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Fantastic Maps

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A fun quick read for a Thursday morning.
by Rob Davidoff and Miranda Gavrin

I remember the day I decided I was going to be an xenoanthropologist–it was in the first grade, when our teacher showed us the now-famous images from the HAROA telescopes. That was just after they’d commissioned the telescopes in Houston and Denver, and they were pointing the array at planets they’d already confirmed using smaller-baseline arrays. I remember my teacher trying to explain how it worked–that with math you could use small telescopes spread over a long distance as one big one, a principle called interferometry we could barely pronounce–but my classmates and I were more struck by what those famous first images of Gliese 667 Cc showed. Back when my parents were kids, they’d used the dimming of its parent star to speculate there was a planet there, and the first generation optical interferometers–ones with baselines measured in a few tens of kilometers–had been enough to actually resolve the planet and confirm it existed, along with thousands of others we'd suspected. But that image was the first time we had enough resolution to really see it as a planet–blurry, pixelated oceans, continents, icecaps. And there, on the nightside of the terminator….scattered points of dim light. It took me years in school to realize what that moment meant to me, but that’s the day I knew humans weren’t alone in the universe, and that I wanted to study those lights.

The old sci-fi books I devoured as a kid had all assumed that our contact with aliens would start with a meeting or a message: we would go to their world or they would come to ours, or we would pick up each other’s radio signals and start talking back and forth. Instead we had found them, and they probably didn’t know we existed.  In fact, it took years to even know they existed.  We already had spectroscopy data that showed elevated oxygen levels in their atmosphere–proof of ongoing chemical processes for replacing it, but for all scientists could initially say with those first famous photographs, we were just looking at vast colonies of photosynthetic, bioluminescent algae. It wasn’t until years had gone by, and I’d spent all of high school digging into physics, math, biology, and history, that they finally commissioned a telescope array capable of seeing smaller geographic features–tens of kilometers instead of hundreds. The articles I read on Popular Science’s site explained how scientists were charting the positions of the lights through time, cross-comparing to oceans, bays, mountains, and rivers we could infer only from the green lines they cut through deserts, and the spectral analysis of the lights themselves–finally showing proof that those points of light were the product of campfires and lamps, not just glowing moss.

In a way, that was the entire discipline of xenoanthropology: poring over the latest images from the best telescopes, seeing what could be implied, inferred, or just guessed. We watched the points of light grow, new ones sprout on other continents–were we watching another race’s Age of Exploration? People wrote entire papers on the implications of the ways those dots of light and faint daylight blobs moved and grew for their transportation, their culture, and their politics. I was one of those people, in my undergrad years and my early grad work–we were the modern day Schiaparelli, seeing canals on Mars. I look back on those papers….what we didn’t know! But it was enough to keep the interest of some of the public, the part that hadn’t gotten bored when it turned out the aliens weren’t beaming out new episodes of Kitchen Gladiators or immediately retreated into endless circular discussions of the theological implications here on Earth. But that was the best we could see with a telescope array limited by the diameter of the Earth: ten kilometers of resolution. Anything smaller than a town, and we couldn’t even see it.

I was a postdoc at the HAROA central station in Boulder when we finally got the approval for the space-based optical telescopes, the Lightsecond Array. One at Earth-Moon Lagrange Four, the other at Lagrange Five, the two telescopes were massive things, fine webs of stretched-mylar mirrors miles across. Technically, it wasn’t a lightsecond, it was 2.22 lightseconds, almost bang on 666,000 kilometers of separation squinting down the line to Gliese. When we could steal time on what we around the lab called the Lucifer Array from the plain old astronomers staring at exoplanets that didn’t sport their own branch of the tree of life, we could finally see everything. It was a little uncomfortable, actually: the unblinking Eye of Sauron peering down with a resolution of 183 meters. The press releases had described us as being able to “see a soccer stadium,” but more to the point we could see…well, whatever they called it, the game they played on the grass fields in the center of their towns and cities. With Lucifer, we could see the ships we’d speculated must exist–sail-powered, just like we’d thought. I remember the first time the lights of a ship we were tracking didn’t reappear after a major storm–the first time I looked at Gliese and knew I’d just seen hundreds of deaths that these 1700s-era people could never solve. It almost felt voyeuristic, as we cataloged wars and weather and settlers on the frontier. But I was hooked, just like I’d been in Ms. Mueller’s classroom thirty years ago.

I remember even more as we saw those lights increasing in number, the increased levels of carbon dioxide and other products in their atmosphere around their largest cities–we’d started watching about the time they’d started their first Industrial Revolution, the one powered by water, but by the way the cities started moving away from rivers and the smoke and light of their furnaces we could tell when they entered the Age of Steam. With that came new craftsmanship on their part, and we made our own improvements–new telescopes spread further from Earth, giving us the resolution to see buildings, streets, the details of their ships and trains, and more. Others wrote a dozen papers speculating on it, but I just remember shouting for my wife who’d gone to get us coffee from the breakroom when Denver got the latest round of images from one of their major ports. They’d started building some kind of statue on an island–of course, I always call her Lady Liberty. But she was hundreds of meters tall, and with that we finally knew what they looked like, all four arms and six legs of them, like spider-centaurs.

With all the developments we saw them making as I rose up the ladder of the observatory staff, my worst nightmare was always that they’d have their Black Plague, their nuclear moment: that one day I’d see entire cities flicker and burn and go out like that ship in the storm–an entire species dying out or killing itself while we couldn’t do anything but watch. That’s why we’ve been doing it–they’re developing electricity these days, we’ve seen the change in their lights, the dams on their rivers for hydro power. Someday soon, they’ll finally invent the radio, and they’ll get the signals my team has been sending out–math and encoded pictures, greetings from Earth to tell them they’re not alone. It could be lost in the interstellar static, I don’t know how long it will take for them to hear it, or to build an antenna capable of replying but…I’d like to see it happen before I’m back out of the picture.

…What is it, Sam? I’m bus…what? Show me!

I’m looking at another picture now, just off the Array. We didn’t need the resolution for it, not in the end. And we didn’t need the radio telescopes we’ve had listening for the first faint flickers of any reply among the background hum of the universe. You were smarter than that, and I should have known. We told you we were watching, and when you heard, you just wanted to show you’d heard. The image Sam’s got pulled up on her tablet is that same globe I’ve seen for decades–the one I know almost better than a map of Earth or the lunar colonies. I know every point of light, every city and town. The coordination you’re showing us! She hits play again, and it happens: across an entire seacoast, over the course of hours, the lights in a dozen cities and towns flicker off, then on, then off. An hour passes on fast forward, then off and on again twice more, then another hour of darkness, then three more flashes. You get to eleven before the lights finally come back on steadily, then fade out in the familiar ways before the coming dawn. Primes, aimed right back along our radio beam. It’s amazing. I’ve spent my whole career watching you, moments of insight and wonder at the light flashing across lightyears. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget this moment–the moment you knew we were looking and you took the chance to talk back.
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фэ бж32ежфээ мъже
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And more hand painted globes - this time, of Mars!
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+Brenda Holloway: looks like it's based on Percival Lowell's maps of Mars.
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3 Ways To Draw a Chasm on a Dungeon Map

In a plan view map, elevation is hard. This is especially true for line art maps, where you don’t have the advantage of shading to indicate height and depth using the cast shadows. Here’s three different styles for drawing chasms on a line art map.

1. Simple Chasm – Just Use An Outline

This version is the quickest – draw the ragged outline, starting small, gaping, and then joining back up again. The outline alone isn’t enough to suggest that it’s a chasm. You need to draw a winding line through the middle – to indicate where the chasm walls meet at the base.

Don’t try too hard to make these lines follow each other – chasm walls are rough and uneven.

2. Use Vertical Lines to Indicate Depth

Both this and the next style assume you already have a simple chasm (above). Cliffs and chasm walls are fractured, detailed terrain. When you look down from above, all that detail is foreshortened – we need an easy way to indicate that – which means a stylized shortcut. In this style I’m using simple lines going from the places where the outlines are jagged, down to the bottom of the chasm. I’m not using solid lines – you want those to indicate the clear outline – but just light irregular lines. The converging lines draw the reader’s eye into the chasm and suggest depth.

3. Use Horizontal Lines to Indicate Depth

Version 2 is very easy to read, but actually not that accurate. If you’re looking down a cliff or a crevasse – you see lots and lots of horizontal ledges. In this version we focus on those – and layer horizontal lines along the sides of the chasm. As you peer deeper into the chasm (closer to the middle, which is closer to the bottom), these get tighter as they get closer together. This serves the purpose of adding explicit depth to the chasm as the closer lines make the center darker, and thus hint at it being further away.

There you have it – three different line styles for a chasm on your dungeon map, or your regional map. Check out the rest of the tutorials over on the mapmaking tutorials page: or under #fmtips  
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It's quite a show reel!
Cartography Collection Showreel.
Here are some of my cartographic Hightlights from 5 years of professional Cartography Art.

please visit my Patreon for the ongoing Cartography Collection
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Building a map can be a great way to build a world - this tutorial walks through 6 steps from the first outline idea to a designed world map.

I wrote this first for novel writers - but this can be applied to any worldbuilding problem.
This article was originally written for people building their own worlds for novel writing, but the process is useful for anyone who wants to create a world and draw a map. Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. A map shouldn’t be pretty. I know what you’re thinking – those posters of Middle Earth …
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How to draw and colour water on a dungeon map - a quick video walkthrough of my method in Photoshop (also works in Gimp)
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How to use hatching to show elevation

None of my dungeons are flat. I always have things for people to jump off or fall into. But if you're laying out a top down map it can be tricky to show elevation.

A simple version is to use arrows, and basic shading to show higher/lower levels (v1 in the diagram). However - it's hard to tell which way the arrow points (is that up or down?), and shading a whole flat area is unsatisfying and flat.

So - v2 - you can use hatching to lay in the thrown shadows.

1. Basic Hatching

For each edge where the floor on one side is lower than the floor on the other - lay simple hash marks along the side that is lower. In this case there's a staircase up to a high ledge, so on each step I hash along the edge that is lower. It's basic, but it gives a clear direction on each edges.

2. Longer Shadows For Larger Drops

Not all drops are equal. Here the drop on the step is shallow, but the drop from the top plinth is large. So I use longer hash marks where the drop is larger. I also cross hatch in the corners to produce deeper shadows along the edges.

3. Hatch All The Things

This method comes into its own when you do this everywhere. You can see here that I've hatched along every edge. This means that the walls themselves have cast shadows, even onto the plinth. I've also used very light hatching across the entire lower floor (as with v1 above). Now - when you use this many lines, you stand a risk of losing the clarity of the edges. To avoid this I've darkened those edges with a heavier line.

It's also possible to use this when you have more detail than just simple block room shapes. Here I've added flagstones, but you can add any set dressing and the same method will work.


Shading will get you some way to a clear read, but you can always throw in a side-view cutaway. This provides an unequivocal read on the elevation of the elements in the map.

Throw any questions in the comments - and tag me on any sketches if you'd like input on your own work in this style.

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i don't understand
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A good way to add a scale to any map.
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That's big man.
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One Of The World’s Last Remaining Globe-Makers That Use The Ancient Art Of Making Globes By Hand

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Truly amazing.
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I'm polishing up some of my older tutorials - here's my process for designing town maps. This isn't a pretty tutorial - this is a practical walkthrough of sketching a town layout that makes sense.
Creating city maps can be hard. Here's four quick steps I use to design believable town and city maps.
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I hated the surface pro (lag from the stylus) but the Galaxy Note series are great (and inexpensive relatively speaking). I also am enjoying my Cintiq, but it's a bit bulky for a portable. 
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One of the earliest isometric maps I created - I loved illustrating this. I ended up creating a top down version as well as this isometric view.
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Very nice.
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Some more lovely line work.
The Ruined Tower of the Crimson Skull
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Is there a book left? You are great!!'
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The cartography, illustration and tutorials of Jonathan Roberts
I illustrated the official maps of the Lands of Ice and Fire for Game of Thrones as well as maps for BMW, Wizards of the Coast, Will Smith's After Earth, and many more.

I post tips and tricks on how to create your own maps, here's a collection of some of the tips I've posted. I got into map making through RPGs, and I run a store of maps that you can buy for use in your own games. To see more of my work, check out my site.