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Behind the Curtain: Maps with Jonathan Roberts

Behind the Curtain: Maps with Jonathan Roberts

Ankeshel map This week sees the release of Sunken Empires, and already bursting at the seams, there was simply too much material for its pages alone. It was packed to the GILLS! Ha! Ahem, anyway… this week, to celebrate, Kobold Quarterly presents new gaming bits, complementing what’s already packed within Sunken Empires and all from the same designers—there’s additional spells for manipulating ioun stones and the water around you, there’s additional lost technologies, there’s even a new monster. And more!


Jonathan Roberts has done some amazing cartography for Sunken Empires—you saw a preview of his work a few weeks ago. Wonderfully, he answered a few of our questions and discusses how it all took shape…

KQ: How did you go about mapping a city built over ruins, and half-sunken?

JR: The art brief for cassedega was wonderfully comprehensive. I was given 5 pages of description with images of Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as previous maps for inspiration. The style of the ruins represents a great fallen city with technology far beyond the current norm. I was encouraged to build in spiral designs and shapes based on the golden ratio. On top of those ruins are two halves of modern day Cassedega—one above the water and one below. For these cities, the brief was a bit looser with a list of interesting locations that should be somewhere on the map.

To create a convincing map, I first created a detailed sketch of the ancient city of Ankeshel. I used a lot of spirals, concentric circles related by the golden ratio, golden triangles, and as many geometric shapes as I could. I built in an aqueduct and tried to make sure that, even when it was ruined, some of those patterns would be clear and obvious, such as the spiral canals and the counter spiraling domed hills.

Once the city was laid out, I designed a means of automatically reducing the whole city to rubble using some custom brushes in photoshop. That was a lot of fun and so much faster than drawing every last fallen rock. I built in the cracks from the tectonic shifts that sank the city and raised it again and figured out where the water line would be.

With the city well and truly destroyed I went back in to place the current cities of Cassedega. I was more careful here, using some of the old structures as guides for the current cities—after all, if you had a ruined city, there’s a logic to using some of the walls and foundations that are already there—and placed other buildings in new-build districts. Once those were in place, it was really just a matter of clearly labeling the locations of interest.

What unexpected challenges did you run into with this map?

It took a bit of work to work out how to take a city map and ruin it. I also needed to find a balance between seeing the patterns and structures of the ruins without the detail, making it impossible to see the shape of the current city. I hope that all of the work in the design of the old city provides enough background texture to draw the eye in and really hook the viewer without overwhelming the real map.

The other challenge was that this was initially commissioned as a black and white map and then turned into a colour map for the pdf version of the sourcebook. Details that work in one don’t necessarily work in another, so you’ll notice that there are some changes between the two versions, particularly in the sea.

Do you think about how inhabitants use a city, or do you mostly consider the overall look of the map when you’re doing a piece like this?

We’re in the business of helping people suspend their disbelief. If a map shows something that’s not functional, then people are going to have a hard time suspending their disbelief. The one thing I never want to happen is for a player to look at a map and ask “but why is that there?” and for the GM to have to answer “I don’t know, perhaps it’s a mistake in the map”.

A city map is no different. In this case I considered how people moved around and traded. I placed a dock right at the edge of the deep water drop, so ships with a deep draught had somewhere to dock. I placed shallow docks away from the underwater city so that surface traffic wouldn’t be skimming over the roofs of the merfolk. The floating market lies on the edge of both cities so that it truly acts as neutral ground. I made sure that richer areas had more space and poorer areas had smaller, more clustered buildings. Even though the different quarters aren’t explicitly listed, the visual cues and the specific locations should allow a GM to say, “this is the merchant quarter, these are the rich estates, this is the poor waterfront district”. My hope is that the layout gives a viewer the impression that this is a real working city—even though it’s a city built half on and half under the sea on top of the ruins of an ancient civilization.

In the case of the ruins of Ankeshel, I didn’t worry too much about all the roles of the different housing areas since we’re only seeing the ruins of one sector of the city, and that city is already alien and unusual. In a sense it’s a good thing if the players look at those ruins and ask “why?”

10 thoughts on “Behind the Curtain: Maps with Jonathan Roberts”

  1. Speaking from experience it was always great to work with Jonathan – he’s so nice and damnably talented! Looks like he’s outdone himself this time though. I’m green with envy… or is that aboleth slime?

    Nice to hear his thought processes (especially since mapping is my kyrptonite). Couldn’t agree more.

  2. Bill "Varianor" Collins

    Very cool to hear the thought process! (I loved the map from the minute I saw it.) I’m starting to think that city design should start with the mapper and go from there. :D

  3. Quite a few of the best maps HAVE started with the mapper; this Sunken Empires map is just the most recent example of that.

    I’m thinking of the Undermountain maps by Dave Sutherland in particular. He drew those huge poster maps long before there was an adventure to go with them.

  4. Is the picture in this post the turnover map from Brandon or was it a milestone sketch from Jonathan?

    Meanwhile…Jonathan, I’m really loving your maps and the one for Cassadega is gorgeous beyond words. I really enjoyed the behind the curtain peek at your technique and approach to your art.

  5. The map pic above isn’t my turnover. Damn I wish!

    Rather, what you see is Jonathan’s first version of the original city before the cataclysm. He mapped out the streets and buildings of old Ankeshel, then destroyed it, then sank it.

    Pretty ingenious, eh?

  6. Yep, I decided the best way to draw a ruined city was to draw it and then ruin it. Certainly took a little longer but I think it was worth it.

    @Daigle: I’m really pleased you like it. I’m glad I had the opportunity to do a colour version as well as the black and white.

    @Brandon: The turnover picks were really great actually. They gave me all the information and style I needed to go forward with the map.

    Now who’s going to get me to do the full colour unsunken version of the north quarter of Ankeshel … :)

  7. Thanks Jon! I look forward to working with you sometime in the future, and of course, seeing more of your fine maps.

  8. kunger00 (Keith Unger)

    I have to admit, the color version of this map available in the pdf is breathtaking. It is georgeous enough that I’d buy a poster version to hang on the wall of my game room. Very well done. Very well done indeed.

  9. Wow, thanks a lot Keith! That’s very kind. It’s designed to be printed at 300dpi at letter size, so to print it as a poster you’d lose quality. It might be okay at 200dpi (which would be 16.5 by 12.5 inches or so) but any larger and it would look fuzzy. Now you just need to persuade Wolfgang to sell it through Gamerprintshop :)

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