Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fantasy GIS

When I was a kid, I played a fair bit of Dungeons & Dragons. Rummaging through old files this winter, I recently found a folder full of maps from a campaign I ran as DM from 8th grade through the early part of college. As they were a bit ratty looking, I decided to scan some of them, just for posterity. And that got me thinking.

One of the largest learning curves in my new job is learning GIS software. GIS, or geographical information systems, are computer programs that replace the laborious and repetitive math of map drawing with arcane buttons and incomprehensible menu selections which allow the computer to do the math for you. As I’m old enough to have learned geology in the paper and pencil era, I’m on a bit of a learning curve with plotting everything up. So I figured I’d register the adventure maps just for kicks.

A bit of sober reflection altered my plans, however. For one thing, I didn’t want all that junk on my work machine, and for another, using a format for a (very expensive) program I didn’t own seemed sort of silly. As Brian and Ron have been pointing out over the past few years, Google Earth is basically a poor man’s GIS. So I decided to use that instead.

Just like Google Earth, this ‘Google D&D’ is fully zoomable through the continental scale...

The regional scale...

And the local scale. The continuity between maps is better in some instances than others. The regional to local transition, which was done at high latitude and involved maps drawn several years before I learned trigonometry, is probably the dodgiest. But it is that scale at which the various tags and hypertext attributes start to become useful, as is shown here.

And at the dungeon level, layer control is great. Here I’ve color coded the dungeon layers so that their overlap is clear. The black ruined castle is the surface layer, while the underground layers are red, blue, and green.

And finally, we can turn off the clutter and zoom all the way down to look at the individual rooms in the adventure.

I don’t know if I would go so far as to try DMing paperless- there is a lot to be said for scribbling on maps and ticking things off. But it would be a great tool for generating things like player maps, as you can hide the DM only information just by deselecting the layer it is in. And if someone spills coke on the tactical map you can just print out another one and move the figurines.

And as a geologist, this has got me thinking. I’d love to plug the continental parameters into a coupled ocean-atmosphere GCM to see if I put the forests and deserts in the correct places. And I should probably check the orbital stability of the three moons*, as well.

I don’t know how useful this sort of thing would be for normal, well-adjusted RPG moderators. But I would have loved it 20 years ago. And I suspect it would be useful for anyone else who was socially awkward enough that they couldn’t say how a drunk goblin would react without knowing the orbital parameters, geologic setting, historical background, religious persuasion, and gardening habits of every sentient denizen of the craton.

* Unfortunately, in my ignorant youth I put the farthest moon beyond the planet’s Hill Sphere. I should really be more careful with my satellites.


Anonymous said...

I really liked this post, if I ever start writing that fantasy novel I've been thinking about I think I'll start this way, or I might just do it for fun, if I ever have the time.

Anonymous said...

Great idea! I'll try this out myself. I didn't know many other Geos were into DnD as well...

Kevin Corrigan Jr said...

Actually trying to do some of this right now any tips fo suggestions you have on how to go about this i would love I have never done anything like this before.