My Time In The City

The City Kit tiles were some of my favorite to illustrate for the ‘Traveling Through Dangerous Scenery’ official Hex Kit tile set, and I wanted to show off what kind of cool maps you can make with them. So here it is, a city map. Click the picture for a high res version.

More Hex Kit information here:

For those y’all just joining us, these hex kit tiles are drawn my by with my tired hands inside tiny hexagonal stamped stencils. You can then use them with Hex Kit to make your own super tight city maps like this one.

Free Hex Map Made In Hex Kit

Hex Kit comes with some old school tiles, and I made this map while I was making sure they worked. These classic tiles come with coasts and stuff just like the new school tiles, but they are much more in the style of the oldest of hex maps: black & white, centered icons, etc. They’re still hand drawn with my own mits though. Classic black & white tiles are the tiles that come bundled with the app, out of the gate. Click here to get the map and have fun, just don’t use it commercially.

Maps Are Pretty

David McGrogan, over at RPG-babe-headquarters Monsters and Manuals, wrote a post about what a useful map is and what a useful map is not. It’s a good, quick read and you should read it before you read this post because I am going to attempt a cracking, scathing, muckraking takedown of everything he loves and holds dear.


Just kidding, this is a sort of companion post to his. Now, if you have been to this website before then you can probably guess what my angle on this is going to be: I think maps can be useful and pretty at the same time, and I believe strongly that a map should be as good lookin’ as it is useful. I’ve foolishly (I am my own job killer) gone on audio-record as saying that maps at the table do not need to be complicated or pretty. When I was featured on Table Top Babble I mentioned that if you are struggling to make a map for your dungeon then all you need to do is mind map the important things and connect them with lines. I think that’s great. But, I am in the business of putting maps in books so it is in my financial interest to talk about why illustrative cartography has a place in those books, and maybe explain why most maps are not nearly as useful as they are pretty. (This post is sponsored by everyone who ever paid me money in exchange for maps, including David)

Maps Are Art

In his post, David writes ‘Maps must be for things that are difficult to envisage in your head, difficult to explain verbally, and difficult to sketch in 30 seconds on a scrap of paper.’  I think that this is part of the truth, but I think that it is only half the reason we have maps. Maps in games count as art and art is in games because art immerses the reader, opens windows into the setting, and facilitates a connection to the game’s themes with visual cues. Game books are a collection of data our brains need to process to play a game. Pictures help parse that data by offering a break from the chore of reading and give us a visual reminder of what we just read. It gives us visual association.

Novels don’t have pictures because good fiction is enthralling. What is enthralling in games happens after you read the books. This may just be me but a rust monster statblock is nowhere near as interesting a thing to look at as a picture of that rust monster fucking up some dwarf. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “bullshit, Cecil, my game is super enthralling and I don’t need art or maps or whatever the hell this post is about.” Not so fast dude; I don’t care how innovative your dice mechanic is, if I don’t have some pretty pictures to look at then I am not going to care about it. Art is important to games and like I said, maps are art so maps should be pretty or at least evocative. (*)

Maps have double the responsibility that regular game art has. While page art has the job of in someway connecting a specific theme or image to what is being read, a map has to convey theme and the data. Maps have two extremes, illustration and diagram. A super illustrative map is going to fall short as an arrangement of things and a map that is nothing but information is likely to be a piss poor illustration. A good map is going to be somewhere in between the two. Also having two extremes gave me an excuse to draw this scale:

On the right side of our scale we have diagrams; they are rigid pictures or textual arrangements that give us the minimum of what we need to run an adventure. On the left side of this post we have a map of the Gnoll Hideout outside of town. We, as GMs, can look this diagram over and see exactly what is in each room and how each room connects. There is nothing else about this map that we can infer other than exactly what we see, or read in the accompanying text. No flavorful dressing. We would probably need to have extensive GM notes to accompany it or we would need to have memorized the adventure or we would need to have the adventure close by. With as much data is presented here we basically don’t need this map if we have the adventure handy. We could load it up with more data but how much text can we smash into the spaces around the diagram before we might as well just be reading from the adventure anyways? This isn’t standard behavior involved with diagram maps though; everyone learns at different rates and how much shit we need at the table to run adventures is going to vary. Everyone has different play styles and everyone is going to have opposing, raging emotions about what needs to be included in text descriptions. Suffice it to say that my main point is that while this map is super useful it is really ugly and doesn’t do the other thing I need art to do: excite me. This kind of map is really rare though. You mostly only see it in spaces where people are talking about game design.

Flowcharts, or diagrams also suffer another problem, for me at least. When I am thumbing through RPG books or PDFs and I see a diagram or chart instead of a map, my brainhole immediately raises a redflag and I am visited by visions of bureaucracy, sterility, meetings, whatever the fuck TPS reports are, business shit, waiting in line, and other things that remove me from the fiction. This is why I like my games artsy as possible; I want to be in the book, I do not want to be studying the book.

I don’t think I need to share an example of a map that is on the far left of the scale, because not having the time to make it is in itself indicative of what is wrong with over-illustrated maps. A map that is pure illustration is useful for the fiction but terrible for pushing that data we love so much. One type of map that I would throw into this pile is maps that are photo-realistic, or accurate on a satellite level. Especially in fantasy games. If your map of the valley where all the halflings live in their daub cottages is generated wit GIS data and shows a level of detail my computer has trouble processing then you might have effectively broken the fiction. They’ may get a pass from me in sci fi games.

To summarize this section: what I learned from reading David’s post (can I call it an article?) is that there are too many maps that veer to the extreme left of our scale. There are too many pretty maps and not enough informative maps. David isn’t wrong, and I am certainly guilty of that. From my desk I can reach over and grab binders full of maps I’ve illustrated that have no grid. (Fuck a grid. There, I said it.)

A Map In The Middle

I don’t think it is easy to make a map that has all of the useful things about a diagram but looks as good as an illustration. We try, I promise, but when it comes down to me painting blood splatters on the floor or tracing a grid onto that map I am going to choose blood every time. I could paint the grid as blood, but it’s hard to make a blood grid: either you have a mess of square blood or you have a red grid. But we’re grown up children, right? We like our games but at the same time we know how to compromise. Our problem is that we need a way to beautifully convey the data needed for a GM to run an adventure location. We need the diagram to make the job easier, and we need the illustration to help us keep our heads in it.

This is my version of David’s Goblin Ambush map and I think this version sits in the middle of our map-o-meter, if not slightly to the left. David wrote that this sort of scenario doesn’t need a map, that most folks would easily envision the scenario in their head. A nefarious coterie of goblins lie waiting for a mark, having dragged a log across the road to block carriages or semi-trucks hauling milk or whatever your game is about. That scenario is pretty easy, and doesn’t require a diagram or an illustration but having one certainly helps. For example, this map shows us a scale and where the goblins are (that’s the diagram part) but it shows us that they have cover behind rocks, it shows a stream and high ground. It shows us a trail leading into the woods and it shows us that the road is heavily trafficked by something with wheels (or something with skis for feet). We’re left with a pretty pleasant scene we could easily describe, and if I had given this the full color treatment there is so much more I could have added to sell the scene, to add to the fiction. Stuff lots of people wouldn’t just imagine, and stuff editors remove to kill that word count.

Everyone Has Needs

A map in the middle is going to be a compromise on some amount of tools players may need to play their game. It may excel or lack in a tool a specific player needs, but it at least meets as many needs as possible by simply being an intersection of art and diagram. If data and art are things that are tools we need to run games then a map is going to be the best way to combine those things. Not everyone is going to be pleased by what is offered; some people will think its too much and some too little, some people won’t buy games if they have no maps and some people won’t buy games if they do have maps. A map in a game book is going to be the publisher’s or writer’s or art director’s (or even just the map illustrator’s) vision on what exactly needs to go in a map to make it as useful as possible to as many people as possible. A map in the middle is a compromise and I think that’s fine.

I think it’s worth saying too, that technology plays a big part in what our maps are doing and the better the technology gets the better our maps get. Looking at module A3, at the maps printed on the inside, these maps are about as useful as they are ugly. We’ve come a long way, but the need and love for maps hasn’t gone away. The perfect map for you is going to be one you make yourself because you alone are the only one who knows exactly what tools you need to make a game fun. (**)

(*): “Non fiction books don’t have pictures and people still read them!” – Sure, some non fiction books don’t have pictures, but if you look at the next closest thing to a game book you get a textbook and there is a reason that textbooks are full of pictures. Non fiction without pictures chooses to bravely assume the reader is interested in or passionate about the subject matter and in which case, the non fiction is as enthralling as fiction.

(**): This includes town maps and I think that they seem especially useless to a lot of people because of how much time we spend in murderholes. Plan a year long campaign set in a city and see how long you can make it without a map. Here are some times town maps have been useful for me: counting all those little squares let me guess a population to let my Sword & Backpack players know how many people they saved from a massive fire. The shape of the city was the answer to a puzzle. The distance between the baker’s house and the market was important in planning to straight up ice that guy. Counting all those boxes to approximate a raised militia. Town maps are useful too.

First Impressions of Veins of the Earth

If I lived in a world where time wasn’t a thing, where there was enough time in the day to do dad and husband things, work, read, play, and nap; I would blog more. Like yesterday you all were talking about the most boring class and cleric kept coming up and I could probably do ten thousand words about how clerics are boring because the class usually idolizes the god and the god’s plan, but not the ritual, and how if your cleric was mechanically steeped in a tea of swinging thuribles, church politics, self doubt, and sacrifice, they’d be more fun. Replace healing touch with some sacrament wine of healing, you’ll be on the right track. I ran out of time though.

If I had more time I would write a post about sycophancy and how more often than not, when someone claims that a success is because of sycophancy then they are dismissing the ability for swaths of people to digest something intelligently, on their own. The post would talk about how sycophancy spreads and how intelligent people can be brain-numbed into just blindly throwing out a thumbs up, but at the end of the day claiming success (in RPGs, anyways) via sycophancy is probably more often the mutterings of someone who says “I can do that but better” but then doesn’t do that. “Sycophancy is real but probably rarer than we think” would be my first sentence maybe.

I watched this GDC talk from Mark Rosewater (who wrote some episodes of Roseanne, and also a few game things) where he talks about lessons he learned in designing Magic the Gathering and one of the lessons was about how a game can be widely liked and not be successful; but a game needs at least a few people that love it to be successful. My post on sycophancy would tie back into the video and say something about how if everyone is saying nice things about an RPG book that our first move shouldn’t be moaning about all the people trying to look cool by liking the cool thing: it is really possible for a gripful of people to like something because it’s good and it is possible that those people arrived at that point with their own brain-thoughts. We can have success, we should make books without suffering impostor syndrome, we can make money and all of us can like the same thing. It’s totally okay. I think what happens is that something comes out and everyone is like “yep that’s cool” and then 3 people are like “i fucking love this more than my own mom” and we only hear those 3 people and then there is some signal to noise problems and we accidentally hear sycophancy. Well, we need those 3 mother-hating-lovers because that’s how everyone else learns about the thing in the first place. Those 3 people probably have informed opinions on the thing they love. (*)

At any rate this is all because I thumbed through Veins of the Earth and it’s really good so far (to start: the introduction should be put in the MLA handbook and labeled How To Introduce Your Elfgame) and it bums me out to know that there will be people saying that I only like it because someone else liked it. I want to be someone who goes on to talk about how good this is without being accused of trying to cuddle in bed with some dreamy, popstar RPG author. Even more so, I don’t like the idea that people who comment on this post to agree with me might also be accused of liking it to be part of the crowd (or vice versa. If you hate this book it’s fine, just don’t hate it simply because someone else likes it, and if you see someone hating the book don’t accuse them of hating them it because you like it, ask them why they hate it). More so, what I am trying to say is let’s not use this book as a weapon to divide one another in to groups we don’t give a shit about.

If you’re looking for an opinion from someone who doesn’t buy every LotFP thing there is (that’s me, I don’t care for the baked in setting but I do like the rules I guess) then here is my opinion: Veins is going to be a great read and a great visual experience. By far my biggest gripe so far is that I wish Scrap had done the character sheet. I’d really like to see her aesthetic blanketed over something meant to be a tactile utility. (The sheet does look good as is, don’t get me wrong) I’ll be reading through the rest of it this week instead of sketching during coffee, but here are some initial thoughts:

The prose is good. Real good. This is the kind of RPG stuff I like; while I do prefer rules light systems I prefer a heavy wind bagging of flavor to carry it. Patrick does a good job of meandering about his ideas but doesn’t drive off the cliff. I think something more RPG books could learn from is to use the actual world to describe the fake world much better; one of the monsters sounds like radio static. I know exactly what that sounds like. Am I going to play a game where there are radios? Not like to, really, (love my fantasy tropes) but if I were at the table I would totally describe something as sounding like radio static and the first player to say “dude I am a medieval elf what’s a radio” would be uninvited to my birthday party. So if you’re wondering if this book is written to be used at the game table, or if it is to be used on the coffee table I would definitely say it can be used at the game table. I don’t have a coffee table but I do use big books to press my scanner lid down.

The art is also real good, although some of the smaller page-decorative art falls a little short. I think the cover should be have been the illustration on p217. Scrap shines when given the room to do so which I think is a pretty interesting thing to think about when also thinking about a book about tight dark spaces. The book is full of art. This book is beautiful. Her art is jarring and striking and you can use the same words to describe cave walls and dark-place-feelings as the words used to describe the illustration.  The layout is spot on, but my brain does have trouble switching from the striking hurried illustrations to the mechanized diagrams. But that’s on me, not the team for this book.

The encumbrance rules are really good, almost like a step up from the inventory management from Diablo, but not stepping into the realm of doing math to figure out how much shit you can stuff in your pocket without walking slow. Oh I also really like the 100 caves section a lot. I think that this book could use 50 more pages of mechanized RPG system, and it could have been it’s own game. If it were my job to turn this into an RPG I would make it so that you picked your race and your class by thumbing through the book and finding anything you like and then you be that.

Another thing this book is doing that I love: selling really well. The best of the best in the DIY scene is getting better and better, and selling better and better. This is nothing but a net positive for RPGs. This book means that when David’s Behind Gently Smiling Jaws finally hits (I’m glaring at you David) it is going to have an even wider audience.

(* disclaimer: yes, people buy shit based only on the fact that an author or illustrator or musician they love created it; they buy it before they read reviews or steal it or whatever: this isn’t sycophancy, this is called being a fan)

Veins of the Earth via LotFP / DriveThru.

That GDC talk from the guy who wrote some Roseanne and other stuff.

It’s Been Too Long

And it’s going to be longer. Sorry. I haven’t update this in a while and that’s because I have been swamped with Hex Kit. I totally skipped, like a fucking idiot, updating my site while working through the Hex Kit Kickstarter. And I’ve manage to sign myself up for so much work after getting Hex Kit out that I am afraid I’m going to forget about this site again. But I am going to try to get back into painting maps for fun and putting them here. And also some more non map shit, I’d like to definitely get some more non map stuff here. At any rate, this is what’s going on in my life:

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The Future Of Hex Kit


A few days ago I started a thread on google plus about Hex Kit; I asked how useful some super light weight, hex mapping software would be. Generally people were way into the idea of Hex Kit getting it’s own software, since it isn’t compatible with existing software. So I typed up a proposal, sketched some UI shit, and then sent it to my buddy Ross Squires (founder of RPG Talk) who, within a week, sent me an alpha build of the thing. Amazing. I made the maps in this post with it this morning. So this post is about what I want from what I am going to call Hex_Kit.exe for now.

Nothing is promised; this is speculation.

I want it to be super feature light. There is other map mapping software around (like the very impressive Hexographer and the coming-soon Worldographer) that I don not want to feature-compete with. I want this thing to be the Mario Paint of map making software. The idea is that you’ll be able to make maps on the fly with very little work, and also be able to store information about the world in the map. Hex_Kit.exe will be as simple as selecting a terrain or style and slapping it down. You’ll be able to open the program, select a size, and paint a new map or generate then edit a random one. This isn’t going to come with super advanced features like climate based world generation, or a feature where it brews you a pot of coffee. My goal is to offer software that is basically just easier than using GIMP. (I keep calling it Hex_Kit.exe, but it will be available on Windows, Mac, and Linux)

The software will also be usable at the table; if you have a second video output (like another monitor or a projector) you’ll be able to show a player-facing version of the map with things hidden and fog of war. You’ll be able to export it in print friendly format as well as screen friendly format. You’ll be able to label parts of your map too. Again, none of this is promised or set in stone. Just design goals.

And that’s it: Hex_Kit.exe will be a simple way to make hex maps. It will be cheap, too: we want to offer it at a pretty low price so we will be kickstarting the development some time at the start of the year, and we’re going try to have it ready to ship within just a few months after that. If we can make an influx of cash up front, then we won’t have to sell it at a high price later on. This will be low-risk kickstarter, and if we don’t fund I am going to keep making hex kit the way it is now, with no software.

Here is one thing I do promise: if you’ve bought Hex Kit on DriveThruRPG, then you won’t have to buy the art again. Once the software goes live, the art work and software will be available separately (but together in the kickstarter). The kickstarter will have an option to back the project cheaper because you already have Hex Kit. The zip file will get updated to provide the files in the format needed to the software.  If you bought Hex Kit with Roll20, then the only thing I can promise is that I’ll see what I can do. Those files are prepped lo-res and smaller than normal, and updating them on Roll20 will break everyone’s maps.

Is this interesting to you, but you’ve never heard of Hex Kit? Click here to get it. (Watch the video on the product page)

For the arts!

When Hex_Kit.exe is live, the art and software will be separate. Other artists will be able to sell (or make free) their own compatible hex tiles and the plan is for us to never ever take a cut of that. There will not be a marketplace, or a way to buy tiles in the software, so artists will have to deliver their art on their own and, hopefully, users will just have to drag a folder into another folder to get them working. We’ll get a template out in the public for other artists to use to make their tiles, and hopefully that will be available within the next few weeks.

My goal is to get as much art into the kickstarter as possible; I will personally paint 5,000 hex tiles to choose from out of the gate, including the sci fi sets and the forest floor set. I have also started work on an old-school black & white set as well!

At any rate, that’s the future of Hex Kit. My hope is to get this in the hands of lots and lots of people, maybe not just people playing RPGs but people prototyping CRPGS or people who just love world building.I’m also excited to be working with Ross and his buddy Pierre, they are good guys and both are RPG enthusiasts. If you want to keep up with the development process, you can follow me on twitter and ross on twitter.

Unfinished Project: Random Dungeon Maker

I have a bunch of unfinished projects that will never be finished. There is lots of blog drafts and artwork hanging around, and I want to attempt to get some of them out there without actually finishing them. So here goes.

The image below (click to biggen) is an 8 inch by 8 inch grid of dungeon rooms and also some vertical and horizontal room connectors. Along the left side and top of the dungeon rooms are coordinate numbers; think in battleships terms. To generate a random dungeon you would have two d8s, of separate color, that represented each axis, and you’d roll the d8s to see what room you got. Most of the rooms are single inch grid spots but quite a few extend into multiple grid spots. If your roll was any part of the large rooms then that would be the room you got. For example: if I rolled a 3&4 or 4&3 or a 4&4 I would get a pretty cool large room, but a 7&4 is a small boring room. (x&y).

I didn’t finish this project because I couldn’t think of a decent way to generate doors and all that stuff, and I honestly lost any interest in the project a while ago. So here it is for you to take and remix and expand upon and all that shit. Just don’t sell the artwork and you can do whatever you want with it.


Hex Kit Volume One: Fantasyland is finally here. Finally.

HEX KIT-page001Hex Kit Volume One: fantasyland is finally here.

Holy shit folks, it is finally available on DTRPG and Roll20.  This is the my first solo project to hit the market, and I couldn’t be more happy with the results.  If you’re coming here for the first time, Hex Kit was a summer long art project I took on in between map commissions.  The last two weeks of production though, I hit it super hard and the kit grew to double in size and scope.  I also only spent like 20 hours in those two weeks sleeping.  It is a collection of 1,000 hand drawn, hand painted hex tiles.  You use them to make your own hex maps! The purchase comes with both 200 DPI single tile files, and 600 DPI tile sheets for print quality maps.

I’ve spent so much time hyping this project up  I don’t even know what to say about it.

Like I said, it is a lot of hex tiles you can use to make your own maps.  It works best in GIMP or other photo editing software.  It also works really well in Roll20 if you don’t mind resizing things.  Which you have to anways because I think there is a resizing bug in their system right now.  I made some really dumb tutorial videos that you can watch to see how easy this thing is to use.  Here is the tutorial for GIMP and here is the tutorial for Roll20.

Before I talk about how this pack came to be, I want to thank a few people: my gal pal Shasta, who stayed up all night with me on a couple of occasions digitizing the art work and making sure I didn’t crash.  I want to thank Ross for putting together RPG Talk and everyone who hangs out in there; you guys are total babes who didn’t let me quit when I really should have just quit. Scott and Meredith over at DTRPG are also babes, they took my bug report seriously and made sure this project didn’t get lost because of it. If you’ve heard about Hex Kit, but don’t know me, that is probably thanks to Brad. I owe you some smooches brad.  Stellarwolf needs a big high five too, he was a voice of reason and support when it looked like I wouldn’t be able to bring support to Roll20, so if you’re using it there and you see him on the forums give him some love.  Also I want to thank Frank Ocean for releasing ‘Blond’ when he did, getting me through the tough times.

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My debut as a writer of RPG things.




Today Insupposable Instruments is released on DriveThru RPG.  You can nab it here.  Rob tasked Nat Webb, Jerry LeNeaveAndrew Follet, and myself with writing the Demon Lord item book.  The 2e book of artifacts is one of my most favorite RPG books of ever, so I jumped at the chance.  In my head I was like “I got this shit” and the four of us got on some Facebook chat and basically decided it would be a free for all; we’d write all of our shit and then meet up later for high fives and milk shakes and Rob would shower us in money.

What happened is everyone met the month deadline just fine, but instead of splitting up the word count Rob asked for, each of us wrote nearly the word count independently.  I originally only wrote like 5 items and danced past the word count waving my middle finger around like Mr. Bean driving through LA. Because I had never written for any kind of professional anything I was anxious to impress and I included a random, wandering merchant table.  I assumed it would get cut, along with my items, and that would be out of the book but it would be a cool thing to hold on to anyways.  I wouldn’t have written it otherwise.  Writing the table was a lot of fun, and my items were super loquacious but lots of fun to write as well.  In my head I figured everyone else on the project had writing creds, so I needed to impress them and be a hero.  I assembled everyone’s stuff and sent it to Rob, who made some changes and sent it back to us.  All my items had been cut.   He wanted more items and a few other things like owning businesses and property.  In the revised manuscript all but one of my items were gone; not because they were bad but because they were outside the scope of the project.  Rob wanted something  like a ledger of things, and I was writing forbidden and gnarly artifacts forged in the bowels of the earth or something.  They were too complicated, too wordy.  The lesson I learned here is that it is okay to ask questions about shit.  Get all of your questions answered before you sit down to write; it isn’t because you don’t write good but because it doesn’t matter how well you write if you’re writing the wrong thing.

But he really liked the table of merchant situations!  He asked me to expand it a few more entries, and we added a bunch more items to the book and that’s what you get today. So yeah, my main contribution to the book isn’t even items.  But hey, the book is full of really cool stuff for any RPG and not just Demon Lord.  It even includes some simple business/property owning rules you can stitch into your elfgame campaign.  Check it out, a lot of good stuff went in and the gents who worked on it are very good looking and run very fast.  And they can dunk.