This is not a tutorial or an advice article (though there are some design tips there too), but rather, a description of some parts of the process I went through while designing the encounter and location.
First stepsKnowing that the map is one of the first things judges and voters are going to see, I wanted include something visually stunning that would also be interesting combat terrain. Something simple yet memorable. I had a chat with a cartographer friend of mine and asked him what maps he had most enjoyed drawing. I also asked him if he knew any nice techniques that would make my map look more professional. He showed me a few websites and mentioned a few techniques such as Dysoning.
Design tip: If you don't know much about maps, do some research! Talk to people, google stuff, read, learn.
After some thinking, I came up with two ideas I wanted to include: a massive hand-shaped platform or ledge that the PCs can jump down from, and an equally massive snake statue that the PCs and other combatants can climb.
The hand was pretty obvious, I just started thinking about something fairly easy to draw that everyone would easily recognize. Once I got the mental image of the PCs leaping down to water from a huge stone hand, there was no way I wouldn't use that in my encounter!
The snake statue idea came after some googling -- I actually googled something like "awesome encounter map" to find ideas to borrow, and there it was, a spiraling ramp thingy on a small map. It didn't have any snake theme to it, and I needed to adjust its size to make it visually balanced with the hand - both five squares wide.
Design tip: Don't be afraid to borrow ideas. Just change them enough to make them your own.
So, instead of first coming up with a backstory or location, I chose these two individual elements and then built everything else around them. I'm not sure if I'd really recommend this approach, though, because it takes a lot of work to make all the parts fit together if you use such an inverted approach.
Before I drew a single line on the map grids I had printed out, I wanted to test how the hand and snake would look like on a flipmat, and how much space they would take.
The hand-shaped ledge, an early concept drawing; here it's already possible to see that despite the irregular shape, each part of the hand fits neatly inside a square so that the players don't have to guess in which squares you can stand and which you cannot
An early concept drawing about the serpent statue; here I hadn't quite yet decided what the general shape of the encounter area should be
Design tip: Test your stuff on a flipmat. Everything looks deceivingly small on a grid that's made to fit a letter size (US) or A4 (Europe) page.
Drawing the mapI decided against using a digital map software. Yes, people have used such software successfully in the past to make pretty, finalized maps and earned votes for it, but technically that's not what the encounter round rules ask you to do. You're not supposed to make a complete map because then there wouldn't be anything left for the cartographer to do. Also, if you're using a software, no-one will know how hard you worked to draw the map because a good software does a lot of the work for you.
However, using a map software is probably a lot faster and people are more likely to vote for you if your map is really pretty. Because RPGSS is a contest and it's the votes that matter, I'm not going to recommend against using a map software. Both approaches have their advantages.
Anyway, I used two black pens of different sizes, a thicker pen for walls and a thinner one for smaller details. I recommend this approach, it worked pretty well for me.
As for the grid you draw your map on, print out several empty grids and experiment, play around trying different ideas. If you're not an experienced map-maker, chances are that each iteration is going to look a lot better than the previous one.
What about the size of the map? This year we were allowed to make the map bigger than the size of a flipmat. I decided to make it fit on a flipmat anyway. Why? Well, a lot of people use flipmats when they play Pathfinder, so it makes sense to make your stuff compatible with what they use.
Below are a few versions of the map:
- This is an early ASCII draft of the encounter main area, showing stairs rising from the water and no other rooms.
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- This is the first draft using pen & paper. The rooms are still mostly square. The snake statue has some elevation markings; this was before I came up with the idea of including a side view. The first draft was fully intended to be just something to figure out how much space each part of the map was going to take on a flipmat.
- The second draft, not quite finished yet. There's much more detail, a lot of Dysoning, a pretty OK looking legend, and some other new stuff.
- A later version of the second draft. I added vases because the area where the boss fight takes place looked very empty. I also added the crowd (diagonal lines in this version) to make the encounter more urban. Here you can see that I added cut-out boxes to change the bottom part without having to draw the entire map again. (Though I decided I'll do so anyway...)
- Here's the third, final version. I added the snake's head entrance, removed a lot of unnecessary detail such as the waves and most of the Dysoning (because if the building is out in the open, people are more likely to think it's urban). I added windows and more sconces because the people wouldn't be able to see much otherwise. I added the censers to create more interesting terrain effects. I also added some curves in the design to avoid boxyness. And finally, I changed the direction of the north arrow: "up" is very simply the most intuitive direction for north when you're holding the map so that you can read the text.
Design tip: If the first version of your map looks crappy, practice some more and draw a new one!