I dare say that we Black Gate types love maps and charts of imaginary lands.
As kids, we pored over the maps in CS Lewis’s Narnia books or Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Most of us have had posters of Middle Earth or the Hyperborian Age on our walls and almost all of us have scratched out maps of imaginary places, either for the joy of it or as a DM/GM or Fantasy writer.
It’s great fun to draw a map using pencil and paper. However, there are practical limitations. It’s hard to make changes neatly, difficult to produce different versions of the same map, a fiddle to create small scale local maps, and ultimately a chore to curate all the bits of paper.
For most of us, digital is our friend, which is why I am reviewing Hexographer, a relatively inexpensive Fantasy map making tool.
Hexographer very much has its roots in old-school roleplaying.
It began as a tool for creating Mystara-style maps and cheerfully emulates the World of Greyhawk feel. However, with a range of symbol sets to choose from, it’s grown into a flexible Fantasy cartography tool. What makes it distinct is that it explicitly treats maps as collections of hexagons (though you can place items freehand as well), which makes it almost perfect for writers and gamers.
However, first let’s get the business of pretty maps out of the way…
Hexographer as cartographical graphic design tool
Most Fantasy cartography packages are really “cartographical graphic design tools.”
They make the pretty maps that go out in the front of a Fantasy novel, or are packaged up with an RPG campaign or scenario.
Hexographer can produce pretty maps, as long as you don’t mind them on hexagons. This is no good for your self-published Sword and Sorcery novel, but fine to hand on to a designer hired by your publisher. Obviously, this is more than fine for a roleplaying campaign, though with fewer design options than on offer from much much more expensive packages.
EDIT: JUST DISCOVERED THAT YOU CAN SWITCH OFF THE HEXAGONS
Beyond that is a matter of taste, though I think the clarity of Hexographer maps has its own aesthetic value.
(I should also mention that Hexographer can handle city and settlement maps, with symbols for towers and walls and so on, and also Traveller-style hex-space maps. )
However, as a writer and gamer, I am not really interested in squandering time on producing pretty maps, except perhaps at the very end of the creative process. Instead, I am interested in…
Hexographer as cartographical creativity aid
During the creative process, a map is both where you discover stories and where you choreograph and timetable them: “That lake is in an interesting spot, suppose a dragon lives there. The characters need to cross a river. I’ll put a river…. there. Now how long will it take them to carry the wounded elf back to the city?”
So we writers and GMs need map making software that works as a “cartographical creativity aid”. This is where Hexographer excels and looks to be on the way to becoming the mapping equivalent of Scrivener.
Inspiring and Easy-to-use
Assuming that the resulting maps look good enough to be inspiring, the basic requirement of a cartographical creativity aid is that it should be as easy-to-use as a word processor. We want to work “in flow,” creating and revising without fiddling about or needing to stop off to swear at the interface and trawl a badly written user manual.
Though it has one or two eccentricities, Hexographer easily passes both these tests. The maps look nice, and after an hour of tinkering, I was scrawling away merrily, creating continents and islands and peopling them with my imagination. It was like being six years old, making a castle-strewn landscape on the beach.
Eventually, I noticed “missing features.” For example, you can only have one map open at a time and there’s no capacity for selecting chunks of the map and then rotating or cutting and pasting them (I am told this is coming). However, Hexographer is still much more usable than most similar packages.
Beyond that, I think there are four interrelated requirements: spherical worlds, qualitative landscape, vague details, and child maps.
The Earth and most Fantasy worlds are… (drum roll) round. Flattening out bits creates distortions, e.g. I have a map of the Crusades in which the British Isles look as large as Asia Minor, and a Viking Age map where Greenland looks like its own continent.
The ideal cartographical creativity aid would be like Google Earth, and simply present you with an animated globe on which to work. This, alas, does not exist. True, there are at least two packages that do let you create terrain on a globe, but neither support the addition of human features and text and both violate the easy-to-use requirement by providing insufficient control over the creation of landmasses and/or having insanely complicated tools.
Like most of its rivals, Hexographer handles spherical worlds by offering a Icosahedral (Traveller-style) template that looks a bit like an exploded D20 (because it treats the world as a polyhedron). This still creates distortions, but none that really matter because stories and RPGs deal in distances like “three days journey north” rather than “162.3 km North by North East.”
Hexographer has a slight advantage over its rivals here because it works directly in hexagons, making it very easy just to splash on terrain and features without having to nit-pick over edges. It also offers a free tool for randomly generating an Icosahedral map.
Stories and roleplaying games mostly perceive the environment in terms of qualities (“Massive mountain range over there!“) rather than quantities (“Look, a range of mountains reaching up to 9000m!“). Lovingly drawn contour lines and standard realworld cartographic symbols don’t actually convey this information very well. Textures such as “badlands”, for example, may not show up on large scale maps, and it’s hard to tell at a glance whether elevated geography is crinkly spiky mountains or rolling hills. It follows that little sketches of terrain features — symbols — are actually more useful than the “proper” alternative.
Compared to its rivals, Hexographer offers a slightly limited range of symbols, but makes up for it in two ways. First, the symbols are all systematically useful, e.g. “Evergreen Mountains”, “Dead Forest Mountains”, “Badlands “. Second, and more importantly, the symbols slot neatly into hexagons, making it very easy indeed to use them. (With other tools, you can end up having to fiddle to layer mountain ranges on top of each other, etc.)
Vague Details and Child Maps
This may seem like an odd requirement, but most writers and GMs really don’t want to commit to specific details until the last possible moment.
For example, say I place an island on the other side of the world from my main theatre of operations. It’s probably enough to write, “Spice Island of the Dreaded Overlord”, note that it’s mountainous, and then mark the capital city. Anything more is both a waste of time and also psychologically limiting. When the story or party of adventurers reaches the island, then I’ll know exactly what kind of place it is, and not before.
In other words, I don’t really want fractal lines and precise locations. I want my maps to have vague details until I decide otherwise.
Because it deals in hexagons, Hexographer lends itself wonderfully to this approach. My Spice Island of the Dreaded Overlord appears on my world map as just two hexagons, both with jungle mountains, plus the capital city, Nutmeg.
It follows that when I do decide to nail down the details, I want to be able to produce a child map, that is, a larger scale map of a smaller area.
Bizarrely, all the other software I’ve tried simply doesn’t handle this well. Cartographer, for example, won’t snip all those fractal land masses and other features. You have to either turn it into ordinary pictures, or else resize and retrace your section pretty much as if you were working with paper and a light box.
Hexographer, however, creates child maps with consistent ease: select your area, specify a new scale, and bang! there’s your child map ready for you to tinker with the details.
Trivial though this sounds, for a cartographical creativity aid, easy child maps are an absolute killer feature. There’s a lot to like about Hexographer, and a few things to put up with, but this feature alone is enough to make me abandon other packages.
Hexographer: Summing up
From the writer/GM perspective, if Hexographer is not quite the Holy Grail — to achieve that status, it would need to specifically handle spherical worlds — it has the advantage of actually existing and being extremely good value for the money. (You can also try it out for free.)
However, it reminds me a bit of the early versions of Scrivener for Windows; there’s a lot of room for enhancement and a sense that this will come. However, as it stands, it’s a really good — what did I call it? — Cartographical Creativity Aid and great fun to use. It’s certainly what I’m using to world build for my next Fantasy novel…
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman. His historical adventure yarns are all available on Amazon and he is currently working on a take if Heroic Fantasy. Watch this space!