Rosser Writes

WWB #4: Mapping dungeons with Pixelmator

On day 4 of my 30 days of world-building, I wrangle Pixelmator into a quick and dirty dungeon map creator for D&D or fantasy novel locales.

Dungeons, locales, battle maps… doesn't matter what you call them. For the novelist, they are where scenes happen, while dungeon masters use them for tactical encounters.

In today's exercise, I'm going to see if I can hack Pixelmator into a quick and dirty dungeon designer.

My goal is two-fold. I want to create maps I can use for both D&D1 and help me visualise the settings in my stories, where representations of space are helpful for stage management. I also want to do this quickly, while still looking half decent.

Note that while I'm using Pixelmator, the techniques should work well (probably better, in fact) in Photoshop and Affinity Photo.



Whoa there cowboy, why not use Dungeondraft?

Excellent question, dear reader, I'm glad you asked! I own Dungeondraft, and boy does it show promise. Currently, however, the beta is Windows only, and my only Windows PC is serving as my kids' home-schooling and webx device. Once they are back to school, I will likely address Dungeondraft in a later post.

Style

I don't want to do anything too fancy, and the idea is speed rather than artistry. However, I do like the look of old-school dungeon maps, based on line art, with minimal colour. Another style I particularly like is that of Dyson Logos.

Searching for 'old school dungeon map' in Google Images reveals the sort of look I'm aiming for.

Old-school dungeon maps (Google Image search)
Old-school dungeon maps (Google Image search)

Document setup

Print is my primary medium, and here in Australia, we use the A-series international paper size. I'll use A3 since it's the largest size I can print at home on my Epson printer. When using a 1-inch grid for D&D, A3 provides just over 11x16 squares2, which is big enough for the encounters I typically run.

Pixelmator has an A3 preset, and all I had to do was flip the orientation from portrait to landscape. Note, since I'm targeting print the DPI is set to 300.

Document setup
Document setup

Once the document's created, I'll add the all-important 1-inch grid for use as a scale and guide. Pixelmator allows you to subdivide grids, so I'll divide it further by 4, allowing me to work in quarters. I like that a quarter of an inch is roughly 5mm — it helps my metric-first brain work in Imperial.

Adding gridded guidelines
Adding gridded guidelines


Laying out with shapes and selections

I noted I wanted something quick and easy. Short of using a Vector-based app, shapes and selections are the way to go. Pixelmator has several shape primitives, and a pen tool allowing you to create freeform shapes and bezier curves.

Shapes in Pixelmator
Shapes in Pixelmator

Pixelmator dumps each vector on a new layer, which is slightly annoying, but workable. You can merge them, as I will as some point. However, you'll lose the ability to edit shape as the process turns them into pixels.

Part of the reason why each shape is placed in a separate layer is the shape's appearance is controlled by layer styles. In the screenshot above, I filled each solid shape with white and gave it a 10px solid black stroke.

Even quicker than shapes is to design the layout using selections. Pixelmator has several selection tools, and it's easier to add and subtract from a selection than it is to fiddle with editable shapes. Fill the selection with white (Alt-Delete), add a stroke to the layer style, and you can complete the basic floor plan in seconds.

A simple layout created with the selection tool
A simple layout created with the selection tool

Modify the shape with different selection tools, like the ellipse and free select tools, and you can quickly add (or subtract) more interesting features.

Adding variety
Adding variety

You can also be more precise by adding shapes and turning those into selections.



Adding a grid

While I've got a grid in place for guides, this won't show up when I print and export the map. There are several ways of adding a grid. The quickest method is to import a pre-drawn grid and using a clipping mask on the floor plan layer. For the sake of time, I grabbed one from Incompetch.com, but later I might hand draw something that looks a bit more organic, like weathered flagstones.

Adding a one-inch grid
Adding a one-inch grid

Adding a clipping mask ensures the grid is only visible where there are pixels. Yes, I know the grid looks misaligned, I'm being quick, not accurate as I work out this technique!

Another method is to use a pattern fill, but I can't be bothered creating one. I will, however, use that technique to give the walls some texture.

Adding texture

While this floor plan is serviceable, it's not very interesting. Adding a little texture will go a long way, so I'll start with the walls, by giving them some body and adding a pattern.

To do this, I'll create a new layer, then load the floorplan layer as a selection. I'll then expand that layer by 50% and fill it with a solid colour, so I can see what I'm doing.

Next, I'll reload the floorplan as a selection, and delete it, leaving only the expanded wall.

Now I can use a pattern fill effect. For the pattern itself, I cheated and quickly knocked one up a 1x1 inch square using Procreate on my iPad and the rather cool Tessellated texture brush.

Adding wall texture
Adding wall texture

I also want to add an outer stroke, but at time of writing, you can't do that to a layer when there are effects in place. So I create a new layer, use the wall as a selection, fill with white and add the stroke in the layer style. Then I simply move that stroked layer beneath the walls and merge them.

Wall texture with solid outlines
Wall texture with solid outlines


Next, I'll add some texture to the outside, reminiscent of the Dyson Logos style I like. That's basically the same process as the wall texture, but the aim is to make it look less geometric. To do this, I'll fill an entire layer with the texture, add a layer mask, then paint the texture back in with a grungy brush. Finally, I'll drop the layer opacity to 70%.

Outer texture
Outer texture

Okay, it's starting to look half-decent. Since the interior of the dungeon is looks rather stark, I'll throw some subtle texture in there too. To do that I'll simply drop in a monochrome paper texture, clipped to the floor plan layer.

Dungeon floor plan texture added
Dungeon floor plan texture added

Much better.

Dungeon dressing

The only thing I need to add now are props — features like doors, rubble, barrels, columns, stairs and so on. At some point, I'll hand-draw some symbols on my iPad and use those, but for the purpose of this proof-of-concept, I'll use shapes.

Here's a door, stairs, a sarcophagus and some columns I knocked up. They don't look too bad, but on quiet evenings I'm looking forward to creating some proper ones.

Shapes for dungeon dressing
Shapes for dungeon dressing

Lastly, I added some text (excuse my crude joke), using IM Fell English for the ye olde fantasy look.

Adding text completes the map
Adding text completes the map

With everything in black and white, the map has good contrast and is easy on the ink. But if you like the parchment look, it works quite well with this style too.

Parchment background added
Parchment background added


Concluding thoughts

This exercise turned out better than I hoped. My goal was to develop a technique that is quick and simple while producing something pleasing to my eye. Now that I've settled on the method, I can save this document as a reusable template, and create locales for my novels or dungeons for a quick D&D one-shot in a matter of minutes. Creating a layout is surprisingly fast, and once I build up my dungeon dressing assets, I'll be able to work even quicker.

Okay, so that's 4 days done, 26 to go.


  1. I've started playing D&D with my kids. 

  2. Rounded down for my printer's 5mm margins 



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