Town Maps: Tops, Bottoms, and Hot-Spots

Correspondent Joshua Wolfe writes:

"Your maps always look so pretty. Is your process for map-making towns bottom up or top down? Do you start with your list of hot spots and assemble how the town should look around that? Or, do you start with an idea of how the town and topography should look and then see where your location ideas fit into it?"

Thank you! Those terms sound kinky! The short answer is "neither," but there are always shades of each, so the short answer is actually "both." Unless it's "neither." Or both. I mean answers. Let's restart.

I've never drawn a town-map without prior context; it's always within an existing setting (Uresia or some other world I'm mapping that day). Consequently, there's always something established before I begin, even if it's just the location of the nearest coastlines and the nearest relevant mountains and what kingdom/realm we're in. So even if I wanted to begin without considering those things, it's never an option.

My Master Hex-Map, Unpublished For a Reason: It's Super Dull

After that we dive deep into "it depends." I don't just write about Uresia; I GM the hell out of it, so it's rare for me to map a town we (the players and I) haven't already gamed in or at least heard in-game stories of.

Sometimes, that amounts to what might be called "hot spots." From recent games in Jubilance, for example, we know the city's Guild of Lapidaries has a heavily-constructed (stone) guildhall on the east end of town, that it has two above-ground stories, and a walled yard tucked against the town's own wall. So, if I get around to mapping Jubilance in "town scale" (like Trostig and Scott's Landing), I'd need to (A) beat my head on the desk because I really need to stop mapping cities in town-scale and (B) make sure there's an appropriately-shaped building in approximately the right area. Town-scale doesn't include low walls on the scale of a single burgage plot, so that detail wouldn't need to be present: just a largish stone building and some greenery in the yard. Maybe a teensy fountain if I want to indicate how swank it is to be emerald-cutters in Dreed (it's very swank).

But everything else we know about Jubilance is the kind of stuff that wouldn't show up at that scale: we know an inn where the PCs stashed their stuff (they never got to sleep there), a bordello where one of the knights did some stuff (again, sleepless), a tavern where tavern-things happened, streets down which a happy parade of Trolls bebopped, and a seaport where seaport-things went on.

There were memorable moments attached to all of them, but on those town-scale maps they'd all just be ... streets, a seaport, and teensy little town-buildings occupying ordinary plots of land. Those memorable locales would look exactly like their never-visited equivalents.

And that's true of most town locations, really. I generally map towns in two styles: the town-style, and the city-style (which shows only major streets and oversized permanent structures like walls and citadels).

Now, just between you and I: I'll absolutely linger on those little boxes, giving them special attention, because they have identity in my mind's eye. But I also take care to linger, almost at random, on a certain portion of all the little boxes, because otherwise the town looks bland. I can't abide a Row of Identical Rectangles unless I'm deliberately trying to communicate that this is a particularly ordinary, even tedious, row of buildings. I want every town map to be filled with stuff I do understand and stuff I don't, and I learn a lot about each town when building them.

Some of the Simplest Boxes Have the Most History and Vice-Versa

Uresia isn't a "medieval" world in any serious sense, but it does have a certain Gone Drunkenly to the Renfaire aesthetic, so most buildings are scaled and arranged in a hand-wavey Oldeish Europe sort of way, where I stay conscious of how each town arranges lots and frontages and closes so as to make the town survivable to tiny meep-meep cars in the imaginary Uresian future, but terribly inconvenient to a lumbering full-size American sedan.

So, there are rules I draw by (broad rules based on cultures, specific exceptions based on cultural collisions and local circumstances), and inevitably a few basics in my head, going in: Jubilance has walls (not always a given in Dreed); Jubilance has that nice east-end guildhall for the Lapidaries; Jubilance is a seaport on the northwest coast of the island. It's a couple of days' hike to the mountains, and it has generic town-type-things. It's Dreed, and it's got emeralds, so it's at least partly, grossly, rich (which means broader frontages, more frequent fountains, more frequent greenery).

Having gamed there (and having already mapped all the Uresian coastlines) I have a general shape which emerges from necessity.

So that's square one. A mushy blend of hot-spot and topography. Instead of top-down or bottom-up it's just sort of saggy middle. Imitating its creator, no doubt.

From there, the process is iterative. I don't just start with a blank sheet of paper and draw 'til it's done (I've seen people who do; they impress me). I start with a blank piece of paper and scribble a deeply crappy first draft.

This follows my approach to writing. I'm a huge fan of "splat the first draft, [insert gross sound effect] and then sculpt it into something that's less like hot garbage." Sculpt it via second and third and fourth and as many drafts as it takes.

As those drafts roll out (freehand, usually on whatever cheap notebook paper comes to hand, or clean sheets stolen from the printer tray) I learn more about the town (including hot spots and topography, along with history and resources and fires and wars and hills leveled and ditches dug and walls argued-over because pennies got pinched), and I interrogate the design, engaging in fruitful acts of doubt, questioning why-is-this-there and why-is-that-shaped-that-way and shouldn't-there-be-a-more-direct-route-from-this-gate-to-this-marketplace and so on.

Sometimes I Use SketchUp to Visualize the Elevations

I don't consider any of this to be the cartography. Not yet. During the splats I'm just designing the town, and it's a bit like the distinction I make between RPG design and RPG writing (click here for that): I want to have a lot of the design finished, solidified, interrogated and multiply-drafted, before I start worrying about how to present it (presenting it: that's the cartography).

Once I'm satisfied that I know my way around, I go digital: using scans of the least-splatty drafts, I begin constructing the territory (water, elevations) in Adobe Illustrator or some other vector-art software (I built the original Shadow River plan in DTP software because Illlustrator still terrified me in those days, but the principle's the same).

And then I really go to town ... In city-scale, I focus on the identities of entire neighborhoods and principal landmarks. In town-scale, I go less sane: lovingly obsessing over each close, alleyway, street and square; every space allotted for caravans or livestock; every bit of clean water that becomes nasty water and flows somewhere else. Literally every single tree (within town) and then swaths of forest beyond it, if there are any. That part's a long story.

Once it's done, I can drag those nice clean vectors into Photoshop to thrash them around, warm them up, and give them their final textures and colors. This often means a return to natural media: the way I get watercolor textures, for example, is I splat some cheap supermarket-toy-section watercolors on equally cheap paper and scan it. I also use textures made from photographs I take of everything from rocks to leaves to other rocks to food to stones to rocks.

And that's the process. Such as it is. Tops, bottoms, hot-spots? Yes? Sort of.

From Cold Vectors to Warm Textures