Welcome to an interview for the series Game Credits Who’s Who (#GameCreditsWW). Ever read the credits page of a game you enjoy and wonder about the various positions listed? Would you like to work in the game industry someday but are not sure how some of the positions work? This Monday series will take a personal look into those positions and introduce you to real people doing those very jobs in the game industry. This week, let me introduce you to Alyssa Faden, a cartographer
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do as a cartographer.
I’m originally from Chester, in England, a former Roman border garrison town, which probably explains my passion for military history, the Roman empire in general, and why I was such a wargaming nerd at school. And I say “nerd” in the most respectful of ways, because I’m still that wargaming nerd several decades later. It was through wargaming that I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons (they were having WAY too much fun compared to the WWII game I was stuck in) and D&D introduced me to cartography; I was the kid who first played D&D at our school, so I was the kid who had to be the Dungeon Master to get other people to play with me, and that meant that the writing fell on me … and the inevitable maps.
Back then there were no computers and wacom tablets; it was an ink pen, felt tips, and a steady hand! But my word, I had a lot of fun creating worlds, countries, cities, and dungeons. Of course, it was also harder to see what other people were doing, so there was a tendency to have to create your own style, or model it on whatever resources were to hand from the local library, and I ended up with a very literal top-down view, and a very detailed style (which, apparently, “is my thing.”)
I enjoy drawing cities and settlements the most; I have a natural eye and mind for the organic growth of cities, while simultaneously being able to mimic urban planning for something more “planned.” The two things I bring to the table as a cartographer – aside from my desire to collaborate and contribute to the creative process – is stupid detail (like tent ropes on a merchant’s tent, when the tent is only 3mm across on the final map), and the ability to add little stories into the map; locations designed to make the viewer go “oooh, what is that?” If a map can contribute to the story/setting as much as the writing – if not more – then it’s a good map.
How did you become a cartographer?
All of this was strictly for me and my D&D group for the longest time; read: decades. It was only with the advent of social media, particularly Facebook, that things changed, and even then I was somewhat of a late comer to Facebook, so it took even longer. I was in an Old School Roleplayers style group – generally just talking about roleplaying in general – and oneday someone shared one of their maps, as you do. This led to a general “show and tell” and I was somewhat taken with the opportunity to share one of my old school city maps. I honestly expected no response at all, but after a quick scan/post, people were floored; they loved what I had shared, and this – honestly – blew me away.
It also encouraged me to post another. And another. And before you know it I was getting requests to draw city maps for other people … and my first paid commissions were born.
Private commissions became projects for small publishing houses, and – before you know it – I’m being approached by legends such as Kobold Press, or even Monte Cook at one point! Those guys don’t know it, but I was basically in a state of ga-ga-ness, and still am to a large extent. You don’t have someone like Timothy Brown from Dark Sun ask you to draw 4 maps for his latest Dragon Kings without falling out of your chair and resisting the temptation to ask for a signature.
I think I have several pet projects that I have enjoyed working on for various reasons.
Firstly, the Katalal map for Jeff Dee’s Bethorm was a joy to work on for various reasons. Firstly, it’s Jeff Dee, a name ever so familiar to me since early D&D days; how could I not want to work with such an industry powerhouse? This project was also challenging and rewarding, because it was for the Tekumel Foundation and I had to consider pre-established lore and materials; if one of the temples in the city had been drawn in an earlier scenario, my representation of the same temple had to match the floorplan and dimensions! Talk about an exciting challenge. I also took extra lengths to add as much detail as possible, even if not shown on anything less than poster-sized, and have the satisfaction of knowing that my map is now part of the canon … it feels like I have a level of immortality, now.
And then there was Dragon Kings for Timothy Brown. For starters, you already had me at “Timothy Brown,” but he also wanted four colored overland maps, all of them piecing together, and all of introducing things you don’t get to draw all that often: open sores in the land, obsidian mountains, hives (I copied bone marrow for that!), and cobweb covered villages. The net result was the largest map I’ve ever drawn, and one of the most beautiful, in my humble opinion.
Lastly, I have to give a shout out to Lesser Gnomes: Death & Taxes. Zach Glazar is an outstanding professional and does the industry credit by his presence and quality of product, but he is also a connoisseur of maps, a true appreciator and fan of cartography, and ultimately gave me a lot of free range on the two projects I have done for him (both super-sized posters). Zach originally contacted me a few years ago with the missive: “give me the best you’ve got” and I like to think that he has helped push my skills onto new levels.
What is your greatest frustration or pet peeve as a cartographer?
Generally speaking, customers who have cartography needs in mind are a joy to work with; they have creations in mind and you are helping to bring them to life; the customer typically is nothing short of super-appreciative and excited at the end of the day. “Peeves” tend to be one-offs and are therefore not to be focused on, particularly because most of the time clear communication, good process, and well set milestones can avoid any issues. Butttt, if I had to focus on one thing that really chaps … it’s when you apply all of those processes and sign-off points in order to avoid too much reworking, and a client changes his/her mind on something, typically well beyond the point where it’s an easy “take back.” A good example would be if I create swatches to nail down a map style, then draw a draft, then draw an advanced map, then color it … getting sign off at each stage … only to then get extensive layout revisions once everything is complete; revisions should happen at the draft stage, not the end. That can be a tad frustrating :)
How can readers learn more about you or contact you?
I also have a personal Facebook page, but venture there only if you want to be bombarded with lots of military history and an obsession with the Roman empire.