Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Perils of Mapping

I’ve recently cleaned up the Table Map into something more aesthetically pleasing and thought I’d talk about mapping West Marches-style games in general and the new Table map in particular.

Now there are two ways to handle mapping a wilderness – rough sketch maps or something on a grid (either square or hexagon based). This goes for the DM’s map as well as the player map, although the DM map is, almost by definition, the more accurate of the two. I’m a poor artist, so I prefer using a grid of some sort, if nothing else to provide a consistent scale.

As the main conceit with the player map in a West Marches style game is that the map is carved on a table back at whatever the PCs are using as a base (or at least it is in my game), a sketch map would seem to be the better representation of what the PCs would have. On the other hand, it is much easier to adjudicate movement across the wilderness on something with a grid. Plus, as mentioned earlier, I'm not a very good artist.

My original map was drawn on a 24x36” Chessex vinyl hex mat and I liked it very much. Up until the first session, where I was explaining the concepts behind the campaign and I realized I had filled the mat and had no way to add more territory. I reviewed Mike Krahulik’s material on line (one of my idea sources for the campaign) and realized two things: he was using a much bigger mat than I was and started out with much, much less on the map.

On The Tao of D&D, Alexis outlined the process he was using to map the Earth as the basis for his campaign map (yes, you read that right - he's mapping the Earth on a hex grid) and I decided to give it a try. Using MS Publisher, I created a 11x17 page of hexes (with ~2 inches at the bottom for a key) and started recreating my vinyl mat electronically. I didn’t think to mark out on the mat where the pages would fall, plus there was a 60 degree rotation in orientation due to how I created the hex grid electronically (point up instead of flat side up). I ended up with larger than anticipated overlaps and some gaps on the edges. It was not pretty, but it was functional and I could add more grid to the edges. Sort of. If I cut them to march the existing pages. Plus, my electronic maps were still incomplete.

This week finally I sat down and spent time recreating my electronic maps. I marked up the old paper map to show where the new pages would fall and where the overlapping hexes would be (to enable easy lining up of the new pages). I also drew in the larger-scale 15 mile hexes to verify the accuracy of my large-scale map. (I discovered that the Eastern Edgewood was larger than the large-scale showed and corrected the large-scale map.) Then I recreated the Table Map in a series of six 11x17 pages with minimal overlap and showing everything that appeared on the original vinyl map (except some stuff in the west I choose to leave off). After printing out the pages, trimming the edges, and taping it all together, I now have a roughly 30”x30” square Table Map that can be added to in a consistent (and easy) manner. I also darkened the hex grid so the hexes could be seen against the light color of the plains, which had been an issue with the first paper map.

After that, I was in the mood to add to the map, expanding the detailed mapping in preparation for the players “going past the edge”. But it struck me that from this point on, I needed to keep two different maps: the DM’s Map which would be complete and the Player Map, which would maintain the large stretches of empty hexes. Plus, I needed a much smaller version of the map that was easy to keep out of the player’s sight during the game. Also, I needed to be able to write on it, showing the PCs true path, especially when they get lost.

I have two potential solutions, but need to try them out to see which is better. The first is to export the full scale maps to Illustrator and resize them there (an easy process I learned to do while working on a project in my DayJob). I’m not certain how the text will look once printed or how much the map detail will degrade as part of the exporting process, so I’ll have to experiment. The other option is to recreate the map manually with smaller hexes, so more will fit on a page. I can do this in Publisher or Paint. In Paint I already have a grid done (from mapping an earlier campaign), but the map colors will not all match. In Publisher I’d need to create a new hex page, which is tedious, but the color coding will match the original. I’m inclined to use Publisher, but it depends on how much time I’ll have/make to do it.


  1. You should be able to do just one map in Publisher or and use layers for things you need to hide. PNG format files should keep the text vector based.

  2. I can do the map in Publisher. The issue there is that each hex is seperate item and once you get beyond a certain number of hexes, the laptop starts to bog. I originally did a map at 24"x36", but it caused the machine to bog down so much while creating the hex grid I went down to a smaller page size to avoid the headache. Now I need to reverse that.

    PNG files are my current favorite figure format as it keeps the figures clean and at a reasonable file size. Are you saying they stay vector based in This is handy.

  3. Check out Hexographer, it's what I'm using these days:

    You can hide items on the map (perhaps not terrain) and create player and DM version. Plus you can expand the map when you hit the edge. It does do PNG export.

    It runs in Java so it can run on any operating system. There is a free web based version on the site too.

  4. @The Hex Master: Thank you for the link. I've been tempted by that program. Often. Right now I'm sticking with Publisher as I keep the files on a USB datastick and can work on them at the DayJob (during lunch) on a machine with 21" dual monitors and some serious processing power (as opposed to my laptop which has neither).

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  5. Patrick, I use Publisher, with a hex size of 1" diameter. A single sheet has 30 hexes by 35 hexes. Strangely, the old version of publisher (2.0) I use is less subject to drag time than newer versions ... but can still be reformatted to any version up to Office 2009 with no trouble.

    Anyway, if you want a blank copy of my hex map, send me an email at

  6. Alexis, thank you for the offer - I'll send an email to you later today requesting it.

    I find that when I keep it zoomed in so fewer hexes are on the screen, I get less lag, which makes the whole thing do-able, even on the laptop. I believe it is rendering all those objects at once that is slowing things down.