The poster map included in the Southlands setting guide is truly unlike anything that’s been attempted in RPG gaming, representing a level of detail for fantasy geography that’s just amazing. As interesting is the “fly-by” view of the Southlands that was posted as part of the incentives to participate in the Southlands kickstarter. Both were the work of Anna B. Meyer, who in a short time has made quite a splash with her digital cartography.
Q: Anna, how did you find your way into being a creator of roleplaying game cartography?
A combination of interest, I think. Gaming of course, but also, landscape photography, maps in general and the fact that I love to look at landscapes from the ground and air.
Like most gamers I have dabbled with most aspects of RPGs, rules, monster design, and so on, being at best moderately successful. Mapping started the same way—something I did for my own games. Computer technology and all the new possibilities that opened up spoke right to my passion and I was hooked.
Then the Internet came along and I started to share my results online. Slowly but steadily, interest grew and lead to paid commissions, an ENnie nomination, and lots of publicity.
Q: In July, you did an KP interview with Marc Radle that said you had a fondness for maps since you were a kid. Did you lug atlases home from the library? Collect roadmaps? Draw them with crayon? Scratch them in the dirt?
As a young kid, I drew maps of my neighborhood and we used them in our play. So my fascination with maps started early. I was the family navigator when were out driving, trying to read maps even before I could read properly. I had a desire to see what was around the bend or over the hill, and maps both fueled that desire and helped satisfy it. I drooled over all sorts of maps, especially colorful ones about foreign places I could only hope to get to.
Q: What is the community of RPG cartographers like? Is it supportive? Competitive? Are there social media venues for cartographers and what role do they play in your work?
Very supportive to say the least, I see others that do what I do as colleagues and friends. I share my passion with them rather than compete. To learn and be inspired by the best is a very important part of what I do. Another vital part is social media where I can connect with fans and other creators. The feedback and criticism they offer me are invaluable to me as my best form of research help, quality control, and one of my biggest source of ideas.
Q: Gamers in North America probably first became aware of your work based on your maps of the Flanaess/Greyhawk. Tell us about that journey.
It started as a series of maps in the form of pencil sketches I made for my own games back in the 80s. Nothing spectacular at all, and if it weren’t for computers and the new possibilities that they brought, it would have remained sketches for my own games. But in the late 90s, thanks to software like Photoshop, Bryce, and CorelDraw, my mapping efforts took on a whole new direction. I bought Bryce in 1998 and spent months of free time trying to bend it to my will, and the work on what would become my Flanaess map started.
For many years, it was just a hobby project that I worked on a few hours per week at best, and progress was slow. Computing power was also a big limit and I bet on Moore’s Law to come to my rescue. My map expanded a bit with each computer upgrade, and when my computer couldn’t handle the load any longer I had to plan my next upgrade.
With the help of Moore’s Law and a lot of persistence and over a decade, the end was in sight. Five years ago I moved to California and decided to work on my Flanaess map full time until it was finished. It took me three years and earned me an ENnie nomination. All in all, I think I spend a bit more than five years of full-time work to create one of the most detailed RPG maps ever created.
Q: What is it about Greyhawk that is fascinating as a player and as a cartographer?
My fascination with Greyhawk started with envy and coincidence. My first gaming group had a DM who ran a homebrew campaign loosely based on Middle Earth. It was like magic to me; he could conjure a world full of fantasy and adventure and I didn’t understand how it was possible. Then, at one of my frequent visits to our game store, I found the golden Greyhawk boxed set. I bought it and started reading, and quickly realized this is how you do it! I had discovered my Pandora’s box of fantasy world creation.
Then I read all of Tolkien’s books and may other works on fantasy fiction, and found the rich sources our great DM had used in his games. When I’m playing as a regular player nowadays, I prefer to play in other campaign worlds as a way of expanding my horizons. But Greyhawk remains my fantasy home and is still the go-to place for the times I’m running games.
Greyhawk is far from unique. There are several campaign worlds that are equally interesting and as much of a challenge to map. My affinity for Greyhawk is probably mostly a sign of my age and the fact that I started gaming when D&D was a new game.
Thanks to Kobold Press and the Southlands, I have had the pleasure to work on expanding Midgard, which was a real treat! The downside with the way I’m working is that the detail requires extensive knowledge of the setting, which has turned out to be a major obstacle for me working on other settings. It would require months of research and just gathering all the sources—a major undertaking in itself. With Midgard, I have the creators feeding me all the things I need to know!
Q: Southlands was a daunting project. In that previous interview with Marc Radle, you explained in a detailed fashion how you work digitally. But at the end you teased a side project? Can you share with us what that is?
My side project was to zoom in and detail some iconic locations to produce 3-D views, posters, and a detailed map. Time and technical limitations meant that it had to be pushed into the future. But it wasn’t the end. Thanks to Wolfgang’s enthusiasm and trust in me, a new project not yet announced is under way that will do even more than what I had in mind for the Southlands one.
My skills and the tools have improved a lot in two years so now a new generation of campaign setting cartography is taking shape, and Midgard will be the first setting to take advantage of it. It has been a slow start but finally the results are starting to come.
Q: What activities do you enjoy outside of gaming? Does any of it inspire your work?
I’m an avid hiker and photographer, and landscapes are one of my favorite motifs. Wandering in nature with my cameras is one of my favorite things to do and a big inspiration. Shapes, colors, and landscape characteristics are something I take with me into my work.
Flying has been a passion for me since I started flying gliders as a teenager. Nowadays cost and age have forced me to abandon my real flying career, so I have put my powerful computers I to good use in my spare time as well as running professional flight simulators. A few hours every week, I virtually conduct flying adventures with my dog as a co-pilot. We have flown around half the world and are currently in Cairns, Australia. This has also led me to start dabbling in creating scenery for flight simulators, which requires basically the same tools I’m using for my RPG maps, so there are a lot of synergies to exploit there.
I’m also very interested in politics, and, being a liberal, I’m helping a friend who is running for Congress, managing his IT and do photography for his campaign.
My interest in nature and wildlife have made me volunteer at a natural reserve nearby. Reading is the passion that fills out the rest of my time.
Q: What happens when you encounter a map order or a place in Greyhawk and the flow of rivers and shape of coastlines don’t match what we know about real-life land formations? What do you do?
A very good question, and one that I had to try and solve several times. My first step is to go to the written sources, which I usually see as more important than maps. The reason for this is that my experience tells me that RPG maps are usually created afterward to illustrate the text, and often by someone with limited knowledge of the subject being mapped. I’ve been there so I know!
Once I’ve looked at the sources, I ty to “interpret” (read: bend) them into something that will work for me. But in some cases in a fantasy world, things should be weird and not of this world so it is a delicate balance. It has to make some sort of sense, either through geology, magic, or some other specific force that makes sense for the setting in question.
In traditional fantasy mapping, this was less of a problem, but when you work with 3-D modeling, you actually have to try to work out how that river flows, which forces me to take these issues a bit more seriously.
Q: In hand-drawn maps, the topography of mountains is usually exaggerated, relative to the scale of the map being shown. Where do you fall on that sort of thing?
For more inspirational maps used in games, exaggerated features work really well. I totally understand why this is the norm and used for some of the best maps ever created. I admire and envy the best cartographers’ fantastic creations using this technique.
I see maps as a compromise between beauty and information, and individual maps fall anywhere along this continuum from simple information to pure work of art. Instead of trying to copy them, I set out to create maps that were a bit useful for me in my games rather than just splendid works of art. So my maps probably fall a bit more toward information than works of art within traditional RPG cartography.
My desire is to map it in real size. That way my efforts are usable at any scale from a world view to a zoomed-in view of a town in that world. The problem with this is that what is going into a published product is dictated by the physical format, and when you’re squeezing in a continent on a page or a poster, even the biggest of mountains becomes just a speck on the map.
So for practical reasons, cheating by exaggerating the size of terrain features becomes almost necessary. Thankfully digital publishing is coming to help me out, where a variety of views can be accommodated and even zoomable and dynamic formats are possible. The big advantage of the way I work is that I create once and then a myriad of maps becomes possible without much extra work. It is the same technology shift that has occurred in real mapping; I’m just trying to work out how to apply the technology to fantasy worlds that only exist in the imagination of gamers and authors, to help them bring the world to life.
Q: Am I understand that you once lived in Sweden but now call California home? How have you navigated that change? What’s rewarding? What are you still getting used to? What do you miss?
Yes, I was born and bred in Sweden, and I moved to southern California five years ago. The U.S. and California are fantastic in many ways, especially for someone with my interests. There are no shortages of gamers, air shows, and hiking terrain around here. So I’ve had a lot of things to discover since I move here, and the climate here has perfect weather almost the entire year. To be honest, even the worst winter storms here have only been like a mild breeze for someone brought up with semi-arctic to arctic weather where the hurricane season starts in October and snow shovels are necessary, even needed. I had to resort to using a chainsaw to cut my way through fallen trees along the road to get home. It makes for a memorable night doing that way out in nowhere using your car to light up things.
The American obsession with rules and in particular restrictions is something I’m less keen about. I miss the Scandinavian tradition of having the rights to roam anywhere, across lands of almost every kind except people’s backyards. The land of the free is in at least one way Scandinavia where Swedes and Norwegians couldn’t have it any other way, which is something I miss at times when even nature reserves close at sunset.
Q: What’s it like being nominated for an ENnie? What are your hopes for the Southlands maps?
That was a great honor and the ceremony was fantastic. It is the biggest award in the business. Being nominated for my first project was a bit like an actor being nominated for an Oscar for his first role. That I didn’t win was probably a good thing. Now I have that experience to look forward to!
My hopes for the Southlands map are good, and being nominated is the biggest hurdle. There are probably dozens of maps competing for a nomination and only a few of them compete for the ENnie. To win you need to have a big fan base, so if the Southlands can get nominated, there is a fair chance it can win!
Q: Any projects in the pipeline you can share with us?
I’m working on a project for Kobold Press right now. As part of that, the Grand Duchy and the central lands of Midgard are my focus for the moment. It’s being mapped at a detail level that has never been attempted before in the RPG business.
As the first part of this project, Wolfgang and I have also created a sketch of the entirety of Midgard, which I think is the first time that has been done. It will be the basis for future endeavors to map the Midgard setting.
After completing the first pass of Midgard, I will go back to Greyhawk and do a map to celebrate all the support my fans have shown me and create a map covering Hommlet, Nulb, and Temple of Elemental Evil. It will be a noncommercial project free to download for all. This map will also be an example to kick off my custom mapping service.
Q: To conclude each interview, I’m asking each person to think about something fantastic or wonderful (or scary) from all the KP products that would make an awesome gift for Wolfgang. Basically, let’s fill up Wolfgang’s garage with weird and wonderful stuff. What gift would you choose and why?
As a cartographer, it has to involve maps in some way. Recently I saw a 3-D printer that could print in full color and since Midgard is a flat world I would love to use it to create a 3-D map of Midgard that would fit into a game table. That would be a gift I that I could give Wolfgang!