Monday, February 18, 2013

Hexographer: A Review


All this worldbuilding work lately highlights just how work-intensive the process is. Sometimes, as a DM or as a writer (or both), spending all of this time working on creating the setting can actually become a serious detractor to working on the actual project at hand - be it writing a chapter or fleshing out a character for a story or if it's basic prep for a typical campaign session for an RPG. Either way, not everyone has bucket-loads of time to spend working on what many gamers would consider to be among the most tedious, labor-intensive efforts. Citing myself in particular, time is really a luxury these days. The only reason I've been managing to put out a stream of posts on the topic is that I was able to work on them pretty heavily over the winter holiday between semesters. Moral of the story, sometimes, as a DM, you have to work smarter, not harder.

A long while ago, I stumbled across a freeware program called Hexographer. At the time the most useful version was a paid-only version, which is usually a big turn-off for me. I'm a big fan of open software and Open projects in general, and seeing something that is potentially very useful being kept out of my hands strikes me as jarringly anti-utopian. But that's another story for another day. The story for today is that the free version of the program is now actually incredibly useful. In fact, the RPG Tools website now has a plug-in for its random world generator that will output a .png image that is compiled using a streamlined version of the Hexographer software.

Here's an example of what you can get (for free, no less) just with a few clicks. The results can, of course, be customized to an extent, but this is already a great scaffold to move forward with:

You can see the similarities between the previous fractal-generated worlds, but with the exception that this world is more constructed and fleshed out. This is a priceless boon for any DM in need of ideas or details on the fly.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What is Hexographer, you ask? The snide, concise answer is that it's a computer program. But it is ever so much more than that. In strategy games and in some RPGs you often see the field or map divvied up into hexes as a means of organizing the terrain into discreet parcels or tiles (typically as a way of tracking movement for units or squads or otherwise visualizing a self-contained battlefield so that it is manageable for the DM/GM). In a way, this is an alternative method of procedurally generating an entire region one tile at a time. It works a lot like Minecraft, where one chunk (regional location) loads at a time - the effect being that adjacent chunks, once loaded, blur seamlessly with one another creating a logical transition between tiles. Hexographer essentially outputs a .png file of a world that is broken into numerous hexes, each one identified as either a mountain hex, field hex, water hex, forest hex, desert hex etc. etc. The obvious advantage here is that, unlike in my worldbuilding series, you can procedurally generate a world that already has its terrain and geography figured out. The major geographical features are figured out, but the minor ones are left for the DM/GM to fill in. You can only expect so much work to be done for you, after all, and this is already a veritable gold mine of information.

Here's a screen capture of the RPG Tools hexographer interface - you can literally let it run on random settings and generate a pretty usable campaign world. Again, a lot of the names and features have a very, very random feel to them (cobbled together from numerous fictitious sources and some real world references, but many of the proper nouns have far too many vowels or awkward consonants to be spoken smoothly during any normal game):

In a way, I do recommend the RPG Tools plug-in a little bit more than the Hexographer software itself mainly as the world-generator at RPG Tools will automatically populate the hex image with towns, castles/ruins (dungeons of various types) and major landmarks. This can be an immense time-saver for the gamer that needs a generic setting on the fly, but the problem is that you will be sacrificing the richness and diversity involved in a custom-built campaign setting. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but Dragonsgate has a lot more uniqueness going on about it. However, for the gamer seeking a nostalgic setting more evocative of classic 2nd Edition experiences reminiscent of the original Greyhawk (*1) setting or Blackmoor (*2), using RPG Tools features/featurettes isn't a bad way to go. Nevertheless, using Hexographer is an excellent way to get the most difficult worldbuilding features done in an automated way leaving yourself to pencil in the customized details of the world itself.

Also, as kind of a legend for both Hexographer and RPG Tools, here are the types of hexes that the generators output - they are all pretty easily recognizable (cartography shouldn't be pulling any punches, after all), but I figured a handy reference for the uninitiated might be in order.

You can run Hexographer here - it's a pretty painless process. The one downside is that the free version requires an internet connection to run as it has to be run in your browser, rather than as an actual program per se. The good news is that means it can be run cross-platform without any issues. The site itself walks you through getting it up and running. Also, you can import an image file and have Hexographer trace it, adding hex tiles over the original image, allowing you to draw your own landforms and masses, which adds even more options for customization. The image added has to be a .png though - no .jpgs allowed, unfortunately. Although, I would argue that .pngs are superior images anyhow, but that is also beside the point.

When you get the program running, you should see a window that has a host of possibilities, options and specific settings for generating whatever kind of world map you want. There are even options to generate star maps/space maps for a science-fiction setting (which will be another project for me later on down the road).

After the map is generated, you can customize the output by playing around with the various icon and tile settings listed in the large sidebar to the right of the map itself. You can left click on the specific icon you want to add, left click on the destination hex and then right click the same hex; it will overlay that icon on to the specified hex, indicating that there is a specific feature at that location. The kinds of icons are pretty varied and useful - you can even place infantry icons for use in large-scale groundwars, something that would be heavily useful for very strategic-combat-oriented games or campaign missions.

At this point, you can get as detailed as you want. The hex output here is much more sophisticated and complex than the RPG Tools output, so, providing a legend here is a bit moot. The sidebar explains every hex and tile pretty thoroughly, but given the high degree of flexibility and customizability, I highly encourage playing around with the program to see what your preferences are. The one major downside to the output here is that the hexes form a much more blocky map, which gives it less of a realistic look. Each method seems to have its advantages and disadvantages. Well, when dealing with the Realm of Open-Source Products, one can't have everything.

Well, having let the cat out of the bag, hopefully these prove to be useful resources for some of you. I know that I'll end up using both for any of my campaign storybuilding endeavors in the near future (post-Dragonsgate).

Also, following the suggestion of a friend, I've decided to hold most links or other citations/references to the end, placing them as footnotes for the article. We'll see how it works out - I'm a fan of the idea though. Footnotes are, after all, quite fun.

1. The World of Greyhawk: one of the original prototype campaign settings, designed by Gary Gygax himself beginning in the '70s. It's a fairly traditional high fantasy setting, spilling over with the details that he hammered into it over decades and decades. Interestingly enough, the setting is massive, and there's an odd analogical overlay between Greyhawk and our own world (in fact, regions of the world of Greyhawk correspond to regions of our own world - weird. Apparently, Southern California corresponds to Nyrond and Nevada corresponds to The Theocracy of the Pale. Fun stuff. There's also a lot more information on Wikipedia.

2. Blackmoor: the actual first campaign setting developed by Dave Arneson (co-creator of D&D).

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