Worldbuilding with Excel

Recently I showed off a work in progress, the world of Veleastra. (All names should be considered placeholders at this point.) Some expressed interest in my use of an unconventional mapping tool, Microsoft Excel, to design the world’s landmasses at the global level. I did use Excel for a lot of the background math as well, although I “drew” the map by hand, essentially pixel by pixel, with unfilled cells representing land and with water cells colored in blue.

The last version of the world map that I shared, with the Super-Regions, Regions and Subregions indicated.

The last version of the world map that I shared, with the Super-Regions, Regions and Subregions indicated.

As the venerable Paul Czege pointed out, it would have been relatively easy to do this fractally, by putting a formula in each cell and using conditional formatting to determine the cell’s color based on that value. This method could also have provided other useful data, such as elevation values. But I did it by hand, for reasons of aesthetics and personal preference, and because I could make the world fit neatly into the mapping system I devised for it. So I’d better talk about that.

I started by plugging in numbers for the mass and diameter of the planet, then computing a density and surface gravity based on those values. I wanted a world somewhat larger than Earth but still basically Earthlike, so by setting these parameters up in a spreadsheet I could play with the numbers until I got results I liked. But to do so I also needed to look at the other extreme, at the smallest scale, of individual hexes.

I’m a fan of the six-mile hex, because it’s geometrically elegant and because I think it works well for travel and exploration-based adventuring and nation-building. However, I’m just as happy to say that hexes are about six miles across and call it a day, since I plan to present distances in in-setting units anyway. So I made the hexes 10km across — a unit you would never see in a finished product. Ten kilometers is equal to 6.2 miles, and that’s close enough for me. Then I could figure out how many hexes I needed to span the world’s calculated circumference.

Where hexes get tricky, though, is that the distance from one hexside to the opposite hexside (with hexes stacked vertically, as is traditional,) is different from the distance between opposing vertices. So some irregular setup is necessary to get approximately square groupings of hexes, which I needed for my mapping system. I settled on 10km because an array 12 hexes wide and 10 hexes tall, with the horizontal distance between hexes measured from the centers, comes out to 103.9km wide and 100 km tall. So more or less square. I call this 10×12 hex grouping a block, for lack of a better term. Not only is it an area that’s manageable but containing plenty of space for interesting adventure, but it will also fit nicely on a standard 8.5″ x 11″ page. A larger subregion is 4 blocks high by 6 blocks wide, and the still-larger region is 3×3 subregions. The super-region is six regions wide by four regions high — but the polar regions (about 80-90° north and south latitude) are excluded, and they center nicely on the equator.

None of this would be presented as such in a finished product, of course, save that one block is what you’d see on a one-page map. But it’s a convenience that I’m using to structure the map and to provide approximate locations to place cultures, nations and other setting elements. So a given “region” might be more or less the Llythran Isles, while another might be mostly the timeworn remnants of once-mighty Imperial Attalos.

So back to Excel. I set this all up as a grid of square cells with the subregions, regions and super-regions marked at the appropriate cell boundaries (there was no need to denote blocks, since one block was a single cell,) painted the whole thing blue, then decided which super-regions contained land and which did not. I removed the cell color on those that did, leaving them white. Then I did the same thing at the regional level, again for subregions, and then one final time for the blocks/cells. It took substantial fiddling and several shifts of the grid until I was happy with the result — the map that you see in this post.

Now, Excel is obviously not an ideal endpoint tool for fantasy mapping. So while I now have a digital image of the world map with a 432×192 resolution, it needs to be punted into something I can produce a finished map in. I’m using Campaign Cartographer 3. Setting up the same Super-Region/Region/Subregion/Block grid — this time including hexes — at the appropriate scale in CC3, I “printed” the Excel sheet to a .png file, then dropped it into CC3 as a background graphic scaled to fit that grid. More or less, which is close enough. I can trace over the rough Excel graphic at increasing levels of detail until I have something that works printing one block per page.

There are many places here where I did fairly rough calculations: Earth is not a perfect sphere, for example, whereas my math assumed that Veleastra is. I figure that’s close enough, and my figures supply verisimilltude without me going bananas trying to calculate the surface area of an oblate sphereoid. And because my maps leave out the extreme polar regions, I have some room to clean things up a bit (There is a north polar archiapelago, so I’ll need to do a map of that.)

The current version of the world map, with the grid hidden.

The current version of the world map, with the grid hidden.

For the curious, Veleastra is 8,879.67 miles in equatorial diameter, compared to Earth’s 7,296.33 miles. The former world is about 25% more massive: 7.388×10^24 compared to Earth’s 5.972×10^24 — but Veleastra is less dense (perhaps due to vacant pockets in its interior, unknown to the inhabitants of the surface) at 4.83g per cm^3 compared to Earth’s 5.49g/cm^3. Veleatra’s surface gravity is about 1% less than Earth’s (9.656m/s^2 versus 9.796m/s^2,) but her total surface area is about 26% greater. These numbers might seem organic — and they’re intended to appear so — but this is an illusion. They are in fact precisely calibrated to fit the mapping system but are obfuscated by the not-quite-square dimensions of the block and the inexact conversion between metric and Hillbilly units.

Now the work of massaging the rough map into a usable state has commenced. Thankfully I only intend to map one Super-Region, and then to zoom into a single region within it. So I don’t need to block out every single nook and cranny of the planet.

A New Venture: DOTA 2

One video game genre I have steered clear of is the MOBA — the so-called Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, as descended from the Warcraft III mod “Defense of the Ancients” and its relatives and descendants. This genre has largely taken the place of the MMORPG as the big moneymaker in the world of PC gaming, and has stolen much of the spotlight as well.

I did try. I played Mythic’s Blood of Heroes WAR spinoff when it was in beta and dabbled very briefly in Funcom’s Bloodline Champions and even League of Legends. The former was… well, it was obviously a pretty half-assed piece of work that never even made it to launch, but it wasn’t the worst thing that I have ever played. Had it actually been released I would likely have fooled with it a time or two.

League of Legends, on the other hand, I just couldn’t get into. I can’t even say that I disliked it, but I found even the tutorial needlessly opaque. I ditched it after maybe an hour. Bloodline Champions, which, as a then-subscriber to Age of Conan I got a beta invite to, had an even shorter lifespan on my hard drive. I’m not sure if it’s even still alive.

Still, anyone paying attention to the online gaming scene in general can’t help but be vaguely aware of what’s going on with the major MOBAs, which to my ignorant and increasingly nearsighted eyes look like LoL, Heroes of Newerth, Smite and Valve’s DOTA 2. Smite in particular looks kind of appealing for thematic and control-scheme reasons.

Still, even knowing how these games basically work, watching anything resembling gameplay footage or commentary is completely baffling. It’s like watching a game of Cricket — I can see that stuff is happening but it all looks more or less random and the commentary uses English words but is not recognizably English in any other way. For a genre as popular as this is, these games strike me as complicated, user-unfriendly and anything but accessible to lowly casuals. In that sense they kind of remind me of Advanced Squad Leader — games narrow in scope but so packed with fiddly bits that it’s hard to imagine those who play them having the time or mental energy to get into anything else.

So, yeah, I gave DOTA 2 a shot. Superficially it’s not as attractive to me as Smite but it’s playable through Steam (something that has developed a considerable value to me,) and has Linux support. Between the new (I gather) tutorials and some carefully-selected YouTube videos for total noobs I think I’ve kind of got a handle on the rudiments of it. I’ve haven’t ventured within whimpering distance of a human player, of course. I will probably try my first actual match against bots this weekend, and we’ll see how that goes. The single-lane tutorial matches went pretty well once I got used to the character I was playing.

But there’s a lot to learn, between the 110(!) different characters, all with completely different attributes and abilities, the synergies between them, the huge array of items, most of which you have to build in play, and the subtleties of the map. Which, thank Christ, there’s only one of. This thing could probably be played regularly for months or even years without ever reaching the level at which you’d be confortable facing human players.

On the other hand, my experience with playing PvP matches in WoW and other MMOs, as well as playing FPS games in the vein of TF2 implies that the majority of players are actually disorganized imbeciles rather than the savants you see in the video streams. So what’s one more imbecile, then?

Ardwulf Plays: The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-43

I said I was going to bring board wargaming to this blog, and here I have finally done so!

Kommandant Otto Falkenhayn takes U-440 out for its maiden patrol on the high seas around the British Isles in September 1939, just after the war has begun. After completing its minelaying mission, U-440 encounters a British convoy. Surfacing at night in the very midst of the Allied ships, she launches a salvo of torpedoes and sinks one of the vessels. Diving to avoid the convoy’s escorts, Falkenhayn’s boat endures a barrage of depth charges, not without damage. But he slips away into the dark waters of the North Atlantic, only to follow the convoy and engage it again later.

3In the second engagement, U-440 sinks two more Allied ships, including the massive 42,300-ton <i>Empress of Britain</i>. Again, Falkenhayn eludes the convoy escorts without sustaining further damage to his boat. Back at port, there will be bier and schnitzel to celebrate while the boat is in refit!

Meanwhile, Ardwulf, in his first game of The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-43 from Consim Press, messes up a bunch of rules, only some of which get removed in post.

The Week in Dragon Age: Origins

This week in my Dragon Age: Origins a great deal was accomplished. We finished the first part of the Soldier’s Peak DLC — far enough to get the party chest, although I think there is more there to do. We also started, and completed, the Nature of the Beast questline to gain the assistance of the Dalish Elves, and started the quest to retake Redcliffe and cure its Arl, whose help we also need. And we completed Morrigan’s personal quest along the way.

More videos are in the pipeline, of course. And you’ll be seeing the Let’s Play of The Wolf Among Us, starting tomorrow.

What’s Playing… and What’s Up Next!

As things have evolved over the last few weeks I’ve been making adjustments to my plans for the blog and the channel. I have been reliably posting a new video every day in my Dragon Age: Origins playthrough; additional series will follow the same posting schedule. Meaning that each series will get a new video each day on the YouTube channel.

But I’m not going to try to do a blog post for every vid. That would be doable for a single series, but I plan to have two or three running at any given time, and that makes it impractical. And, to be honest, the <Dragon Age games in particular are involved enough that to do them justice I feel like I’d basically need to write them up as novels, and that’s not going to happen. So I’m going to do a weekly recap post for each series instead, with videos embedded. The first of these should appear around the weekend.

The Dragon Age game is going splendidly, as long as you don’t mind me watching me bungle my way through its sprawling storyline. There are 26 episodes up already and plenty more on the way. After fiddling with each of its two sequels, however, I’ve decided to hold off on them for now in favor of playing them in order. So Origins will be followed by its expansion Awakening, then by Dragon Age II and finishing up with Inquisition, with decisions imported along the way. In order to get this moving I may speed up the pace of posting, but I don’t think it’s going to take me anything like the reported 80 hours to play through the first game. I have no doubt that one could put that amount of time into a single playthrough, especially with the DLC, but while I’m doing side quests I’m not trying to be exhaustive about it. If anything I may dither longest in the roomier Inquisition.

Early next week you will also see a new series. It was my thought to do a Mass Effect 1-3 megaplay along the same lines, but I figure that a single months-long multi-game replay is all I’d like to be doing at any given time, and at this point I am fully committed to Dragon Age. So I’ve chosen (by request!) a much more digestible title: Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us. This will be the first of their game that I’ve played, so it should be illuminating.

Once the giant Dragon Age project is complete, Mass Effect is back on the table, but my current thinking is that I’m more likely to do something standalone, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or the first Assassin’s Creed. The Wolf Among Us should only take maybe two weeks to finish; after that you are likely to see something from Paradox: Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV or Hearts of Iron III.

Remember to subscribe to the YouTube channel to keep abreast on all this stuff.

What’s Next

The Ardwulf clan bought me a shiny new copy of Dragon Age: Inquisition for Christmas, and I’ve spent about an hour playing it so far. Coming directly from Dragon Age: Origins it’s a significant shift; the controls are just different enough to create confusion in the easily confused (i.e. me.) But it has jumping, which I appreciate.

From the various holiday sales I also acquired Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3, so there may be LPs of those coming. I’ve fooled about a bit with DAII so far and like it quite a bit. I would also like to pick up Banner Saga if it comes up for a Daily Deal on Steam before the sale ends; otherwise I don’t have quite enough in my Steam wallet to afford it. I’d also like to grab the latest Crusader Kings II expansion, Way of Life,” which is new enough that it almost certainly will not be discounted.

The Dragon Age: Origins will continue, of course. The candidates for the next Let’s Play that are already in my library are:

  • Crusader Kings II, up through the Charlemagne expansion.
  • Dragon Age; Inquisition, if I can get the fucking video to come out.
  • Europa Universalis IV, with all expansions enabled.
  • Mass Effect Trilogy, a mega-LP of all three games with the same Commander Shepard.
  • If you have an opinion on which of these you would like to see, speak up in the comments!