Creative Colleagues: Christopher West’s Big Castle

You’ve met Christopher West here before, but this time it’s for a project all GMs (and many others) will find interesting: a huge set of castle maps perfect for a home base or a villain’s lair. I’ve backed many of Chris’s previous Kickstarters, and not only because he made such beautiful maps for me back in the days of Star Wars Gamer. They’re great both for illuminating an existing setting and for inspiring a new scenario that you design yourself.

Here’s our brief chat about the Halls of Legend.

As a GM, how do you use maps (and miniatures) to create an adventure?

Both as a GM and as a mapmaker, I seek to create encounter locations that will be both memorable and exciting. With that in mind, I will often put together a story arc for my games designed to include specific environments that I’ve already mapped—and I will map specific environments that will support that sort of storytelling. There’s a synergy between the two activities that serves me well.

In essence, I plot my encounters around a cool location for which I have an interesting map, and then give my villains a reason to be there that grounds the story in that location.

You’re famous for SF and fantasy maps. What sorts of maps would you create for horror scenarios?

That depends a lot on the type of horror, honestly. For monster-themed horror, I like to take modern heroes out of their environment and drop them in lairs, either in natural or otherworldly—but far from help, in either case. My Forsaken Lands maps are mean to work for that sort of environment. But for more of an urban nightmare type horror, you can’t beat dark alleyways, slimy sewers, abandoned warehouses, condemned tenement buildings, or a nice slaughterhouse converted into a cultist hideout.

Some gamers hate the 5-foot-square grid, while others (like me) love it. What would you say to the naysayers to persuade them to try the grid?

That’s some treacherous ground on which to plant a flag! Both camps have valid arguments to make, so I try to stay as neutral as possible and invite both sides to meet me in the middle. I do include a 1-inch (5-foot) grid in nearly all of my poster maps, because there are a lot of tactical game systems which you can’t really play without it—but at the same time, I work to keep that grid as natural and unobtrusive as possible, preferring a subtle grid over one that distracts you from the environment. That way the players that want a grid can find it, and the players that don’t want a grid can ignore it.

But, to answer your question: I like using a grid because it can help to sidestep arguments that sometimes arise about cover, concealment, and line of sight during an encounter. If there’s a grid on the map and the objects showing on the map can clearly delineate the positions of walls and cover around your characters, it gives everyone a shared reference point and makes a lot of those arguments unnecessary.

Other gamers eschew maps and minis altogether, preferring “theater of the mind.” What do you feel maps & minis can add to the game?

I’ve run and played in satisfying games that eschew maps and minis, but I really do prefer to use them whenever possible—especially (but not exclusively) during action scenes.

In the middle of combat, in almost every RPG I’ve ever played, the GM has his or her hands full trying to manage the scene and communicate with each of the players, in turn, about the circumstances involving their characters. It’s a lot to keep track of. Along the way, the details of the scenery itself can become overlooked, forgotten, or muddled. But if you have a detailed map of the environment, the GM doesn’t need to remind each player, each turn, about that computer console on the far wall, or the stack of crates they could use for cover, the barrels in the corner that just might contain explosive fuel, or that rickety scaffolding behind the bad guys that a clever PC might find a way to collapse on top of them…

If a map has these details, it can add a richness to your storytelling that enhances your game-play and inspires the players to use the scenery instead of just making dice roll after dice roll until the opponents run out of hit points.

In my experience, games with maps and minis become much more cinematic experiences instead of a number-crunching exercise, and I just love that.

What’s the best moment from one of your own games that involved a map?

One of my favorite stories about maps and minis involves a Star Wars adventure I ran. The players were driving a cargo transport—a floating truck—through a canyon in the Jundland Wastes, when an act of sabotage dropped the truck to the ground and set up what would become a double-ambush encounter with both marauding pirates and opportunistic tusken raiders, on a canyon ledge with a sharp ravine on their left and a tall cliff wall on their right.

But first the player characters needed to unload the truck so they could try to repair it—which meant that when they were attacked, they had crates of various sizes scattered on the ground around the truck. The map in this encounter was hand-drawn, but the truck and the cargo crates were represented with my Sci-Fi Cargo Tiles as individual cut-out pieces on top of the map. The players had their own miniatures for their characters, and I had miniatures for the pirates, their speeder bikes and skiff, their E-Web cannon, and the sandpeople and banthas who crashed the party. It was a big, busy map with all kinds of cover and a lot of moving pieces by the end.

What made it memorable, though, was that all of those pieces of cut-out terrain changed the game in ways I couldn’t have predicted. The player characters climbed on top of them, and hid behind them, but they also moved them around, strategically. As they defeated several pirates, their crashing speeder bikes changed the battlefield dramatically, blasting crates across the map and smashing open one massive container with warning labels—which unleashed a hungry nexu creature that joined the fray and started eating people.

It was one of the most exciting combat scenes any of us had ever been involved in, and it culminated with a crazed bantha bull-rushing the party’s vehicle right over the cliff’s edge—which gave the party’s young Jedi a chance to shine, saving the truck and levitating it back to them with a timely and amazing critical success on her Force power check.

All of these twists and turns were made possible because all of these extra map features were physical objects on top of the map that the players and I could personally manipulate, and that real-world ability to move them around inspired us to do exactly that, narratively within the story. If everything had been drawn in place, the action wouldn’t have been nearly so dynamic.

Be sure to check out Chris’s latest Kickstarter.

Care to comment?