Making Maps – Outdoors Foundation

When you first start with RPG Maker, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of resources online. Dozens of creators, hundreds of tilesets, thousands of options – but none of them are going to make your map for you. In this post, I want to talk about making a gorgeous map using nothing but the assets RPG Maker ships with. Learning these techniques are important; once you get the fundamentals, you’ll know which tilesets you need, why, and in what combination.
This is a multipart-post. We’ll start talking about outdoor maps here; there’s plenty more to come, and of course we’ll need to make an indoor map as well!
1) Choose the basics.
     Some people turn to RPG Maker to build their 80-hour epic. Others are excited to create a world they’ve built in their minds over several years. Still others want to make a game to play rather than tell a story. While you don’t need a 300-page game design document, everyone needs to answer a few questions before they make a new map.
  • What’s the environment we’re exploring? Jungle? Desert? Tundra? Volcano? Any adjectives that truly define your environment, like Shadow Jungle or Domain of the Ice Goddess?
  • How big is this map? Generally you want to alternate between large and small maps – too many large maps can make a player feel overwhelmed, too many small maps and the game feels disconnected from itself.
  • What do I expect the player to do in this map? Are they just getting from point A to point B? Are they solving a puzzle? Fighting a boss? Experiencing a cut scene?
     Are there more questions you can ask? Sure! Some designers might encourage you to think about what happened here 100 years ago, what kind of vegetation would grow in this climate, come up with the unique characteristics that define the map. That’s all well and good if you’re trying to impart meaningful story, but what if you just wanna blow stuff up?
     I’m a fan of starting right away and fixing problems later, otherwise you can spend decades planning your game. Answer the above three questions, and you’re good to go.
For the outside of Vidar, we settled right away on a snowy hamlet, where all of the domiciles fit on a single screen. I wanted the player to easily enter each house, and I wanted a single area where a player might experience cutscenes at the start of each day.
2) Choose the floor.

     With that information in mind, it’s time to pick out some good basic tiles. We’ll first need 2-4 floor tiles. Find tiles that look great when spread out over massive areas, and look for variations on the same theme (or try your hand at making your own!). Using a grass floor? Get a floor with darker grass than your base, and another floor tile that looks patchier. Make sure that, when interspersed with each other, they look delicious. Looking at something more in the desert family? Find your basic tile, then one where the sand is mounded up on itself. Slight variations in the autotile can make a world of difference.

I chose the following tiles for our snowy hamlet:

Some snowy ground, snowy paths, snowy water, and snowy buildings. I think I'm set.

Some snowy ground, snowy paths, snowy water, and snowy buildings. I think I’m set.

3) Get to mapping.

      Don’t kill yourself looking for everything right away; start drawing out your layout right away. Use placeholder tiles to indicate to yourself that an item should go in a specific place. Identify your methods of ingress/egress. Some notes on layout:

  • Avoid large open spaces. Remember that the player’s screen will always be 17×13 tiles wide; if there is any place the player can stand where they won’t see something interesting or engaging, that place is in an open area that is too large. Smush it. 
  • Be consistent with wall height. This occasionally requires some tweaking back and forth, but be sure to keep track of wall height and stairs. Here are some examples:
  • Function over form. While your forest might look like the streets of Boston, remember that NYC is infinitely easier for a newcomer to navigate. Unless you’re intentionally designing a maze, avoid too many forking paths or branches, and too many turns.

Here’s the quick layout for Vidar. I had a sense of how many houses I wanted, marked those areas off, and marked off the exit.


Castle to the left, tent in the center, church up top. We have the start of our town.

Castle to the left, tent in the center, church up top. We have the start of our town.

4) Level with your level.  

One of the most dynamic things you can do to change up your map is add terrain levels. Not only do cliffsides take up space (and fill in otherwise empty zones), going up and down cliffsides creates a sense that the player is doing something more, even though they aren’t! Look for areas where a cliffside may be appropriate, and fill in your walls.

So let’s add some easy levels:

Cliff levels are easy filler that make your map infinitely more dynamic. If the map feels flat, it's because, well, it is flat.

Cliff levels are easy filler that make your map infinitely more dynamic. If the map feels flat, it’s because, well, it is flat. Add a cliff.

5) Get a border.

     Unless you want your player to be able to leave at any edge of the map (always an option, though from a player’s perspective not the most intuitive), you’ll need a border for your map. You want it to look natural – if you’re designing a walled city then by all means, a brick wall will do just fine. But if you’re playing in the desert, you’ll need to get creative. Here are some tips:

  • Water and terrain changes make excellent impediments. Can you have a body of water in your map? If so, you may be able to cut off a player’s path (lava lakes count!). Can you have a cliff, or are you on a cliff? Using terrain height adjustments is a fast method to create borders.
  • Look at your layout to see if you can “extend” anything to create a blockage. If a fallen tree is critical to your map, can you place it to block off a player’s exit? If there’s a house, why not have it take up the entire “back wall” of a small map?
  • Use a filler border, like a tree line, to finish the job, Ideally you don’t want your entire map covered in trees, but it can be an excellent tactic to cover large areas of terrain.
  • At this stage it’s ok to leave a few holes. You might be able to fill them up with rocks etc.

Let’s take a look at how we might add some borders:

Here we used trees, stumps, and graves to block certain exits. As we build our map, we want to continue to layer these so that it doesn't feel like we've blocked the borders with a single stone.

Here we used trees, stumps, and graves to block certain exits. As we build our map, we want to continue to layer these so that it doesn’t feel like we’ve blocked the borders with a single stone.

6) Sleep on it.
     You’re well on your way to your map, and it’s important at this juncture to take a step back and think, maybe even overnight. Remember way back at the start when you asked what the player would do here – looking at your map, is your answer the same? Has your design inspired you to some better or different gameplay? Will you need to add an area? Has something become redundant? Take a moment to ponder and consider what you’ve got so far before moving on to Part II (coming soon!)

One thought on “Making Maps – Outdoors Foundation

  1. Pingback: Making Maps – Outdoors Details | The Iron Shoe

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