Designing Maps

How to make beautiful and compelling maps for your games

Managing Battlemap Assets

Wherein I teach you techniques and strategies for managing battlemap assets.

A good library of assets is an essential tool for creating battlemaps. Asset creation can be tedious and complex and you will rapidly tire of making unique chests for every room. The solution is to create a set of templates and re-use them as needed.

This article is about how to obtain and organize personal asset libraries and some strategies for them. It does not discuss the creation of specific assets or special techniques for doing so. The Battlemap Techniques article contains pointers to that kind of information.

Obtaining Assets

There are two and only two ways to obtain assets for battlemaps:

  1. Create the Asset yourself
  2. Obtain the Asset from a third party

Third-Party Asset Packs

There are several high-quality asset packs out there in the world. You can find them for sale on various sites (and usually for cheap). There are also some free libraries all over the place, especially on deviantart.

Asset packs aren’t exhaustive; they will be focused around a topic (e.g., “Gothic Bedroom Furniture”, or “Pirate Ship”). You may need to obtain several to build a decent sized-library.

There are two major drawbacks to using a third-party asset pack: resolution and style. This is something to think about when mixing assets created by different authors.

Asset designers will often use different resolutions when they make their maps (it is one of the reasons why I keep hammering in the importance of setting your resolutions to 300dpi, which is the standard for 1 inch). Third-party designers may have built their packs where 1 foot = 100 pixels, for instance, in which case your asset is going to be comically large, or if they did it where 1 foot = 10 pixels, it’s going to be miniature. You will often need to resize these, and if a sizing key (x pixels = y distance) isn’t included in the pack, you’ll be guessing.

The second major drawback is visual style. Different folks use different strokes, as they say. (Do they say that? They should.) Some packs may be drawn very cartoony while others will come across as paintings or photographs. Mixing these styles can be a headache.

Super Important Tip! Remember that the people who make asset packs and put them out on the internet have lives and families and expenses and rent to pay. Some of them may actually depend on the income brought in through the sale of an asset pack. They’re not expensive and everyone wins when you support the community. Don’t pirate them. That’s a dickhead move. Don’t be a dickhead.

Making Your Own Assets

Regardless of whether or not you use third-party asset packs, you will eventually have to make your own assets at some point simply because not everything is going to be out there for you to find (the bar example from the battlemaps tutorial, for instance).

When you make your own asset, you are guaranteed four things:

  1. Complete control over the asset. You can alter the asset now or in the future in any way you desire. You can change the pattern or the shape or size of any of its components at will.
  2. Matching Visual Style. You made it. It will have your visual style and will match other things you create.
  3. Matching Resolution. You know what resolution the asset was made at because you made it.
  4. Copyright on the asset. No one can complain that you stole it, nor can anyone use it legally without your permission.

Whether or not creating your own assets is more economical is a question you’ll have to answer yourself. The issue is nearly always “how much time will it take you to make the asset versus how much money a third-party version will cost you.”

Creating and Using an Asset Library

Setting Up an Asset Library

Blank Asset Library
Blank Asset Library

Start by creating a new document. It can be any size but it needs to be at 300dpi. I made mine 10 inches by 4 inches (3000 x 1200 pixels). You don’t want this document to be very large as it will become unwieldy for use.

You’re going to create four layers initially. You’ll turn them on or off as you work. These layers go at the bottom of your stack, and they are set up like so (top to bottom)

  • A grid layer: “Five Foot Grid”, any color, 0% fill opacity, with a pattern overlay of “Square – 300px” set at 100% scale
  • A second grid layer: “One Foot Grid”, any color, 0% fill opacity, with a pattern overlay of “Square – 300px” set at 20% scale and a lowered opacity.
  • A color layer: “Dark Background”, with a fill of black (#000000)
  • A color layer: “Light Background”, with a fill of white (#ffffff)

You’ll probably turn off the Dark Background layer more often than not but it’s useful to have it.

These settings will give you a white void with a battlemap grid. The smaller squares are 1 foot square; the larger ones are 5 feet. If (for some reason unknown to humanity) you are using 10 foot squares in your battlemaps, you will need to adjust accordingly.

I like to reserve square 0,0 and use it to store information and sizing templates if I have any. I always make sure I know how many pixels equal a foot (which is easy given the way you’ve set up your grids). You may want to add additional measurements (e.g., 5px = 2 inches) if it helps.

Asset Management

Asset Library with Visible Assets
Asset Library with Visible Assets

It is of paramount importance to keep this file organized with layer groups and well-named layers. You can approach this organization in one of two ways: by asset type or by asset location. Whichever strategy you pick, you need to stick with it. I personally organize by type.

When organizing assets by type, you place each asset into a layer group that combines similar things. I set up my layer groups like this:

  • Furniture – Contains furniture assets, like beds, chairs, etc.
  • Tools – Small objects like knives, papers, books, chickens, and skillets.
  • Functional – Objects which serve specific purposes but are common, like crates, boxes, barrels, sacks, and chests.
  • Special – Objects that are specific and complex, like stoves, fire pits, and pews.

A benefit of organizing by type is that you can stack assets on top of one another inside smaller canvases. Just turn on or off the layer groups you’re working in.

When organizing assets by location, you place each asset in a layer group that indicates its position (Top Row, Bottom Row, etc.). This is most useful if you have a lot of assets and need a lookup table. Personally, I think this is overkill but I’ve seen it done.

Individual Asset Management

Inside of each major grouping you will have your individual assets. Keep each asset in its own layer group named after what it is (e.g., Small Desk or Chicken Number Three). Inside that layer group, you should keep two items:

  • A layer group named Bits or Parts that contains each of the component layers (shapes and pixels) that make up the asset, and
  • A rasterized version of the asset, named $ASSET NAME Pixels, without any layer effects such as shadows or glows

If your asset came from a third-party package, you may only have the rasterized version. It may also have outer glows or drop shadows already in place. If so, there’s no point in putting it inside of a layer group. I would highly recommend erasing any built-in outer glows or shadows from them. Just be careful and slow, and work on a copy.

Don’t apply any drop shadows or glows to entire assets. You can place them on individual parts of an asset if such a thing is essential to its make up (the hood on a fire pit needs a drop shadow, for instance). The reason you don’t place shadows and glows on assets inside the library is because the glows and shadows you end up using in the final map are going to be based on the context of the map itself, and the library is supposed to be context-neutral.

Constructing Assets

Constructing a battlemap asset is fairly easy but can be tedious. It’s beyond the scope to walk you through how to create individual assets (especially since only you will know what assets you require), but I want to give you some pointers.

Pattern Library

The most important weapon in your arsenal for asset construction is your personal pattern library. Over time you will collect many patterns, hopefully seamless, that you can use to provide texture. My personal pattern library has several hundred types of wood and metal surfaces alone. When you find a texture pattern you like, save it, even if you don’t have a use for it immediately.

Work in Shapes

As much as you can, build your assets out of shapes. This will allow you to resize and reshape them whenever you want and it helps you to create several versions of the same type of asset (e.g., lots of beds with different sheet colors, or books with different bindings).

You may end up rasterizing various parts as you go, but always keep the original shape versions of them.

Pixel Images

Say you want to have a chicken carcass set out in the kitchen. If you want to paint that using brushes, have fun. Most of us don’t want to do that. Grab a photo of the object (say, a chicken) from the interweb, clip away everything that is not chicken, and resize it. Always use an image larger than what you’re making: resize down, not up.

You can combine these images with other shaped assets to make more complex thing. A box of potatoes, for instance, is going to be the box (shapes) and then the potatoes (a photo of a bunch of potatoes).

I suggest searching the Wikimedia Commons for these images because they are of high quality and don’t generally have cumbersome copyright issues.

Shadows and Highlights

Add shadow and highlight details in their own layers. Shadow layers should be set to Multiply and highlight layers should be set to Screen.

Avoid using pure black (#000000) or white (#ffffff) for shadows and highlights; you want to save those colors as much as possible. Instead, use #222222 and #dddddd.

When adding shadows and highlights, remember to set up a “cage” that is the shape of the master object (<command><click> on the preview icon for the master object in the Layers panel).

Using Assets

Using assets from your library in your maps is super simple and is just a drag and drop approach.

How to Clone an Asset from your Library to your Map
  1. Open your battlemap in one tab and your asset library in the other.
  2. In the asset library, click on the layer of the asset in the Layers panel and drag it up to the tab for your map document. Photoshop will switch to the map file.
  3. Drag the asset onto the canvas where you want it to be (not the Layers panel).
  4. Let go of the asset. It will then be on the canvas.
  5. It probably dropped the asset’s layer into some random spot in your layer stack. Move it to the correct place.
  6. Move the asset to its correct position on the canvas.

Don’t apply “depth” creating effects like drop shadows or outer glows until the asset is placed in the map. You may want to make them heavier or lighter, or rasterize the effect and chop it in places.

Comments on Managing Battlemap Assets

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.