Imitation is Flattery – How I attempted to mimic Mike Schley

Jon C. Munson II


The mapping style of Mike Schley is, simply put, beautiful. It is no wonder that Wizards of the Coast sought him out for many of the maps used in their products. His use of line, shading, and slightly muted color do a fantastic job of creating the illusion of a truly hand drawn map with dimensional objects. And, well, for the most part that is exactly what they are – hand drawn, albeit done using programs like Adobe Photoshop and/or others. If you haven’t seen his maps, you really owe it to yourself to take a look at them.

I had always liked Schley’s maps, and wanted to produce a few maps for a module I had in mind for the Dungeons & Dragons group that I run. Knowing how many hours it would take to hand-draw the maps, I looked for a way to cut down some of the time required. Enter ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer 3+ (“CC3+”). The program uses a number of Schley’s symbol packs (for example Symbol Set 4 – Dungeons of Schley), and that was perfect for me. Well, almost – I needed further symbols to suit my module. Now I had to figure out how to both create symbols and emulate Schley’s style to produce the symbols I needed. And, I also had to figure out how to get those into CC3+. It turns out it isn’t a hard job, but, it is a bit tricky, and most of the effort is in creating the symbols themselves. Schley’s style seems to be fairly involved, and that complexity is what makes them so appealing.

Personally, I have no idea how Mike Schley goes about making his symbols or drawing his maps. I have, however, studied his symbols and maps to try and figure out how he makes his creations. Despite many hours, I’m still uncertain of his exact process, but I think I have at least a little idea. I discerned enough to be able to put together symbols that are “close enough” to Schley’s style to be good compliments (at least I think so). Frankly, my goal in trying to figure out his methods wasn’t to be a forger, but, rather, to emulate – I had no desire to be “Mike Schley,” though he is an excellent talent to learn from!

Equipment Needed

Though it is entirely possible to use a mouse to create symbols, I strongly suggest obtaining a graphics tablet. I use a Wacom myself, and highly recommend their tablets. I know of others who use Asian variants with success (depends upon which ones though), so you might be able to get a less-expensive tablet to start.

You’ll also need both raster & vector editing software. While I have Adobe CC, there are other alternatives out there such as Gimp and Inkscape. I have briefly used those in the past, however, as I use Photoshop and Illustrator, I’ll be discussing things from the point of those tools. Most of that discussion should translate to another tool, and you may have to improvise with those other tools.

One thing I cannot get into in this article are the components that make up each symbol – you’ll have to experiment and decide what elements make up your objects. A bit of mechanical drawing is quite helpful, and understanding perspective will come in very handy too. Everything is made up of either, or any number of, rectangles, circles, lines, arcs, etc. Do experiment, and use the Internet to find samples, etc.

Image Sizing

CC3+ symbols have four sizes – Very High, High, Low and Very Low. You want to create symbols at the Very High resolution, and CC3+ will take care of the other sizes when you import them. See the CC3+ documentation for details. In fact, reading through the CC3+ documentation, and consulting the forum, concerning creating symbols is definitely in your interest as well.


Let’s take a look at a simple chair:

There are several things to note about its construction. First, note that the linework of the object forms the description of the object, and the value variations within the object gives a 3D impression. Many of Schley’s symbols don’t include the value, thus producing the “ink” symbols. Second, note the border around the object, and sometimes an inner border around other objects (like a book on a table), is a little thicker than the detail linework. Third, note that the detail linework, when there is value applied, is usually surrounded by a slightly darker value of the “main” value of the object.
Fourth, note that the object itself has variations in value (mimicking “wood” in this case), as well as descriptive value to indicate 3D depth. Finally, note the color – intentionally set to mimic watercolor, the colors are a bit desaturated (wood also has a desaturated tone by virtue). This does not, however, detract from the richness of the symbols, but rather forms a complimentary feel to the heavier linework. The effect is, in essence, a watercolor wash, and is an important element in Schley’s style.

The linework here is really something to be admired – quite a lot of variation in thickness and style. This gives the hand-drawn look to the symbols and is important in order to be able to produce symbols that would compliment Schley’s style.

Now that we have an idea of how Schley creates his symbols in terms of components, we can proceed with creating our own.

Making Our Own

Creating symbols that emulate Schley is actually not a trivial task. There is quite a lot involved, depending upon the complexity of the object, and does require a little artistic flair – not that one must be an artist to create symbols of course. With a bit of effort, you can get pretty close! The real trick is rendering a 3D feel – perspective is something that really “sells” these symbols. The beauty of working on the computer is you can simply delete or undo as much as you like and try again. You may also find that sketching on a piece of paper to be useful practice too. I did just that with a few symbols I made as I found that easier.

The first thing to do is to on the object to be drawn. I will start with an object I created for my symbol set – a cabinet. This symbol doesn’t involve perspective, so is much easier to create.

After a few experiments with creating these symbols (remember, I’m not attempting to “be” Schley), I decided that I would start with vector outlines for my symbols, and that was more easily accomplished in Illustrator (or a vector program of your choice). Illustrator also has a method by which variation in line can be achieved (through a little deformation) that does a good-enough job of giving us a hand-drawn result.

Now, as with any object, we have to draw out the components. If you look at the cabinet carefully, you can see that it can be broken down into a few rectangles, some circles, and some lines. Draw out the components of the cabinet, don’t worry about making it “look like” the symbol I’ve created – just concentrate on the basic shapes. For the sake of learning, you could just create a simple rectangle for now. Be mindful of the width of the stroke – you don’t want anything too wide, nor anything too narrow. The size of your object will dictate the width of the border strokes. Use Schley’s symbol as a guide for border line thickness ratio.

Once you have the shape(s) defined, the next step is to change the line shape from obviously vector to something a little more hand-drawn in appearance. For that, we’ll use the Effect->Distort & Transform->Roughen. In the next dialog, you’ll first want to check the Preview box so you can see what effect changing the command’s parameters has on your object. The Size slider dictates the amount of “wobble” in the line – go ahead, play with it, can’t hurt anything right now. I use a value between 2 and 4 pixels. The Detail slider dictates the frequency that the Size slider occurs. Again, experimentation is key here. The last option, Points, needs to be set to Smooth. You might, on occasion, use the Corner option, but in this case we want Smooth.

As you can see from the preview, your object looks a lot more hand-drawn. If you like your changes, click OK, and move on to the next step.

Once you’ve gotten your basic outlines created and your object defined, export that out as a PSD and open the file in Photoshop. You should then have a “Layer 1” group that is your vector artwork (now rasterized). If your line work is not grouped, create a new group from those layers (you can name it anything you like of course).
In the case of the cabinet, I wanted to make it appear to be made from wood – you could choose other materials, like various kinds of stone, or clay, etc. Creating the subtle impression of wood grain could be a daunting task – there’d be lots of hand-painting to do. However, there is an easier route – using a color fill and a texture to produce the illusion. So, I first used a Color Fill, choosing a wood-like value. Be careful here, wood is not highly saturated, so stay on the desaturated side of the color picker – less saturation is more. Set the blend mode to Multiply, and set the layer as a Clipping Mask on top of the linework layer. This color will help re-value the texture and give a little more room for experimentation. Then I used a free wood texture set to Multiply (there are loads of these on the Internet). You might notice this will make your image a little darker, etc. Using both Levels and Hue/Saturation, I adjusted things to taste. You do not have to use a Color Fill as I did, you could just as easily re-color the texture using adjustments. How you follow what I’ve done is completely up to you.

After that, I added a new layer on which to create the interior linework. Using the standard round brush, keeping my brush size smaller than my border with (about 1/2 or so, adjust to your needs), I drew in the planks and interior borders of the cabinet. This is where studying Schley’s artwork comes in handy. Notice how he created his lines – where it is long, short, dots, etc. Pay attention to how he demarcates curves, grades, slopes, etc. You want to approach that same style to be in keeping with his overall look. Take your time, and feel free to clear the layer and start over. When you want straight strokes, use the Shift key. Otherwise, feel free to “freehand” the line – we are creating hand-drawn symbols after all.

Once you have your linework completed, add an Outer Glow effect set to Multiply, and choose a color that is close to the wood color you are using. Experiment with how strong you want that by changing the Opacity slider. Use Schley’s symbols as a guide, and, of course, these are your symbols, so make them as you wish.

Your interior linework layer should almost always be your top layer – you don’t want to hide those lines beneath other opaque layers, so most of your work from here will go below that layer in the stack. The reason for this will become apparent as you work, however, what will happen is the painting you do will subtly change the linework appearance in ways that are not desirable. Opaque layers and Screen layers will overwrite/lighten your linework. The linework provides a guide for the shading and highlights, that’s why the layer needs to be near topmost in the stack and the other layers lay below.
If you feel you need more shading in places, create another layer, set its Blend Mode to Multiply, and using a more desaturated color, fill in your shading. You should use the Soft Round brush for this to get a feathering effect.

After that, the next step is to add selective highlights. You want to add subtle “high spots” to various portions of the symbol. Create a new layer and set its Blend Mode to Screen. Using the Soft Round brush again, create those highlights. If you are using a tablet, you may wish to set the brush size to pressure to help create variable line widths.

Now, as the vector linework comes in as a group of vector outputs, you want to make a Copy Merged copy of the vector linework to place on top of the interior linework you completed. This way all of your linework will be topmost – ensuring any painting below does not unduly affect it. If the layer is filled with white, just set the Blend Mode to Multiply (Multiply ignores white).

The last thing I added, and you won’t do this to all symbols, is a little bit of drop shadow. Sometimes this is helpful, but can interfere with CC3+ shading algorithm, so be careful how much you apply. A little drop shadow can help “bed” the symbol in your drawings, so they appear to be a part of the map instead of just a “sticker” upon it.

Once done, you’ll save out your symbol as a PNG file (otherwise you won’t get transparency). The next step from there is to import your symbol into CC3+, and that’s beyond the scope of this article – consult the CC3+ documentation for that, and/or search the forum for assistance.

What I’m Doing With My Maps

The module I’ve created was born from a Wizards of the Coast campaign upon which I started my group. There was a nice hook within for a personal offshoot, so I ran with it and created a 4-map, 80+ page dungeon that my players are still trawling (and thoroughly enjoying). The “Munson’s Mines” symbol set was born from this module.

While I don’t have Fantasy Grounds, or a fancy in-table monitor to display my maps to the players, they do receive a copy of the level once they’ve completed it (and explored enough that I don’t mind if a few areas are “uncovered” as a result). I do rather prefer they do things the old-fashioned way and map their way by hand – provides more immersion factor I think. After they’ve explored everything, I don’t mind handing them a “player copy.” They get to see just where they got confused with directions, and how accurately they rendered the location. They have really enjoyed the module, and really like the maps. I should probably print them larger, as much of the details I’ve put in get lost on an 8.5×11 (A4) sheet.

CC3+ is a fantastic CAD program for mapping our fantasy worlds as it is feature- and, most importantly, symbol-rich, and I hope this article inspires you to create your own symbols to add to it.

4 Responses to “Imitation is Flattery – How I attempted to mimic Mike Schley”

  1. Can’t you just draw the symbols on a sheet of paper scan them and send them into CC3+?

  2. I actually have a pad at home but I was wondering why one couldn’t draw the image scan it to a pdf convert it to png and just import it into CC3+?

  3. You can certainly do that, the only difficulty is that the scan doesn’t give you a transparent background. You have to remove the white background with a graphics editor, and that can leave some ugly white/grey outlines around the image.

  4. Nice article Jon, thanks for writing it up. I hope you are considering publishing your adventure on the DMsGuild at least when your players are done with it. All that effort should be shared! Plus you might make enough to buy some beer and pizza! (At a minimum.)

    Kevin, As mentioned, you can certainly hand draw your own symbols, but creating them digitally has a lot of benefits, such as; color and shape variations, ability to re-use parts to combine into other symbols, and of course, the ability to cleanly erase/delete parts and correct “mistakes”.

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