Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Visual Dungeon

I'm frustrated.  I have an idea for a way to illustrate dungeons but I just don't have the ability to pull it off.  Or at least I don't have the patience to try long enough so that I get better at it.

I think a lot of information can be conveyed on a map visually.  I'm not talking glossy, glitzy, colorful maps you want to frame.  Just isometric.  Something like this:
Although it could take advantage of height differences more, you can easily see that the entrance stairs lead up, see the slime is on the ceiling, see the water running just below floor level, see webs, see the broken coffins.

I know this idea isn't new, the example pic is from '79, but imagine the room contents were monster silhouettes and below the map you have a visual key-- no room numbers, no room letters-- just a spider silhouette with its stats that your eyes can quickly flick to.  Treasure items could be handled in a similar way, if not by silhouette, than by small image-- look below and the ring's magical power is right there next to its image.

Wandering monster chart could be just as simple, a set of silhouettes similar to the monsters in rooms.  If they duplicate a room monster you don't even have to add a new entry for stats, maybe just a new "# appearing" in the encounter chart.

I just can't draw the isometric part to my liking and my gimp skills always seem to be just shy of what I want to accomplish.  Pretty bad when you can't even produce a proof of concept.

I'm pretty bad at revising or even finishing things in general.  I know I've got a lot of unrealized posts here (like just yesterday).  I always hoped that ideas would be a valuable thing to share with a community but as I blog on I realize implementation is more valuable because it's just as hard as the initial idea if not more.  It's kind of a bummer because I always wanted to provide tools to help others make things, to provide the spark, the innovation, not just make products.  But the making is the hard part.

I think I need to take a break.

I apologize for the drama.  And I hope it didn't seem like I was fishing for compliments.  I went and had a super fun and funny D&D session on Friday, chilled a bit building some rail line in Minecraft and recharged my batteries.

As always, it's more complicated than I first lay out.  Some thoughts for me:

  • Even if my ideas are sometimes too undeveloped to be usable in game, I enjoy the process of coming up with them, and
  • I can't revise these, push them forward, and make them workable if I don't get at least a kernel of an idea down.  So, quit worrying about having a pristine professional product before sharing it (I know this but have to keep re-learning it).  And,
  • It's not just about me (this is really interesting point for a Do It Yourselfer): someone else make take the idea and run with it in a direction I never saw, with an implementation better than I could have ever done. And,
  • Hell, I probably enjoy the conversation more than the idea generation anyway, so even if an unworkable idea gets a bunch of comments saying how it won't work in your game, that's enjoyable for me.
  • I do still need to try and explain the ideas enough so that people know what I'm getting at, and be willing to learn new stuff like drafting and more complicated photo editing.
 Thanks for all your comments. I'll soldier on and see if I can eventually make what I have in my head.


  1. I would maybe make each room have it's own one point perspective, so you can see all four walls, like the board for the game Clue.

    Take a break, but then come back! the stuff you post here is awesome.

  2. Reminds Me of the Caverns of Doom Adventure Game Map, Heritage 1980.

  3. Check out Google Sketchup. It is easy, free and a great way to do the isometric stuff. I use it for my dungeons for this purpose.

  4. Also -

  5. Could you put the stats for each monster in the room with the monster? One stat in each corner in the same place in each room (AC, HD, HP, AT X DAM)? Or right outside each corner?

  6. Powerpoint has some good "cube" and "bezeled oblong" shapes for different perspective mappings.

  7. but I love the ideas you throw out here! And I for one don't need them fully realised - that seems more like a product, which is after all the ultimate proof of concept and frequently the acid test for whether there's any there there. A while ago Alexis wrote a "everyone playtest their shit before bothering me with it!" post, which I disagree with fundamentally because I reckon blogs are for exactly this sort of half-realised ferment of ideas: that's what makes them better than fanzines - the possibility of emergent collaboration before you have anything like a first draft or alpha release.

    And then making products doesn't have to be a solo endeavour - I for one would be happy to lend a photoshop monkey paw if that's holding you up.

    Finally on providing tools, it's a tricky thing to find balance on - provide too much and there's no place left for the reader, too little and you don't communicate what you want the reader to understand. For this reader here you hit that balance just right: your ideas give me ideas that I will actually use, where I don't use published modules.

  8. The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide had isometric graph paper in the back. Basically, a standard grid that has been tilted so that you can draw dungeons in 3d instead of from a top-down orientation.

    One of the problems, though, was that in a true isometric projection, rooms or structures in front are going to block the view of the rooms behind. Of course, you could not tilt the grid all that much, kind of like the example in your pic, which avoids that problem, but reduces the 3d effect.

  9. I draw little sketches of the traps and monsters on my maps rather than key them in a traditional way. It jogs my memory and is faster than reading a description. It's useless for sharing with another DM but gives my maps a lot of character.

  10. "For this reader here you hit that balance just right: your ideas give me ideas that I will actually use, where I don't use published modules." -richard

    +1. For me, post for post, this is the most content rich blog in the OSR. In fact it's probably the only one I check on a really regular basis. Who says everything has to be fully realised?

    About the map concept in question; why does it have to be fully isometric? Maybe it was on this blog where I saw symbols for ceiling height or recess depth drawn on a map using symbols like ^30 for a height of 30'

    I feel the isometric aspect looks great, but its almost a shift away from simple functionality towards aesthetics. Perhaps if more visual detail was necessary there could be a little drop-in illustration along side. I want to use my illustration skills to put something similar to what you suggest soon.

  11. That's a very steep iso. I find them difficult to do without a drafting table, and there are tricks. That said, I'd go the sketchup route. I started exploring it a few years ago, and there's something to be said for being able to make walls, doors, rooms, and etc as repeatable blocks. There are some issues as well, but I'm hoping to explore it some more this summer.

  12. I love your stuff. I think you have great evocative material, and if you feel like you have to do everything that can become a tremendous burden. The good news is, you don't have to do everything. You give us great ideas with what you offer. In particular, recently, with the breakdown of monsters and adjustment of numbers. I don't fully understand it, but the idea is great and I want to see more!

    I think the maps in Metroid are great, and I'd love to be able to do maps like their wireframes.

    In line with what you're working on here, I experimented with a 3d map here. I don't know how successful the attempt was, though.

  13. This is great. I'm getting caught up on all your posts. I love the new blog set up-- makes it easier for me to find things when I'm scrambling around with two hours till play time and nothing concrete prepared.

  14. @Lum: That's interesting, I love those. I know there were some old school geomorphs drawn like that and for some reason I'm really drawn to that kind of rendering for solo play, but I think we can make more info visible faster with an inclined map.

    @Darnizhaan: That's cool, I'd never seen it. The one I'm seeing on Boardgame Geek makes me think similar things that I answered Lum above.

    @B King: Sketchup is out because I'm running Linux, unless my little netbook has enough juice. That link is super useful. Funnily enough, I have not 1, not 2, but three different maps I was using as reference examples by that same gentleman! I didn't know they were made by the same guy or that he had a blog.

    @Zenopus: that would be the easiest-- to have the data right where you need it, and kind of like a wargame counter-- but if you have repeat monsters you'll have that same info printed in multiple places and I'm afraid all the numbers might make it busy (see this is the kind of conversation I love, why was I so whingy up there, uggh, embarrassing). But I'll certainly try some things out. I know for myself at least hit die and AC would be useful. But I'm also thinking of just using one silhouette with a number for #appearing, so that might get confusing if you've got too much going on.

    @Roger: Thanks, I have almost no experience with Powerpoint I might take a look.

    @Richard: I really appreciate this comment. This part struck me especially: "the possibility of emergent collaboration before you have anything like a first draft or alpha release".

    There is value in community and conversation. I know that as an individual I want to prove I have enough talent and experience to be included in the conversation, but to think I've got to pull it off on my own is just hubris and wrong. I'm not sure, but I think that's some of my American showing through (the myth of Edison and all).

    There's plenty of time and space for products, but the alpha conversations and the possibility of collaboration needs space too.

  15. @Talysman: Yeah, the hiding part is like the spark that led to my frustration. I originally had an idea for the One Page Dungeon contest that was a cavern you could set in your megadungeon that was filled with holes that ancient eremites used to live in, think the opposite of Stylites. But how do you show holes in the ground in isometric? The ones in front were blocking those behind. I think part, like you say, might be a limitation of the rendering, but part might be adjusting my angle (see Nellisir's comment).

    @Anon: That's smart, natural, and exactly what I'm shooting for here. We humans are very visual-- how much info can we incorporate into the map without it getting to busy and becoming counter productive. Any time I have to stop and read is a potential slow down in play and a potential confusion point for new DMs.

    @Andrew W.: First, thank you very much. I went and hunted down some illustrations for my next post to thank you and the other commenters. Second, That's the crux of it, how much is too much. I have an intuitive feeling a more picture-like map would help me in play (that's one of the reasons I got so frustrated, I couldn't make a proof of concept and get a good look). But, yeah, even if we decide full blown iso is helpful there is more info we can bake into the map. (I did have a post with ceiling height. Saw the idea on Aeons and Auguries, then saw it used on Harn maps. Ahh, here it is: )

    @Nellisir: See, that's a voice of experience. I realize now, I don't even think the example is Isometric. According to Wikipedia there are different kinds of axonometric view depending on angle. But this is useful because steeper lets us see more (see Talysman's comment). Thanks.

    @Andrew: Thanks for that. And sorry for getting too self-absorbed. I love your trying to focus on the aspects of the form that are unique to it-- like height variation in a dungeon for the more iso view.

    @Marcus: Good to see you here. I'm far from finished with the index. I have a hard time finding stuff myself! I realized just today it would be handy to have all my npc portraits in one place, maybe in one pdf.

  16. I use a similar concept, and wrote a short article about it. My visual example isn't as "cleaned up" as yours, though.

  17. My apologies, I posted my blog link wrong.

    My Doodle dungeon article appears at

  18. thanks, Richard. My maps for personal use tend to have some of that- scribbles and doodles that help me remember what might be in a room. I've never just sat down and doodled to generate though, that would be cool. Also see Tony Dowler's dungeon for a lingistic version of this: