Tag: map

2020 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

The year 2020 surprised all of us, as we scrambled to make life work under entirely different conditions.  However, the viral impact on our web site was minimal, as although we slowed down a bit we continued providing what we hope are valuable quality articles on gaming and faith.  Last December we published 2019 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed, in which I attempted to index everything that had been posted to the site in the previous year and so maintaining a continuous index of sorts working back through the previous Thirteen Months in Review covering a bit more than all of 2018 and Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website covering 2016 and most of 2017.  I am now attempting once again to summarize another a calendar year of material, for those who missed something or want to find something they remember.

Again January opened with a new Faith in Play article, and we got a full year from the series:

  1. #26:  Fields to Harvest January 7, 2020, noting that Christian ministries to the “geek” community still have work to do.
  2. #27:  Believing Balance February 4, 2020 continues the miniseries on Dungeons & Dragons alignment with a consideration of neutrality.
  3. #28:  Vampires March 3, 2020 considers the metaphorical value of the undead.
  4. #29:  Victims April 7, 2020, explores what it is to be a dependent character, and the importance of such characters not only in our games but in our lives.
  5. #30:  Conflict May 5, 2020, looks at Dungeons & Dragons as a metaphor for spiritual warfare.
  6. #31:  Magic Roads June 2, 2020 discusses the notion of roads that don’t go where you expect unless you go the right way, and connects it to divine guidance.
  7. #32:  Zealots July 7, 2020 continues the alignment miniseries with a look at the side alignments.
  8. #33:  Psionics August 4, 2020 reopens the issue of mind powers in fiction in response to questions and comments from a reader.
  9. #34:  Guidance and the Machine September 1, 2020 looks at the show Person of Interest as instruction about how God guides us.
  10. #35:  Seekers October 6, 2020 considers what to do about friends who are looking for “real” magic.
  11. #36:  Thanks November 3, 2020 talks about thanksgiving celebration and thanks the readers for their ongoing support and encouragement.
  12. #37:  Balancing on the Corner December 1, 2020, finishes the alignment series with a look at how those with corner alignments have to juggle two values.

Two weeks behind that the RPG-ology series also continued:

  1. #26:  Monster Design January 21, 2020 reprints a Game Ideas Unlimited article about what makes a good monster.
  2. #27:  Cures for Dropping Dice February 18, 2020 gives some practical suggestions for keeping the dice on the table.
  3. #28:  Character Death March 17, 2020 talks about the death of the player character and how to handle it.
  4. #29:  Political Correction April 21, 2020 argues that in fiction and games particularly we need to have freedom of speech.
  5. #30:  Story-based Mapping May 19, 2020 suggests that the best way to start a map for a game is to begin where the characters are and work out as needed.
  6. #31:  Screen Wrap June 16, 2020 reposts the Game Ideas Unlimited article about using teleportation to create confusing map sections.
  7. #32:  Doing Something July 21, 2020 suggests how to use odd objects to enhance story by figuring out what they are later.
  8. #33:  Flirting August 18, 2020 recalls a lost article about using role playing to learn about ourselves.
  9. #34:  Invisible Coins September 15, 2020 reproduces a slightly edited version of the Game Ideas Unlimited article, about a valuable illusionist technique.
  10. #35:  Believable Nonsense October 20, 2020 recalls the ideas from a Game Ideas Unlimited article about superstitions and how to work them into play.
  11. #36:  Phionics November 17, 2020 suggesting a category of special abilities that are neither magical nor mental, but reflect the extraordinary body skills of the contortionist.
  12. #37:  It’s Greek to Me December 15, 2020 talks about inscriptions and decorations on magic items.

Although it hardly counts as an article, I also posted Worship Service at Gen Con 2020 Game Fair, announcing the online virtual event which Dave Mattingly organized and hosted on our behalf.

Michael Garcia opened the year on January 14, 2020, with a wonderfully detailed study of Sewers and Such, everything you could need to know to run an adventure in these urban dungeons.  COVID suspended his gaming, so we didn’t get tales of the adventures for a while.  However, he did give us a four-part tutorial in how to design one-shot adventures:

  1. Designing Single-Session Adventures Part 1 on July 14, 2020, in which he explores the basic starting point for the task;
  2. Designing Single-Session Adventures Part 2 on August 11, 2020, in which he talks about detailing the adventure;
  3. Prep for Single-Session Adventures on September 8, 2020, in which he talks about final preparations;
  4. Running the Single-Session Adventure on September 22, 2020, in which he covers actual game play matters.

He followed this with Tough Choices Make for a Good Game, on October 13, with a holiday-themed adventure, Spreading Yuletide Fear:  A Dark Holiday-themed Adventure, on November 24, and some adventure design advice to finish the year in Designing Deeper Adventures.

Matthew Butler returned with Tales of a D&Degenerate: Volume 2, on June 9, 2020, and The First Line of Offense, August 25, 2020, continuing his humorous look at his gaming experience.

We were honored to be permitted to reprint “Geek Preacher” Derek White‘s article from Knights of the Dinner Table, Quiet in the Convention Center, about gaming conventions providing facilities and services for handicapped and autistic attendees.

Grade school religion teacher Nikolaj Bourguignon brings his experience using games in the classroom to a new series, Roll for Teaching, beginning with:

  1. Hi class. Nice to meet you all! on July 28, 2020, in which he introduces himself and a few of the games he finds best for use with grade school students.
  2. Goals on December 8, 2020, in which he discusses why we are playing, and how to keep that in focus.

Guild President Rodney Barnes brought us Complex Firearms for D20 Games on September 29, 2020, followed a month later on October 27 with Starfinder Stuff for Pathfinder Second Edition.

Lance McClintock approached us to introduce a Christian game he was designing, and we invited him to explain to us what makes a game Christian.  He gave us Christian Game-ism in response, published November 10.

Over a decade ago Scott Bennie drafted an article for us entitled Christianity and Role-Playing Games:  Toward Reconciliation, which slipped through the cracks until late this year when our webmaster found it and published it as Christianity and Role-Playing Games, on December 29.

We expect to follow at least some of these authors into the new year.  In fact, already we have Faith and Gaming and RPG-ology articles standing by.

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild

RPG-ology #31: Screen Wrap

This is RPG-ology #31:  Screen Wrap, for June 2020.

This was originally published on June 29, 2001, at Gaming Outpost, as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Screen Wrap.

I usually call it “recursive occlusion”; but that’s because that’s what Peter Davison’s Doctor called it in Castrovalva, and now that I get around to thinking about what that means he must have been referring to the method of construction—that the Master had built a trap for him by creating a world based on a formula in which each element was dependent on all previous elements, resulting in a blockage of all exits.  But that’s not important.  The idea is a lot simpler than that.

Years ago there was a video game called Tank.  Tanks would wander around the screen trying to shoot each other.  Thing was, in the early versions you could shoot off the top of the screen and the bullet would come in at the bottom; or you could shoot off one end and have it come in the other.  In some versions you could actually drive the tank that way, off one side and on the other.  It wasn’t the only game that did that, and it was a simple solution to a basic problem:  what do you do about the boundaries?

But it’s an idea I’ve used many times to mystify and confuse my players—and in more variations than you might have imagined.  But if you’ll come with me for a moment, I’ll try to help you imagine a few.

The first one’s easy.  The characters enter some sort of complex—a section of tunnels in a dungeon, an area of rooms and hallways in a space station.  As they pass a certain point, they are inside the boxThe box is clearly marked on your map—it shows that any exits to the east connect to those to the west, and those in the north run to those in the south.  If a character walks into that last ten-foot section on the edge of the box, he’s immediately teleported to the first ten foot section on the other side, so going out one side means coming in the other.  Only one of the entrances is also an exit.  You will be surprised at how many times the players will redraw the same configuration of tunnels before they realize that something is amiss.

The second variation takes the idea to another level.  I did this to one player once, and I’m not sure he figured it out even after someone explained it to him.  I put the same room in two different places on the map.  I denoted them with subscripts so I could keep them straight.  Because they were the same room, if you entered the room, you were in both places at once; but when you exited the room, you always left from the other one.  They weren’t far apart in this experiment—which actually added to the confusion, as he entered the first, left the second and walked back to the first, and drew it twice, but in the wrong position.  At one point part of the party left the room and came back, and then when they all left together they got split up, because some had entered the first room and some the second, but they all were together whenever they were in the room.

You could use this idea to move characters very long distances—another dungeon, another space station, another planet.  You don’t even really need the rooms—you can just use some innocuous looking door.  Looking through the door, you see another room; step through the door, you’re in a room that looks just like the one you saw, but isn’t it.

These ideas have basically focused on keeping the player character inside the box.  You can as easily turn it on its head, and use the same principles to keep him out of the box.  For example, If you’re walking down corridor A and reach room 210, you next pass through a transfer point that takes you to corridor A outside room 280; if you reverse, the transfer will take you from 280 back to 210.  If the player doesn’t know the room numbers or layout, he won’t realize that he’s been moved—until he completes other sections of the map which go around this blocked area, and discovers that the distance between two points in the A corridor is an awful lot shorter than it should be.  You can make it so that access to that central area is only from a specific entry direction, such as above or below or a particular lesser-used corridor (but it can be exited at any point at which it connects).  Or you can determine a sequence of events or “switches” that must be activated to open the area to the characters, such as finding the key, or deactivating the grid, or realigning the circuits at every entrance.

I used an idea like this for a Minotaur’s labyrinth once.  My players were good; they could map a maze in a minute, comprehend any convoluted corridors I created.  The worst thing about facing a Minotaur isn’t the beast itself; it’s the fact that you’re on it’s turf, and it knows how to get everywhere while you’re wandering lost.  But once you’ve mapped a bit of it, it’s pretty easy to keep from getting lost, and the beast’s advantage is gone.  So what I did was create a layout of halls that frequently ran the same distance in the same direction, but parallel to each other a dozen feet apart. Then I put “transfer points” in the halls such that if you were going one direction you would get bounced to another hall, but if you were coming back nothing happened.  The creature knew its way around, and could use the magic to its own advantage; the players always knew which direction they were headed, but once they got involved in the tunnels they never knew quite where they were or how to get back.

Doctor Who faced a Minotaur-like beast called the Nimon once (I won’t swear to the spelling).  This time it was Tom Baker finding his way through the maze.  The thing that made that maze so difficult was that it constantly changed—he worked out that it was a huge set of switches in a communications and transmat system.  That’s a very difficult thing to do—but I can think of two good ways to make it work.  One would be to draw up maybe four or five distinct maps that were the same size and shape and had a few good fixed internal landmarks; that way at random intervals you could randomly change which map was in effect.  Of course, jumping from map to map could be tricky.  You might try making one map on paper that had the landmarks and a few fixed walls as reference points, and then getting four or five sheets of clear plastic overlay to put on top of the map, on which you would draw (or maybe if you’re really ambitious line with thin strips of black tape) the details of each position.  When the layout changed you would pop the new overlay on top, see where the characters are, and slide the old one out.

Of course, this idea doesn’t actually fit the pattern of the others, the pattern of moving the players from where they think they are to somewhere else.  But it probably makes them feel like it does, and sometimes that’s even better—especially if you’ve used tricks to move them around before.  They’ll leap to the conclusion that you’ve moved them, and begin trying to work out where they are.  You can get this effect with even simpler tricks.  Try making a matched pair of seemingly unique landmarks a short distance from each other in a confusing section of paths.  Players unaware that there are two (and especially those uncertain about their mapping skills) will come to the second and think they’re back at the first.

Something like that happened in one of my games, when the player was exploring the world we call Tristan’s Labyrinth.  (It was not called so when Tristan was exploring it.)  The labyrinth is endless; it is made of an L-shaped section designed to fit together such that all exposed sides are the same length (well, a single and double length) with doors that match up, so that you can build outward from one to as many as you need.  This means the same patterns of rooms appear, but not always in the same directions.  You can get the same effect with any of a number of random-connect dungeon floor plans; somewhere I’ve got a set of squares and rectangles published by TSR a generation ago, although I was never terribly happy with the way they fit together.  Just use the same piece against itself, turned around.  In the one game, the player found himself in a room with an interesting shape and several exits.  Deciding to use this as the base for his explorations, he traced out one of the exits some distance and back again, and then another.  The third tunnel took him off the map piece onto the adjacent piece, and connected to another tunnel which led to that same room on the next piece of map.  Carefully he followed it, reaching that identical room.  He looked at it.  He studied it carefully.  He compared it to what he had already drawn.

And then he changed his map.

If you use these tricks, there will be many times when your players will start erasing what they’ve charted, changing and fixing and trying to figure out where they are and how they got there.  But there is nothing like realizing you have gotten them so confused they are erasing the map when it was right.

Previous article:  Story-based Mapping.
Next article:  Doing Something.

Faith in Play #31: Magic Roads

This is Faith in Play #31:  Magic Roads, for June 2020.

Some years back I was playing in a game in which the city was ruled by chaotic gods who objected to anything being orderly or sensible.  This was particularly noticeable in connection with the roads:  it was impossible to make a map.  I secretly believed that this was because the referee didn’t want to make one himself and so thought it was easier just to pretend that he knew where everything was and how to get there, and make it up as needed.  In play, though, if you wanted to get somewhere in the city, you asked for directions from a non-player character who knew, and you followed them precisely.  These directions were as much ritual as geography–you might have to go around a block and find yourself on a different road when you returned to your starting point, or go halfway down a road or into a cul-de-sac and then return before continuing, or walk under an arch or between the columns on the front of a temple.  If you missed your turn, you hoped you could get back to wherever you began and try again.

I was reminded of this last night as I was driving home and came to the intersection pictured in that satelite view (courtesy Google Maps) pictured to the right.  Coming down route 109 from the west northwest (top left corner) you bear left when 109 curves right into Cape May (The Lobster House, one of the best seafood restaurants in the state, is right below the map) and come to a traffic light.  This is the onramp for exit zero on the Garden State Parkway, which runs off to the north northeast.  There is a conspicuous sign there that says No Turns, so you continue straight across the intersection onto that loop that goes around and returns you to the same traffic signal, where again you go straight to merge with traffic coming over the bridge on 109 from Cape May to get on the Parkway northbound, which begins here and goes off the top right corner of the map.

I’m sure that the intersection is designed that way because during the day, and particularly during the summer, traffic is crazy and someone trying to make a left turn would just hold everything up.  As I sat there around midnight on a late February night with no other cars in sight waiting for the light to change, an odd thought struck me.  It wasn’t that there would be no harm in simply making the left turn and cutting out the loop.  It was wondering about a road where if you made that left turn instead of taking the loop it would take you somewhere else.

I sometimes use my Global Positioning System to direct me to places I already know how to find.  I do it partly because I am interested in whether Google thinks there’s a better way to go than the way I know, but also partly because I know that the system is updated in real time for things like traffic jams and accidents, and have more than once had it send me by a different route than it usually does because the usually longer route will be quicker.

All of this comes to me now as illustrative of divine guidance and intervention.

Like most people, I am often annoyed when a traffic signal turns red as I am approaching.  I am annoyed enough that I often watch the pedestrian signals–at least here in New Jersey they’ve begun installing “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs with countdowns which turn to “Don’t Walk” when they reach zero and usually also change the green light to yellow at the same time, so I can estimate whether I’m going to make the light.  When I don’t, though, I sometimes remind myself that God might be stalling me to avoid a potential accident or incident ahead.  My father often said “Don’t be there when the accident happens,” and it may be that our Father takes these little steps to prevent such events–obviously not always, but sometimes.  There is somewhere a book of stories about people who called out of work or were delayed on the way to their offices in the World Trade Center on that fateful day in which so many died.

And so I wonder about our path through life, and whether God sometimes takes us to the place we always expected to go by the route that we never could have foreseen, because it was the best way to get us there.  It might even be that “straight down Main Street and make a right on Broad Street” won’t actually get you to number seven South Broad Street, because that address won’t be there unless you go a block down thirteenth and come back up fourteenth before continuing.  Like the home of Sirius Black, if you don’t take the right steps to get there the destination can’t be found.

Previous article:  Conflict.
Next article:  Zealots.

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.

Previous article:  Political Correction.
Next article:  Screen Wrap.

RPG-ology #18: Waterways

This is RPG-ology #18:  Waterways, for May 2019.

We mentioned rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water in connection with maps when we talked about Country Roads and again when we were talking about the placement of Cities, but we barely touched on them, more from the perspective of their influence on other aspects of our maps and our worlds.  Maps and worlds, though, are complicated things, in which everything influences everything, and understanding how waterways work will help us put together better maps.

This is difficult for me, because so much of it seems obvious to me so I expect it will be obvious to everyone else.  However, I have the advantage, as I think I mentioned in Shock, of over a thousand miles of long-haul canoeing, so I am perhaps intimately familiar with rivers and lakes and ponds and how they work.  I thus hope that I’m not telling you too many obvious points, and that some of this proves to be practical.  Let’s start with some terms.

A river is pretty much any waterway that flows downhill.  They can be big or small, swift or lazy, shallow or deep, straight or meandering, rocky or clear, in any combination.  Smaller rivers are often called brooks, streams, creeks, and similar diminutive titles, but the only significant difference is the attitude of the people toward the waterway and the probability of it going dry, which rivers rarely do.

Lakes and ponds are usually found as interruptions in rivers, and they are distinct from rivers in a significant way.  A lake or pond is formed in essence when water pours into a natural basin and has to rise to the level of an exit point.  Because of this, the surface of a lake or pond is level, while that of a river is always sloped–if you look at the accompanying photo, you can see that the downstream end is downhill.  In the vernacular, lakes and ponds are generally distinguished by their size, but technically they are distinguished by their depth:  a pond is shallow enough that water plants such as waterlilly pads can root on the bottom and grow on the surface, while a lake has at least some areas in which it is too deep for that.  Lakes and ponds are sometimes created intentionally by the use of dams, built by people or sometimes by animals, most typically beavers.

It is difficult to distinguish a sea from a lake in many cases.  Seas tend to be the terminus of rivers, at least one and often several, but most of them either drain into or are contiguous with the oceans, which are also sometimes called seas but which as a word tends to refer to the vast expanses of water separating the continents.  The two exceptions to the drainage rule are the Dead Sea, which is constantly evaporating and so is too salty to support marine life, and the Mediterranean, which also loses its water to evaporation but is large enough that its salinity, although elevated, is not inimical to such life, and fishing and the like are active there.  (It is easy looking at a map to suppose that the Mediterranean drains into the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibralter, but the water there is mostly flowing very rapidly in the opposite direction, salt water from the Atlantic constantly replenishing the losses in the Mediterranean through what some have called the world’s largest waterfall. There is an undercurrent flowing westward as a small amount of dense saltier water goes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but the bulk of the volume is inflow from the Atlantic.)  It is also the case that seas tend to be salty while lakes tend to be fresh, but this is not a hard and fast rule, there being a number of salt lakes in the world.  Part of this is because the distinctions between lakes and seas are not made in all Indo-European languages, and English has often translated words strictly that were used loosely.

A passageway that connects two bodies of water of the same or similar level is usually called a strait (or sometimes straits), usually unlike a river because water flows in and out both ends generally with the shifting tides.  If it is wider or longer, it is often called a channel, but this word also refers to the best path through a river—rivers tend to carve a deeper groove through which most of the water travels, and boats and ships navigate through these deeper sections either with or against the current. In modern times, these channels are marked by buoys, red buoys to the right when traveling upstream (“Red Right Returning”), black buoys marking the other edge.

A bay frequently appears as a brackish (that is, salty but less salty than the ocean) body of water connecting a river to a sea or ocean.  As the tide rises, water from the ocean pours into the bay, often forcing its way upstream reversing the “normal” flow of the river; the Delaware River is brackish as far upstream as Trenton, New Jersey, about eighty miles upstream, about fifty feet above sea level, and this reverse flow is often used by ships to navigate to inland ports upriver.  As the tide ebbs the bay drains into the ocean, and the river into the bay, and fresh water makes its way downstream to wash away the salt.  Because of the backwash, those upstream ports have rising and ebbing tides, but these are out of phase with the coastal tides that drive them, often by as much as six or eight hours, depending on how far upriver you go.  A very small bay-like inlet is usually called a cove; a lagoon generally is a type of coastal pool that fills from ocean spill when the tide rises over its banks, and then slowly evaporates, frequently not completely before being refilled.

A wadi is something like a river, but significantly different.  Common to inland tropics such as Africa, the wadi is a watercourse that floods and dries in a seasonal cycle.  During the “rainy season” water falls in the highlands and flows down very like rivers, working downstream and gradually covering thousands of acres of ground, pooling but flowing, spreading over wide expanses of open space.  Animals are aware of the seasonal cues, and migrate toward the anticipated flood; plants desiccated from drought spring to life and blossom.  For a few months it is a lush wet marshy world, water plentiful, wildlife active.  Then gradually it all evaporates, leaving the dry grassland to wither in the heat, as the animals scatter to places better able to support them during the drought.  The water from a wadi never reaches the seas, soaking into the earth and evaporating into the air long before joining any other watercourse.  Wadis do not support ship traffic or permanent settlements, because the water level is non-existent for a significant part of the year and rarely deep enough for more than the smallest craft.

Swamps, marshes, bayous, and deltas all tend to be areas where a river spreads out to a shallow wide area, usually with a channel passing through it somewhere but often a confusing labyrinth of waterways leading to dead ends and shallow muck.  Wadis do support marshes and swamps during their wet periods; bayous and deltas tend to be at points where the river meets the sea, and are brackish like bays.

Now, this might sound obvious, but water falls from the sky.  Really all of it does.  Water in wells and water coming from springs is water that fell from the sky and soaked into the ground, then collected atop or between layers of rock and either sat waiting to be collected or built up pressure from gravity until it spurted through an exit.  It gets into the sky by evaporation, the vast majority of this from the vast expanses of tropical oceans—if your world does not have vast tropical oceans, you will have a lot less rain, and a lot less fresh water.  Evaporated water, water vapor, is held in greater quantity in denser warmer air; if the air cools or becomes depressurized, it cannot hold as much water and so releases it.  This is why so much precipitation (rain and snow) falls on mountains:  warm moist dense air currents are shifted upward into cooler low pressure altitudes, and can no longer hold as much water.  From there it collects in streams or soaks into the ground.

There is an interesting atmospheric phenomenon at this point.  As water falls, it washes carbons out of the air, turning into mild carbolic acid.  It has always done this; this is not a modern result of air pollution, although air pollution does contribute to it.  Carbolic acid which lands on dirt and soaks into it decays and releases its carbons back into the atmosphere.  That which lands on rock and flows into streams dissolves the rock, creating calcium carbonate which washes downstream into the oceans, burying the carbon for millenia.  That’s not really useful to this discussion, though, so ignore it.

Technically, a well is a hole dug deep enough to hit what is called the water table, the level under the ground where bedrock prevents water from seeping deeper, and so has water refilling it constantly from the surrounding lands.  It is sometimes confused with a cistern, which is a dry hole usually lined with stone designed to catch rain when there is rainfall and keep it deep and cool in the ground during the dry seasons.  The famed Jacob’s Well is actually a cistern.

This is also obvious:  water flows downhill.  Because of this it is constantly “seeking” the lowest point, and that means it collects into fewer larger rivers.  If it pours into a low point—call it a basin—it collects there, rising as a pond or lake until it rises over the lowest edge.  A lake can have several rivers feeding it, or no rivers feeding it if it is fed by a spring or springs below its water line, but rarely does it have more than one draining it—odds are good that there will be one lowest point, and once the water starts pouring through it erosion will make that point lower.  If the lake is filling faster than it is emptying, it might rise high enough to begin spilling from another point.  However, most typically these are near enough each other that the streams soon join creating an island at the head of the river.  If the two streams are headed in different directions, it is most commonly the case that one of the outlets will erode until all the water passes through it, the other becoming dry unless it is fed by other water sources below.

Where the ground is steeper, the water moves faster and generally straighter.  It follows the lowest ground, but in doing so carves the path deeper, sometimes wider, removing the dirt and softest stone.  If it comes into a pocket of harder stone, it will be turned, but the turning will create swirls and eddies which often drill deep spots in the riverbed.  The northern reaches of the Delaware River are frequently shallow enough to wade through, but where it turns sharply at Narrowsburg, New York, there are whirlpools during flooding and the depth at the curve is over a hundred feet deep.  Rocky rapids form where the ground is too hard to erode easily and the slope is steeper, as the river becomes forced into a narrow space often between high banks and spreads over the area to become swift and shallow, the irregular bottom redirecting the current in directions difficult to predict without surveying in advance.

Where the ground is less sloped, the water spreads to cover a wide path and flows more slowly, but still tends to follow the lowest ground and carve a channel.  In older sections of the river these channels are often meandering, and as the water ultimately settles into them they form snake-like slow rivers with very little noticeable current, frequently surrounded by marshy ground, meadows, and flood plains.

As rivers join, they become wider and deeper, and usually become straighter as the land is less able to resist the flow of the water.  These wider deeper rivers which ultimately reach the sea are frequently navigable by ocean-going vessels, and as we noted are also subject to reverse flow when the tides rise, thus brackish but also easier to navigate upstream.  They will carve deep sections particularly at curves and bends in the river, as in Narrowsburg, creating good ports at such curves, considerably more so than along straight paths.  Upstream of a certain point ocean vessels, which have deep drafts to provide stability in rough seas, give way to shallow-draft river boats, able to navigate farther upstream.

The same currents that form harbors on rivers do so where rivers hit the seas, which makes such points doubly convenient for trade, as a port there accesses both the oceans and the river.  Such harbors are also created where the coastline recedes sharply, as ocean currents form eddies which create depths near the shoreline, although if the surrounding ground is low there will probably be a river outlet there, and if not the deep water is likely to be surrounded by cliffs, making for good anchorage but a bad place for a port.

So to summarize, most rivers begin from streams in mountains, flowing downhill and collecting into larger rivers, forming lakes in low spots, rapids over steep rocky ground, meandering courses over flatter softer ground, ultimately becoming large enough to support riverboat trade and then ocean vessels, subject at the downstream end to tidal backflow, emptying into seas and oceans sometimes through intervening bays.  Harbors form where currents have carved significant depths, usually at the mouths of the rivers and at river bends.

Now you have some idea of how to put the waterways on your maps.

I have omitted canals from this discussion.  Men build canals usually where there are two disconnected waterway systems near enough to each other that it would be commercially profitable to be able to run boats or ships between them.  Usually these involve mechanical locks which enable the control of the flow of water between the two systems, particularly if they are not at the same level, and typically because such canals often have to cross ground that is higher than either of the waterways (the reason the waterways haven’t flowed into each other).  Sometimes canals are built to get around sections of a river that are not navigable, if there are navigable sections upstream of falls or rapids.  They are a lot of work to build, operate, and maintain, and if neglected gradually deteriorate.

Previous article:  With the Odds.
Next article:  Treasure Auction.

Blackwater Lake

This document is another piece of the Compendium of Lands Surrounding Blackwater Lake, compiled for Lord Beckett by Talvion Tulossa of Clan Cormallen. The Compendium is thus far incomplete, for the Becketts arrived at Blackwater before a full survey could be performed.


Nestled between several ranges of hills, Blackwater Lake is a narrow body of water that stretches for about 30 miles from north to south. The cold, deep waters of the lake, though only a few miles wide, allow for easy transportation of valuable goods. The lake drains northward and forms the source of the Blackrun River, which flows northward about 100 miles to the ruined capital of the old Northern Realm of the Varangians. Just south of Blackwater Lake are the headwaters to the Blackwater River, which flows southward for roughly 250 miles and leads to the chief Frangian city in Northumbria, the port of Yarrvik.

Lying directly between these two great waterways is the tiny hamlet of Lakesend. Realizing long ago that the site was perfectly suited to control the waterways, royal agents established a keep at the southern tip of the lake, not far from the hamlet.

Blackwater Gobalds

Legends say that a clan of gnomes left the forests around Blackwater Lake centuries ago, and its members have survived as waterborne scavengers ever since. Known to lake region residents as gobalds, they supposedly organize themselves into egalitarian communes in the form of armored warships. Each such “turtle ship” is a large, sail-powered, slow-moving vehicle with multiple decks, auxiliary oars, and armor plating. The ship is large by human standards, making it downright spacious for the three-foot-tall gobalds. This ship provides them with shelter, transportation, and defense—all in one.

Based on all accounts, gobalds are essentially pirates, but their small stature places limits on their ventures. They do not attack large or well-manned ships, choosing instead to prey on small craft or lone travelers. They ply the waters of the lake almost exclusively at night, for their night vision allows them to travel undetected, to avoid confrontations, and to ambush small craft. Gobalds do not limit themselves to the water, but they are never far from their turtle ship. Often, they will dock their ship and venture a mile or so inland, organized into small raiding parties, looking to ambush lone hunters, trappers, miners, pilgrims, and other travelers. Though they will not exclusively do so, they prefer to ambush at night, as their night vision makes their night attacks just as effective as those in the daylight, while enemies suffer significant disadvantages in battle.

In their depredations, they seldom aim to kill, for their main interest is plunder. Whether they get their loot on land or sea, they aim to sell it at bargain prices to the scattered residents around the lake. They are competent leatherworkers and blacksmiths, able to repair tools, basic armor, and basic weapons—at least enough for sale. According to guards that have patrolled the lake for years, the gobalds have also developed a symbiotic relationship with the many human pirates that operate in these waters, purchasing excess weapons, armor, and equipment that the pirates do not want for half its standard value. In return, they are often exempt from pirate hostility, the pirates seeing them as useful ‘fences’. Gobalds usually sell their wares for standard rates, and since rates for most goods in the lake region are inflated to three times the standard rates, many communities deal with the gobalds despite an inherent disapproval of their methods.

A band of travelling gnomes shared with me that gobalds live almost entirely on various forms of mushrooms that grow all about the lake. In some places, they have hidden mushroom patches in the forest, which they harvest every few weeks. They drink mainly water, and even stagnant water does not seem to bother them or make them sick. Gobalds are reportedly highly resistant to magic and poison.

Gobalds dress in rough-spun, gray-green monastic-style robes, over which they have leather bandoliers. Though all work for the enrichment of the commune, they effectively embrace personal poverty, which explains their meager dress. Quite often, their clothing is dirty and musty-smelling. Though they bathe often enough, their preference for the interiors of their dark and gloomy ships, as well as their habit of nighttime travel, means that their clothing is often fouled by mold. Yet, they seem to have developed immunity to both its smell and its effects. In fact, gobalds are known for their hardy health, despite their foul food and dank living conditions. When in a natural setting, such as woods or hills, gobalds move very quietly and blend into vegetation so well that they are nearly invisible.

Gobalds try to avoid open battle, but their ambushes do carry a degree of risk so they sometimes wear light leather armor beneath their robes. As for weapons, they favor light crossbows, javelins, and half-spears, but their primary weapon is a paralytic substance that they obtain from a rare mushroom and then concentrate. They put this substance on all of their weapons, and they presumably carry an ample supply of antidotes. It takes only one minute to take effect and then renders a human victim helpless for several minutes. This is usually long enough for the gobalds to rob or to capture the victim.

Gobalds can largely speak the language of the forest gnomes, though their own language has significant variations. They also speak Frangian, albeit with a choppy dialect that makes it almost incomprehensible. Hand signals greatly aid communication. Their speech is fast and choppy.

Gobalds seem to have lost their ancestors’ inherent mining skills, but instead they have developed inherent navigation and mariner skills. They never seem to become lost, and they seem undeterred by fog or darkness. As for seafaring skills, they can sense coming storms. Ironically, at such times they rarely dock, but rather take to the open waters of the lake, perhaps because the turtle ships are incredibly well built and buoyant. Though one may pitch and roll, it will seldom take damage at while on the lake, whereas pounding waves may smash to bit any ship near the shore.

Little is known about gobald society. Rumors indicate that most females and children dwell in underground lairs near the lake. Upon reaching adulthood, male gobalds take up service in the turtle ship. There is a legend that female shamans oversee gobald society, and that males hold all other positions of importance.

Rumors Related to the Lake

  1. Blackwater Lake is bottomless. Its waters run down deep into the earth, far below the sight of mortal man.
  2. A giant sea monster dwells in the depths of the lake. Over two-dozen witnesses have seen it at one time or another. Most describe it as a pale serpent, longer than a carrack. There the agreement between their descriptions ends. Some mention worm-like tentacles, dripping with slime, and others mention six or more heads with black beady eyes.
  3. A giant dragon—pale as a grave worm—dwells in a burrow near the lake’s edge.
  4. Barbarian legends say that a meteor strike formed this lake centuries ago. Its impact left a giant scar on the land that later filled with water. Over time, the meteor’s energies somehow changed the waters, giving them their distinctive black hue.
  5. The lake’s waters bring strange powers when enough are imbibed.
  6. The lake’s waters are poisonous.
  7. The vile goblyns that swarm the mountainsides of Northumbria have their origins in black underground waters. They are not natural creatures. They do not breed or eat or sleep. Instead, they spawn from black subterranean waters at the will of their dark god, Maglubiyet. Blackwater Lake is a rare spot where those dark subterranean waters touch the surface.
  8. Blackwater Lake contains a strange blackish metal that is worth many times its weight in gold. It is so hard that no normal fire can smelt it. It must be cold-wrought, requiring weeks to craft a single blade. Smiths must use special techniques to give such a blade an edge, but it will punch through normal iron with relative ease.
  9. The strange blackish metal found in Blackwater Lake is somehow deadly against unnatural creatures such as demons, restless spirits, and werewolves.

Points of Interest

Smaller Bodies of Water

Long Pond

Streams descending from Settlers Mountain gather in this narrow basin about a league in length. From there the water runs past Lakesend on its way to form the headwaters of the mighty Blackwater River. During heavy rains and the spring thaw, the water rises high enough to overspill its banks just upstream of the village. The overflow cascades down to the Narrows below the Keep. Occasionally the river threatens to divert entirely to this secondary channel, but the Baron pays to have the main bed dredged in order to preserve the income from tolls on the East Bridge.

Martin’s Cove

The Narrows

This narrow body of water is the extreme southern tip of Blackwater Lake, extending in a crescent from the site of Blackwater Keep southward to the Blackmoor. The waters of the Narrows are shallow, so merchants do not send large ships to dock at the Keep, instead sending smaller boats to unload cargo.

Rockteeth Cove

Silvercrest Cove

Steffan’s Spring

Stillwater Pond

Whitehart Lake

Caves and Caverns

Drucker’s Den

The Pens

Hills, Peaks and Passes

Baldface Peak

Baldwin’s Bluff

Belford’s Ridge

Black Bear Mountain

Boulder Hill

In 604 FR, Duke Leopold of Ostmark arrived in the lake region with 1000 well-armed men and countless mercenaries to drive out the goblyns. They crushed an army at Boulder Hill, though the noble Duke died of his wounds. This defeat set the goblyns back, but it was the last effort made by men. Just a few years after the battle, goblyn numbers began swelling once again.

Brigands Rock

Burke’s Hill

Craig’s Peak

Falcons Eyrie

Foster’s Ridge

Hammond’s Hill

Hanover’s Hill

Hickory Mountain

The Horns

Lonewolf Mountain

Rumor has it that a werewolf haunts this rugged mountain. At the very least, a large black wolf is often sighted prowling by itself in the forests here or baying at the moon on the mountaintop. A few dozen settlers live independently in small wooden huts on the sides of this mountain. Baronial tax collectors have had little luck getting taxes or fealty from these settlers. Most are woodsmen and hunters.

Luthor’s Leap

Mount Melias

Mount Smestad

Parisi Point

Legend says, long before the naming of the lands, a star fell from the skies and sheared off the north face of the mount now known as Parisi Point. The event created a crater at the base of the hill that filled with water and since has been known as Moon Lake. The lake’s waters are rumored to be poisonous, and periodically its heated waters bubble to super-heated levels and release noxious gases that keep the area entrenched in a sickening fog. The lowland areas between the lake and mount have become wetlands, and the small swamp is always filled with mist and fog that tends to disorient travelers through the area. People often become lost when passing through, and many have disappeared entirely, with growing rumors of a magic fog, creature, or mystical forces blamed for the disappearances.

Another feature of lore is a suspected vein of an unknown metal that was exposed, or introduced, to the landscape in the sheared face of the hill. The substance, again according to legend, has been used in the magical conjuring and religious rites of the ancient peoples of the area. It is unknown what methods were used to explore the area, or locate and collect the material. Many have searched for the ore only to end in failure and folly.

An Aquilonian lord, a ranger by the name of Gregorius Parisius, took up residence in the area and became intrigued by the rumors. Despite decades of searching, growing a consuming obsession, and witnessing strange happenings, Gregor didn’t locate a vein, but he was able to find a small amount of some strange ore. He used the metal to forge a small axe that is reportedly indestructible and holds magical properties that helped the ranger defeat and drive back the goblyns in the realm.

The method and means used to forge the axe blade, along with Gregor and the axe itself, have been long-lost in history. It is rumored that Gregor disappeared on or around Parisi Point, in search of more ore, possibly overrun by the goblyns he fought hard to drive away. Others claim the axe possessed the ranger and granted him an extended life, and that it is he that ambushes passers-by, hoping to keep them from his find. Several bits of terrain surrounding the hill have taken the name of this mostly unknown figure, including Parisi Point for the hill, Gregor’s Grotto to the poisoned lake and its surrounds, and Gregor’s Swamp for the surrounding wetlands.

The swamp is also known as the Walking Wood, as it propensity to disorient travelers has led some to say the trees move to change and obscure trails. Some have even said there are dangerous plants and flora that poison or attack infiltrators. Other claim to have witnessed—or been attacked by—goblyns when passing through the region.

Pilgrims’ Mountain

Over three decades ago, clerics of St. Cuthbert erected a small shrine on the top of this rocky peak, but a small earthquake caused it to collapse, and it has never been rebuilt.

Runestone Peak

An ancient black monolith, made from some unknown stone and carved with indecipherable runes, sits atop this lofty peak, one of the highest in the region. Travelers weave many strange tales about the monolith and the peak on which it sits. Some tales tell of diabolic gatherings, human sacrifices, and witches’ covens.

Russel’s Pass

Saint’s Peak

Settlers Mountain

Traders Pass

William’s Pass

Wyverns Peak


Berel’s Island

Carlon’s Prize

This small island received its name in 506 FR, after a Frangian expedition crushed the Cruthni Picts. The leader of the expedition, Count Carlon, had many enemies in the provincial court at Yarrvik, and rather than receiving a large swath of territory as a reward, he received only this tiny island.

Eric’s Island

Hunters’ Island

This small island features a safe haven of the Huntsmen. They maintain a sizable lodge there.

Sanctuary Rock

About this large rocky island near the center of the lake swirl strange currents that defy all explanation. Swimming in these strong and unpredictable currents has proven deadly on several occasions. A very rich merchant named Jehan of St.-Martin donated a large sum of coin to build several structures on the island, including a large hospital, for he had a young sister that required special care. A small but dedicated staff attends to the unfortunates here.

The island’s geography makes access extremely difficult. Aside from the strange currents, only one area is suitable for mooring, and only during a specific part of the day, when the weather is fair. The inmates never leave so there is seldom a problem. These factors led the Baron to construct a special prison there for a few noble prisoners that he spared from the axe but dared not release. The island also features a lighthouse to warn off passing ships.

A small, select Baronial garrison patrols the island constantly to keep out the curious and to keep in the condemned. All guardsmen answer to the caretaker of the Island, who attends to prisoners and lunatics alike. The guardsmen, almost all of who have committed some serious crime and received a life sentence, live well on Sanctuary Rock and have no desire to leave.

Rushes Island

Wycliffe Island


The Guild maintains a small dry-dock facility on a sandy shore of the island. This facility is adjacent to a rather placid, deepwater bay. The facility consists of a stone wall surrounding a stone building or two, as well as a number of wooden outbuildings.
Something, believed to be a force of goblyns, recently overran this facility and slew almost all of the staff. We found their charred remains in a pit.




This grassy hill sits on the southern edge of the island, overlooking the lake. At its crest is Wycliffe Chapel.



As it has for untold centuries, a towering column of giant basalt seems to protrude from the sides of the limestone cliffs on Wycliffe Island. Measured from its base, it rises over 1100 feet, though its rises only about 800’ above the surface of the lake. Called Manathanmoch’s Tower, the eerie structure obtained its current name from a bloodthirsty Pictish king, who ruled this island and terrorized the denizens of the lake region some three hundred years ago. It is largely believed that he lived in this strange and formidable tower, its size and grandeur reflecting his power, and its dark and foreboding architecture reflecting the fear he engendered. After his unexplained disappearance, his fierce Cruthni clansmen dominated the region for decades more, using their primitive longships to raid and plunder surrounding settlements. The only known scroll that mentions Cruthni civilization, the incomplete Chronicle of Painted Kings, written by an anonymous Varangian sage, recalls that the Cruthni fell from power because of some mysterious disaster that suddenly befell them. It is clear that not all perished, for years later, when Frangian knights first explored the lake region, they clashed repeatedly with Cruthni warriors. Yet those Picts, easily swept aside, were but shadows of their former kinsmen.


This multi-denominational chapel, built in a neo-Frangian style, features buttresses, flying buttresses, and large stained-glass windows with pointed arches. Inside are four separate chapels, dedicated respectively to Pholtus of the Blinding Light, Celestian the Far Wanderer, Saint Cuthbert, and Boccob the Uncaring. There are also two separate crypts for notable servants of the Blackwater family, while a third crypt is reserved for members of the family. A force of goblyns recently overran this facility, desecrating some of the chapels.

Landings and Moorings

Belcastro’s Landing

Trappers Landing

Man-Made Structures

Ash Hollow Camp

Fort Angus

Horik’s Tower

The Moat House

Pine Ridge Camp

Shrine to Celestian

Shrine to Fhalanghan

Temple of Pholtus

Zeelander Trading Post


Beacon Point

Watchtower Point

White Birch Point

Widow’s Point


The Blackmoor

Stillwater Swamp


Cartography in Photoshop: The Clone Stamp Tool

We gamers love our maps! I spend a good deal of time over at The Cartographers’ Guild, and I have been known to occasionally contribute a tutorial over there. This one has been among my more popular offerings, so I thought I’d share it here, too.

clone-stamp-tool-1Anyone who has made brushes in Photoshop has doubtless learned that you cannot make a two-toned brush. That is, if you make a tree brush and try to overlap two strokes with it, the tree beneath will show through the one on top. The reason for this is that Photoshop’s brushes are a grey-scale image where black pixels are completely opaque, white pixels are transparent, and grey pixels are translucent. This allows you to paint with the brush in any color you want, but it prevents you from using it to make nice isometric mountains and forests: Read more