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The Eel and the Stingray
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.



MONDAY NIGHT. Toward the end of paragon tier, the player characters decide to set aside their many distractions and make good on a promise to Arkyn Tavor, a dwarven undersea explorer to whom they owe a favor. He's a member of the Deeplantern Guild, and he needs the party's help to retrieve an artifact that not only symbolizes the bond between Moradin and Erathis but also symbolizes the unity of the dwarven clans. The hammer lies sealed in the vaults of Harth Fantaro, a sunken citadel that has since become home to a powerful aboleth mother and its slimy brood. To accomplish his quest, Arkyn spent his family fortune on a submersible resembling a stingray. Armed with this totally awesome ship, Arkyn, his crew, and the heroes descend into the briny depths.

L ong story short, I needed a submarine map that could be blown up to miniatures scale without looking like total crap. However, there aren't many good submarine maps "out there" to choose from. Having already plundered ship maps from the Spelljammer campaign setting, I decided to go back to that source and search for a map that could be scanned and then modified using Adobe Photoshop. I didn't find anything in the boxed set proper, but I did find an "eel ship" map in a Spelljammer supplement called Lost Ships, written by (strangely enough) Ed Greenwood.

I'm a busy guy, as most DMs are, and it takes less time for me to modify a scanned image in Photoshop than to create something entirely new. As much as I like creating maps from scratch, I decided to take the path of least resistance for the Deeplantern Guild submersible. The eel ship has a sleek submarine-like profile, but it wasn't until I'd scanned the image that it occurred to me how easily the design could be modified to look like a stingray. By the time I was through, the eel ship would be nigh unrecognizable. My players might even think I'd designed the entire craft myself.

The Eel


Here were my mental notes on the eel ship map:

1. Given the clean line work of the original, I would need to scan the map at 600 dpi — sufficient resolution to enlarge it for miniatures play as well as modify it to serve my needs.

2. To turn the eel into a stingray, I would need to add pectoral fins (the "wings") and a whiplike tail.

3. The staircase between decks is troublesome. There's the practical concern of flooding, but even the way the stairs are drawn rub me the wrong way: They don't snap neatly to the grid, which makes it hard for players to determine where to place their minis when their characters are standing on the stairs.

4. Finally, there are a lot of small, confined spaces below deck. That's true of submarines in general, but it doesn't allow for much tactical movement in combat.

The Stingray


Here's how the stingray ship was created using the eel ship as its chassis:

Adding the Fins: As a separate layer in Adobe Photoshop (Layer > New), I drew one of the ship's pectoral fins [1] using my mouse and the program's drawing tool. It took several tries to get the shape of the fin just right. Once I had the curvature I wanted, I duplicated the layer in Photoshop (Layer > Duplicate Layer), flipped it (Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical), and positioned the duplicate fin [2] on the other side of the ship. The end result: two fins that are mirror images of one another.

Adding the Tail: I erased the back end of the eel ship to make room for the tail [3], which was done freehand using my mouse and the drawing tool. Again, I drew the tail as a separate layer so I could safely delete the layer and start over if I wasn't happy with the end result.

Remodeling the Interior: I used Photoshop's eraser tool to remove the stairs and any interior walls I didn't want, and then I used the software's copy and paste functions to create duplicates of grid lines, walls, and doors as separate layers that I could move around and reorient to my heart's content. I did a little bit of touching up using the drawing tool afterward, but not much. Like a LEGO set, I just rearranged existing elements. The hatch connecting the two levels was new, however. As a new layer, I made a circle and added some hinges, and then made a copy of it (another layer) for the lower deck, with the opacity reduced to 20% on that layer to give the impression it's set into the ceiling instead of the floor.

Finishing Touch: By the time I'd finished noodling, my map had multiple layers, from fins to doors. When I was satisfied with the overall design, I flattened the image (Layer > Flatten Image) and then used Photoshop's paint bucket tool to apply gray tones in certain areas (the fins and outer hull primarily).

Lessons Learned

I don't need an art degree to churn out a serviceable map, especially if half the work is done before I begin. As you can see, I can scan an existing map and modify it using Photoshop to suit the needs of my home game. Armed with sufficient hardware and software, so can you.

For the record, it took me less than 3 hours to "build" my stingray submarine. In a half hour, I can enlarge the map so that the grid squares are 1 inch across, slice the map into sections (saving them as separate files), print them out on sheets of paper, tape them together, and lay the finished map on my gaming table at work. If I had access to a printer that could handle oversized paper, that would be a different story, but I work with what I have. Depending on the printer I use, it could take a while to print the map at 600 dpi, so if I'm in a hurry I'll print out the maps at 300 or 150 dpi. Even at that resolution, my players won't need to imagine what it's like to run around inside a stingray submarine; they'll be able to see it.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Which of the following innocent extras is most likely to incur the party's suspicion?
A coquettish barmaid who wants to know the details of the heroes' latest exploits. 382 28.6%
A mute street urchin with a wooden sword who follows the PCs around town. 297 22.2%
A wandering apothecary whose tattered cloak is lined with pleasure-enhancing elixirs. 258 19.3%
A street-savvy sergeant-at-arms who takes the heroes' side whenever they bend or break the law. 166 12.4%
A homeless man who thinks the heroes are figments of his imagination. 79 5.9%
A fat farmer who never goes anywhere without his prize-winning hog. 75 5.6%
A friendly drunk who spouts hilarious epiphanies. 40 3.0%
A grizzled veteran who appreciates the heroes' work and knows what it's like to stare evil in the face. 39 2.9%
Total 1336 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #68A

 If your party could have a ship shaped like one of the following aquatic creatures, which creature would you choose?  
Eel
Stingray
Goldfish
Shark
Sea turtle
Kraken
Dolphin
Swordfish
Jellyfish
Giant gar
Eye of the deep
Holy mackerel
Really? This is the poll?

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #68B

And now, the actual poll:

 How familiar and skilled are you with Adobe Photoshop?  
Never used it, never will.
Never used it, but thinking of trying it out.
Familiar but untrained (no bonus to Photoshop checks).
Familiar and trained (+5 bonus to Photoshop checks).
I am a Photoshop samurai (no chance of failure on Photoshop checks).

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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