On Maps & Tokens
The digital form of miniature painting, more or less.
I run my games, where combat (or, in some cases, positioning) is important via Owlbear Rodeo. It is by far my favourite virtual tabletop (VTT), mostly because it keeps things simple. You can get as detailed as you like with the maps and tokens, or you can keep things very, very simple, with scribbled maps and the 20 or so default tokens built in.
And the map-and-token-making is approaching being a hobby in and of itself. I do like painting miniatures, too, but they’re expensive, require a lot of time and effort, and are of no real use in games played online. However, I’m basically competent with Photoshop (although I am definitely not a graphic designer), and I have the patience for putting lots of bits and pieces together to make maps.
I am not up to making the spectacular maps of Cze and Peku, for example, but I can string together basically competent layouts for specific bits of my games, as shown in the graphics in this newsletter. It’s remarkably gratifying to see them take shape on-screen, reflecting what I’ve already laid out in the mind’s eye. And maps like this are very clear for players, turning difficult and effortful theatre-of-the-mind play into comprehensible and fun tactical stuff.
This has the effect of my occasionally getting hold of a new set of map assets - furniture, or desert features, or spell effects - and practically starting to chortle as I imagine uses for them. As yet, I’ve avoided the effect where I put stuff into one campaign or another solely to use these new toys, but it’s only a matter of time, really.
Right now, however, it’s the tokens in which I am taking the greatest delight.
Sometimes, of course, I use some I’ve bought or just found online. But more and more often, I’m enjoying finding a suitable image, editing it until it suits my needs - the cat-eyed-crab-thing in the row above there is one of my better efforts - and then putting a suitable circle on it. I’m currently playing with effects where the image partially overlaps the ring on the inside. I may even get as far as some tokens where the beastie in question is escaping from it, getting a few limbs (or tentacles, or blasting magical effects) outside the “edge” of the token entirely.
I’ve yet to settle on a style of my own, so sometimes it does look a bit like I’ve taken random things from the toybox to represent differing monsters. And given it took me more than 25 years to really settle on a recognisable style of poetry, and my prose still hasn’t quite settled, that may be a ways out yet.
Heliomar has, as a feature/long-term-plot-point, a number of very weird creatures running around in it. The cat-eyed-crab above (which is covered in fur, apart from its bone-grey claws) is one example. There are others, such as the Cliff Cow (a cliff-climbing monstrosity with features deriving from goats, baboons, and orca), and the Wuffalo, a creature vaguely like a giant ram-horned English sheepdog, which eats everything in its path across the plains of Central Heliomar, but refuses to go up or down anything more than the very slightest slope. Many of the monsters were canonically named by the children of some of the first modern explorers, so the names are a little daft at times. These part-one-thing, part-something-else creatures can be very satisfying to gin up in Photoshop.
The next thing I want to work on is the background and the round outline of each token. Ideally I want to have a set of standard colours and patterns for these, so that an observant player can look and go, “right, that’s undead and that one’s an elemental”, more-or-less simulating what would be obvious knowledge to an in-world character. Ideally, these will be things that I can mix and match; I’ve recently been poking at things like undead fiends and elemental aberrations. That may be a while down the line, too, and possibly beyond my current graphics capability.
The latest acquisition is a set of condition rings - made by someone else, not mine - which can be attached to other tokens to indicate all the various things that can happen. These are the digital equivalent of the little ring tokens that I’ve seen used with miniatures on Critical Role. I’m currently hunting, too, for more spell effects, and one of the people on the Owlbear Rodeo Discord has posted images of using the interface as a literal virtual tabletop; a table surface with various “handouts”, maps and ephemera, on it. I don’t have a use for that in the immediate, but I’ll be keeping it in mind.
Digital collections, thankfully, do not take up space (unlike my reference library on historical food and agriculture, say, or my game books), so I can continue to acquire more bits and pieces of stuff, and add to the pile. There’s a definite pleasure in being able to search through my own collection and find something that’s appropriate for an upcoming encounter, particularly when it’s something I made before. It’s not quite as nice, perhaps, as the shelves and shelves of miniatures that some DMs have, but I feel it’ll do.