The Evocative Power of Maps
It is almost mid-day and so far, it has been a quiet morning. In fact, the last few months have been rather slow. Winter is at the doorstep as the festival of golds, reds, ochres and bright greens came to an abrupt end a little while back. In the workshop, wood gently crackles in the fireplace. At his drafting table, the voyager reflects on journeys past, as he takes a sip of lukewarm tea.
For the first time this week, the sun pierces through the clouds and the diamond shaped windows of his modest workplace. An instant later, as the small bell on its handle rings, the front door timidly opens. A draft of crispy air rushes in and, with it, a stranger. Pulling back the hood of her cloak, with a gentle smile, she starts: “I’ve been told you’re in the handcrafted map business…”
A personal approach
While this tale would be perfectly at home in a fantasy novel, it very much sums up what the last couple of months have been like at the Voyager’s Workshop. I often write about my tales of gaming to inspire you, but as this difficult year slowly grinds to an end, I would like to share some map making tales with you, as they very much relate to our wild tabletop adventures.
When I create maps, be it for a group’s home brew campaign world, people who just want a whimsical map of where they live, creators who need one made of the world they created for their novels, or even publishers commissioning art for their games, I always and foremost aim to accomplish one primordial goal: to tell a meaningful story, your story or one that matters to you the viewer, reader or player.
A life of adventure
For tabletop gamers, maps can be very important. Many boardgames
use them as the main stage for the action to take place on. Think of classics such as Ticket to Ride, Risk, Catan, Scotland Yard, or more modern ones such as Scythe, Terraforming Mars, Gloomhaven, Small World or Root. These examples are as various as they are varied. The art is often breathtaking and evocative, yet mostly functional.
But what about role-playing game settings? How about the worlds we imagine as we collectively travel through them? It is often the Game Master (also know as Dungeon Master, Keeper, Loremaster, or whatever the TTRPG you’re playing is calling the referee) who proceeds to either collect or create the maps needed for the adventure. Battle maps, or dungeon maps as they are often referred to in medieval fantasy games, are top down views that help visualize a location, where encounters usually take place. These are common, especially now that so many groups play remotely with the help of various online tools.
Tools of the Trade
If battle grids or maps drawn by the players as they progress through a dungeon are that important, how can world maps have a place in all this? Well, for one, they are an integral part of world building. Whether you are playing in an official, published fantasy setting, or in your very own home brew world. Getting a visual grip on where everything is located is a huge aspect of creating a believable sandbox for your games. Maps can do just that but they can also do more.
There’s only so much a game master can do to bring the setting to life. Detailed descriptions as the party enters an abandoned keep, overrun by thick vegetation, can help set the mood, give the players essential information about the place, it’s topography and more. The GM is a facilitator and, ultimately, the world only starts living once everyone around the table contributes, by playing the game. A world map should reflect that.
As a map maker, I am, at times, hired to create lively representations of these places. People or companies come to me with a story and we then proceed to bring it to life, on paper or digitally. Storytelling is the real key in all these cartographic illustrations. At the very least, it is most certainly my approach and main concern. If I draw a map of a group’s game world, the intention is to incorporate as many references to their adventures as possible. Past adventures, that is. My goal is to have them remember what happened on that remote island where they ventured to retrieve a famed artifact, only to unravel the plans of imminent invasion from an evil lizard overlord. The artwork functions on many levels, including as a time travelling device and a celebration of events of yore!
When it comes to map illustrations for tabletop role-playing publishers, the approach is a little different. While the target audience will often be just game masters, there are many cases when the supplement is intended for players as well. Either way, what I always aim to achieve is to inspire. Creating evocative art is quintessential to helping gamers imagine what a place could feel and look like. When creating a world map for a game, I strive to fill it with clues that will spark the viewer’s own imagination!
To illustrate this philosophy, I very recently created a piece that mixes up a number of ways we look at and experience adventures of the imagination. It is an invitation to discover fantasy worlds of storytelling, as you look down at a tavern table in a distant land of your choosing. Upon it, several items reinforce the mood and give away important cues. But the real focus is on the map, as it is evocative of a sense of adventure that is fulfilled when we roll dice and share storytelling moments. It can also give you the urge to pick up a book and read about adventures that others have been the protagonists of. It’s not about depicting a specific world in this case, but to inspire. The title, Eternal Realms, refers to the limitless power of your imagination as you let yourself be taken away to places similar to those found on the map.
The whole illustration acts as a window to a world within a world. Are all the creatures, plants and peoples populating it just drawn on the paper or do they emerge, full of life, purpose and intentions? Are they simply trapped again once the parchment is folded up, stored in a backpack so that the Halflings can dance on the table? What Halflings? Or are they Dwarves? Or an eclectic group of adventurers in search of treasures and fame? For all I know, it could just be a wizard catching up with an old friend, reminiscing about the past, when the world was younger.
It is truly the key to everything I do at the Voyager’s Workshop. And just like that stranger who walked in this morning, you can come and find me, or other artists, so that we can chat about worlds of adventures, be they made up or real. Whatever the outcome, sharing stories is always a great and enriching experience and it allows us to get to know each other a little better. And nowadays, that means a lot!
Thanks for sticking with me during this unusual chronicle. I feel it is important that once in a while, I give you the opportunity to get to know me a little better. Especially when chances of meeting in person have become an anomaly. So, until we meet again, I wish you all the best. Stay safe and healthy!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories. For commissions and freelance inquiries, please use this contact form.