I love maps.

If a novel includes maps, you’d better believe I will be flipping back to them frequently to compare locations. The same thing happens in games; the relationships between locations and the projected travel time from one point to another allow for a better sense of scale.  I think it comes from growing up in an older part of the US, where older towns are roughly a day’s easy walk apart — in fact, towns being located further apart than that are a feature that you’ll only see in places which were settled around the time that trains and motorised vehicles were becoming common. It’s interesting how advancing technology has changed the landscape, not only in how humans develop it, but in how we view the world.

It is really difficult to create a map.

Roman map of the world c.43AD. Rome, clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

In 43 AD, Rome clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

Consider what early maps looked like. They were… well, imprecise, by our standards. With satellite imaging and computerised measurements, we literally have mapmaking down to a science. Early mapmakers had to make do with eyeballing it using compasses and early surveying gear. There’s a vast and rather colourful variety in early maps, including a few which postulated the world as an inverted doughnut, and a few Roman maps where the philosophers making them were absolutely certain that nothing could possibly exist north of a certain latitude and drew Britain with Scotland squeezed in as a thin strip running across the very upper edge of the map area.

So if you think that’s silly, consider how difficult it is to create a game or story map from nothing but your own imagination. There may not be any accuracy required, but sometimes the creative leeway can get the better of itself.

There are two ways to create fictional maps. The first is to completely build the world before writing the story; the second is to write the story and build the map as you go along. There are pros and cons to each approach, which depend entirely on your creative style and how your brain works; mine happens to be a bit circuitous in processing information, so I find building the map as I write to be easier.

When creating a location, it isn’t enough to say it’s a certain distance from other locations in a given direction; if that were the limit of things, you’d end up with a place without character, nothing that sets it apart from any other area. In games and films, this can be done visually with a simple palette and texture change, but for a properly memorable experience, a little more effort needs to be put in. Every location needs character — character being everything from the local environment, the weather, its remoteness, the size of the local population, local customs and social structure, and the type of construction that might be locally common. Regardless of whether you’re creating for a game, a script or a novel, these factors need to be taken into account. For example, if it’s meant to be snowing at that point in the story, your location could be in an extreme northerly or southerly latitude, up a mountain, set during an ice age, or simply be in a region that experiences periodic winters; or if your setting is in a fairly barren area, buildings are more likely to be of stone or mud-brick than wood. I find it helps to set the computer down for a bit and try to visualise the location; this helps a written description to not sound like someone reading a weather forecast.

Apologies to Tolkien, but there's a lot of suspension of belief happening here. source

Apologies to Tolkien, but there’s a lot of suspension of belief happening here.

If you’re particularly detail-oriented, knowing basic earth science both helps and complicates things. If the overall climate currents flow from west to east — as they do on Earth — putting a range of high hills or mountains will cause the west side to be more prone to rainfall than the east side — warm air on the ground meets cooler high-altitude air and generates more precipitation on the windward side. This, of course, is highly generalised, as air currents shift continuously, but it’s well known that Glasgow gets notably more rain than Edinburgh, despite the two cities being less than 50 miles apart and at the same latitude, due to the series of hills in between them. Sometimes there’s a bit of fudging involved — the local climate is thus due to [insert MacGuffin here] — but it’s important to bear in mind that if the climate in a static location is altered, it will subsequently affect the surrounding area outside the MacGuffin’s influence. I can’t help but look at Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth and wonder how the mountains raised by Morgoth affect the climate around the rest of the continent.

Sometimes, it’s no fun to be detail-oriented. One aspect that always trips me up in some games and novels is travel times. My average unencumbered walking speed is between three and four miles an hour, and I’m in reasonably good shape; in a scenario where laden and armoured characters are on foot on a paved road, a day’s journey of 30 miles is about the plausible limit — that’s taking into account an average 12 hours of daylight, regular pauses for rest and food, fair weather, unhindered passage, and the characters being in good physical condition and accustomed to their load. Obviously you can’t precisely emulate this in a game — it would be the dullest game in existence and the player retention would be abysmal. So the maps are smaller and relative distances reduced. Some games blur the time passage issue by speeding up day and night cycles when you have open-world systems; others simply calculate out time passage between one point and another when the world map is restricted to designated locations.

Starting with the map has a variety of positive points to recommend it: there’s no need to worry about the described land features not matching the map or not flowing well together, it’s easy to provide distance estimates whilst writing, there’s no need to rewrite earlier secondary scenes once you realise that they don’t fit right with a primary scene’s location.

Sometimes, the creator clearly wanted a fascinating and unique land structure — starting with a few pre-set factors, the map was drawn up and then the story was fitted into it. Unfortunately the descriptions of travel time and environment don’t always match the map; for my part, this often results in headaches as I try to visualise the layout before giving up.

Why am I writing about this? Because I was looking over my initial draft for this one novel, and if the story matched the map as it appears in my head, it’ll never work. Fortunately I’m in the middle of reworking the novel, but the map still needs to change.


Form Follows Function

I’ve been doing a lot of armour design work lately, primarily for Repair Her Armor and conceptual art for Wyrmhole Gaming‘s futuristic horror-punk Dead House; I’m intending on cosplaying a character from that game for this year’s ConnectiCon, where they’ll be running an open playtest for their system, and I’ve reached the stage where I can consider buying materials.


As a former member of re-enactment and living history companies, I have a strong interest in accurate armour design. Featurettes about design work for films such as Lord of the Rings are fascinating for me — I have a lot of respect for John Howe, whose living history association, Company of Saynt George, features in some of my reference books. I love when effort is made towards making armour — even sci-fi or fantasy armour, where historical accuracy can be thrown out the window and style is open to experimentation — look like it’s not only functional but as comfortable to wear as armour can be.

So I might be a bit biased with regards to preferring games and films where people aren’t running half-naked into a battle. A lot of terrible armour design has been committed over the years in the name of style and visual design. But what if you want to design armour that isn’t traditional? Well, the trick — as with all things — is to know and understand the rules before you go about breaking them. Welcome to Armour 101.

Mediaeval kevlar

Mediaeval kevlar

The most persistent design error is in armour layering. Armour is intended to protect vitals, but there are areas such as the insides of the elbows, armpits and knees where flexibility is required; obviously you can’t just wrap plated leather over those areas and call it a day. These are also locations containing vital tendons and arteries, so leaving them unprotected is a fairly effective method of suicide. Additionally, bearing a heavy suit of armour over unprotected skin or a simple shirt will leave vicious bruises, particularly on the shoulders and upper chest area (I don’t speak from personal experience, but I know someone who can). The typical mediaeval knight wore a padded gambeson or arming doublet with gussets of chain sewn over the exposed joint areas beneath their armour. The padded under-layer includes leather straps or ties which are used to secure the armour in place. This detail is frequently neglected in a lot of game armour — many games show plate armour as being too close-fitting to possibly have anything lighter than a silk shirt or layer of leather underneath, if anything at all. This happens frequently in films as well, where design accuracy may be sacrificed for style and making the primary characters more recognisable.

Chain mail. Effective protection against swords, not so good against arrows, poignards and smaller daggers.

Chain mail. Effective protection against swords, not so good against arrows, poignards and smaller daggers.

The result of leaving the under-layer out in the design phase is that the remainder of the armour may be too tight. Freedom of movement is essential — and far more possible than one might think even in a full suit of plate armour. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s possible to engage is extreme athletics whilst wearing armour — or it ought to be. Armour is not a corset, nor is it intended to be. If it’s close-fitting plate over padding, it needs to be lapped or else the person inside cannot do their job; if it’s a padded brigandine or jack, it needs to be loose enough for the wearer to be able to fold their arms.

So where is protection most needed? Everywhere. If a piece of armour doesn’t help absorb impact, hinder stabbing, or guard against cutting, it needs to guide piercing attacks away from the most vulnerable areas. This last is an important factor when designing fantasy plate, as many designers lean on a thorny, intimidating appearance which would render mobility impossible and cause enemy weapons to get caught on the surfaces. Important factors are the knees, elbows and shoulders — spikes in the wrong locations or pointing the wrong direction would cause plates to lock, or worse, stab the wearer, and bear in mind that if metal plate gains more than an average thickness, it’ll be unreasonably heavy — big chunky pauldrons look awesome and are used all too frequently in games, but are more likely to hinder than help a character. Conversely, if a body part’s sole protection is limited to a piece of fabric or nothing at all — a popular non-tactic for “barbarian”-type classes, and all too common an occurrence when ill-fitting pauldrons do not provide more than a passing acquaintance with protection  — you may as well have gone in starkers. Sometimes you can go light in one area if there’s something elsewhere to compensate; for example, a longer gambeson or chain  skirt instead of full leg armour, or a full chain shirt over a gambeson beneath a breastplate rather than pauldrons and upper-arm plates. Unless someone was very wealthy, armour was more likely to be made of essential parts purchased as they could be afforded, and there was a surprising amount of variation.

One size fits most.

One size fits most. Not glasses-compatible.

Then there’s headgear. I’ve been playing Dragon Age again, and the metal helmets bother me because they’re too small. The pic on the right is my spangenhelm; it only looks oversized because I’m not wearing an arming-cap underneath, and I haven’t finished lining it for the chain aventail (see above pic for the chain). It also looks flat-out ridiculous (especially if I’m not wearing any other armour), but one combat scar on my face is more than enough. I learned the hard way in Dead House that forgetting a helmet on a close-combat character is a good way to get one’s virtual head split like a watermelon — with something like the spangenhelm, the spans would deflect an overhead blow off to the side. Even modern military helmets are fairly bulky, because the last part of the body you want to leave exposed is the head. And yet, in Kingdom of Heaven, the first thing Balian does during any battle is make certain he isn’t wearing a helmet. I love that film, particularly the director’s cut version, but that detail always irks me. The heroic long hair flowing in the gore-flecked winds of battle is much less heroic when you’ve painted a big shiny target on your forehead.

So now that we’ve covered the basics of traditional armour — under-layer protection, manoeuvrability, outer-layer defense, and headgear — let’s apply it to, for example, sci-fi armour. You’re unlikely to be flailing about with swords (unless you have a scenario where blades are preferred due to the potential for vapourising a hole in a ship’s hull and depressurising the section you’re standing in) so you’re looking for an underlayer that mitigates the effects of energy discharge and an outer layer that deflects projectiles. If your fantasy characters are using rapiers, you’ll want to forego chain in favour of armoured brigandines, because all those holes won’t do as much good against a fine-tipped pointy object. And bear in mind the characters’ jobs: a mediaeval pikeman wouldn’t wear the same armour as a cavalry officer, and a sci-fi police officer wouldn’t wear the same armour as a career space marine (non-capitalised). Conversely, if the character’s intended to get in other characters’ faces with a sword, don’t have them lightly dressed.

And for the love of little fuzzy kittens, give them headgear.

Multiple layers make a swordfighter happy.

Multiple layers make a swordfighter happy.