Jaywalt’s Guide to Making 16-Bit Maps

July 30, 2009

Some folks were asking about how to hack 16-bit video game maps into something usable for D&D or other tabletop games. Here’s my attempt to outline what I do.

Step 1: Software

I use Photoshop Elements for Mac. I used to use an ancient copy of Photoshop 5 LE for Windows. You don’t need the full version of PS for this. Some folks do this in MS Paint, but I prefer something that will draw a grid for you. There are some cool, free sprite drawing programs like Pixen, but they tend — in my experience — to crash when asked to handle larger images like maps.

Step 2: Finding Maps to Hack

I use the Video Game Atlas and the Spriters’ Resource as my two main sites to find low-fi video game images to work from. There are many other places as well, but those two sites should give you plenty to work from in the beginning. I suggest you start with a game you love deliriously. For me, it’s often Zelda: Minish Cap because it has the most amazing color schemes known to mankind. Seriously, looking at Lon Lon Ranch is enough to make me want to cry; it’s that beautiful.

Step 3: Pick a Section to Hack, Throw a Grid Up

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I grabbed a section of this Zelda dungeon, thinking that this relatively plain room would be a good example. So I threw up a 16×16 pixel grid over it, to get a better sense of how the room was assembled from various 16×16 square tiles (which is almost universally how video game maps are constructed). However, as you can see from the image above, this section of the map isn’t quite aligned to my grid, so the first thing I have to do is fix that.

Step 4: Align your Source Material with your Grid

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When aligning things with your grid, it’s easiest to look for tiles that are immediately obvious, such as the two square blocks in the middle of the image above. If I shift the source map just slightly, all of a sudden everything is in alignment and you can begin to analyze how the room is constructed. I’m not going to go into that analysis here (maybe another time), but I’d spend some time looking carefully at the various tiles before jumping right into hacking.

Step 5: Expand the Grid (Optional)

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For my recent Doppeleffekt 4E game, I decided that I wanted to break the map into 32×32 pixel squares, because they can contain a lot more information and be more varied than 16×16 pixel squares (being composed of 4 of them). This may or may not be the choice you want to make, but I’m going to approach this example map from that perspective because it’s somewhat more difficult and lets me show you a few things. So, in the map above I’ve expanded my grid to 32×32, so we can figure out what changes need to be made.

Step 6: Adjust Material to Fit Desired Grid

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As you could see from the previous step, our source material didn’t fit as nicely into a 32×32 grid as it did into a 16×16 grid, mainly because the dimensions of the original room are 15 tiles x 9 tiles. However, I want the map I’m making to be 16 tiles x 10 tiles, or 8×5 squares of 32×32 pixels. That’s a lot of numbers to throw at you, but I hope you see what I’m saying. In the map above you can see that I’ve deleted a lot of the unnecessary material around this one room and also shifted portions of the room to fit the new dimensions I have in mind. Generally speaking, you can often get away with very slight shifts which expand or contract the dimensions of the original material by a tile or two. More than that and the layout of the original map is subverted a bit too much, requiring more hacking on your part to fix it or even a complete rethinking of the layout of a room.

Step 7: Assess the Things You Need to Tweak

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In the picture above, you can see that I’ve filled in the holes I’ve created with the background color of the floor, which makes it easier to look at and see where the major tweaks need to be made. In this particular case, I have four holes in the walls to patch as well as the two doors which are aligned fairly awkwardly with the grid of the floor. One more thing that bothers me (though it may not bother you) is that the two sets of wall columns are aligned differently with respect to the 32×32 grid and nearby walls, making it look like the ancient architect of the place was snorting too much Magic Powder or just plain incompetent. So our list of tweaks to make is: wall holes, door alignment, column alignment.

Step 8: Make Needed Tweaks

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So I slide the right door over a bit and then patch the wall beside it by copying tiles from other sections of the wall.

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Where I patched the wall on the far left side, I left the selection borders in place so you could see how I patched it. I copied the tiles from the middle of the top wall, turned them counter-clockwise, and then pasted them over the hole.

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Here I shifted the right side columns to match the left.

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Fixing the southern door required a bit of thinking. Because of the dimensions of the room, I couldn’t really center it between the columns (because it wouldn’t align with the 32×32 squares), even though that’s generally what the architects of Zelda dungeons would do. In the end, I decided to shift it left, making it clearly off-center instead of slightly off-center. The former implies a choice on the architect’s part while the latter implies bad design or poor planning. Plus, I figured that I could make some slight additions to the room later, showing why that door is off-center.

Step 9: Make Any Additions You Like

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Looking at this relatively plain room, I decided it needed a few small additions to spice it up. The first was a justification for the southern off-center door, which took the form of those tiny wall stones that block your progress but allow you to make attacks over them (HtH to the squares immediately on the other side and Ranged anywhere). The second was a sense of purpose for the room in general, something that would allow you to make progress in the dungeon overall, rather than hosting yet another monster fight. This latter addition took the form of a pull-chain on the far wall, which might add something to the tactics of fighting in the room as well, since players might try to pull the chain before all the monsters in the room were dead.

Step 10: Playtest It or Just Play It

If you have time, I’d suggest playtesting your maps and encounters just like you would if you were releasing a published adventure (well, with significantly less playtesting than I hope [though I don’t believe] most published adventures get). You can either run the fight by yourself or, better yet, get a single friend to help you run a little 1-on-1 battle through the room, to learn more about what you’ve created (since everything won’t be apparent from just looking at it) and maybe even inspire you to make a few additional tweaks or additions, if things aren’t quite what you hoped.

Anyway, that’s my process. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.

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