Dungeon Fog: Map Making Made Easy

Maps are an integral part of any table-top game. We love maps. We need maps. We obsessively pore over them, planning our journeys and (if you’re a DM) seeking out possibilities for adventures. And of course, we fight on them. A good map is pure potentiality.

There are a number of options available for those of us without the artistic inclination or ability to draw our own. Some are free. Most are reasonably affordable. A full survey is beyond the scope of this article, but I do want to share a map I recently made with Dungeon Fog, an online editor with no-cost, premium and commercial license plans. The image below is the product of about forty-five minute’s efforts, minus the hour or so it took to learn the program. It’s not an artistic masterpiece, but it’s functional, and professional enough looking to put in a published adventure. Check it out:

A map made with the online editor Dungeon Fog

As you can see, it’s not too shabby for less than an hour’s work, although the publicly available, non-exclusive assets mean that you’re probably going to see a lot of maps with similar iconography.

I’ve tried a variety of map-making tools. Campaign Cartographer CC3 is definitely the most powerful of the available software. It costs less than $50 and requires no additional subscription to use your creations in your products. But the CAD-based editor has a steep learning curve, and requires a fair amount of time to produce anything of real quality. I’ve also only had success with the “Overland” map editor. There are options for dungeon and city plans, but they are much harder to master. CC3 is the go to for a lot of professionals. Other fixed cost programs, such as Dunjinni, which makes–you guessed it–dungeons, strike me as a somewhat dissatisfying intermediary between CC3 and Dungeon Fog. It hastoo much of a learning curve to churn out maps at a reasonable pace. But isn’t powerful enough to match CC3’s potential.

What I like about Dungeon Fog is how quick and easy it is to use. I made the above battle map for a Fantasy Grounds adventure I’m writing. The interface is mostly drag and drop with options to paint with the variety of high-res textures available to premium subscribers. Painting these textures, which you can grade and layer by adjusting the opacity, is the crucial step in making the image “pop”. (You might make out the color variations around the walls, and below the trees–simple elements that make a world of difference, even if you aren’t consciously noticing them).

There aren’t many options with Dungeon Fog. It’s not a versatile tool-set. But I’ll say it again: it’s quick. Writing an adventure, even a short one, is an undertaking. There are a plethora of considerations and if you are the sole creator, and you likely won’t have time to cover everything.

One of the negatives is that Dungeon fog somewhat absurdly priced for the commercial license. This is available only by yearly subscription, which costs $90 or so dollars. It is basically a clone of the premium version, which is significantly cheaper. But you can’t use premium assets in any commercial product, which is a problem if you have ambition to sell your work. It’d be nice to sell something, right? That being said, creating your own assets is a time-consuming proposition, and artists do deserve to be reasonably compensated. I just wish there was an option to try the site out for a few months before slamming down the full ninety bucks.

Right now, there are a decent amount of icons available, and the site claims that they add new ones frequently. I did have a hard time creating these ruins, though. Ruins seem like they should have priority, but I had to go to the “jungle” category to find broken walls (which are hidden by the trees). The walls I drew using the “room” tool are nice, but they hardly look crumbling. Since, sunken, broken remnants of the past are a fantasy and adventuring staple, I feel this is a bit of an oversight.

Nonetheless, I’m happy with Dungeon Fog as an effective way to quickly make battle maps that I’m proud to include in my adventures. I haven’t tried the web-program to make an overland map, but so far so good. In a future article, I’m going to make a video demo of my process. But I hope this written account has at least piqued your interest. I’d recommend checking it out for yourself.

The Birth of My Own Setting: World Building for DnD 5e

Map Made with Campaign cartographer

 

Building worlds for Dungeons and Dragons

 

I came to tabletop role playing relatively late in life. From what I understand, most gamers begin in college or earlier, but I was 33 when I rolled my first Dungeons and Dragons 5e character. I’d actually purchased a few rule sets when I was around twelve years old, living in England. They were old Star Wars and Lord of the Rings books and I poured over them for hours, dreaming of running a game. But my social milieu of the time simply didn’t dig the hobby and so I stuck to Warhammer and Magic the Gathering cards, both of which quickly became way too expensive, their business models far too ruthless. For years video games constituted my primary mode of role playing. And I read a ton of fantasy and science fiction novels.

About a year ago, when I attended my first Adventurer’s League event, I had one of those moments some people describe as “Ah-Has”, an experience of something clicking, of finding something special. I wasn’t just hooked on the game, I was hooked on the whole enterprise of creating a fantasy world for people to play in.

I didn’t wait long to start DMing—about three months, just enough time to have a rudimentary sense of the Fifth Edition rules. Part of this was born from being dissatisfied with many of Wizard’s published adventures and The Forgotten Realms setting in general (at least in its current form). Like everyone, I have a lot of opinions, but rather than take to the message boards, I figured I’d just circumvent the angst and start making my own stuff. And I really do love Dungeons and Dragons. I love the old source books, the sense of history, Wizard’s willingness to allow its license to be used for homebrew creations, and the homebrew community in general. Whatever problems I have with the current published adventures is more than balanced by the overall scope of the DnD world.

Of course, as I began to brew my first game, which was set in a world entirely of my own making, I had no idea what I was doing. The world didn’t have a name; the only race I’d really thought of was human; only one region was mapped out; I had no sense of history, culture or commerce; and the names I was using for cities and regions were ridiculous—for some reason the names really bothered me. All I knew was that I wanted something paradoxical—a unique fantasy world with races other than orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, elves, dwarves and other fantasy staples, which nonetheless could support traditional fantasy rulesets and sourcebook that were packed with orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, elves, dwarves and other fantasy staples.

 

How to build a world for Dungeons and Dragons

 

If I was building the world for a novel, this paradox may have stalled or killed the project entirely. But I wasn’t writing fiction. I was running games weekly and this meant I had to come up with content. There were deadlines, otherwise I’d have nothing to present to the six players expecting a story. This forced me to develop the setting, even when I was out of ideas. So things blossomed. The progress wasn’t always favorable. It really was a first draft, almost stream of consciousness, and initially the concept went all over the place. Over the course of seven months or so, my adventures grew tighter, my world more coherent. Perhaps unwisely, I even began to change details mid-campaign—nothing that affected what the players had done, mostly stuff on the margins. But occasionally the name of a city changed, confusing the players (I told you the nomenclature really bugged me), or I wrote out a major plot element that wasn’t working. The latter choice has proven to be prudent as it simply makes the games run better, and frankly the players haven’t cared—they just want satisfying adventures.

Over the summer, I finally named my world: S’Ae’Lien, the Orphan World, a living organism on which has developed a terrestrial crust capable of sustaining life like a planet. To allow other traditional fantasy races space on the otherwise alien plane, I made the setting interplanar. Unlike similar settings, however, I am more interested on who comes to S’Ae’Lien than who leaves it. It is, as the name suggests, a place of orphaned races—people who arrived from different worlds only to find their way home blocked off. The landscape is mostly bizarre. At its center is a world like our own. Travel from this slight sliver of civilization, however, and you find yourself lost in the weird. And although people seem to find themselves marooned there as if guided by an outside force, S’Ae’Lien, the organism that it is, doesn’t always like its guests—at least it doesn’t make it easy for them. It has a consciousness, and an oblique, but definitive sense of right and wrong. It’s not a fan of empires, and so the most populous races have never managed to make too much ground, although even in a limited capacity they have managed to accomplish feats of both beauty and despair. They are in constant struggle against the world itself, and the outcome is often miraculous.

I envision the setting to have enough civilization to enable campaigns or stories of political intrigue and desperate wars. But I am also influenced by the dark, stranger fantasies of writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, even H.P. Lovecraft. Monte Cook’s Planescape Setting for Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Ed. Remains a huge influence, and I’m currently reading through his more recent RPG—Numenera.

Presently, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t work on S’Ae’Lien in some capacity. Whether I’m preparing an adventure for my next DnD session, taking the first tentative steps to write a player’s and DM’s guide for the setting, scribbling notes in the dedicated journal I’ve started, or even planning and writing fiction for the world, I do something. I read source material from a variety of other RPGs for inspiration, trawl homebrew reddit boards and other similar online sites to see what the community is doing, and generally spend a lot of time daydreaming; it’s all-consuming, in a good way.

I’ve written this post because it’s about a year since I started playing DnD. Those twelve months have seen a radical development in my creative life. They are the reason I keep this blog and share my experience running games and immersing myself in the hobby.