Mar 10, 2023

Stars of the VTT Galaxy: #1 The MAD Cartographer

16 min read - Published: a year ago

Welcome to the first edition of our Stars of the VTT Galaxy series. A new and regular series of interviews meant to shine a light on the already bright stars that make up our community of Bazaar Creators.

One of the best feelings, when you start something new, is the feeling that you started it on the most perfect note. We had the pleasure to start our own interview series with a mad lad, The MAD Cartographer himself. Loved among the community for his amazing work in battlemaps, assets, and especially for making things ready for Foundry VTT, we were curious about the persona themselves, their thoughts, ideas, fears and advice for all of us in the (V)TTRPG world.

Our sky consists of many stars. Each of them illuminating our planet. As you can guess, the stars are you. Yes, it's you, the great content creators who, in your own unique way, shine on our worlds. Thank you for being part of our heavenly sky and weaving the fabric of our Community.
Let's meet today's star.

Introduce yourself- for those who don’t know what you do, what would you describe yourself as doing for a living?

The MAD Cartographer: Hey all. I am Alex, and these days I'm many things, but mostly I am known for starting up my Patreon: The MAD Cartographer (and this is the handle I've carried with me for the last three years and generally what most folks know me as). These days we are a much bigger team of freelance artists, where we focus on making battlemaps and assets for TTRPG.

We have a major focus on making content for Foundry and were one of the earlier creators to adopt it as our VTT of choice due to the scope of available tools and the heavy modding community that allows us to do some pretty great stuff with our maps.

The MAD Cartographer is now one part of a growing company, The MAD Network, where we also run The Planet Hoppers making SciFi assets, and a break-off company called Crucible that started up a 5e magazine for digital, print, and of course Foundry.

What’s one random fact about you?

The MAD Cartographer: I'm missing the tip off my left index finger, as when I was a wee baby I put it in a hole in my pram and when my mum moved the seat from reclined to sat up, it cut the tip off my finger. So when you meet me, just know that I should have been even more powerful.

Also, that finger being slightly shorter might account for typos...
So if you point out any typos, then you're basicly mocking me.

(Editor notes: We were for sure not pointing to The MAD Cartographer's typos. No sir.)

How did you get started creating TTRPG content?

The MAD Cartographer: I think I was in my early 20s when I was first invited to play Star Wars Saga Edition with my old MMORPG (Star Wars Galaxies) guild. I genuinely didn't even know what D&D and TTRPGs were, but the guy who invited me wanted me to co-DM a campaign. It lasted 3 years, I made a bunch of maps for our group, and afterwards started looking at D&D and got inspired by people like Mike Schley. After a while, I thought I'd try and make some money out of this whole thing, saw people posting maps they'd made up on Reddit, stumbled across Czepeku which is inevitable, and was blown away at how much people could make doing this.

Had some real life stuff going on, had to shut down my previous business, so I decided to give it a solid go and started up The MAD Cartographer, MAD originally stood for "The Map-A-Day Cartographer" as initially I was making a new map and variants every day.
That was back in May 2020... so yeah, coming up on 3 years at this.

And how did you end up getting into creating content for Foundry VTT?

The MAD Cartographer: It was really early days, I'd been at it a few weeks and because I was putting out new maps every day, I got noticed quite quickly by other creators (there are probably half a dozen new map makers that come and go every day). I got invited to a Discord group of other creators by another creator The Crafty Dice (who ended up joining me in The MAD Cartographer for a while). The Discord had every big creator you can imagine in it, I always equated it to being a new band and somehow finding themselves backstage at a rock concert and then in the green room with all the huge bands. It was a huge leg up. Anyway, Andrew (Atropos) was in there and was going to be giving a demo of this new VTT, which I hadn't the heart of, but was keen to see what was going on.

As soon as he gave the live demo and I saw stuff like advanced walling, animated lighting and the sound of a fountain getting louder as he moved the token towards it, I knew it was going to be big. I'd predominantly played Fantasy Grounds prior, Roll20 never did it for me, but I knew there was something special about Foundry. This was in my first month as a creator, in the second month I switch my entire Patreon around to being a Foundry creator and started using stuff like Token Attacher for making my second monthly theme, Urban Exterior, which was the first time Token Attacher had been used for making the pre-fab tiles and buildings that you now see other creators using. That was off the back of me approaching KayelGee (the developer of the Token Attacher module) and saying "Dude we can do something REALLY great with this" and him tweaking the module to suit.

Where does the inspiration come from in the work you do?

The MAD Cartographer: We run a new theme every month and all our maps focus on it. So we can cover environments we've not done yet, or if we know WOTC are releasing something we might focus our theme around that (April we're doing "Heists" due to the new KftHV module, so we're gonna do a bunch of buildings for the perfect break-ins). Sometimes we want to do something cool with modules, so in January we did "Build a Base" which was an empty Keep, underground hideout, and mansion, then we made a bunch of pre-fab rooms and walled and lit them in Foundry and used Token Attacher so players can actually build up their own bases room by room. We have a pretty big team of 8 map makers (9 including me) so we let them pitch their own ideas as well when we start a theme.

There are 10 of us altogether including me and my product Manager and RL best buddy, Harrison (he's now the one who builds all the stuff in Foundry as it happens). We had a few more people for a while, some other Patreon map maker friends came on for a bit of freelance work. What we have now is a strong core team, collectively known as Team MAD, and they make stuff for all our projects.

If you would like to talk more about your team, we would be happy to read about it.

The MAD Cartographer: They're a pretty random bunch, built up from a few creator friends who have still stuck around. We also periodically put out calls looking for people who wanted to make maps, got them to send in some examples of what they could do with our assets, and gave them a shot. Not everyone worked out, some people think because we work with assets means they can knock out a map like it's nothing. We're still pretty demanding on a certain level of detail and technical application to map making, so the process was just a bit too much for some. For those that have stuck around, it's been great, we have people who are working on The Planet Hoppers every month making assets, we've pulled some of the team into Crucible to make maps for the adventures that will appear in the magazine, we have two of the team working on a new project we'll be launching in a few months. We're a busy bunch and we'll undoubtedly grow over time!

FoundryVTT seems to be your favorite VTT at the moment - what would you like to see improved in it?

The MAD Cartographer: Better Roofs module as a core. And I will scream it from the horrible fog of war rooftops until the team put it in. Better Roofs no longer working in v10 is the biggest travesty of an otherwise solid version update (not without its issues of course). Genuinely as a core VTT then it has everything you need, but the availability of third party modules makes you a little spoiled for choice and then it's easy to take the core features for granted. Have Roll20 even got their doors yet?

Foundry is pretty solid, but the onboarding isn't easy and so it's gotten (a somewhat unfair) reputation of having a high learning curve. It really hasn't, you just have to not have a negative INT modifier and you can work it out. But some tooltips and stuff like that for newcomers would be welcomed

Have you faced any major issues in keeping them up to date? We know that several of your adventures rely on modules for some really cool, fun effects like your rotating dungeon adventure.

The MAD Cartographer: We're pretty careful about taking on too much too soon. For a looooong time, we only used Token Attacher for the rotating dungeon elements, modular tiles, puzzles and all the cool stuff you see in our maps. It's fun to be able to get creative. Then we picked up stuff like Levels from Ripper and have done huge multi-floor dungeons, our modular pre-fab building tiles, all the good stuff. Then you get something relatively simple like Parallaxia, and when it didn't get an update in v10 it stopped entire modules from being opened.... So yeah, it's always a battle, but I think most Foundry users expect everything to be broken for a while after a big version update. We're lucky that when it happens I just put Harrison onto it full time, so providing the modules themselves get an update (and Ripper is hella fast about getting his stuff working when updates come through) we'll generally have everything running smoothly again in a few days. Other creators do not always have that luxury as they're smaller teams or even a single creator, which is why so few people are what I would consider "Foundry creators", they're creators that happen to have their stuff in Foundry.

What are your goals moving forward with your content?

The MAD Cartographer: I think when (if..) we get breathing room we want to lean into Monk's Active Tiles a little more to make more dynamic elements on our maps like triggering traps and stuff. With The MAD Cartographer content it'll be business as usual, we've been at it for a while now and things seem to be working for us, we just need to focus more time on promoting it. That's the biggest issue with all the work, it's finding balance. Balancing growing what you have and meeting the demands, whilst trying to open up into other areas so you don't have all your eggs in one basket; it doesn't leave a whole lot of time for doing the things you know you need to do to grow like marketing and socials. We've talked internally for a long time about getting our YouTube channel up and running properly, but finding the time... it ain't easy.

I think watching the growth that Covid brought to the virtual creator community start drying up this last year has definitely made me reassess how I do things and not over stretching. It's easy to start things off in the good times, and then be struggling months later and suddenly have a whole new bunch of commitments you have to deal with! So my goals are just to keep making solid content one day at a time

So you helped create and publish Crucible Magazine, the magazine that boldly asks “What if I made a physical magazine about virtual tabletops?” How did this thought enter your head?

The MAD Cartographer: I'm not sure if it's specifically focused on being for VTTs necessarily; but Foundry is one of the core mediums we wanted it to be presented it (digital PDF and physical high quality print, the printed issues are like graphic novel quality). When TJ (the co-owner/creator) and I decided to make a magazine it was a no brainer for me to try and make it a magazine for Foundry, which is why we called the magazine Crucible and considered it the first magazine for Foundry VTT. I'm not just a guy who makes stuff for Foundry, I am a huge fanboi of it, so it was on the cards from the beginning that we were going to focus on the magazine being available for Foundry. We wanted the content to feel special and not just be another Foundry adventure, we've already done that with MAD, so every issue feels like a full supplement of content filled with art, maps, adventures, classes... it's pretty great.

When we make the maps though we're always thinking "Okay, how do we pimp this for Foundry?", always got to have that MAD representation in there.

It is mighty impressive that you're still trying to put in your usual flare into the maps you make for a magazine that will already take so much effort. What prompted you to want to put in the hard work and stress of not only creating a magazine but printing and shipping it physically?

The MAD Cartographer: Ignorance.

We grossly underestimated how much of an absolute ball-ache making physical content would be. We thought it would be cool, and separate us from the crowd, and be a nicer throwback to the times we spent thumbing through a magazine (TJ and I are a bit grognard leaning). It has taken a ridiculously long time to sort out the postage of the physical product and get things up and running on the webshop (and we've hired someone else to make the damn thing). Thankfully 2023 brings with it a lot of the front-loaded work now done and we can concentrate on getting back on schedule, we released Issue 003 in January, and now release on an every-other-month schedule, so we're in the throws of wrapping up the content of Issue 004 to go out middle of March. We also have content being written already for Issue 005 in May... so it feels like we're now getting a handle on things, but it has been a challenge.

... a crucible some might say.
mic drop

We came into this very green, we got some bad advice at times, sometimes advice that was just wrong. So navigating everything in a shipping and manufacturing crisis, whilst everything is on an economical decline... it's been tricky. Then throw in 2 weeks of misery where it looked like WOTC were going to pull the OGL. I'm sure it's all got to get a little easier at some point.

What are your overall goals with Crucible? What would you call “success” for Crucible in a year from now?

The MAD Cartographer: Still publishing 😄

Each issue and hiring artists and writers costs us on average $6k per issue, throw in costs for print and shipping and we're floating around double that, that's just to get it made and out there (we've not pulled a wage yet so right now it's a labor of love over it being any type of financial reward).

It's just over a year ago that we launched the Kickstarter, Feb 15th 2022, so you can see the kind of delays and troubles we had getting to issue 003. Releasing issue 003 was a very pivotal point as it's the point where we need to convert our 3 issue subscribers into 6 month subscribers, and gauge that trajectory. It's seeing how many people we can get on board between now and when Issue 006 goes out (the Kickstarter was for 6 issues), so a magazine of this scale with these kinds of costs lives and dies on its subscriptions. We definitely feel like we've got a good stride with 2023, we're pacing ourselves, making the workload more manageable... but right now it's still one of the best products no one has ever heard of, so these next few weeks and months are where it matters and it really feels like we're relaunching the promotion as we did for when the Kickstarter went out.

So when I say "Still publishing" I'm only half being flippant, if we are publishing then it means something went very well for us and the magazine grew to a level where we could afford to keep running it, and not making it for free!

Great response! We are going to ask in turn, because trying really hard and failing is cool... What does failure look like for the magazine?

The MAD Cartographer: Failure will absolutely be having to shut down before its time. It'll be how much the magazine has taken from us in stress, health and finances, the time it's taken and the impact it had on our other businesses, it'll be that we absolutely wasted so much time and effort and it resulted in nothing apart from a bunch of issues of a really cool magazine that a bunch of folks who got it to remember it fondly from time to time but that it never made its mark. I love all the stuff I get myself involved in, I love seeing them come to fruition, but I genuinely think that Crucible is one of the best things I've ever been involved in creating and genuinely, without being narcissistic and just being honest, I think it has all the trappings of something that could go on for a long time.

You mentioned OGL. The OGL crisis was probably one of the more stressful times in recent memory for those of us in the TTRPG industry. What were your plans/thinking during this period?

The MAD Cartographer: The MAD Cartographer would carry on as normal, we do a few adventures but we'd switch them to agnostic. A bunch of projects we have in the pipeline that are 5e oriented were suddenly in the wind, we were going to release our Littlefolk ruleset for Zine Quest, but had to hiatus it for so long that when the smoke cleared on the OGL we were too far behind to get things ready.

For Crucible, we genuinely thought we were going to have to shut it down when we got early eyes on the 1.1 "draft" (not a draft...) Not only because there's no way we were going to sign it because it was absolute shittery, but because of how it looked like that VTTs weren't going to be able to support 5e, and given that we have around 400 Foundry subscribers... well, like I said, the magazine lives and dies on its subscribers. At the beginning of January the OGL 1.1 had a date in there that it was all coming into play on Jan 12th, so we were smashing out the stuff for issue 003 and even putting content we'd made for Issue 004 into the magazine, to make sure it all got published. Realistically if 1.1 had gone out as intended, we couldn't have even legally fulfilled the remaining issues people had paid for on the Kickstarter, and too much of the money from the KS has already been invested so there's no way there was money to suddenly give full refunds.

It was a ridiculously stressful time.

Has this recent incident changed how you approach content-making? Do you plan on branching out to other systems, or continuing to publish 5e content now that the incident is (mostly) over?

The MAD Cartographer: We'll do both. Maps are agnostic anyway, we're quite taken by Mork Borg because I love the art style and we're going to be starting a new Patreon with Mork Borg very much in mind in terms of how we present ourselves. Ultimately though, 5e is golden handcuffs and even with everything that has happened, and the broken trust, it's always going to be the biggest TTRPG and so at least in terms of financial growth, we'll always make 5e content in some fashion. Crucible is 5e, how it leans into OneD&D we'll see, but for now we'll spread the bet with all our future projects 😄

Do you think there are any serious remaining threats facing the TTRPG industry, especially for small-time creators in the foreseeable future? Even, anything existentially threatening?

The MAD Cartographer: Recession for sure, people already have less money and the Christmas period was particularly telling. A lot of people got into this during 2020 when everyone was taking their tabletop games indoors and online, we've slowly seen that filter out and with the ongoing economic crisis the "luxuries" of TTRPG content are the first to go. That's not to say that people aren't still buying it, but people jump around on Patreon a lot more, not everyone can afford to support their favourite creator month after month, so you have to do stuff like monthly exclusive rewards that you only get if you stick around. January felt like a recovery, Summer could be that people don't have enough money to go anywhere, so they all play VTT again... we'll see.

Second to that is AI, which is only going to get worse as the AI gets better. Illustrators are all but replaced (we'd save a damn fortune on the magazine if we used it!), adventure writers, item makers, AI is doing it all. Some creators cling to "It'll never be as good as something made by a person", which first of all.. it will be at some point, and it's already better at creating content than 90% of people, secondly is that some creators forget that people will play TTRPGs on a dry wipe board with Lego figurines...

Do you have anything you want to say to the greater TTRPG/VTT community?

The MAD Cartographer: If you sign up to someone's Patreon, download everything for free and then leave (worse for those who don't have Pay Up Front on) then that's not cool. Support folks when you can, even if it's not me (not sure why it wouldn't be though, our stuff is the tits).

What advice do you have for creators wanting to get into the VTT space? What advice would you offer them?

The MAD Cartographer: Christ, you're asking THAT as the wrap up question? That's another interview!


Decide if you want to do it as a hobby or as a business, growing a business takes time and a lot of effort; it's okay to just do it as a hobby.

There's so much that goes on behind the scenes that you won't even think about that absolutely consumes your days; socials, marketing, admin, replying to community/supporters.... then you also have to make a bunch of stuff.

As much as there's a lot of people doing this, you won't be competing with the majority of them, just shoot your shot and run your own race.

If you find yourself early on saying "It'll all get easier when I finish this..." (whatever your this is), that's completely normal, it also never goes away.

Surround yourselves with other creators, they're good for inspiration and motivation, and also a good shoulder to cry on.

Network. Network. Network. Don't be shy about reaching out to people, even take a chance on some people who are a little more popular than you (but be realistic), don't get caught up in working with the same people at the same level. However, when you grow, you sure as shit better make sure you lift some people up with you.

MAD advice one might say.

The MAD Cartogpraher: Thank you for coming to my talk.

Thanks, MAD. It was a great pleasure to have you as our first interview and we loved chatting with you.

The MAD Cartogpraher:  Always fun being asked to talk about shit I like talking about 😄 And you know I love you bois.

Here are some links to The MAD Cartographer's work:

MAD Cartographer's Creator Page on The Forge