- I wanted to do something easy with Microsoft Paint rather that something complicated with a more sophisticated mapping software, although...
- More sophisticated mapping software tends to not be super user friendly, and supports Traveller specifically, making it difficult to do very much tweaking to the format.
- Plus, I wanted to be able to work with this on various computers, some of which don't have (and I won't be able to add) other software anyway.
- I still was using a few Traveller conventions in my mapping, although greatly truncated and reduced, and even those seem kinda silly to me now. They're just legacy that I did because I hadn't yet thought of something better to do.
So, I'm giving some serious thought to how to improve my stellar hex mapping and redo the map in a prettier and more useful format. This doesn't mean that I have answers, merely that I have problems that need solving. In some cases, I think I do have answers, but in others, I do not. I'm considering solutions, but often finding them... inadequate, so I'm trying to think of something else that works better. Anyway, let's list my problems and see how well I've figured out a solution. For reference, here's a pretty standard map key for a Traveller map, done in white on black (well; near black) to make it look more "spacey."
Political Affiliation: The first thing I did when I started mapping, after generating randomly where systems were going to be, of course, was that I needed to mark what political affiliation each system would have. I came up with 11 different types, which although useful to start with, as I got more into development, I found it somewhat inadequate. I came up with a color code for each affiliation, and just used the fill bucket tool to fill in the whole hex. This made it easy to tell at a glance what the affiliation was, but as, for example, the Bernese affiliation divided into multiple colonies, each with their own political structure that differed from their neighbors, I found it somewhat unhelpful after a time. This became even more complicated when I used the "Bernese allied" color—what exactly is a Bernese ally? I wasn't sure, but it ranged from client or satellite states to mere cultural ties, to a more traditional treaty of mutual protection/aggression type of thing. And sometimes this alliance was with a colonial Grand Duke rather than, say, with the Emperor, so the nuance of what it meant to be a "Bernese ally" grew too big to be well-served by making it a faded version of the Bernese color code. The whole thing was starting to become unwieldy, and what was a convenient shorthand before I'd done much development was turning into something that lacked sufficient nuance after development was more complete.
How does Traveller do it? They actually draw borders along the edges of the hexes. This doesn't work for me, though, because territories aren't necessarily contiguous, and of course, nobody claims the empty space in empty hexes, even if it is smack dab surrounded by a territory in the hex map. Remember, as always, that the hexmap is a convenient shorthand itself that is barely adequate to approximate the realities of three dimensional real space. It's more of a meta element; useful for the fiction and the gaming applications, because it presents a challenge in terms of creating space routes and jump trajectories than it is meant to actually represent physical placement of the systems, exactly, which certainly won't be on a flat plane as they're represented on the map.
Thinking on how the old National Geographic gigantic world map that I used to have wallpapered up covering one whole wall of my bedroom when I was a kid—which keep in mind is an old Cold War era map—there are only about half a dozen colors that nations use. The map makes sure that contiguous nations don't use the same color so that they are easy to spot. Satellite nations, like eastern European nations that were behind the Iron Curtain but somewhat autonomous, like Poland or Czechoslovakia, were not the same color as the USSR, but non-contiguous territory of the USSR (like the Kaliningrad Oblast) were. Integrated territories, like the various SSRs which are now independent nations, but which were part of the USSR at the time, were the same color, and it took some more careful reading to notice them; at a high level glance, the USSR was just a big pink blob. Maybe I could do something similar; Bernese colonies would still be the same color as each other, but I'd otherwise use more colors, and some of the other non-Bernese specifically nations, might have more variation in coloration, not necessarily a fainter shade of the Bernese color. But this is more problematic with other polities; like the various Outremer colonies of the Saraeans. Not only are they much more autonomous in most respects, maintaining more of a cultural rather than explicitly political dependence on their Empire, but because they border one another in more than one case, it doesn't work very well to make them the same color. But how to I indicate that they're all Saraean colonies, then? I could do like the various SSRs in the USSR on my old map, but that makes it more difficult to spot the differences between them on this type of map. This is one of the problems that I haven't quite worked out.
I also don't really like shading the whole cell. Although it is easy to use at a glance when I've zoomed the map out to where I can see it at high level, it's not really very attractive.
Sectors and Subsectors: These are convenient demarcations because it reduces the galaxy into manageable chunks. A sector is more than enough material for entire campaigns of role-playing games or entire long running serials of novels or other works of fiction. Considerably more than enough material, in my opinion. A subsector is a more digestible section, and while it probably can't contain the entirety of a whole long-running RPG campaign that's dedicated to the concept of traveling between the stars, it certainly gives you enough material for many adventures.
However, these are all meta reasons for sectors and subsectors. Traveller mapping got way too into the concept of treating sectors and subsectors like they were political units, with capitals, with fancy names, etc. While the graphic I'm using to map AD ASTRA is based on a Traveller sector map, so it has the size of a sector and the subdivisions into subsectors, these aren't meant to mean anything other than convenient divisions on the map. In reality, I doubt that I'll ever map more than half of the sector—ever—and the subsector is actually a little bit too small for me to spell out political divisions of the size that I prefer. My sector does have a name, the New Alderamin sector, but the subsectors will not be named, they'll just be used as geographical conveniences based on the letter, but in reality, I probably will just ignore subsectors altogether.
The Dot in the Center: Traveller maps have a colored dot in the center of each hex that has a system. Occasionally it's an icon other than a dot, but if there's a regular planet, a dot it usually is (or circle, depending on the mapping iteration.) Usually, having this merely meant that a planet was present in the system (that's why there were a few other symbols in use too). In black and white mapping, it could be an empty white circle, or a filled in black circle, which meant no water present and water present respectively. In some color versions, it was more complicated, and things like "Garden World" were colored green, while "Ocean World" would be blue, and "Ice Worlds" would be a very pale bluish white, etc. I was putting a dot in the center, but there was no color-coding or other meaning to it other than it was a convenient way for me to indicate that I'd actually generated a planetary data sheet for the place. What if I used a filled in circle (not a dot, but an actual circle) as a color code to indicate political affiliation? Sure, sure, I need more than that (probably a label below the name of the system) but it will also be usable at a glance from relatively high level, because I'll make the circle big enough that it can be seen even when the map is zoomed.
Base Symbols and Other Markers: For whatever reason, and I'm not 100% sure that I understand the reference that made Marc Miller think this was a good idea, there's a very varied use of symbols to indicate if a system has some kind of military base. For my setting assumptions in AD ASTRA, this is superfluous, and I'd never want to do it. Either few places have bases, or maybe they all do, but they're of much less importance than the authors of Traveller seemed to think that they'd be. They also have a deal where the font (all caps, for instance, versus all lower case) can be a quick and dirty population approximator. I'm not doing either of those. There are even some extremely complicated maps that I've seen here and there (this screenshot of some kind of phone app, for example) that try to tell you almost everything that the data sheet would tell you right there in the hex itself.
While the map there to the side is certainly attractive, it's way too busy and if you can't stop and look at the data sheet, you're probably doing something wrong. Rather than trying to cram too much information into the map itself, I'm thinking—what are the most important things that someone would want to tell at a glance? (I do, however, really like the grayed out empty hexes. I really should do that.)
For me, political affiliation is the most prominent one. I've gradually realized that my entire mapping strategy revolves around creating "nations" in space and then detailing the worlds within them. And, as I said up above, political affiliation can be more nuanced than merely "a Monarchy world." Given the political realities, any potential traveler needs to understand this aspect first and foremost before jumping into a system; a Bernese privateer won't jump into a Revanchist world expecting safe haven, although he might jump into a Revanchist world to prey on shipping.
Secondly, because my map is a work in process and probably will be for a long time to come, it's worth noting that I've assigned which hexes will have systems, and what political affiliation (at a high level) they will have, and in many cases, the names before I've actually done a data sheet for the system. So from a meta perspective, I need to know if a data sheet is available for the system or not.
Third, while the data sheet has all of the info, there's still a few things that are worth noting at a glance, specifically what category of starport the system sports and if unrefined fuel is available so that you can plan jump routes using unrefined in a pinch (or if you need to avoid the spaceport specifically for some reason—often because you want to avoid the gaze of the system authority.)
Everything else can be looked at on the data sheet; planetary size, population, atmosphere type, etc. It is certainly presumed that anyone who dares to travel the stars is expected to have space suits and breath masks for those who want or need to leave the safety of the ship (or, in a pinch, have a robot who can do it for you, at least) so any other consideration can be figured out after you've already decided to jump to the system, or research-favoring crews can read the data sheets of all of the systems on their proposed routes ahead of time.
AD ASTRA Mapping Key: With all that in mind, here's the map key for my AD ASTRA map. It's significantly reduced from its Traveller prototype, but it has everything that I need on it. Let's go through the elements real quick on a dummy data system:
- First off, of course, is the hex number, here 0101 (in reality, 0101 is empty on my sector map.) Because this is key to locating the system and tying it to the keyed data sheet, it's the largest and most prominent element of the hex.
- Below that is the red circle, which indicates that this is not an empty system, and that it is part of a nation that's color-coded red. The letter in the middle of the circle is the type of starport that the system has, in this case, a type A starport, which is a high quality starport with every service you could want from a starport, including shipyards where ship construction can be commissioned.
- The dagger symbol to the left of the circle indicates that this particular system does have a data sheet complete for it, which can be referenced. The dot to the right indicates that naturally occurring unrefined fuel can be found in the system as well.
- Below that in bold text all-caps text is the name of the system.
- Below that in smaller, italic text is the political affiliation.
- Below that is the more nuanced political affiliation; i.e., it's not just a Bernese world, but also a part of the XY colony (not a real colony in AD ASTRA, obviously.)
- The other thing that I'll end up adding to my map are space-lanes. I've drawn a few in on alternate cut and paste portions of the map, but I'll add them more explicitly on the newer version of the map. I got a little carried away making permutations of space lanes when I did it; you can leave the space lane and jump to another system, of course, and in places like relatively tightly packed colonies, it's assumed that traffic moves back and forth within the colony frequently without it needing to be marked as part of the space lane per se. Space lanes will be in a lighter color that can be readily seen against the other lines and grayed space that the map will end up having.