Sunday, 26 February 2017

Making a Fantasy Sandbox: Part III

Part II

The next six steps in Rob's guide:
5. Grab a 8.5 by 11 sheet of hex paper.
6. The scale should be so that it represents a 200 by 150 mile region
7. Draw in mountains
8. Draw in rivers
9. Draw in hills using them to divide the region into distinct river valley
10. Draw in vegetation (swamps, forests, desert, etc)
These steps can be distilled into one instruction: make a cool map on a sheet of hex paper.

Since I'm using Jared Blando's How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps, I followed along with his step-by-step instead, which covers most of what Rob suggests anyway.

For your hex map, you can draw freehand over the hexes, you can draw a symbol in each hex representing the terrain type, or you can colour code your hex map, using green for forests, blue for water, etc.

Here's a (printer-friendly) numbered blank hex map I made using mkhexgrid:

Rob suggests a region map of roughly 200 by 150 miles, but I had to scale back the number of hexes to make it legible and printer friendly for standard 8.5 x 11 paper. I tried to put as many hexes as I could without making them too small. To account for fewer hexes, I'll be using 6-mile hexes. There are a number of reasons people think the 6-mile hex is superior anyway. Using a 6-mile hex, my region map is now 180 miles x 126 miles.

While drawing in the coast, I roughly followed the contours within the grey box I selected as the campaign region previously. Just treat the "grey box" (i.e. your campaign region) as your full 8.5 x 11 hex page and draw to scale.

I decided to continue with a freehand poetic approach for my region map. You can see I just treated the edge of the hex page as the borders of the grey box:

After drawing in the coast and islands, I just had fun filling in the mountains, lakes, rivers, hills, and forests:

These drawings were done in pencil and scanned using an app on my phone, so there's some smudging and fading, but you get the idea. I overlayed my blank hex map onto my drawing using I may have gotten a bit carried away with the details. It would be easier to see the hex numbers and add points of interest if I had made features a little more symbolic with less shading. The trade-off is I'm inspired when I look at the map. C'est la vie.

The scale of your map features doesn't matter too much; it's mostly about what terrain the party encounters where and knowing how many hexes-worth of travel it takes them to reach a destination. Whether you draw big detailed trees or simply colour a hex green, when the party enters that hex, you know they're in forest terrain. Use whatever method inspires you or is easiest.

Next we'll stock the map with settlements, lairs, and ruins in Part IV.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Choosing D&D Background Music

Background music is a guaranteed way to add atmosphere to a D&D session, but it's easy to choose the wrong kind of music for a traditional fantasy campaign. It's not enough to just put on the soundtrack from Conan the Barbarian and call it a night if you want the most out of this tool.

Movie Soundtracks

Movie soundtracks can sometimes have cool pieces, but film music is often written directly to reflect the action on-screen, which means it has too much movement and is too distracting at the table. Background music should be subtle yet evocative. Slower-tempo, spacious, texture-rich pieces are generally better than up-tempo pieces with a strong melody. For example, Star Wars has one of the greatest adventure scores of all time, but it doesn't make great D&D background music in my opinion. Too many strong melodies. i.e. You don't want your players to be able to hum along to the background music.

Video Game Soundtracks

I mine a lot of good music from video game soundtracks. Most game soundtracks in the fantasy genre are composed with the goal of immersing the player in the game world, which is exactly what you want in good D&D background music -- music that is flavourful, but not too distracting.

Open world games are especially bountiful hoards of good D&D background music. Games like the Elder Scrolls series (especially Oblivion and Skyrim) and The Witcher 3 are loaded with great background music.

Explore and Battle

When I'm preparing for a new campaign, I spend a lot of time curating specific pieces that meet the requirements of what I consider to be good background music, as well as helping to create the mood of that particular campaign. I generally split the music into two playlists: explore, and battle. I do find it much harder to find good classic fantasy battle music than explore music. A lot of battle music is composed to create this epic tension while the player wrestles with the controller or the viewer leans forward in their seat, but when a group of players is sitting around a table trying to declare actions, ask the DM questions, roll dice and do D&D math, the screaming choir and relentlessly slamming timpani can be overwhelming. Try to find something with a good beat and medium tension, but not too loud.


Look for music with the following qualities:
  1. Slower, spacious, rich textures
  2. Flavourful, not too distracting, avoid strong melodies 
  3. Split tracks into Explore and Battle 
It can take a lot of time, but I think the payoff is worth it. If you've already put x amount of hours into preparing your adventures, and the players have put in x amount of hours making their characters and showing up every week, why not use all the tools you can to get the most of your D&D experience?

Keep in mind, this advice is all to help with creating a traditional mood in your D&D game. Sometimes it's fun to run a campaign with a soundtrack featuring 80s hits or Led Zeppelin, but for that classic fantasy vibe, you need a certain kind of music.

If you don't have time, desire, or knowledge enough to sift through dozens of soundtracks on YouTube, I've got you covered. Here's my ultimate D&D Ambient Background Music playlist, carefully curated with all of the above in mind: D&D Ambient Background Music