Thursday, 13 June 2019

Campaign Tools: Wonderdraft

I can't tell a lie - I am a map junkie. Have been since I was about 10, and my father taught me (by the simple process of handing me a map) to navigate, and also bought a very nice coffee table hardcover about Ordnance Survey maps.

And then I picked up the Lord of the Rings. Maps. Lots of maps. Oh my.

Hat tip to Tim, my DM for most of my university days, who had a big sprawling world that I even got to create a small part of, and led, in the end, to the world of Altrion.

Altrion existed, for the longest time, on first 36, then 42, then 48 A4 sheets of hand-drawn and coloured (badly) paper. Some of them are a touch faded, and they've all been tucked away in a folder under my wife's jewellery case (don't ask :D) for about a decade.

Around 25 years ago, I acquired a copy of Campaign Cartographer, and used it to create a computerised copy of the map - essentially one A4 sheet gridded with smaller rectangles so I could trace the large-scale details of each paper map onto it. CC is all very lovely, but it is Windows, and I'm... not. So, nice thought it was, I didn't expend the amount of effort needed to replicate all the details in digital form.

Fast forward to this year, when for various reasons (largely to do with watching Critical Role by accident), I was inspired to pick up the long-stalled campaign. And one of the things I really wanted to do was find and salvage the map. In conversation on the D&D Beyond Discord (of which more later), someone pointed me at Wonderdraft.

Oh my.

So. Wonderdraft is cross-platform (Linux/Mac/Windows), which is a win, although it hasn't integrated a lot of the native file handling dialogs, so the interface with the file system does feel a little clunky. It also relies on you having a machine with a pretty beefy (quick for 2015, say) GPU and processor, and memory doesn't hurt.

Those are probably the only things that could be considered downsides, and believe me there aren't many. Essentially it's a themed paint program designed for drawing maps, with extra support for symbol libraries and paths, random terrain generation, tracing off an overlay image...

To give you an idea: the map to the right was traced off the CC map above. In essence:
  • I traced the coast outlines using the 'raise land' tool. This is a variable size brush that paints solid ground, for want of another way to describe it. The edge of the brush is 'wiggly' so that coastlines aren't smooth, and you can control both the brush size and the amount of roughness, for a tradeoff between detail, cornering ability and speed. There's also a lower land tool for fixing mistakes, adding water, etc.
  • I filled in the rest of the land with the big land brush - quicker and easier once you've done the coasts as it doesn't chew GPU/CPU drawing the wiggly bits
  • I switched to the symbol tool, selected a suitable mountain symbol set, and 'painted' the mountains - it's like an 'image hose' brush in the way of Photoshop, except that if you have a set of related symbols it'll paint a different one each time, with the rate of deposition, scale etc being selectable.
  • Same again for the woods.
  • I went back to the land menu, and selected the paintbrush tool. This changes the colour of the land under it to the one you select, and has size and opacity options as well as three different brush heads that control, if you like, spatter. This allows you to feather colours together.
  • I also selected a suitable mountain colour and used the paintbrush to colour the mountains. 
  • Finally, I added country names with the label tool.
Total time? Two hours. Colour me very impressed. 

Things I could have done, but didn't:
  • Used the river tool to draw rivers. Obviously enough, this has controllable 'meanderyness' and width
  • Ditto the path tool for roads.
  • Added town symbols from the symbol library.
I'm currently working on the bigger map - Wonderdraft will handle 8192 pixels square, which works out at about 4'6" at 150dpi. Plenty big enough. 

In short - it's an excellent tool. The Discord community (which every decent project seems to have these days) is friendly and helpful, and there are all manner of add-on symbol and theme libraries available on including ones that allow you to do top-down mapping for cities or battle boards.

For $30, it's ridiculously good value. If you need to draw world maps, go buy :D

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Is it ok if I....?

Yes of course it is. It's your campaign.

The subject of this post is probably one of the most common questions I've heard since I've been active on the D&D Beyond Discord server (where, incidentally, you can find me as FleetfootMike).

I'm very glad of the new upsurge in popularity of D&D, which I guess is at least in part due to the likes of Critical Rôle and other live streamed games giving folks a feel for how much fun it can be. But... next step, you go out and buy the books. Which is getting on for a thousand pages (in the Core books) of what it's very tempting to think of as rules. And that's before you even start with a published scenario. Even if you buy the starter set, they're called the Basic Rules.

The problem is it's not always clear where the rules stop and the setting starts, especially if you're a newcomer. The way combat works? Obviously rules. The available character races? Actually, no. They're part of the core D&D setting, and if you want to create a world where, say, tieflings and dragonborn aren't a thing? Knock yourself out.

Equally, you want to tweak a scenario to fit your world? Go right ahead. There's any number of corners of Altrion (my world) that have had published D&D scenarios pulled and prodded until some or all of them fit to my satisfaction. At the bare minimum, my world has different gods, so I'd change that in a commercial product to make it tie in.

The one thing to remember while you're doing it: communicate. Make sure your players know, for example, that halfling PCs in your world would have had to come from one small country way over on the east of the continent, and that there are, say, no gnomes at all[1]. Manage expectations, give them reasons. You are essentially providing the players' view on the world: your rôle is to make sure they know what their characters would know when it matters.

These are in fact the two most common things I'm going to say on this blog, I expect, so we better get used to them.
  1. It's your world. 
  2. You have the responsibility of being the players' window onto it.

[1] I'm not prejudiced against gnomes, honest. They just didn't feel like they fit in my setting. 

Monday, 3 June 2019


The world of Altrion (from a 25 year old set of hand-drawn
maps on 42 A4 sheets, rendered in Wonderdraft)
So.. um... hi.

I'm Mike, and I used to be a DM.

Further back than I care to remember, I ran a huge sprawling AD&D 2nd Edition campaign, across at one point four parties (including one by email) plus provided advice for a fifth run by one of my players in the same setting. This is the world of Altrion, of which you'll no doubt be hearing more later. Some of the email campaign logs made it up onto Usenet as the Midnight's Bane campaign - you can find these via Google Groups.

I'm back largely because I happened (as you do) on an episode of Critical Role, and was hooked both by Matt Mercer's DMing style (definitely my kind of DM) and the feel of 5th Edition. While I looked at 3rd/3.5, I decided it was too much of a fantasy skirmish wargame for me, but 5E definitely feels right.

What are you going to see in this blog? General thoughts on the art DMing, converting 2E to 5E, email/play by Google Docs, cartography (I'm a huge fan of Wonderdraft having just discovered it), DnD Beyond (becoming the game aid I wish I'd written), and so on. I don't know how regularly I'll be posting, but I wanted to have a place to talk about these things that isn't my wargames blog. [For those interested, I'm also a historical wargamer, blogger, podcaster and writer at Trouble At T'Mill.]

Anyway - enjoy!