Sunday, September 13, 2009

Software for Roleplaying Games: Part 2

I've been somewhat reluctant to add the next "software for roleplaying games" segment to my blog roll, the topic of which is Campaign Cartographer (CC) and roleplaying game cartography. The reason for my slight trepidation amounts to mixed feelings about the software, cartography in general and that the topic is charged with a rich, personal history.

This is the "Kingdom of Erunn" in my original homespun game world. This region produced over six years of exciting and memorable game play.
I started my own mapping efforts by hand. I was inspired by the maps my middle school friend created, the same friend I've mentioned that introduced me to AD&D and other things. While creating his own game world, he'd taken sheets of typing paper and hand drawn pieces of his world in plain old #2 pencil. He drew them right to the edge of the paper so they'd connect when laid out on a table, yet fit in sheet protectors and a notebook. So, they were also portable. His maps were also well-shaded and drawn with an unquestionably unique, yet amateur (I mean this in the sense that he was untrained as an artist), style that even today I find unduplicable. I particularly remember the realistic over head view of the mountains. I've not seen these maps in many years.

This is the "Black Empire," the second of the two campaigns I ran from my homespun game world. The reddish substance at the left edge is from a can of Big Red soda I clumsily added to my game drawer. CC does have the advantage of being relatively "soda proof."
I used methods similar to his for creating my own game world maps (though his are superior, hands down). If you can imagine an introverted, blond-haired, blue-eyed high school nerd sitting at a brown, art deco dining room table, 80s music playing in the background or a fantasy or sci-fi movie on the television, with a stack of typing paper, mechanical pencils and AD&D books at the ready, then you have the picture. Years later, I took my completed pencil maps, transferred them to large sheets of 19" x 24" Strathmore and painstakingly inked them. This was my own beginning with roleplaying game cartography.

Please understand: I like Campaign Cartographer very much. I also fully intend to continue using it, now that I've leapt many of its hurdles and idiosyncrasies. I also really like the British company that produces CC. Profantasy has top notch support. Their web site and help resources have greatly improved over the years, including their having built an outstanding, friendly community forum, and they have good technical and sales support. They are highly responsive and responsible to their customers too.

However, I've used CC for several years now and there are many problems I've always had with it. In fact, there are so many problems I've had with it that, if I'd known then what I know now, I probably would have avoided the ride entirely and stuck with my pencil and ink maps.

What I'm going to say in this blog I've never had the heart to say on the Profantasy forums or anywhere else for that matter, because of an essential wish to do no harm. CC also has a sizable, loyal community and many of the folks who use it today probably use it to far better effect than I. I lay no claim to being an expert user, though I'm no slouch either. I'm just not as willing to put as much time (or more money) into it as others are. It seems to me that many of these folks pursue roleplaying game cartography as a hobby over roleplaying games themselves anyway.

Also, anything I might have to say to the community at large would likely cause hard feelings or worse, which would be purposeless. My criticisms of CC are at the core of the product and I'm not sure anything can be done about them in any case.

So, my experiences with CC are highly subjective and anecdotal. This isn't a product review in the slightest, so please don't mistake this blog for such. I'm also not just an old crank who prefers pencil and ink over the PC. Still, this is my story with it.

This, the control over layers, is a constant battle. Profantasy has added "sheets" to the equation in CC3, which aren't optional exactly and make things even more complicated.
Distraction: Foremost, CC features a high level of distraction. It doesn't save time, sometimes gets in the way of creativity, often forces one to conform to it rather than the reverse and can lead one terribly astray from one's mapping goals. It bears repeating: CC can become a hobby unto itself. If any one problem stands out at the top, it's this one. This software can eat large gobs of time if you let it.

CC can also slow game world development to a crawl, particularly if one hasn't learned how to use the software effectively. One might also spend an inordinate amount of time applying patches, uninstalling and reinstalling or trouble shooting crashes, which probably has more to do with operating systems, than with any flaw in the program's code (however, see below). One might also spend hours fiddling with layers, sheets and other program complexities, once the environment is "perfected." This is not to mention that reading the books and documentation is highly recommended, also costing a bit of time (albeit an investment in more effectively learning the program that will save time).

It just seems like it was far faster to sit down with a mechanical pencil and a sheet of paper and in a matter of a few hours, produce a detailed map suitable for play. Such a map isn't going to win any prizes or get published, but it will get a game going. The same can be done with CC, but the temptation to spend time fiddling with the program, sometimes changing your mapping goals entirely, is ever-present. It's hard to escape the software and the desire it creates to produce ever more refined maps.

Busy Interface: The program also suffers from a challenging interface compounded by a high learning curve, both simultaneously the second glaring "stand out" problem with using CC. The interface features 7 tool bars, a customizable tool bar (only customizable after digging through supporting documentation), a menu bar, a command bar, a status bar, a color bar and symbol catalog bar (all rearrangable). The mapping frame is surrounded by toolbars (which can, again, be rearranged).

The methods for selecting and acting on "entities" in the interface also requires a great deal of non-intuitive manipulation, selection by right clicking and a whole lot of confirmation. My understanding of why this is, is that CC builds a "query" (cf. SQL) of CAD commands for you and executes it. The interface has almost nothing in common with popular American software, which isn't necessarily a criticism, but is something to get used to. CC is also not necessarily to blame for this arrangement (see below), but again it's something you'll need to get used to.

This is the evolution of the symbol catalogs from: CC2 > CC2 Pro > CC3. Subsequent upgrades have long been a source of irritation, as I've already spent hours revising my as yet unfinished game world in line with the middle symbol set. I dislike the new bitmapped symbols and won't be moving forward with them.
Licensing and Upgrades: Below is a table of my registered products. I've purchased these over the course of a few years, so I didn't buy these titles all at once. I have, however, installed reinstalled, patched and otherwise cajoled them into functioning together a number of times, over various operating systems. I have also experienced the complete loss of several maps, despite the built-in auto save function.

The list sort of speaks for itself. CC2 Pro was Profantasy's best, most stable product, so much so that I wish I'd stopped upgrading with this version.

The biggest reason I should have avoided the next version, is the change in the software's essential nature. The basis for CC is a little-known program called FastCAD, still written in assembly language today (which makes the busy interface, in part, excusable). Profantasy made the decision some time ago to integrate Portable Network Graphics (.png) bitmaps into what was once purely vector-based software. The result is a hybrid of graphical methodologies: vector and pixels. CC somehow makes use of the Microsoft .Net Framework, version 1.1 (the current version is 3.5) to accomplish this too. So I would imagine it's also a programming code hybrid too.

I'm sure Profantasy made the decision to integrate bitmaps for two reasons. They listened to the wants of their customers and they wanted to continue to be a contender in an essentially niche market. But I personally feel stuck between versions. For example, there are a greater number of vector-based symbol catalogs than the newer bitmapped catalogs, though the bitmmapped catalogs are clearly the direction CC's going. There seems to be no appreciable way to go back and I've put a lot of work into game world maps that I'm still not done with after many years of fiddling.

Also, the directory structure has become a mess, it's hard to find symbols, which cannot be browsed from the operating system as other graphics can. There are thousands of symbols with no easy way to locate exactly what you're looking for. As innovative as CC is, it seems to be in a transitory state which carries over into my current mapping efforts.
This is a "swatch" from my as of yet unfinished game world done in CC2 a few years ago.
This is a swatch from the same area as the swatch above, revised to make use of CC2 Pro symbols. No argument that this map is better, but I still felt I had to go to the trouble of revision. My mapping goals for this game world are admittedly sizable too.
Cartographic Conundrum: This brings me to the cartographic conundrum I'm still looking for a way out of. My mapping goal was to create a full game world (i.e. the entire globe, not just a coastal "swatch") and I've managed to keep to my goals, at a cost in time.

The software's symbol catalogs changed (albeit for the better) by the time I completed my first set of campaign maps. So, I updated them, which included knitting together 9 separate files comprising the original maps. CC2 balked at handling large files so I had to make separate sections. Needless to say I had to fiddle with the map borders and with chopping symbols between maps.

Also needless to say, I've no plans to update my maps a second time, to the newer bitmap symbols. I've also done dungeon maps since then, working hard to avoid using the new symbol catalogs. This has proven difficult because the tool bars are pointed at the newer symbols and are rather insistent. (Yes, I can permanently re-point them but I'd have to spend time digging through documentation, forum posts, etc.).

I'd before wondered, for a number of years, as a matter of fact, why game companies never turned to CC in producing maps for their products? I finally understand why. The third major flaw with CC is that I'm constantly fighting the program to get the results I really want. "Real" artists don't suffer this problem. The clincher is that the software can do what I'm wanting to do.

The software, as with everything else in the world, keeps changing too. The changes, some of which have been good, are keeping me from realizing my mapping goals, rather than helping me reach them. I also dread electronic cartography in general whereas I used to enjoy hand drawn cartography immensely.

Finally, I find the mapping styles folks seem to prefer from the latest version too dark, fuzzy and difficult to read (you may see this in the third set of symbols above), in attempts to emulate the slick color graphics of modern roleplaying game products. They also don't print well which is also antithetical to my goals.

The jury's still out on whether I'll ever be able to center myself on the task and obtain an equilibrium that bridges the gap between electronic cartography with CC and the hand drawn cartography I once enjoyed.

Next: Part 3: Microsoft Access.

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