Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Graphics in pen & paper RPGs

When you read a review of a video game, almost always there are comments about the graphics: How do the characters look, how are they animated, how do their surroundings look, and how do things like spell effects look. There are both artistic considerations to that, as well as technical ones, like how blurry a texture looks when viewed from close. In a pen & paper game like Dungeons & Dragons you would think there are no graphics. And in fact there are a lot of people talking about the "theater of the mind" in which their role-playing sessions take place. That is all fine and dandy if the scene is about roleplaying a negotiation with a tavern-keeper or merchant. But once you get into combat, the theater of the mind quickly breaks down, with every player and the DM each ending up with a different picture of the combat situation in his head, usually leading to heated arguments.

So many people use some sort of aid for depicting battles in a pen & paper game, for example figurines on a battle map. And suddenly you have graphics in your game. Of course that works perfectly well with minimal graphics, badly hand-drawn with a dry erase marker on a blank map with 1" squares. But just like graphics in a video game are nice to have, having better graphics in a pen & paper game can also help immersion.

I was thinking about that because I am preparing Madness at Gardmore Abbey, a huge adventure with 30+ encounters, but only 2 poster maps. The books propose using the official tiles to create the rooms for the other encounters. But I find the tiles both ugly and not very practical: You need to lug around a huge box of them to have all tiles for the various rooms, then you need to find the right ones and assemble them on the table, and as they aren't fixed in any way they can easily be accidentally moved when a player wants to move his figurine, throwing everything over. So I was happy when I found a set of encounter maps at the Cartographers Guild. They are a *lot* prettier than tiles. The grid isn't always visible enough for my tastes, but I'm not going to recreate those maps myself in Campaign Cartographer just to change such a minor issue.

So now I'm spending a lot of time printing those maps out to scale on a color laser printer and taping the pages together to form a battle map. That works reasonably well for up to 2x2 pages, which is 16 x 22 squares. I have been experimenting in the past with having maps printed on poster, but that is only a minor improvement and a lot more expensive. Besides maps, I also try to make other handouts in my game graphically appealing. For example in my current adventure the players found "The Book of Strahd", and I printed the two pages of text in a handwriting font on a parchment-like background. I got real Tarot cards for the fortune teller in that adventure too.

You might say that graphics aren't essential to pen & paper games, but I do think that they improve the final result. And as I can only play a session every two weeks, I have the time to do some preparation.

I've been a huge AD&D fan back in time, when I was in my 16-18's. I had a great group and we managed to meet once or twice a week (aahh... school times, sigh!).

You brought up a good topic and yes, I think graphics and -in general- "visuals" really add a lot of depth to any roleplaying session.

We had very basic tools at our disposal but we had a great "plus": our DM was a true talent/artist and he used to draw everything with his hand (monsters, locations, items, main characters, player sheets, etc.)

It was like having a nice UI in real life. It was mostly black and white but our mind was instantly ported to another realm and boy... it was so immersive and engaging.

I'm curious as to why you are using grids instead of Hex maps. I would htink Hex maps would give you more tactical depth.
@Ted A they would, but 4th edition D&D is built around the grid. In fact there are only two RPGs around which assume hex maps, being GURPS and Hero System, neither of which has a large following anymore compared to D&D.

@Tobold props are awesome. I run one weekly game and one bi-weekly game and don't have much time for props unfortunately, but I've amassed a huge collection of decent maps I can pull from (check out Paizo's flip mats, for example) and amfortunate enough that both groups I run games for have players with some amazing minis collections to utilize.

When I was younger and actually had free time I'd create elaborate props including player treasure maps that I had elaborately designed on parchment and aged (using tea), utilize old coins I'd find in antique shops and other oddities. That was a very long time a decent prop for me is a print off of a cool piece of art from the internet to illustrate a monster or villain. Sigh...the good old days....!
As Tori said, the square grid is inherent in D&D rules. Probably because for over 30 years people have been drawing dungeons on square grid paper. Rooms have been described as being A x B squares big since first edition.

The running gag in my gaming group is that pi equals 4, because in 4th edition a fire-"ball" is in fact a cube, and all area effects are square.
Maybe I'm getting old (check that, I am definately getting old) but I dinstinctly remember my old GM using hex maps during our games. I'm thinking it was 2nd edition.
Traditionally D&D uses hex maps for overland travel, and square maps for dungeons.
Regarding hex maps, the 4e game I am running has been using hex maps for outdoors / wilderness encounters for a couple years now. Works great. I've just recently started using them for man-made areas, which is also fine if you are careful to make your building walls not produce half-hexes (don't really want ambiguous results).

And, of course, I do it for the graphics. I hate square fireballs. More importantly, being able to move directly on the diagonal impacts defender abilities to intercept enemies that can avoid their ZOC. I felt that it made sense to either bring the older 3e / 3.5e "costs 2 to move even numbered diagonals" into 4e or switch to hexes.
I enjoyed your blog Tobold. I find the subject tough to explain to certain people about the power of imagination in games like AD&D or how when I read Tolkien's Ring series. Especially the younger generation who are immersed in high poly computer games, and high rendered and realistic looking beasts at the movies. However, I was lucky in a Rugus explained about his DM being an artist, I too am one, professionally.
Taking the time as a Dungeon Master to give a sense of all the senses brings a whole new world to ones mind. I used to DM once in a while, and I created a whole continent around the AD&D world. Things were a bit skewed to add a bit of quirkiness and fun for role playing. I played the first and second edition back in the late seventies and early eighties and I managed to get my friends to play and we would play nearly every weekend.
I haven't played the game in years, but today in fact I will be playing again for the first time the fourth edition rules with a new group of people I have yet to meet. It is funny I am antsy like I was as a teenager anticipating role playing and having fun. Your never too old for imagination, and letting your brain work hard for a change instead of a screen to do everything for you.
One last thing, I always thought using hex movement was best in a more open environment, and the classic grid in a smaller tighter environment. If I was using an outdoor map I used the hex, especially for battles where you could pivot without necessarily having to move and fight someone who is flanking the party. Inside a dungeon, or underground the grid square made more sense since usually no more than a few players could fit side by side and in tighter areas it was naturally harder to move around.
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