Over the past few years, I have used many methods to create top down layouts for my levels. For production I like to use my rough 3D block out and create a 2D layout by taking the top down view of the block out. This way I make sure that I have a 2D layout that matches the playable level. To me the goal of a 2D layout is to use it to support and explain your design ideas to others.
Although for pre-production stages, nothing beats a reference board full with inspiring images. Recently I discovered the beautiful world of homebrewing, where DnD players create their own map to support their DnD sessions. A friend of mine showed me the ropes and now I am addicted to making battle maps.
Now that I have had experimented around with map makers like Dungeon Scrawler and Inkarnate, I would like to share with you my opinions about how these tools could fit in your workflow and how tools like these can help you to learn more about world design principles.
" Create beautiful detailed designs while maintaining creative control. Let your mind go wild! "
Give yourself a few keywords. Boat - Beach - Crashland - Invasion - Multiple Routes and Obstacles...
Envision the area and let your imagination go wild. With tools like Inkarnate, you can stop thinking about all the art assets that you need to make and focus on the design of your map. Inkarnate provides you with over 15k+ assets, for you to kitbash your maps!
The tool is fairly similar to photoshop, where you have layers and the classic blend options. Every stamp can be put on a specific z-layer and can be individually manipulated with filters.
"Understanding the relationship between certain phenomenon's and understand why certain things are done a specific way. Keep it believable and consistent! "
When you make designs for table top games, virtual games, architecture or anything else. It would be great if it has some continuity and the space makes sense. The most important part is that the viewer can understand the reason behind the placement of objects and why you design it the way it is. It is the aspect that makes your world believable.
Its not about it being "realistic" when I mention "believable". They are two different concepts in my mind.
Realism is about measuring how accurate something would be compared in the real world. While believability is about twisting this fabric of reality and trick the viewer into "believing" that this a new alternate reality.
We use parts of reality to create credible elements, making sure viewers won't question the way this alternate world works. If certain actions are done in a certain way, that action should be repeated to make it clear that there is continuity and that this is the way this alternate world works. Even in an alternate world, it should be bound by rules and adhere to those specific rules.
As world designers, we should be able to tell a convincing story through our world design due to believability rather than realism. Form follows function.
" Work your way day from the macro to the micro details of your layout "
Start from the bigger details, blocking in the rough shapes and make sure you have a balance between positive and negative space. It will help if you have a concept of shape and composition, understanding the relationships between them would come in handy to make aesthetically pleasing maps.
The bigger details will help to shape your layout. If your layout looks off, it will be difficult to fix it later on. Be sure you like your layout before proceeding to the nitty gritty details. Ask your peers, friends and or family to see what they think :)! It wouldn't be fun to realize you will have to redo double the work because you figured out that your layout wasn't really what you had in mind. It comes down to being able to forecast and imagine what the end design will look like before you start with the micro details.
When you're satisfied with your overall macro layout, the next step would be the micro layout. Placing down the smaller details like props and set-dressing, to fill your world with a story. While working on the micro layout, ask yourself these few question: what are the functions of these assets and why were they placed there? What kind of story are you trying to tell? Could these assets be used for gameplay purposes? If yes, how does it affect your design and what additional features does it add?
There is a difference between placing an object for gameplay purposes and placing it as clutter for set-dressing purposes. Be smart about how you place them and make sure the player doesn't misunderstand a set-dressing prop as a gameplay element.
" Create depth with shadows and ambient occlusion"
You can give additional depth to your map designs by playing around with the shadows, lighting and adding ambient occlusion. It will make your maps look a lot more interesting than a flat 2D image. A tip would be to think about in which direction the sunlight is coming from and how it would bounce off from different surfaces like water and metal.
" Use the same art style for your map design"
It is easier to make everything coherent when you are using the same asset pack. It terms of shape, color and style, it might look out of place. It is okay to mix and match different asset styles, just know that you might need to put in the additional effort to make it look coherent.
In the example below, we can see that they use different art styles for the foreground. Which is fine if that's the intention. It could make certain elements pop and stand out!
A rule of thumb: Make it look coherent. If you do it, make sure to repeat the consistency.
" Research references to inspire your design "
If you don't know how to create a convincing village, I would recommend looking up real villages in google earth or to use other tools that create nice looking but arbitrary settlement layouts.
One such tool that I use is called "Medieval-fantasy-city-generator" by author: Watabou. https://watabou.itch.io/medieval-fantasy-city-generator
It is an awesome tool that can speed up the process of creating cities. By putting in a few parameters you can keep on randomly generating a layout, till you find something that works for you. Don't be afraid to copy a layout if it works for your purpose. You don't need to come up with something from scratch, use shortcuts where needed to speed up the process. Some people that I talked to, they think its taboo or cheating when you use tools like these. I don't see it as cheating at all as its a tool that allows me to have a strong starting point for my inspiration.
"I had a lot of fun with this program, it felt fun to scroll through the library of assets and "
All the pictures in this article were made by myself. Most maps, took me about an hour or less to create. Given that I was new to the program and had to figure out how to use the program, it was surprisingly easy to use due to the program behaving similar to programs like photoshop. It was super fun and frictionless. Making rooms and designing the interior space was especially fun.
"From level design layout, city layout, world layout to posters and quick concept art. It is up to your imagination"
There are many more things that you can do with Inkarnate. Its a 2D canvas where you can unleash your imagination. Take a look through the forums and see what others are homebrewing for their DnD sessions.
For me personally, I think I found a new fun tool that could help me to create quick concepts for my level & world design purposes. DnD map maker tools like these help me to not only to kitbash something quick and make it look good. It will also help my mind with thinking in a creative way, which I might not have gotten from a hand drawn map made from scratch. The additional details keep my mind stimulated, allowing me to come up with new ideas to future complement the design.
It is a refreshing way to look at how we could approach creating level and world design ideas with unorthodox tools. It reminds me about using Lego blocks to conceptualize your level and world designs. It's an interesting medium for sure.
A small reminder; it is not the tool, its the artist/user and their creativity that determines the quality of the work. Tools can help us to make it easier to complete repetitive and or complex tasks. At the end of the day, its up to how you make the most out of it.
Inkarnate has a free demo version and Dungeon Scrawler is free to use. I suggest trying both and see what you think about them :).