Mapping Narratives by Mike Schley

Isometric ViewWhat is a map and how can it tell a story? To explore the question, let’s begin by defining our terms. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cartography is “the science or practice of drawing maps”. So what is it then that we’re creating in this process and how do we know if we’re achieving our goals? Furthermore, how can we tell that our efforts are making the most of the medium we’ve chosen to communicate with our audience? Returning to the Oxford English Dictionary for another clarification of terms might help here. A map, used as a noun, indicates “a diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.”. In addition, it can also refer to a representation of the position of objects in outer space, or more generally, the arrangement of any collection of information with regard to its distribution over an area or sequence in a progression. In a nutshell, a map is a selective re-presentation of facts as they relate to one another in space or time. When used as a verb, mapping speaks to the act of organizing or defining those relationships with the aim of creating a depiction that can be used for either internal reference or communication with others. With this in mind, the choices that we make in the process of building a map inform not only its technical function and visual flavor but also its ability to serve as a non-linear narrative ripe for expansion.

Forlorn CottageIn my mind, the difference between a simple diagram and a cartographic masterpiece lies in the manner in which the work engages its audience. Some of the best maps I can think of remind me of sandboxes filled with intriguing story seeds. Wherever you look there is enough detail to lose yourself in but there also exists ample room for the imagination to build and expand on what’s given. A great map presents itself as more than simple data. The rabbit holes within a truly engaging map are as varied as its viewers and as numerous as each moment an eye traces a path across its surface. With this in mind, how we choose what is important enough to include and what should be omitted defines the true character of our creation. It’s this judgment and practice that makes all the difference.

Now that we know the basic framework of the activity we’re engaged in, let’s look at some specifics concerning how to move forward. The scope of our interest here is presumably limited to the crafting of fantasy maps, particularly that sort defined by the needs of role-playing game masters looking to visualize sites for exploration, encounter settings, or storytelling. Since we aren’t necessarily worried about maintaining fidelity to a real-world location, then the focus of our overall aim shifts and we are allowed to build the world with more of a free hand. As a result, the initial design and layout steps serve a more essential function since the location is built from the ground up.

FloorplanWith this leeway, the inherent narrative nature of a map becomes that much more apparent. You’re telling the story, or setting the stage for a multitude of stories, by how you develop your picture. That being said, logical issues of physics, geomorphology, and tendencies of habitation are extremely important to consider since an environment that doesn’t make sense sets up roadblocks to storytelling that at their worst can become glaring holes in the plot. Even in the most fantastical world, if your river is running uphill then there better be a mighty good reason for it as well as an accompanying basin for all that water to drain into. Magic and otherworldly influences can drastically affect the underlying rules of the game but the response to those peculiarities needs to be logical. If your world is built on the back of an enormous turtle, then make sure to spend some time thinking about its implications and build the map accordingly. To expand on this, can nuances of your map speak to larger issues outside its boundaries? How can those unique details lead the reader or player to ask questions that spur them on to further adventures? The river that suddenly jumps its banks to cascade into the sky is a perfectly weird device that can set the stage for an excellent beginning to an adventure.

Outside RuinsAll maps present some form of constructed narrative such that in order for them to function as representations of something else, or worlds unto themselves, they are utterly reliant on decisions made by their creator. These choices are an outgrowth of the cartographer’s point of view and are a function of the creative process. In other words, if a patch of ground were simply duplicated to the last detail it would be a copy rather than a description and it’s in the description that we can find our voices as artists and authors. These determinations give identity to a map and define the purpose it serves. Something as simple as the manner in which a hierarchy of information is organized speaks volumes about the interests and drives of the artist. Allowing these choices to inform and reflect the character of your work makes for a richly compelling creation that feels much more alive than one whose features might seem overabundant, meager, or capricious.

Selecting what to reveal and what to omit is as vital to the process of drawing a map as it is to writing a story. Show your viewers what you’d like to tell them and let their imagination play with those details. What you choose to include will provide game masters and players alike the story landmarks they may respond to while the components you omit can potentially indicate a mystery or leave room for later editorial changes and expansion down the road. This organic living nature is a vitally important aspect of any captivating image whether it takes the form of a fog-of-war mechanic or the inclusion of a mysterious cave entrance in a traditional paper map. Leave something to be explored. This is particularly true of regional maps where the words ‘Terra Incognita’ serve like a beacon into the great unknown.

Print TileWhen designing the overall look and feel of your image, also consider how much is too much. The last thing a map should be is confusing, unless that’s a plot device you’re specifically aiming for. There is a balance that needs to be kept in mind in order to avoid the all too common cluttered look that occurs when a map becomes practically illegible due to the overabundance of information. If everything is included without respect to what really needs to be shown, the resulting visual noise can potentially drown out what’s actually important. Leave some room to breathe in the image and vary your object sizes, areas of contrast, visual density etc to avoid monotony. The fundamentals of design are just as important here as they would be in painting a landscape, since in a manner, that’s what we’re doing. Typically it’s a top-down landscape, but it’s still a landscape nonetheless. Luckily for us, we have the good fortune of being able to employ a wealth of tools that the traditional landscape painter might lack access to such as symbols, text, and multifaceted media.

Printed MapFinally, I can’t emphasize enough the fact that any map you create is only a starting point presenting your view of the world being shown. It’s a beginning so make sure to set the stage for the coming adventures embarked upon by your audience. Give it some life and don’t shy away from suggesting potential storylines that might be ripe for development. Visual narratives don’t need to be linear or even complete but they do require thought in their employment. Give the audience little nuggets of gold and they’ll dig into and expand on your creation by mining the depths of their own imagination. It’s not only your tale that’s being told here, especially where role-playing maps are concerned. It’s a partnership, a collaborative adventure embarked upon in the minds of each person huddled around your map.

Mike Schley
“As an illustrator and cartographer I’ve created a large number of pieces for publishers such as Wizards of the Coast, HarperCollins Publishing, and Inkle Studios. Of these, I’m most recognized for my development of environmental artwork and maps for the fantastical worlds of Dungeons & Dragons.”

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