Aug 14, 2023

Stars of the VTT Galaxy: #6 Tom Cartos

10 min read - Published: 8 months ago

Greetings Forge community, and welcome to the sixth edition of our Stars of the VTT Galaxy series. This regular interview series is meant to shine a light on the already bright stars that make up our community of Bazaar Creators.

We are pleased to have had the opportunity to speak with another incredible artist. He's a very busy guy, and how couldn't he be when creating detailed, multi-level battlemaps for TTRPGs, and as one of the most successful mapmaking Patreons out there. We are proud to present our interview with Tom Cartos below.

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?

Tom: Haha, usually that's a tricky question because it has to start with "OK, do you know what Dungeons & Dragons is?" And then we go from there. I think your audience is likely to have a pretty solid grasp though, so I am a Battlemap Cartographer.

How did you get started creating TTRPG content?

Tom: I ended up doing this largely by accident, or at least through a series of coincidences. My background is in Architecture, that is what I studied and what I was doing for work before entering the TTRPG industry. My last job as an architect was a pretty creatively unfulfilling one, mostly big-scale commercial projects where design was dictated primarily by money and cost, rather than user experience or desire for something interesting.

To have some level of creative outlet, I started teaching myself to draw in the evenings after work, starting with the absolute basic fundamentals. A lot of people assume that is something architects already know, but that is not usually the case. During those long hours of drawing straight lines and ellipses, I was listening to podcasts, and someone recommended Critical Role as good long-form entertainment. Up until that point, my only experience with D&D, or any TTRPGS, was the awful 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie. I ended up binging the entirety of Campaign 1 and caught up during Campaign 2. So learning to draw just naturally led me to TTRPGs. Even then though I had no inkling of changing career.

About a year later when my contract ended, I decided to leave my job, and my partner and I moved country to try something new. I was taking any work I could get, mainly freelance architectural drawings and renderings on sites like Fiverr and Upwork. At some point, someone saw my rendered architectural plans and asked if I could do something similar, but for their D&D campaign. Luckily, having listened to and then started watching Critical Role, I had a good idea of what a battlemap was, so I jumped at the chance. I did a few more jobs like that via Fiverr for a while and then started to do a bit more research into it. I had seen maps by artists like Deven Rue and Jared Blando on Critical Role and knew of people like Dyson Logos and Mike Schley working for WotC, but I wasn't aware there were any other TTRPG-specific cartographers. I discovered creators like CzePeku, Venatus Maps, and Afternoon Maps and realized that through Patreon I could try to give it a go.

You create highly detailed multi-level battlemaps for TTRPGs. When designing such battlemaps, what do you believe is the most important aspect to consider to create an immersive and engaging experience for players?

Tom: There are a few aspects I consider when creating my maps, and they are often conflicting, so every new design is a balancing act.

Immersion is always a top priority, and I think attaining that requires several factors

One is obviously believably. The place needs to make sense and have no jarring features that don't seem to make sense or fit the narrative.

Another is detailing. I try to use details to weave in environmental storytelling. A battlemap of a house, for example, should show on some level the type of person that lives there. Are they messy or tidy? Do they spend a lot of time there, or just come home to eat and sleep? Do they entertain friends, or do they hide away from society? Are they wealthy or poor? However, too much detail removes the ability for the GM and players to insert their own ideas onto the map. If it is too prescriptive of what is and isn't possible, it limits imagination. I try to give enough information to spark ideas, but not curtail them.

Level design and playability are also very important. A battlemap is more interesting if it has different-sized areas, multiple points of ingress and egress, level changes, obstacles, and obstructions, and sometimes those don't entirely make sense for the design of a space, so they need to be integrated carefully.
On a basic level, there also needs to be enough space between walls and objects for a player character to actually move their token around on the grid.

Axziga's Lair

Can you share any success stories or highlights from your Patreon journey? How has the support of your Patrons impacted your ability to create and expand your TTRPG content?

Tom: I'm only able to do what I do because of the support of my Patrons. Having a (mostly) reliable source of income each month means I can take more risks and try out other projects. For example, about a year into creating on Patreon, I got to know Atropos, the creator of Foundry VTT, fairly well as he had become one of my first Patrons. He was getting close to the Alpha public release of Foundry VTT and asked me if I would be interested in creating some content for the launch, with his help and guidance. If I had been relying solely on freelance work still, I would not have been able to dedicate the time to doing so, as there was no real guarantee of any income from it, but as it was, I was able to say yes. Now, almost three years later, creating content for Foundry has become my largest source of income, and that stems back to being able to take that risk.

There have been numerous other cases like that over the years, and I have no doubt there will be more in the future.

What are your goals and aspirations for your Patreon page? Are there any exciting plans or upcoming projects you'd like to share with your Patrons?

Tom: Over time I have been building a world with my Patrons. I like to theme my maps and often will create a town or city that I populate with buildings and locations. About a year and a half ago, I commissioned Misty Beee to draw a 'world map' of the area I have in my head, and so far I have completed about half of the settlements on it. My goal at the moment is to fully realize all of these places, as well as the spaces in between, so my Patrons and anyone else who uses my work have a complete, cohesive world to use for their game. Along with the maps, I include snippets of lore text, NPCs, and potential story hooks for GMs to take inspiration from if they choose. I also recently started a new Patreon for Modern themed content, which I have so many ideas for going forwards.

Thestwick Watch Ruins

You are making free versions of your battlemaps available for commercial use, the so-called "Tom's Open Map" (TOM). Have you faced any problems with people using this license? How do you feel it compares to ORC?

Tom: So far, I have had no problems with it. A lot of creators in the TTRPG industry are working on low budgets and can't necessarily afford to commission custom work or even license existing work, and I wanted to offer them a viable option, particularly as an alternative to the current rise of AI-generated images. I think the ORC license is also a great option for people to use in many cases, but my license is more specifically geared to my content and this particular use case.

Tom: I do my best to keep up with discussions and topics on social media sites, like Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube, and also via direct communication with my Patrons. It is certainly important to understand how people are likely to use my content and ensure I am making that as easy to do as possible.

Very early on, I was formatting my maps primarily as hi-res tile-able PDFs for at-home printing, but many of my Patrons were asking for VTT-compatible versions, so I started creating those as well. This was in late Summer 2019, so it was fortunate that I had listened as by March 2020, very few people were playing in person, and almost all games had moved online. Now that people are starting to play more in person again, or at least trying to, I have switched some of my focus back to making physical products again, which is what led to my "Into the Wilds Battlemap Books" Kickstarter last year.

Into The Wilds

What is your opinion on AI, especially in the TTRPG space?

Tom: My opinion on generative AI is that it is currently not an ethical option for creators to be taking.

There are far too many unanswered questions about the source of the databases being used and their legality. I feel that until those questions are very definitively answered and sensible regulations are put in place, the use of AI-generated images in commercial products is effectively theft and copyright infringement, even if the law doesn't specifically say so yet. If people are using these programs at home for their own personal entertainment, or simply out of curiosity, I don't see any real harm, but as soon as that content is used commercially, whether as promotional material or as the product itself, it has stepped over the line in my mind.

However, I do think, or at least hope, it is likely that in the not-too-distant future, we will have meaningful regulation and some form of ethically sourced databases. There is no going back at this point, generative AI and LLM are going to be a part of our lives and most likely many creators will end up integrating their use into workflows. What we need is software that is designed to aid artists, not try to replace them.

Do you believe AI has the potential to replace human creativity in the gaming industry?

Tom: I don't believe any AI will ever be able to truly replace human creativity in the gaming industry, or any industry for that matter, but if left unchecked it will certainly replace human jobs as a cheaper 'good enough' alternative, effectively killing off a lot of human creativity which will be to no ones benefit.

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

Tom: My initial advice for those starting in this industry is always the same. Whatever you plan to do, make sure you enjoy doing it. There are no guarantees of success in this industry. I have definitely been one of the lucky ones, and if you try to find success by either copying someone else's model or doing what you think people want, you will burn out very quickly. First and foremost, you have to do it for yourself, and if other people enjoy what you are doing, that is amazing.

My second piece of advice is to get a social media manager as soon as you are financially able. Self-promotion is at least 50% of the job, and if you can free up that time by having someone else help out, you have twice as much time to do the stuff you love.

What are your plans in general for the future as an RPG creator?

Tom: My plans in general for the future change often. I have so many ideas and so little time each day to try and work on them. I will, of course, be continuing with my existing projects. I have more Kickstarters planned, and I'm hoping to collaborate with some more of the bigger-name publishers in the space. I also plan to continue doing what I can to support newer and not so well known creators, with more initiatives like my TOM license.

Red Dragons Lair

Thank you once again for your time and willingness for this interesting conversation. We had a great time!

Tom: Thanks so much for doing this!

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