Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Work. Eventually

Last night I began mapping Switzerland, which consumed about six hours carefully fitting in the locations of the cities and towns, as well as the borders between cantons, prince-bishopric, the principalities, occupied cities and the region of modern Graubunden, which was once a communal state called the “Three Leagues.” What a nightmare.

Altogether it was about sixty towns inserted into about forty-eight hexes, which involves quite a lot of inconvenient squeezing in of labels, mostly in 8 and 9 point fonts…the worst area was around Lake Constance, where Germany, Austria and Switzerland meet. Except, of course, that in 1650 you would have to say it is where the Barony of Vorarlberg, the Duchy of Wurttemberg and the occupied city of Sankt Gallen meet.

I admit that I love the history. I love the ideas it gives for my world, the complex relationships between the many tiny states, the intricate details associated with this roadstead and those mountain passes and places where, even in the heart of heavily populated Switzerland, wild lands predominate. Granted, not excessively large places…and even in hexes with no prominent towns, there would be dozens and dozens of little hamlets not worth recording on the map.

Still, when it gets complicated I’m ready to pound my head on my desk.

I have lost track of just how many cities or towns I have in my world…I have them all neatly catalogued and ordered, but I don’t have an exact number, as they’re located in a series of files by region/political unit, not as a long, single list. I would estimate, quite conservatively, that there would be about 2,500 population centres I’ve systematically researched and added to my map base in the last four years.

Most worlds, when I see a hand drawn map, barely contain fifty cities. This is because, for reasons that escape me, DMs feel they must map the cities of their world, defining exactly how this Inn is across the street from these bakers or that guardhouse or such-and-such a distance from the main gate.

When I need to, I usually just make this shit up on the spur of the moment.

There are some pretty basic things you can assume: a) the guards are never far away; b) the centre is always divided into the wealthy district and the poor district, even if it contains only a hundred people; c) all market places look the same; and d) your players won’t remember it anyway.

So usually its good enough to say that the party is in some tavern near the docks, or the slums, or towards the higher scale end of town…depending on where they want to be. If trouble starts, give ten or fifteen rounds before someone intervenes, and maybe fifty rounds before the main guard shows up in force. If a thief is running away, assume that at least half the escape routes will be dead ends, and the other half will lead to increasingly narrow lanes that may suddenly give way to another wide avenue and provide new choices. There are always hundreds of ways for a thief to reach the roofs. The river will have poor people living on the banks, tax collectors will harass occasionally, prostitutes are easy to find and…let’s see…every corner has a church.

Well, nearly every corner.

This may seem a bit cavalier to some; a bit lacking in detail, or the emotive sense of place. If it would ever happen that my players would return constantly to a single town, I might feel compelled to draft out a map of some of the key places; but it would make more sense to me to simply reveal the town stage by stage, remarking on a “little alley you haven’t really noticed before,” or “There’s a quaint little shop selling perfumes and what they advertise as potions…seems to be new.”

The one thing I always mean to do, but I never get around to doing, is to make a flow chart—rather than a map—which might serve, in some degree, as a kind of universal interrelationship between all the usual spaces and power centres within a town. But every time I start to do that, I get bored with it rather quickly and quit. I think I’d get more work done on it if someone in the real world were to do exactly that for London, Paris or Copenhagen. Then I could steal. Probably someone has, but I can’t find it.

The one thing I can’t do is to outline in detail every centre in my world. It just isn’t practical. And in many cases, such as London, Paris or Copenhagen, I don’t have to. City maps—and various other interesting diagrams—are made for me:

Well, I’ll be sketching in lakes and rivers for Switzerland tonight (if sex is not on the menu), so I don’t know when I might post again. There hasn’t been much on my mind the last few days, except the above. Which is fine. I have to produce new work, now and then, if I’m going have anything to reveal here.


I only just ran across this: the battle of Sörenberg "was fought in 1380, between the Entlebuch (at the time subject to the house of Habsburg) and Obwalden (a canton of the early Swiss Confederacy). It was the culmination of a conflict over the right to alpine pastures (alps). The immediate cause was a cattle raid at an alp now known as Schlachtalp, at the slope of the Brienzer Rothorn, above the village Sörenberg."

You will note that on the pic provided, the Brienzer Rothorn is in the high centre.


Badelaire said...

Some great ideas there. It is a (sad?) truth that 90% of the details that you, the GM, build into your campaign setting material will either be overlooked or ignored by your players, and of that remaining 10%, about 9% will be nitpicked to death by armchair archaeologists who'll tell you that it shouldn't be that way. Only 1% of your setting work will earn a "Yeah, that was pretty cool".

Why do we GM again?

Alexis said...

Because we love it.

Badelaire said...

Yeap. Gluttons for punishment, all of us.

KenHR said...

In my games, most towns and cities are treated like the town/cities menus in the old computer game Pirates!

"[City] is bustling with activity. Do you: (V)isit the tavern, (B)uy shit, (M)ove on" etc.

At most I'll have a list of common services available. Mapping towns only happens if the PCs are staying in the area for more than a month or so, and even then, it's a 20 second sketch.

Carl said...

I'm with KenHR and his Pirates! theory of towns. Love that game, by the way.

When I did make maps, I only mapped the areas where fights would take place. I stopped mapping altogether shortly after incorporating a digital projector into my game. Now if I want a picture I do a Google Image search and pick something from the first 3 pages of images returned. There's your town square, campsite, ancient temple, etc. Roll for initiative.

Alexis, I like your idea of adding small details here and there. It's the key to effective set design in movies, and it translates well to RPGs.

Your idea of flow charting reminded me of the Dungeon Master's Design Kit. Inside there is a template for designing chases. I've used it more than any other form in there because of its versatility. You could easily create what you are describing with that form for any town, a generic "town" or segments of a population center such as London.