Use Custom Textures to Make Your Maps Pop (by Joe Sweeney)

Chinese Summer PalaceIn the past month, I have begun to release many of the custom tiles I use. And others have begun to join me. You can find this growing collection in the Master Mapping Tile Library.

But this begs the question… why invest time in making custom tiles? And how do you make ‘em in the first place? First up, let’s answer why custom tiles are worth the effort.

Custom tiles let you add a unique WORLD flavour to your maps. Different cultures in your world will have different aesthetics. Their buildings will not only be designed differently, but will be made of different materials used in different ways with different artistic flair. Consider the Chinese Summer Palace, Westminster Abby, the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, and the Villa Romana La Olmeda. As soon as you glance at any of these images, you are immediately transported to their culture – you know something about the people that made them. What they valued, how they viewed the world.

Westminster AbbeyBy mapping unique cultural aesthetics, you reinforce the game world and its peoples in a deeply effective way. This is true for fantasy settings, but also doubly so for science fiction! Think back to the classic TV series Babylon 5, where each species had its own ‘look’ that went all the way to their clothing and starship designs. Star Trek does the same thing. The style of these different cultures’ structures and architecture is a signature of the species itself. It conveys a lot about them.

For cartographers, this means that we can use the aesthetics of architectures we map to convey the culture that built them. And one of the most effective ways to do this is to use custom tiles. Or more specifically, sets of themed custom tiles.

Temple of Queen HatshepsutIn High-Space, we have dozens of alien species, each of which has a rich culture. The humans are techno-junkies, that favour chrome and cyber-circuitry plus carpets and lit metal panels. In contrast, their closest pals, the Phoxin, are bison-sized bio-smiths that favour organic spaces, with moist loam, algae blooms, and walls of living plant matter. The Psionic Soamata, having evolved on dry crystal-sand planes, favour delicate carved sandstone facades. And the grumpy iron bugs… well, heavy metal and rust would best describe their look.
Therefore, when I set out to create a set of battle maps in the High-Space universe, I first look at who built the location where the action will take place, and then set about selecting themes of textures that will match that culture.

Villa Romana La OlmedaIf I can find open-source tiles that match, great. If not, it’s time to crank up specialised art software and get to work…
Which brings us to the second question… how to make seamless tiles that work well with CC3+? While photoshop can help you create seamless tiles, I do not recommend it. Creating a tile with Photoshop is akin to pulling out your own eyes with a chopstick. It may be a cool party trick, but it’s painful and often result in things that are just ugly. Instead, I strongly recommend investing in a dedicated tool.

My tool of choice for this is FilterForge. It is a programmatic art package which is really designed for 3D modellers and digital artists. It is programmatic because it allows you to create your own ‘filters’ by wiring up small chunks of graphical algorithms to create a highly customable visual effect – in our case, seamless tiles.

FilterForge has a drawback. It is expensive. I mean, really expensive. The edition I use has a list price of US$828 (though you can get it for about $600 with special offers that they run frequently).
The good news is, they have a cheaper, less functional version for about US$150. The bad news is, that solution does not support 16 or 32 color, high-precision, hi-definition output. For an average map, that’s not a big issue. But if you are planning print-ready professional maps… well… you *may* notice the difference. But for 98% of us, it won’t be an issue.

The other limitation with the cheap version of FIlterForge is that you cannot customise the filters. But given that there are literally thousands of ready-made, freely downloadable filters, the inability to customise may not be that big an issue for hobbyists.

In short, if want to churn out lots of tiles are that are variations on a theme – which is the perfect scenario for us mappers – then FilterForge Standard at US$149 will be good enough most of the time.
If you don’t want the expense of making your own tiles, you can always grab some from the growing Master Mapper free community collection, here.

The next question is, how to design the tiles so they not only look good, but also PLAY WELL on the table.

When you design your tiles for a use with minis, always consider this rule: how will the tile’s texture ‘line up’ with the traditional 5f step grid for most games? Start by planning your tiles as 1200×1200 pixel images. Why 1200×1200? First of all, it is a standard size used by ProFantasy for hi-res files. Secondly, 1200 is a very flexible number – it can be divided by 2, 3, 4 and 6. Which means is can scale well as a repeating texture for many different mapping situations.

I make the assumption that my 1200×1200 pixel tile will fill a 10x10f space on my maps (or 3mx3m for sci-fi metric maps). This means each tile I create is a grid of four 5f steps. When designing the tile, I try to take into account that it will be aligned to a 5f grid, and I make sure that design enhances that grid, or at the very least does not clash with it. Check out my video on how to use the latest edition of FilterFilter to make tiles here.

Once you’ve made the tiles, it’s time to bring them into CC3+. The first thing to do is collect all the tiles of a similar theme into a single folder. Then move that folder of tiles into the CC3+ bitmap tiles folder. This can be a little tricky to find, depending on your computer’s setup. You can see how do this in the following video. The reason you put the files into this special folder is it ensure that your maps can be loaded onto other computers without incurring massive amounts of rework. Trust me. This little extra step now will save you a lot of trouble in the future.

Now fire up CC3+ and create a new map or load a map where you’d like to use your new tiles. Click on TOOLS and select Import Bitmap Fill Styles.

On the screen that pops up, make sure you have the “relative to CC3 path” set and click the Browse button to locate the folder where your tiles are located. Select and open any one tile in that folder.
Next check ‘Scaled” and then set the width and height for your tile to 10f.

Click on OK and bob’s your uncle – you’ve now added those fills to your map that you can use just like all the other standard fills. The part 2 video, above, shows you the entire process.

So, to summarize:

  1. Create groups of themed custom tiles to highlight the cultural aesthetics in your world.
  2. Consider using a dedicated texture / tile making solution, such as FilterForge
  3. Download sets of tiles from the Master Mapping Community Library, here.
  4. When creating your own tiles, make then 1200×1200 pixels and plan for them to be placed on your maps at 10fx10f scale (or 3mx3m scale for metric maps).
  5. Always move your files in folders under the ProFantasy Bitmap Tiles folder.
  6. Using the Tools – Import Bitmap Fill Styles function to get your tiles loaded into your maps.

Best regards, Joe

All images are by unknown authors, licensed under CC BY-SA.

One Response to “Use Custom Textures to Make Your Maps Pop (by Joe Sweeney)”

  1. Thanks so much for this.

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