I have always been a huge fan of hyper-accurate mapping. By that I mean mountains that show precise elevations opposed to representational mapping where a mountain symbol merely suggests mountainous terrain. I can trace my desire for this sort of mapping back to my first encounter with AutoCAD.

In the early 80′s, I attended a computer fair where, amidst many other vendors, a small company called Autodesk was introducing a new product. On the screen was a representation of our solar system, with the sun in the center and various rings indicating the orbits of the planets. Their representative showed me how you could zoom in on portions of the map. He selected a section of earth’s orbit and the program zoomed in to show a dot (earth) in the center of the screen with the moon in its orbit about the earth. He then zoomed in on the moon which now showed a small blemish on one side. Further zooming turned the blemish into a lunar lander with a smudge that later resolved into a plaque.

Amazing! A mapping program that can show a tremendous scale with resolution down to a tiny plaque. I was immediately hooked. With this software I could depict an entire fantasy world with each city, house, dungeon and monster lair described in minute detail. I knew this is how I wanted to map out my worlds from that point onward.

Of course, there were a few problems. AutoCAD was quite expensive. And, at the time, computers typically had 640k of memory, a 360k floppy disk, and (if you were extremely high tech and cutting edge) maybe a 2mb hard disk (2mb, that’s not a typo). Beyond that, computing power was such that even the most powerful home computer of the day could take hours to fully render a complex AutoCAD drawing.

Computers have progressed at a blinding rate since the early 80′s. The lowliest cell phone is far more advanced than the Apple IIe, TSR 80, or IBM PC (the technological leaders of the day). Even so, we are just now at the threshold of mapping worlds in the detail that I envisioned back then. It’s exciting to finally see the potential to create the kind of maps I’ve always wanted.

Campaign Cartographer

My desire for hyper-accurate zoomable maps is certainly at the core of my love for ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer. It is a fantasy mapping program built on top of a CAD engine. Not only does it support the powerful CAD features I want, but it is specifically enhanced to create fantasy maps. It is only natural that this is my program of choice.

However, there is one problem that I have never been able to satisfactorily surmount. As I’ve said, I prefer hyper-accurate mapping. CC3 supports this very well. But it still requires skill to produce what you want. I want hyper-accurate mountains. How do you do that? Contour lines depicting elevation is certainly one approach. But that is definitely not the look I want. I’ve tried numerous techniques but I’m just not happy with the results.

The common solution is to use symbols. This method can produce a very beautiful map. But it is representational. The mountain symbols tell you that there are mountains there, but they are not accurate representations of the actual elevations involved (this is true of many types of terrain with mountains simply being the most obvious example).

Fractal Terrains

ProFantasy makes another program called Fractal Terrains. I wasn’t very impressed with what I had seen from FT Pro (the earlier version). But when FT3 came out, the quality of the maps improved immensely! I was mesmerized by what it could achieve. This is a program that could give me the hyper-accurate mountains that I had always wanted.

After evaluating various approaches, I decided that the best method would be to create the terrain I wanted in FT3, export a PNG image of a section, and use that image as a background layer in CC3. I could then add the rest of my map features on top of this image. As long as the PNG was of high enough resolution, I could retain the hyper-accurate detail as well as the CAD-based zooming capabilities.

Something’s Missing

Now I had everything I wanted. So why wasn’t I happy with what I was creating? Something wasn’t right but I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

Usually, when I ran into such a problem, I would set it aside and let it percolate in the back of my mind for a while. Eventually, the solution would present itself and I could move on. Sadly, this time, that did not occur.

I looked at my map. I looked at other maps I’ve done before. I looked at maps other people have done. Nothing gave me inspiration.

Darlene’s Map

Darlene Pekul created the famous World of Greyhawk map. It consists of two poster-sized pages that make up a roughly 3′ x 4′ map of Gary Gygax’s World of Greyhawk. It is my all-time favorite map and I never tire of staring at it. I have the two panels framed and hanging in my bedroom (was there any doubt that I’m a nerd?).

Darlene’s map is about as far from “hyper-accurate” as you can get. Terrain is represented by 30 mile wide hexes. Obviously each hex actually contains all sorts of terrain within it, but each hex is instead representative of the dominant terrain within that area. Rivers are drawn on a scale that would make them five miles wide. You would think, from my stated goal of a hyper-accurate map, that I would detest Darlene’s mapping style. Instead, her map is my all-time favorite fantasy map. Maybe I should give some thought as to why that is.

Aesthetics Are Everything

As I said, I love to look at Darlene’s map. Other maps that I have created are useful. They present the information I need. But they are not evocative. When I look at Darlene’s map, I imagine the adventures I would have there. It’s exciting and fun. Now I realize that part of this sensation is the nostalgia I feel from a map that dates back to the time when I was just discovering D&D. Also, this is Gary’s World of Greyhawk. This is the world he gave us and it somehow ties us to him. But beyond that, it is a beautiful map. It is my favorite map.

I think I have to accept that I’ve been wrong all these years and THIS is the mapping style I prefer.