Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Map keys

One of the interesting things whenever RPG Superstar introduces a new round (which has happened a lot for Round 2, with the challenge including archetypes, organizations and now maps) is the sense of the unknown.
For the challengers, while they've certainly seen maps from encounter rounds and published works, there's no sense of scope of what the maps will look like. Garrett Guillotte wrote a great blog post about the type of maps we can expect, but no one knows for sure. I think a contestant would be taking a huge risk by mapping out Arcadia, for example, but it could pay off. Still, I'm expecting largely location/encounter maps, at a scale where combat can occur.
Even for the voters, there's a sense of unknown in terms of what we're looking for. After years of designing magic items, for example, voters have internalized some of the past critiques: Joke items aren't going to do well, keep history out of your magic items, etc. etc. Here, I honestly don't know exactly what maps are going to earn my votes.
I do know it won't be based on artistic talent. I've posted my concern that that's what people will base their decisions on (in part because I know I have no artistic talent, but I've never had complaints about my own map turnovers). Maps have to be a lot of things, but it's the cartographer's job to make them look like they do in the final products; it's the freelancer's job to make something the cartographer can make into a piece of art.
Consider this post that former Superstar host Sean K. Reynolds made back in 2010, to show contestants what he expected for the maps. Look at his A- map. Are you back? Consider, that's an A- map. Now, SKR notes it wasn't A- for content, which is of course what we should be largely judging on, but I want to keep in mind that this is RPG Superstar, not Cartography Superstar. Just because someone makes a map that looks as good as Pedro Coelho's doesn't mean they're guaranteed my vote.
So what will I be looking for when the maps are revealed?

 To be honest, I'm not actually 100 percent sure. Here are some of the things I'm thinking about as I want to see the 32 entries...
Does the map tell a story? I think this will be tough, and largely done through the title, but I'm curious to see whether anyone pulls it off. If a map makes me think of the adventure I want to run there, I think it will have done its job really well and be likely to advance.
A sense of logic: Yes, the maps are fantasy locations, so I probably won't quibble too much if there's not a bathroom in the area (maybe the inhabitants use chamber pots), but there shouldn't be bedrooms right next to the front door of the grand cathedral. While a temple to Cayden Cailean might certainly have a bar, or a shrine to Norgorber could hidden in the back of a dingy tavern, neither would make much sense in a shrine to Lamashtu.
Space to fight: If the map's small enough scale to allow for combat, does it have room for fights? Sure, some area will by necessity be small, but there should also be enough areas that can get 4 (or even 6) PCs in it along with some monsters for a good fight. Is there an area that looks like it could have a good, big, climactic fight?
Interesting rooms: On a similar note, I'll be looking for interesting areas (while I'm assuming most of the maps will feature a building/caves, even maps that aren't will need to have obviously delineated areas, I think).  When I map, I have to fight my tendency to use nice rectangular rooms (and symmetry, for that matter), since I know intellectually that that's not very exciting. I want to see interesting shapes on these maps.
Motion: When I was practicing before the Top 32 were introduced, I was really focused on trying to make my map have some sense of motion. I wanted it to feel dynamic and not just a static set of rooms that PCs would traipse through. This is one of the things I'm most curious to see, if anyone could achieve that. I think if you make me want to move around the map as a player, you've done your job well.
Elevation changes: Similarly, elevation changes make a map more dynamic. Especially if it's not just one floor completely separate from another except by stairs (i.e. is there a balcony or one room that takes up multiple levels?). Make it so combat will take place in three dimensions.
Other obstacles: I don't really expect the cartographers to indicate where monsters are going to be located (I know that's an option, but it's rare you see monsters on published maps), but they can include other hazards. Are there traps? Haunts? Hazards? Those are all things that can make the maps more dynamic and show me a designer who's thinking.
Now, maybe the judges will point out something that will make me completely rethink some of this criteria or I'll see something I didn't expect. Judging Here Be Monsters changed how I read a monster stat block and I wouldn't be surprised if this does the same for maps.

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