the bad guys.

None of which completely addresses the objection.  That is, there might well be players out there who want us to see them, in themselves, as basically good people, but who always love the villains and always play the villains because there is something in them that wants to be the villain.

There is that in all of us, I think.  We are all born sinners, selfish people who by game standards would be evil.  We like being selfish; it makes us feel good to think that there is someone who always puts us first, even if that someone is actually us.  Yet the critic is right.  If we enjoy that in our recreational activities, are we feeding something that we ought to starve in our real lives?  Are we pretending to be what we really want to be, instead of really wanting to be sons and daughters of God?

I think there are good reasons to play bad people.  They include trying to understand how sinners think so we can reach them, trying to show sinners the wickedness in their own lives, creating the contrast between good and evil so that the choice is made clear–there are certainly other good reasons to play the bad character.  The question, though, comes to our motivation:  do we really want to be the bad person, or are we doing this for a good reason?

So examine yourself to see if you are in the faith, and remember that whatever a person sows he will also reap.


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Welcome to the Christian Gamers Guild!

You may have seen our booth or attended a worship service at Gen Con. You may have come across our Facebook page or seen something from us on Twitter. You may have encountered one of us talking about the Guild at Fans for Christ or heard us mentioned by the Geek Preacher. Maybe you were curious about us or wanted to connect, so you looked up our old web page.

I am dreadfully sorry.

I’m sure you thought we were just a dying remnant of a community with no outlook for the future. Based on the appearance of that page, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking so! But a new day has dawned, and God willing, this new page will help us to expand the scope of the Guild’s activities. Already the response to the redesign has exceeded my expectations, which tells me that you have been eager to see us do more than we have been.

So let’s start by talking about what the Christian Gamers Guild (CGG) is all about. Read more