A Sense of Scale (by Glynn Seal)

What is the scale of this map?

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It is difficult to tell. There are no scale markers, scale bar, or grid overlay. The only things we see to gauge the scale is the graphical representation of the trees and the river. The river could be 3 miles wide or it could be 100 feet wide. We do not know. The trees narrow this down a little as we could assume a tree is 100 feet tall and take it from there. Still a guess, but we are getting more of a sense of scale.

If we assumed the river was 1 mile across, the trees would also be roughly a mile high, and the map confuses us because the trees are shown at a more exaggerated scale.

When a map needs almost no scale indications other than the graphical representations, it works best. The interpretation of the maps relationship between features becomes easier, and after all, that is the job of a map.

There is nothing wrong with having features out of scale compared to each other and then having scale bars and reference dimensions, but it tends to make the map feel odd if the features aren’t at least, to some degree, realistically scaled. If you have fun creating maps, that is the main point.

Here is a photo I took whilst coming in to land at an airport in England. Look at the trees. They look like broccoli.

This image is a great reference for how trees, fields, buildings, and roadways might look on your map of a similar scale.
For those interested, this is the location on Google Maps: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@52.3593088,-1.8766505,2134a,35y,90h,38.86t/data=!3m1!1e3

I can also highly recommend looking at the following resources to see how features look from above the ground:
• Google Maps – https://www.google.co.uk/maps/ (switch on terrain view). It also has a ‘tilt’ 3D feature that allows you to see features in oblique aerial view.
• Bing Maps – https://www.bing.com/maps (switch on aerial view). Also note that Bing Maps has a great ‘bird’s eye view’ feature that can help with oblique aerial views.
• Google Earth – https://www.google.co.uk/intl/en_uk/earth/. This really is a great tool in the mappers arsenal.

Measuring Tools

The above resources also allow you to measure distances and can be invaluable when you want to know how large half a mile, 5 miles or 40 miles looks from the air. Specifically, Google Earth has tools that allow you to place and measure the areas of circles, polygons. This is incredibly useful in garnering a sense of scale.

Scaling Trees

Let us take a quick look at trees. We all know what a clump of trees looks like, but they look different depending on how far away you are from them. If the map is a battlemap or a regional map, then representing trees (or other features) at the correct relative scale is important to aid a sense of scale for the map.

Let’s take a look at some differing sketches of trees that we could use to represent on a map.

Some links to ‘Top Down’ views of trees in order of proximity to the ground:
1. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@52.7441187,-2.0406674,164m/data=!3m1!1e3
2. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@52.7439175,-2.0401621,389m/data=!3m1!1e3
3. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@52.7435139,-2.0385929,1151m/data=!3m1!1e3

Some links to ‘Oblique Aerial’ views of trees in order of proximity to the ground:
1. https://binged.it/2GbdNRA
2. https://binged.it/2Gat5WQ
3. See photo from aircraft above.

A more advanced technique for top down forests, but much quicker and easier for large areas of trees is to use digital tools. In this example, I am using ArtRage 5, but the tools are available in programs such as Photoshop and Gimp. I am selecting a particle type brush in a green colour. The brush is set to have a little colour and luminance value variance.
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I can then add some ‘drop shadow’ effect to the layer upon which this was brushed.
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This gives it a sense of depth.

When upon a background, it completes the illusion of a forest from a much higher vantage point and becomes more suitable for regional maps.
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Scaling Mountains

We can apply the same kind of ideas to mountains. Here are some links to mountains at various distances from ground level:

Some links to ‘Top Down’ views of mountains in order of proximity to the ground:
1. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@47.1627293,12.1812876,12246m/data=!3m1!1e3
2. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@47.0934801,12.2144138,49403m/data=!3m1!1e3
3. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@46.8237988,11.0920616,234301m/data=!3m1!1e3

Some links to ‘Oblique Aerial’ views of mountains in order of proximity to the ground:
1. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@47.0566826,12.1812876,15142a,35y,37.4t/data=!3m1!1e3
2. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@46.4817889,12.1445335,85076a,35y,34.55t/data=!3m1!1e3
3. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@45.470392,11.5212508,246225a,35y,30.96t/data=!3m1!1e3

Think of mountains as a series of ridges and then valleys either side. Water flows down into the valleys and lakes and rivers are often found here, as well as glaciers into colder and higher areas.
https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@46.561726,10.7213714,12602a,35y,37.57t/data=!3m1!1e3

So, let’s take a quick sketch look at how we could represent mountains from varying distances from the ground. In the examples below, isolated mountains can be represented as shown on the left, and ranges of mountains shown as those on the right. The centre top is a more illustrative version of a mountain range.
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A little bit of shading adds to the illusion.
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We have another digital technique for top down mountains, which is again much quicker and easier for mountain ranges. In this example I am using ArtRage 5, but again, the tools are available in programs such as Photoshop and Gimp.

I am using a brush which some opacity, so I can build up layers and has some pressure sensitivity.
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Then the magic bit. We use layer effects to add an ‘emboss, inside’ effect. Me make the contours sharp and as deep and as tall as possible using the ‘Radius’ and ‘Depth’ effects.
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We can also adjust the ‘Radius’ down to turn the whole thing just as easily into a plateau.

A little bit of background and we are looking more realistic.
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We can add the forested areas like we discussed earlier to this same mountain range and finish off with some texturing to the trees and mountains.
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The sense of scale for the above is much more evident.

We can use similar techniques to create a lone mountain too, by stacking mountain layers on top of each other.
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And with woodland added to help with the scaling.
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It is even possible to take images created like the above and use as textures in 3d software. SketchUp is a fabulous bit of free software and can be used to lay images (textures) onto the faces of models (https://www.sketchup.com/products/sketchup-free). You would use the SandBox Tools: https://help.sketchup.com/en/article/3000130
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When rendered, these can be very attractive gaming handouts.
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Conclusion

So, in closing, given the above comments and the vast array of tools available, the key bit of advice is to look at nature using the available resources at your disposal. From that, you can graphically represent features that fit the scale of the map you are working on. This in turn should make it more intuitively interpreted.

Thanks for reading, Glynn

Glynn is the owner of MonkeyBlood Design & Publishing. Specialising in cartography, artwork, graphic design, and layout for the table-top gaming industry, Glynn is also a published author and has run two successful Kickstarter campaigns for game setting materials.

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