Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Remapping the Unlucky Isles with Wonderdraft

Last Wednesday, my Seattle group started up a new D&D campaign set in a friend’s homebrew world. She unveiled the map for her setting, and it was amazing — pro-level cartography, tantalizing and inviting and clear, both functional and beautiful. She mentioned in passing that she’d created it in Wonderdraft, a mapping tool I’d never heard of before, so after the game I asked her how hard it was to create a map that awesome using Wonderdraft.

Not that hard, she said.

Now, to me that sounded like Michael Jordan casually sinking shots from mid-court, one after another, without even looking, while saying “It’s not that hard.” But she gave me some benchmarks for why it wasn’t that hard, how it involved a lot of painting (a plus for me), and how much simpler it was than learning Photoshop. That last one was key, because I’ve dabbled with Campaign Cartographer and it 1) felt a lot like trying to learn Photoshop, which I found to have a cliff-shaped learning “curve,” and 2) made me want to give up my worldly possessions and go live in the woods as a hermit.

So I took the plunge, watched a couple YouTube tutorials (D&D Breakfast Club’s tutorial 1 of 4 and Icarus Games’ video on transferring maps to Wonderdraft), and within 15 minutes I’d determined that 90% of what I wanted in a professional Unlucky Isles map was something I could do in Wonderdraft — and, like my friend said, it wouldn’t be that hard.

TL;DR: The new map of the Unlucky Isles

This map took me about 20 hours to make (including time spent finding assets and learning how to use Wonderdraft):

Still technically a draft, but this is the Unlucky Isles as of May 11, 2021 (created in Wonderdraft)

And here’s its predecessor:

My old map of the Isles, created in Worldographer

Some realizations

I was worried I’d have to create every map twice so that I could take advantage of Worldographer’s numbered hexes, a feature not found in Wonderdraft. But Wonderdraft has a robust user community, and that community has created a tool to give you numbered hexes. I also realized that while I always build my maps with old-school hexcrawling in mind, 99% of my fantasy RPG play has not been old-school hexcrawls.

In fact, 99% of that play has been in games that would benefit more from a Wonderdraft-style map than an old-school hex map. I’ve also found that I’m not taking advantage of one of Worldographer’s killer apps, which is the ability to map the same setting at the world, continent, and more local levels (with automagical terrain generation and child maps). And when I can drop a hex grid on my Wonderdraft map, run an addon to number those hexes, and have the best of both worlds (no pun intended), that really seals the deal.

Whoa, that’s too many cities! And too many people

Redoing this map — and expanding it — in Wonderdraft prompted me to name a lot more stuff. While browsing r/Wonderdraft I came across a comment on a user’s lovely map about there being too many settlements (not a universal truth, but a salient point for an RPG setting), and that plus my own mapmaking made me realize that I had too many cities in the Isles. I’ve wondered whether the Isles were too populous ever since I started ballparking the numbers, but this threw it into sharp relief.

So, a reckoning. I wiped out all the labels I’d created on my first big “map day” (after jotting down all the names for future use), rolled up my sleeves, and tucked into some revisions.

I’m leaning on two sources here, and moving WWN itself to the background (because those numbers skewed high): Medieval Demographics Made Easy (MDME), which the ever-brilliant S. John Ross has graciously made freely available with a very permissive license (and, as such, is now hosted here on Yore); and a Medium post by Lyman Stone looking at the same topic through the lens of Game of Thrones. They’re in broad agreement, which is good enough for me.

Let’s start with approximate hex counts, not worrying yet about what might count as wilderness (except in the lone very obvious case):

  • Arkestran Dominion: 215 hexes not counting the Wastes
  • Yealmark: 41 hexes
  • Brundir: 420 hexes
  • Rasu Miar: 165 hexes
    • Mainland Kadavis: 133 hexes of Kadavis proper on this map
  • Meskmur: 115 hexes
  • Ahlsheyan: 225 hexes on this map

I’m mapping in 6-mile hexes, which contain roughly 9 square miles. Ross and Lyman agree that a medieval (~1,000-1,500, more or less) population density of 100 people per square mile was an outlier reserved for only the most populous, arable nations. At 900/hex that’s 1,100 people/hex fewer than WWN posits — and most countries in the Isles will be well below 100/square mile.

Two examples:

  • Ross notes that 14th century England had about 40 people/sq. mi.
  • Lyman notes that if you average the figure from 1,000 to 1,500 CE, Scotland had about 4-8 people/sq. mi. (and, disagreeing with MDME, England comes out to 11-30 people/sq. mi.)

Whichever stat you use, the country I tend to treat as my benchmark for medieval population figures — England — has a lot fewer people/sq. mi. than my original estimates for the Isles. There’s also the whole fuzzy consideration that while the average medieval European country was just rotten with hamlets and thorps and whatnot, so dense with settlements that you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting the next one over, worlds designed for D&D-style adventuring need blank spaces.

Just to get the ball rolling, let’s say Brundir has 40 people/sq. mi. (420 hexes, not counting any as wilderness). That’s 151,200 people. WWN and MDME would both put about 5,000 people in Brundir’s largest city; WWN postulates about 15,000 in cities nationwide. The next largest would be 2,500. Both of those are pretty small cities — in fact, MDME doesn’t even consider a settlement a city if it has fewer than 8,000 people in it.

So how about Brundir with a population density of 75 people/sq. mi.? That gives Brundir the following stats:

  • Population 283,500
  • 28,000 in cities
  • 9,300 in the largest city
  • 3,780 sq. mi. of territory (420 hexes)
  • 1,575 sq. mi. of which is farmland (175 hexes, using MDME’s formula of 1 square mile of farmland supporting 180 people)

That feels more right to me than my initial WWN-driven population estimates. I don’t need to delve any deeper for the time being, but when I do this is the route I’ll be following.

Wonderdraft settings

Two things that have really been making Wonderdraft sing for me are Mythkeeper, a free tool which automates adding new assets (symbols, etc.) to Wonderdraft, and the Cartography Assets site, which is chock full of free and paid Wonderdraft asset packs. I fell in love with symbols pulled from old maps, so all of the forests, mountains, etc. on my Unlucky Isles map are drawn from historical examples.

For the sake of my sanity — and so that, if you like, you can create maps in this style — I’m recording some of the Wonderdraft choices and options I’ve used to create this map. Some things, like the map textures, are visible on a finished map when you load it in Wonderdraft — but many are not. Which of the seven sets of mountain assets did I use? What brush opacity did I color them with? That’s what this list is for.

In general, I’m always using brush #3 (the blotchy spray), and varying scales but usually 50% or below. All the names (Vischer, etc.) refer to assets or asset packs on Cartography Assets.

  • Mountains: Vischer or Widman mountains, #976035, brush opacity 1.0
    • Snowcapped peaks: Just paint the tips #FFFFFF, brush opacity 0.5
    • Volcanoes: Van Der Aa mountains, AoA Volcanoes Pencil smoke, #976035, brush opacity 1.0
  • Barren hills: Ogilby hills, #C8AD93, brush opacity 0.5
  • Verdant hills: Vischer regular hills (which are grassy/overgrown), so far only painted as forests
  • Forests: Vischer or Van Der Aa assets, with individual Vischer trees mixed in, #74A035, brush opacity 0.5; usually I add a few squirts of #2E6020, brush opacity 0.5, for variety
    • Deep Forests: #2E6020, brush opacity 0.5
  • Dead trees: Mix of default dead trees and Zalkenai’s dead trees, black, varying scales, #828864, brush opacity 0.5
  • Marshes: Vischer wetlands assets, with a few Widmer individual trees mixed in for variety, #37835E
  • Scrubland: Mix of Ogilby and Vischer scrub, #BAB26D, brush opacity 0.5
  • Farmland: Vischer furrowed fields, #BAB26D with a couple blasts of #74A035 for good measure
  • Broken lands: Popple hills, so far only used in the Atrachian Wastes so they were painted as dead trees
  • Vineyards: Vischer vineyards, a few squirts of #735B79, brush opacity 0.25
  • Ruins/mysterious towers: Vischer ruins and monuments mixed with Van Der Aa towers, with Popple scrubs thrown in until it looks right; #828864, brush opacity 0.25, with a few squirts of brush #1 around it for blending
  • Weird obelisks: Vischer ruins and monuments; colored #828864, brush opacity 0.5 (So far, only used for the Thefaine in Aaust.)
  • Settlements: Custom Colors assets (included by default), #00000
    • Cities: Circle with dot in the center, 50% scale
    • Capital cities: Circle with star in the center, 50% scale
    • Towns: Dot, 35% scale
    • Forts: Filled diamond, 35% scale
    • Castles: Box with X in it, 35% scale
  • Roads: Solid line, #411602, width 3, roughness 0.33
    • Crappy roads: Dashed line, #411602, width 3, roughness 0.33
  • Borders: Dotted line, #BB101Cm width 3, roughness 0.33
  • Raise/Lower Landmass Tool for coastlines: Roughness 2
  • Labels: Gentium Book Basic Bold (included), outline #000000 thickness 1 (except for bodies of water)
    • Nations: #B93841, font size 48, curvature 0.15, always horizontal
    • Cities, capital cities, towns: #B9B4B4, font size 20, no curvature, always horizontal
    • Castles, forts: As cities, but font size 14
    • Ruins: As castles, but curvature -0.2 instead of horizontal
    • Large bodies of water: #7EABA1, font size 36, outline 770C232C, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
    • Small bodies of water: As large, but font size 14 or 24
    • Rivers: #B9B4B4, font size 10, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
    • Major geographic features: #B9B4B4, font size 24, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
    • Minor geographic features: #B9B4B4, font size 14, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies

I also like to mix in squirts of brush #1 (spray paint), 0.5 opacity, to blend the transitions between painted areas (primarily the default “not arable” beige and “arable” greenish-brown).

Non-English letters in labels

I’ve found that it can be handy (on PC) to have the Character Map app open for easy cutting and pasting into Wonderdraft labels. Every character won’t paste, presumably because my Wonderdraft font choice doesn’t include it — but enough do for me to get the job done.

And on the language front, Lexicity is another awesome resource for dead languages. It’s not as straightforward as Palaeolexicon, since it curates links rather than simply presenting dictionaries — but it has a lot of resources to offer.

Summing up

Wonderdraft isn’t as simple as Worldographer. For the purposes of creating a setting using Worlds Without Number (paid link), it is 100% Too Much Gun. When I’m working on a setting, creating a polished, beautiful map is a step that becomes a vast gulf between me and producing actual gameable content, and it leads to abandoned projects. It’s the antithesis of WWN’s highly successful “never give up your momentum, never stall out trying for perfection” philosophy.

But at this stage, with a full cycle of WWN’s region creation and kingdom creation under my belt (as in, I could run a game set in the Isles tonight), and as I’ve already moved on to a second region of Godsbarrow, making a pretty map of the Isles isn’t a roadblock of any kind. I don’t need it, and it’s not holding anything up; my Worldographer map is perfectly functional for play.

There is, however, no substitute for sitting down to play and having a gorgeous map in front of you — one that raises questions, makes you want to explore, and makes the setting feel real. If you’ve ever opened up an AD&D Forgotten Realms product and unfolded one of those glorious maps, you know that feeling. I want that for Godsbarrow, and I hope my map succeeds at that goal.

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number.)

GURPS Tabletop RPGs

The GURPSening continues: S. John Ross’ recommended GURPS book list

I mentioned S. John Rosslist of personal GURPS book ratings in an aside to my love letter to Warehouse 23 and Illuminati, but after using it to track down a bevy of awesome-looking books the other day, I realized it needed its own call-out post. This list is a fantastic tool (and trouble for my wallet).

My latest $5 GURPS acquisition, which I snagged based on its placement on S. John’s list, was Planet Krishna (paid link), by James Cambias.

Tell me this doesn’t sound fantastic:

The natives are all too human — except for the green skin, the feathery antennae, the eggs . . . ‘Protected’ from technology by interstellar law, armored knights clash in a wilderness of blue woods while square-rigged war galleys patrol the Inland seas.

This is a book I’d ignored when browsing in-stock GURPS books in various places, and I would have continued to overlook it had it not appeared in S. John’s list — and that’s what I love about the list!

The best of the best of the best

He’s also done a version of the list sorted by rating, with only books he rates 75% or higher appearing thereon, and this version is the one that’s cost me some money.

One of the only books to score a 90% on the list is GURPS Time Travel (paid link), which I can’t stop writing about because it’s so damned good. Warehouse 23 (paid link), another personal favorite, clocks in at 85%. In fact, every GURPS book I’ve ever liked appears somewhere on the best-of version of the list.

On the cheap

Based on loving S. John’s work, and after my first couple forays into his recommended books bore fruit, I see a lot of overlap in what we look for in a GURPS book.

Which is why I’ve been trawling the list and then visiting my favorite haunts to track down the ones that catch my interest, generally for under $10 a book — and sometimes for as little as $4.[1]

So yes, S. John’s list is trouble . . . but it’s the best sort of trouble.

[1] It’s mystifying to me why old GURPS books are so cheap, but I’m not complaining. They’re fantastic resources for any game, and they often include bibliographies which, in turn, inspire more great reading.

Tabletop RPGs

Two handy S. John Ross game evaluation metrics

Game designer S. John Ross recently posted two game design tidbits — more aimed at RPG evaluation than design, but applicable to either — that are just too good not to share.

RRIP is — as I see it — a quick-and-dirty way to assess a game’s crunchiness, and the Videogame Rule is an axiom which takes no prisoners.


Here’s S. John’s definition of RRIP[1]:

RRIP stands for Ratings Referenced In Play. The idea is, when I’m staring down the barrel of an all-new game, pondering if I want to learn it, one of the things I want to see is a filled-in character sheet, to get a feel for what it implies.

I do this too, but I’ve never considered formalizing it. For me, it’s more of a sniff test. “Dude, there’s a LOT of shit on this character sheet. I’m out!”

He takes it a step further:

The RRIP is a simple count of the number of values specified on that sheet. So, in most games, that means things like stats, skill-levels and power-levels.

His example connects that count with the “referenced in play” portion of the first quote:

He’s got a gun!” has a RRIP value of zero, but “He’s got a gun with a Range of Short, 6+1 Ammo, a Reload Speed of d8 and a Cover Penetration Power of 9!” would add 4 to the RRIP

That’s a useful metric, and one that I can pretty easily put into practice. Here’s a stab at it.

Two characters enter

I grabbed my current Savage Worlds character, a speleo-herepotlogist in my group’s Day After Ragnarok (paid link) game, and gave his character sheet the RRIP treatment. For context, he’s had 7 advances, which makes him more mechanically complex than a starting character, but he also doesn’t carry a huge amount of gear (since the Crown provides mission-specific gear). Total RRIP score: 46.

For comparison purposes, I grabbed my character from my online group’s first tremulus campaign. For context, he was a psychic medium and I think he earned at least one advance. Total RRIP score: 19.

As a back-of-the-napkin metric, I really like RRIP. Both games shook out higher than I’d expected, but the gulf between their RRIP scores says a lot about the difference between Savage Worlds and tremulus.

The Videogame Rule

S. John’s Videogame Rule is short and pithy:

Any challenge or obstacle that could be GMed by a machine isn’t good enough for tabletop.

Whoa. That’s like Czege Principle-brutal! But I find myself nodding, because when I want to play a video game, I go play a video game. I play tabletop RPGs for different reasons, and in search of different experiences. I like it.

S. John uses G+ a bit differently than most folks, leaving comments disabled on most of his posts. I can’t tell him there how much I enjoy his posts, especially stuff like this, but I can say it here — thanks, S. John!

[1] And he’s right, it is fun to say!

GURPS Tabletop RPGs

A blast from the GURPS: Warehouse 23 and Illuminati

We moved to Seattle last year, and about 75% of my RPG collection went into storage when we got here. Shelf space went way down in the new place, so only about 250 gaming books made the cut to stay out and accessible.

Two of those were GURPS books, and I don’t even play GURPS — they made the cut because they’re two of the best gaming books I’ve ever read, full stop: GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link), by S. John Ross[1], and GURPS Illuminati (paid link), by Nigel D. Findley.

I rate both of these books a 10/10. I’ve read the shit out of them (just look at that cover wear![2]), and hauled them around the country on multiple moves, and they’ve been a well of gaming inspiration for years.

GURPS Warehouse 23

You know the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? This is that warehouse.

Warehouse 23 postulates that magic, conspiracies, secret societies, space aliens, weird science, and cryptids are real, and that the government keeps as much of the related stuff as possible locked away in the titular warehouse. So one thing this book is, is that: a marvelous sourcebook of all that great stuff, each thing with its own write-up. And as that, it’s excellent.

But you could build an entire campaign around the warehouse. Where there’s a conspiracy (or conspiracies), there are secret masters; you can fight them. Or join them! Someone’s got to acquire all of those Secrets Humankind Was Not Meant to Know, after all.

Warehouse 23 also walks you through lots of possibilities for who owns the joint, how Illuminated your setting could be (and how that impacts the warehouse), and what all that means to a potential campaign. Those lenses make the warehouse malleable, and Ross excels at making all of its possible incarnations eminently gameable.

Back to the stuff, though — this isn’t just a fancy equipment book. That would be dull. It’s a book of stuff which makes that stuff matter.

Take the Ark of the Covenant, for example. It gets a half-page of history and legends, a half-page on the Grail Order, a half-page on its rumored powers, and a half-page on questing for it and how to use it in different ways — combine it with other artifacts in the book, twist it sideways and make it not a physical artifact at all, etc. The two-page entry for the grail could be teased into a campaign seed in its own right, and that’s just one of the dozens of artifacts in the book.

Context is king, and the context around all of the weird and wonderful goodies in the warehouse is what makes this such a treasure trove of ideas. A world where all of this stuff — much of which is insanely dangerous and/or world-altering — would be an amazing gaming setting.

Which brings us to GURPS Illuminati.

GURPS Illuminati

GURPS Illuminati takes the core idea that there exists a world-spanning conspiracy — the Illuminati — and bends the whole modern world around it. It’s the default setting for Warehouse 23, but each book works just fine without the other.

Like Warehouse, and in the best GURPS fashion, Illuminati is bursting with ideas — all clearly and engagingly presented — which can fuel conspiracy-driven games in any system. It’s laced wth dark humor — like the list of 50 Awful Things About the Illuminati, which opens with this gem:

Everything here is true, even the false things

From there, you get an element-by-element guide to running this sort of campaign: character types that work well, ways to build the power structure of your conspiracy of choice, mapping the web of lies, adjusting for other genres, and on and on. The amount of good stuff packed in here belies the book’s relatively modest size.

Need secret societies? They’re in here. Need potential allies for foes of the Illuminati (likely the PCs)? Yep, they’re in here too. Oddball sidebars about conspiracies within conspiracies? Yeppers. A whole section on how to introduce the Illuminati, and the true extent of their world-dominating evil, to as-yet-not-paranoid-enough PCs? You bet.

And like Warehouse 23, it’s wonderfully weird. I get ideas from every page, and I’ve returned to Illuminati many times over the years — often just to read for pleasure, but also to stir up my imagination for various games.

I consider GURPS Illuminati an essential toolkit for running any game that even dabbles in conspiracies, and doubly so for one set in the modern world. Use it whole cloth, mine it for parts, blend it with other stuff — it’ll support you no matter how you want to employ it.

Like peanut butter and tinfoil hats

It’s fun to write about gaming stuff that I love, and GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link) and GURPS Illuminati (paid link) are flat-out amazing books. They earn my highest recommendation.

[1] As an aside, S. John Ross has a fantastic list of personal GURPS book ratings (one number for reading enjoyment, one for play); you can also see just the best ones. Plus the big list of RPG plots. And Risus (which I’ve gushed about on Yore). His entire site is basically a rabbit hole full of joyful exuberance — which, in a lot of ways, is what I want Yore to be.

[2] I’d forgotten that Teenage Martin decided, for reasons long forgotten, to use the front cover of GURPS Illuminati for target practice. I’m not sure if those are BB holes or stab wounds from testing out homemade Wolverine claws, but both options are about equally likely.

Tabletop RPGs

Risus gives me the warm fuzzies

I’ve had long rulebooks on the brain lately[1], which has been making me think about S. John RossRisus RPG. Risus makes me happy.

It’s also really short. How short? Here’s the first half:

…and here’s the second half:

Yep, Risus fits on the front and back of a single piece of 8 1/2×11 paper. It’s also free.

The version in those photos is designed to fold into a booklet, but I was tickled by the idea of making a free, one-page RPG super-durable, so I laminated it (with thick, stiff laminate — not the floppy stuff). It’s like a plastic tank now, suitable for bathtub use.

How’s it work?

Risus hums along on the core mechanic of clichés: free-form character traits which express many things about a character in just a few words. Aspects in Fate are similar, as are skills in Unknown Armies (and probably lots of other games I can’t think of at the moment), but Risus builds the whole game around clichés.

Spread 10 dice across clichés you make up on the spot, add a sentence or two of description, and you’ve got a complete Risus character. Maybe you pick:

  • Space smuggler (4), my primary cliché — the one that best defines the character
  • Hotshot pilot (3)
  • Fast talker (2)
  • Reluctant good guy (1)

If you can tell who that’s supposed to be, I’ll chalk it up as a personal success. But the important thing is that it’s a clever, robust, flexible, and above all simple engine for powering a full-fledged RPG.

Not a one-trick pony

Risus is a multi-genre RPG, and it’s got an undercurrent of humor that I love. “Undercurrent of humor” might make you think it’s not suitable for non-funny games, but there’s a ton of versatility baked into its minimal rules. “Fits on a single page” might suggest it can’t hold up to long-term play, but two decades of Risus players would likely disagree.

Enter The Risus Companion, which isn’t free, but is worth every penny of its $10 asking price. I bound it with a copy of the core rules, just to have it all in one handy package.

When I think about rulebooks, or new-to-me RPGs in general, one question I like to ask is, “Can Risus do this?” If Risus can do it, and do it as well as RPG X, do I really need RPG X?[2]

It might seem odd to have a 64-page companion to a four-page RPG; it certainly seemed odd to me at first. But it’s a fantastic book. (The Companion also taught me that Risus is pronounced “REE-suss” (as in Latin for “laughter”), not “RYE-suss,” which, years later, still hasn’t corrected my internal pronunciation — I always think it as “RYE-suss.”[3])

The Companion unpacks the Risus rules, delving into each of its components and highlighting all the different ways you can use them. One of my favorite examples is defining a character by the absence of relevant clichés, like Mrs. Butterbread, world-famous detective:

  • Kindly grandmother-to-everyone (4)
  • Bothersome fussbudget (3)
  • Small-breed dog enthusiast (3)

Risus encourages creative use of inappropriate clichés: If it doesn’t fit the situation, but you can creatively justify it in play, you get better results. Mrs. Butterbread is herself a creative example of taking that notion to its logical conclusion, as she can only solve crimes through peculiar means.

The book is full of stuff like that. Couple excellent content with the fact that S. John Ross is one of the most concise, clear, and entertaining writers in the RPG industry, and both Risus and The Risus Companion are a joy.

It’s a put-it-in-your-Go-Bag game, sure — but it can be a lot more than that. It stands on its two tiny, free, stick-figure feet, and the Companion unpacks the everloving shit out of how much potential is contained in its four short pages.

[1] Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition is really fucking long, no, it’s REALLY fucking long, and DCC RPG in 18 pages.

[2] I also like to substitute Fate and ask the same question again.

[3] See also drow rhyming with “cow,” which sounds way cooler than drow rhyming with “throw” . . . but “throw” is how my brain internalized it, and “throw” it shall ever be.