View Full Version : [WIP] WotC Style Building Maps - A Study, and Hopeful Recreation.

09-28-2012, 11:54 PM
I welcome any and all criticism, ideas, suggestions, thoughts, and the like in regards to this 'project' or 'study'! This is as much for everyone else as myself, and maybe we'll be able to learn something from it!

As a D&D DM, maps form a significant part of both the gameplay, and general style, of our sessions. Maps made in paint as meagre outlines and suggestions grant a very different feel to a photo-realistic depiction of a battlefield. Some times we run with a whiteboard and marker, suggesting distances and shapes without ever marking them - others, we come prepared with full printouts (or for the on line DM - .jpeg's) that contain every foreseeable detail of the area.

Wizards of the Coast's maps, especially those from the 3.x Era, have a very specific style to them that I feel cleaves nicely between the two - giving a sense of suggestive, free-form style but holding a very definite set of details, shapes, and framework. These are maps where as a DM, I find that you can dynamically point out the location of a secret trap door that isn't marked, without the players leaning in too close and fretting that they couldn't see it - while simultaneously giving the players a rather solid, and accurate, grasp of what's going on without a great deal of visual clutter.

What I want to do - is to study, learn, and understand how they do it, and then; how to recreate it in an ideally smooth, consistent manner.

For the purposes of this, I am going to use the map of The Styx Oarsman by Mike Schley, an inn styled out of the hull of a naval vessel, that came from the Map A Week days. The image can be found here (http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/mapofweek/April2007/01_Apr2007_72_ppi_vf2iw.jpg).

First, and foremost - the overall image.
The Styx Oarsman, by Mike Schley. April 2007

A few things stand out to me here from the very beginning -

A lack of dark colors in anything but outlines. The image is mostly comprised of unsaturated, light-toned 'floor' colors, and moderate toned walls and props. This creates a very strong sense of what the players can or can't move across.
A lack of lighting effects; other than some shadowing and faked, barely visible ambient occlusion, there is little to no presence of light sources or lighting. Edges of objects are not brightened on specific sides, and the only shading comes from an item's contours (such as the hanging beds on the upper level), and any basic shadows that fall upon it. The only place where any, specific, lighting is seen is on the right side of the upper level, where the roof below has some simple darkening to suggest the general shape of roofing.
The grid - it remains visible only on potentially walkable terrain. Walls, props, and general features sit on top of the gridwork, while the roofing, wooden floorboards, gravel, trapdoor and stairways have the grid overlayed on top of them. This further defines where players can and cannot naturally go.
The textures - they are high contrast, but simple, mostly comprised of dark lines in a non-visibly looping pattern. Many items share the same texture, such as all of the floorboards and the upper balcony; and all of the wooden furniture.

Some other WotC Maps that illustrate this, and their exceptions;
This map shows a very similar style to our Styx Oarsman - walls are in darkened tones, most shading is hidden other than some ambient occlusion around pillars/walls to help separate them from their surroundings, the floor is significantly paler and light toned where obstacles stand out with stronger, more vibrant colors.

This map, inversely, diverges from our patterns. The walls blend in with the floor at times, and colours are more present - but maintain the general style we're looking at. The presence or absence of the grid helps us identify obstacles, the text so harshly standing over everything else ensures it's noticed, and the textures remain simple - but possess a strong enough contrast and style to identify what surfaces are made from.

This map similarly shows a few exceptions to the rule, but differently. Here, the light-medium tonality is returned, and the nature of our grid - beneath obstacles, over potential movement paths - is maintained. But our walls are thinner and less defined in parts, to help us identify internal walls and the outer hull - and our walls aren't textured. This prevents some amount of visual clutter in an otherwise crowded, but nicely styled scene.

Returns us to an almost perfect, carbon-copy style of the Styx - obstacles rest above grids, the walls are thick, textured, and black stroked, and most colours are muted and under-saturated with our nice, contrasting textures beneath. The walls in this image are brighter than most, but stand out with their alternate texture and their obvious, thickened size.

09-29-2012, 01:56 AM
The Components and Order of Layers.

As many battlemaps may be, impassable, non-combat details are above the grid as they cannot be interacted with - there is little reason to illustrate the distance across a solid, impassable wall, because you will never have need to measure across it. No one can move over it, and the chances of someone shooting over it are unlikely. Inversely, things that affect movement, distance, or behaviour are below the grid - for calculating range, movement paths, and token placement on the map. The Styx Oarsman shows this in its own way, along with many other WotC Maps, by following this, apparent, order.

Notes - (M) and (R) on the map, the arrow pointing to the forecastle stairs.
Doors - These are placed on top of everything else, to ensure visibility. Walls are choked beneath them to emphasise them further.
Walls - These stand over most other layers, to ensure both props and the floors are limited by the most 'immovable' of objects - the walls themselves.
Soft Barriers - These are such things as the curtains, high in the chain for much the same reason as the walls.
Combat-Affecting props - Whether they be heavy and tables that must be moved around, support beams to use as light cover, or benches and bars to hide behind.
The Combat Grid
Floor-affecting props - Trap doors, special terrain such as gravel, uneven surfaces and grates.
The Floor.
The Outside Land.

Now, alot of this so far probably seems self explanatory - ultimately, it is - but this wouldn't be much of a study if we didn't look at the details from the top down and find out how they work together in full, even the obvious ones.

Now, looking above, we can see that this arrangement is also a list of priorities. Players are less likely to be miffled by a lack of an identified floor, than they are about enemies popping through a doorway that was hard to see or never drawn. Likewise, the walls and potential paths within the building offer more opportunities than whatever is outside and likely exists merely to 'flesh out' the visual presentation of the map moreso. Likewise, notes, numbers, and markers stand above everything else, to ensure a DM or Player can find them quickly and more importantly - read them.

09-29-2012, 04:17 AM
Honestly those maps have a since of not being sensory over load like most maps are now. They eliminated most if not all the distractions necessary to run a smooth encounter. When players have to think about whats on the map, they slow it down. If the map is clear and concise its so much more smoother. Most times when I build maps for my encounters, I want a sense of realism in them. So I use textures from websites to build a semi-realistic map, but I don't over complicate the map either(at least try not to). I would like to use more hand drawn maps like those, but honestly I don't have the time to build them.

09-29-2012, 05:55 AM
Recreating the Styx Oarsman - General Structure

So, as per our little project, we will recreate the Styx Oarsman and ideally, recapture its creation - and potentially find a quicker means of doing so.

What I first suggest, is setting up your grids in Photoshop - battlemaps actually meant to be used for combat require some amount of control, and being able to keep things to a consistent scaling and placement will help with this endeavour greatly. It does result in, as many WotC Style maps, a sort of 'blocky' or 'inorganic' appearance - but that's what props are for later, to break up the monotony.

Myself, as I use these maps in a Virtual tabletop, know I'll likely be using these on a 16px Grid at the end of the day - so I've chosen to build the map on a 32px grid. This way, when I downsize the image 50%, my image fits nicely onto a 16px grid without a great deal of distortion. Your own decision for grid size and the like will be ultimately - a matter of personal preference.

Once this is done, I set up the most important layers for the initial framework - the Walls, and the Floor. With snapping on, I have used a 12px Brush and the Pen tool to outline the primary walls - and then gone to an 8px square brush for the smaller, thinner walls on the ship portion of the map. So far, we will keep things monochrome and easy to identify. As such, I will use this color pattern, much akin to WotC Maps -

Floors - #c8c8c8, or RGB all at 200.
Walls - #646464, or RGB all at 100.

Once the walls are mapped out, and filled using the brush tool on the paths that have been created with the pen tool - I've filled them with our Floor color.

To recreate some of the effect, and save us having to work too heavily upon the image - a few effects are going to be used on our walls layer. A 2px Black Stroke, a drop shadow, and an outer-glow set to black and multiply. The stroke gives us a solid, easy to see outline, the shadow gives us a sense of depth, weight, and light, and the black outer glow allows us to mimic ambient occlusion slightly.

(For those unaware - in laymans terms; ambient occlusion is the loss of light that you see in the inside corners of objects; light is lost in crevices.)

A second layer is made under our walls layer, for 'Soft Walls', or other such structural details, like the curtains in the Styx Oarsman, or the fences on the upper floor balcony. for this, I used a 3px brush, and applied the same effects to this layer as I did the main Walls layer - though significantly less intense.

For windows, yet another layer is made. For the sake of simplicity, I merely used the same path we did for the main walls, and did an 8px brush stroke in flat white, and applied a black stroke to its outline. This way, rubbing out part of the outer wall, reveals a typical WotC-style window in the wall.

Once you get quick with the pen tool, handling layers, and Photoshop's interface - I feel you could get to the same point I have in less than fifteen minutes. The first try of course took me significantly longer.

09-29-2012, 05:27 PM
This is a really great idea -- I often find myself looking at those WotC maps and wondering how to mimic their style.

09-29-2012, 11:19 PM
Breaking Down The Walls - Doors, Stairs, and other Pathways.

So, we've handled the wall fixtures themselves, the things that make up barriers and walls but can't truly be interacted with. Either they're curtains which can be just walked through anyway - or they're walls and windows, which aren't going anywhere. This leaves us needing things like doors, stairways, and the like.

First off, the important one. Once again, we're using that path we used to create the walls and windows (in fact, upon realizing this, I've acquired a few ideas for better doing this in future, given we seem to be using that path so much). Simply enough - we shall create a new layer on top of everything else, labelled 'Doors', and we shall give this a 2px black stroke effect as well. Now, using our path, and a moderate sized brush (I used an 8px here), we will brush stroke the path. That leaves us with obnoxious white lines everywhere, but that's fine! Now just grab an eraser of the same or greater size, and with our grids and snapping still on - stroke along the grid lines that would frame our doors on either side. This will leave us with decidedly square-shaped doors that fit inside the pre-existing walls. Any 'excess' can just be magic-wanded (with contiguous on) and deleted quickly enough. Double-doors can be marked easily enough using a 2px black brush, and locking the transparency on the later briefly. One stroke and tada, a double door!

Now, this method does leave us with a slight problem - doors and windows are near indistinguishable. This tells me that we will need to adjust how we do windows in future - perhaps by making them even thinner, and making their stroke color the same color as the wall.Alas, that's for later.

In some parts, our doors will be 'inset' into the wall instead of dominating it, especially on the left-most section because of the fact the doors are 8px, but our walls are 12px. For this, a simple use of the marquee select tool (with grid and snapping on) over the grid squares on either side, contracted by 4px, and then deleting the resulting selection from the Walls layer quickly and cleanly removes the wall section there. Leaving only - a door.

This bit I had some trouble with, but found an easy, if lazy, way of doing it. On the south side of our Styx Oarsman, there is a circular stairwell. Using the grid and snapping, I merely used the circular marquee select tool, made a circle large enough for the outer wall; held down [ALT] and made a smaller circle for the inner 'post' to remove that from the selection; and hit delete on the Walls layer. A simple, 4px brush stroke and deleting a section of the wall above it, using the grid, and we had the outer border set up.

Straight Stairs
Now, the hard part - the stairs themselves. Honestly, I haven't got a clue how to do this nicely; but we'll give it a try. For this, I created a new layer above the floor, but below the grid. Simply enough, I called this 'stairs'. It was at this point I looked at the stairs in the original Styx Oarsman. The steps themselves line up with the grid, at a rate of 4 steps per grid square. They also decrease in size on each step, and that the bottom step was half the size of the top step.. This gave me an idea. Now, this took a bit of simple maths to make it work.

Large Stairs = 2 grid squares long. 4 steps per square. 8 steps. Step width = 2 squares. Grid size = 32px, topstep therefore 64px, bottom step therefore 32px. 32/8=4. So each step had to be 4px thinner than the last - or 2px taken from each side. This made things easy.

This is for the 3x2 tile stairs that join the left side of the Styx Oarsman's floors. for this, I filled that 3x2 tile with the lighter tone we've been using (200rgb), and set photoshop's grid to have 8 divisions. I used a 2PX hard eraser to stroke out the 8 steps vertically. From there, it was a bit of abuse of the Marquee Tool and the expand function. Honestly, there has to be a better way to do this, but I couldn't think of one. open to suggestions!

First, I madea box selection of 5x2 - one extra tile at the top and bottom of the stairs. Inverted the selection. I then followed a simple pattern -
1 - Expand Selection by 2px.
2 - Alt-Select using the magic wand, any step that had already been shrunken.
3 - Hit delete.
4 - Repeat.

A simple Stroke and a very, very subtle emboss later and I had a.. honestly rather rough looking stairway. But it'll do until I can think of something nicer, or someone suggests a better means of doing it.

Circular stairwells I'll post on another time, such as, when i work it out myself!