Thursday, May 7, 2009

REVIEW: Country of Arduin Map

I'm a huge fan of maps, as you know. Maps of imaginary places are part of what drew me into fantasy and science fiction in the first place. Goodness knows I spent a large portion of my younger days drawing maps of various kinds for use in my roleplaying game adventures and campaigns. Maps appeal to me both on an intellectual level (for their utility) and an esthetic ones (for their beauty). They are a perfect example of the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. A well-drawn map is of much greater value to me than pages upon pages of information about a setting. Indeed, I'm increasingly of the opinion that game companies ought to lavish more time on the maps of their settings than on the books that detail every nook and cranny depicted on them.

So great is my zeal for cartography that I've been known to pick up maps and map books even for settings I don't actively use or in which I otherwise don't have much interest. A good case in point is the Country of Arduin map from Emperor's Choice Games. I own only the original three Arduin Grimoires and have found them useful as inspirational material, but I have never run a full-fledged Arduin game and I am not even certain that I am constitutionally capable of it. Despite that, I won't deny that I lusted after it. Now that I have a copy, I can see that my lust was well placed.

First off, the Country of Arduin map is big. Measuring 2 feet x 3 feet in size, it looks exactly like the map of a fantasy setting should. This is helped by the fact that it's printed on a faux parchment that reminds me of the covers of the little brown books. The map uses only four colors for its details, which also contributes to its "archaic" feel, as if it had been hand-drawn rather than produced by means of a computer program. The map uses an uncial font for its titles and notations. The font is legible enough, even at very small point sizes, which the map has aplenty. I found the font slightly inappropriate for its subject matter, though; it's a bit too "generic" and stereotypically "fantasy-ish" for the quirky, individualistic setting of Arduin.

The map, though large in size, covers a comparatively small geographical area, since the scale is 10 miles to the inch. In practical terms, this means that the map shows not only expected features like rivers, forests, mountain ranges, and major cities, but also bridges, sites of interest, individual mountains, and small towns, as well as inns. One of the most charming things in volume II of the Arduin Grimoire, Welcome to Skull Tower, is its comprehensive listing of the inns and road houses of the setting, complete with their names, locations, owners, and a rating of their quality. For all the mockery made of the hackneyed "You meet in an inn ..." intro to many a fantasy adventure, there's something very right about the emphasis given to inns on this map. It gives the whole thing the joyful, convivial air for which all roleplaying sessions ought to strive.

The map is easy to use, with legends and an easy-to-use grid system. I found it very hard not to be drawn by the map's many evocative names -- Huddledark, The Great Look What I Found Forest, Village of Eight Gravestones to name but three -- and I immediately began to wonder what these places were like. I know very little of the Arduin setting beyond what I've gleaned from the first three Arduin Grimoires, so these names mean nothing to me in and of themselves. Yet, they sparked my imagination unlike many have in a very long time. Much like maps of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, I found the Country of Arduin map to be a spur to my creativity even without an accompanying guidebook. For me, that's the mark of a good fantasy RPG map.

In short, the Country of Arduin map is an excellent product. Although clearly designed for those who play in the Arduin setting, it has some utility even for those who do not. Given its price ($19.99), it's definitely not an impulse buy, even for cartography aficionados such as myself, which is a pity, because it's a great example of a fantasy setting map, one of the best I have seen in some time.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You love well-done fantasy maps and/or are playing in an Arduin setting campaign.
Don't Buy This If: Fantasy maps aren't your secret lust and/or don't have any interest in the Arduin setting.

11 comments:

  1. "game companies ought to lavish more time on the maps" -- Right on!

    That really is a great map. And you're right about limited colors giving a "less is more" bonus to a map.

    Super post, as usual.

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  2. I own this and purchased a nice frame for it. Definitely worth the $20, especially if you're a fantasy cartography nut like me.

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  3. "Indeed, I'm increasingly of the opinion that game companies ought to lavish more time on the maps of their settings than on the books that detail every nook and cranny depicted on them."

    Right there with you. In fact, it's turning into a bit of a full-fledged pet peeve of mine. The advent of Photoshop and digital art has allowed for some really awesome work (Rob Conley springs to mind immediately, of course) but also a lot of hideously ugly products of pure laziness (the 4e Forgotten Realms map or the maps in GURPS Banestorm, IMO).

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  4. For all the mockery made of the hackneyed "You meet in an inn ..." intro to many a fantasy adventure, there's something very right about the emphasis given to inns on this map. It gives the whole thing the joyful, convivial air for which all roleplaying sessions ought to strive.Too true.

    And really, the inn itself can be a fine site for adventures. Think of all the trouble Cugel got into -- or caused -- at the many inns and hostels where he rested. Cf. Jim Raggi's Inn Generator from Fight On #2.

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  5. A map of Arduin lends a certain reality to a place that comes off in descriptions as pretty unreal (even cartoonish).

    The whole "meet at an inn" thing is pretty cliche, but one that makes sense to this day. Inns are the one place almost everyone goes at some point. I hardly ever start campaigns out at inns anymore, but almost every game outside the dungeon or wilderness will have a visit. My personal cliche is to have a barfight in every inn or tavern visit (turns out they are pretty violent places).

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  6. I have loved maps from a very early age. While I read Tolkien first, it was really Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books that got me hooked on creating my own world; by the time I was in 4th grade I was detailing my creation in a series of maps. I wish I knew where those maps were today, I would love to see what my 9 year old self was doing and how closely my current worlds echo the one I created back in the day.

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  7. Hello james,
    An off topic: I've been working on and off at my own retro clone game. I'me readying to make it downloadable for free as a pdf from my website (http://artikid.altervista.org).
    While compiling the book I've found your article on Old School dungeon design guidelines of great interest.
    Since this is going to be a free product, would you allow me to use it? I'm obviously going to credit you.
    Best regards
    Luigi

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  8. Luigi,

    Feel free to cite anything you find here if it's useful to me, although I should note that those dungeon design guidelines are not wholly original to me. They're a modification of the ideas of Matt Finch, author of Swords & Wizardry and a far more imaginative fellow than myself.

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  9. Thanks for the answer James, I'm actually using Mythmere's S&W as a base for my work...
    :)
    Luigi

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  10. Oh man, I love me some Arduin. You should try to find the later grimoires, because there is some amazing stuff in them. The rules get almost totally left behind (which is good, as they never really made all that much sense) as the story and background stuff takes center stage. Great stuff.

    And I think I need that map.

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