Friday, February 18, 2011

Interview: Jonathan Roberts aka Torstan

We continue Maptool Month with an interview with Jonathan Roberts, also known as Torstan on multiple gaming forums. Jonathan is another artist who gives back to the virtual gaming community with the release of free tiles and maps to be used online. Publishers noticed his maps and he soon found a second career as a cartographer and artist in the gaming and comic book industry. In his spare time Jonathan contemplates the creation and composition of the universe as a doctor of theoretical physicist with New York University.

We caught up with Torstan between drawing fantasy maps for our imagination and analyzing data detailing the structure of our physical reality.

ST: When did you start gaming and what were the games you played in the early days?

JR: I started playing D&D and AD&D in the 80s - I’m the youngest of four brothers so I kind of tagged along. My first character was a halfling thief named Bilbo. I wasn’t a very imaginative 7 year old. I’ve more or less stuck to D&D over the years, but I’ve also played bits of Shadowrun, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Runequest and a short-lived dalliance with MERP.

ST: What games are you playing now?

JR: I play D&D 4e and Pathfinder. I have an old group that I still play with from college. We started playing 3rd edition, and Pathfinder was the most obvious way to continue that. I started a new game up in New York and many people had never played before so 4e was a natural fit. I tend to GM, but my old college group has two games, one of which I’m a player in which is a fun change.

ST: What’s your fondest gaming memory?

JR: We’ve had some epic encounters - defeating an Aboleth in a sea trench before it opened a hole to the Underdark to suck down a city, a bar fight that involved a dragon, and sealing off infernal gates to the hells before a ritual could be completed. But my fondest memories are sitting around tables or computers (these days) with good friends. It’s a fantastic way to keep in touch with people.

ST: Why a career in theoretical Physics?

JR: I did Physics and Philosophy at college and got to write essays on parallel universes for my finals. I’m very privileged to be paid to sit and think and try to understand mysteries. Every now and again you get a glimpse that you might have thought of something brand new. That’s very rare and pretty intoxicating. There aren’t may parts of nature that are still terra incognita. I’m extremely lucky to get to try to explore them.

ST: What is your favorite aspect of Physics and what are you working on now?

JR: I’ve got a couple of things I’m working on at the moment. In one project I’ve put forward an explanation of a weird signal in cosmic rays where experiments are seeing more antimatter than we’d normally expect. Other people have suggested that this is down to dark matter, or lots of rotating neutron stars called pulsars. I’m proposing that it’s a result of the sun’s magnetic field. The joy of that explanation is that the sun’s magnetic field is current changing drastically - so the observed antimatter signal should change a lot too. There’s an experiment called AMS being flown up to the International Space Station on the last shuttle flight that will be able to test that. I’m really lucky that the experiment happens to be going up now, and that the sun is going through a period of high solar activity. It should be a very quick test to know whether I was right or not. I also do some work on signals of new particles at the Large Hadron Collider under Switzerland. I’m looking forward to seeing what they find there. Their discoveries are very likely to revolutionise particle physics and our understanding of the universe.

ST: When did you first start drawing maps?

JR: I’ve been drawing maps ever since I started playing D&D. I remember creating highly unfeasible encounter maps for my unsuspecting school friends.

ST: What lead you to a second career in mapping?

JR: It’s pretty accidental. I moved to Poland after my doctorate for a research post. I wanted to keep in touch with my college friends and found Maptool, a free open source tool that would let me play D&D over the Internet. I started playing and it worked out well - but suddenly the maps that had previously been behind a screen where only I could see them were now the board on which the action was being played out. I decided to invest a little more time and effort into them to pretty them up - and started sharing them on the Internet. People liked them and a 3rd party publisher called Rite Publishing asked me to do a series of maps for an adventure. That went really well and word of mouth has resulted in more and more people coming to me for maps.

ST: What sort of tools do you use?

JR: I started off with a cheap graphics tablet and a copy of the free image editing software Gimp. Since then I’ve upgraded to a Wacom Intuous tablet (worth its weight in gold) and Photoshop. I could probably do 80-90% of what I do with Gimp, but the last 10% makes a difference on commercial projects

ST: What resources do you recommend for mapping?

JR: Google images and Google maps are a treasure trove of reference images. Fantasy maps often depict impossible places, so any work you can do to ground the images in reality is time well spent. Obviously this is even more true when mapping a real world location such as Manhattan

The CartographersGuild is another excellent resource. There are hundreds of tutorials on all mapping styles with loads of different tools. If you can’t find the answer that you’re looking for then there will be someone in the community who can answer the question for you. The monthly challenges offer an excellent way of building your skills with lots of feedback and I’ve been working with the Guild recently to put on Gallery shows so your work might end up on the walls of an art gallery like these: Mapping The Big Apple

ST: Where do you find your inspiration for the maps you draw?

JR: Inspiration these days comes from the art briefs I get from companies. They call the shots and often have very specific maps in mind. I also keep an eye on other cartographers to see what cool things they’re coming up with.

When I design my own maps from scratch I like to come up with one unique cool feature of a location and build around it. So I’ll pick lava for a dragon’s lair and figure out how that would work as an encounter for players. In that case I threw in a rope bridge because all players should have the chance to battle a dragon whilst hanging from a rope bridge over lava. That’s why we play these games isn’t it?

ST: What gaming companies have you worked for?

JR: I’ve worked for quite a collection now. Recent highlights have been IDW for the Dungeons and Dragons comic books, Open Design and Kobold Quarterly (a great company doing an admirable job of straddling the 4e/Pathfinder divide), Mongoose Publishing, an Annual Style for Profantasy for use with CC3, Headless Hydra Games, Illusionary Press, Jason Sonia, Shadowglade and others. I also do a lot of work with Rite Publishing. They gave me my first break and I’ve been working with them ever since. They work with me to run the Fantastic Maps store and I’ve been working on the first ever commercial Maptool adventure with them which will be released soon called the Breaking of Forstor Nagar. I’ve also recently started working on the maps for the new ENworld setting as well as a map for a car company that I can’t name. I also illustrate my wife’s recipe blog: If You Can Make That You Can Make This. So things are going pretty well.

ST: You typically distribute your maps with a Maptool campaign file. You also provide a set of free mapping tiles and objects for Maptool. How did you find Maptool and why did you first start using it?

JR: I have a line of maps under the Fantastic Maps in print over at RPGNow and Paizo . The packs have three main components - a large jpg that people can use however they want, a pdf with the map cut up into pages that can be printed out at 1 inch = 1 square scale for use at the gaming table, and pre-built maptool campaign files with line of sight and lighting built into them. People don’t just play with a whiteboard and a dry erase pen anymore. There are beautiful maps out there, and I wanted to explore different ways that people could get those maps out of the adventures and onto the table in front of players. By offering all these options in one map pack I hope I give every GM the ability to use the map in their game - however they prefer to play.

The mapping tiles was a fun project. Maptool allows you to assemble maps out of components. A traditional dungeon can be quite modular so I thought it should be possible to create a set of tiles that would allow users to create any number of dungeons. It worked well, and I made them free for everyone to use to help the maptool community create dungeons for their players.

ST: What motivates you to give back to Maptool?

JR: Maptool is a labor of love created by a group of very talented people and distributed free of charge. It has allowed me to keep in touch with good friends back home and around the world. It’s the least I can do to provide some maps and tiles to help other people who use the tool.

ST: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered from your time in Poland?

JR: Poland’s an incredible country. I didn’t know what to expect when I moved to Warsaw having never lived outside the UK. I had a wonderful time there, and made some great friends. It was fascinating to see a country changing quickly as it joined the EU and observe the effects of economics that sent so many Poles to the UK whilst we went the other way. It’s a fabulous place and I’d recommend a visit to Warsaw for anyone that hasn’t been.

ST: What was the biggest culture shock you encountered when you moved to New York?

JR: We moved to New York in at the start of a financial crisis and in the middle of an historic election. In the first house we stayed in there was only Fox News. I'd never experienced reporting quite like it. America handles elections in a totally different way to the UK. It brought home that even though we share a common language, America is a very foreign country. I've come to understand more of it, and love living here, but I'll never forget that first couple of months in New York.

ST: Thanks, Jonathan for the great answers. We'll be following your scientific and mapping career with great interest.

You can follow the adventures of Jonathan Roberts on:
The Savage Troll
His Blog
The Maptool Forums
The Cartographers' Guild


  1. Thanks to the Troll for a great interview!

  2. And thank you for all you've done for the Maptool user community. Be sure to keep us updated on the AMS experiment aka Antimatter in Abundance.