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.
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.