Friday, November 1, 2013

SketchUp for Gamers

The landing at Fenwatch from my last campaign
I've been seeing an increase in the use of SketchUp lately for game mapping. The most common technique seems to involve importing a hand-drawn dungeon map and pushing/pulling it out into three dimensions. You can check out an excellent example of this by mapper, Kevin Campbell here.

Now, I am a huge fan of SketchUp. I deal with it regularly in my day job as a museum exhibit developer. I even teach an annual introductory seminar on it for my former grad school program. So, I like to think of myself as being relatively skilled with the software. Yet in my several attempts to adapt the program for game mapping purposes, I always wind up faltering and leaving a half-produced model waiting to be finished. Why is that?

Hey Geoff... why you no finish Wayshepherd's Guild?

Using SketchUp well takes time. 

I think the name SketchUp is a bit of a misnomer, because if you use the program like a sketch pad, simply drawing in your maps, your model can quickly become cumbersome to work with. The program should really be called "ModelUp", because, as I tell my students, it works best if you "group early and group often". To translate for mapping, each bit of the map should be "sketched" as its own unique group or component. Every doorway, pit trap and blood-soaked altar should be set up as a discrete building block and then plugged into the model. The downside to this technique is that it adds steps, which adds time to the process. If you are in a hurry to get a map done for next week's game, you might want to run with pen and paper. Heck, even at work, we use pencils and sketch pads as much as any software, especially when pressed for time.

Because I'm running an active game, and leaning towards the Lazy DM model for most of my planning, cracking open a SketchUp file for my location-based encounters just hasn't been practical of late. If I were focused on mapping for maps' sake, or making something for publication, it might be a different story, but when in a hurry, it's best to stick with quad ruled paper and pencil.

That being said, SketchUp can offer some definite advantages in certain circumstances such as:

  • Dungeons with overlapping levels. The ability to view models from all angles is a powerful visual tool when dealing with twisting ramps, balconies and other vertically layered environments.
  • Recurring locations. Recurring environments in your game, especially those that might be modified over time can really benefit from the SketchUp treatment. If you set things up well, it can be quick and easy to expand the kitchen on the party's keep, or add battle damage to the mage's tower. If set up poorly, however, such changes could be a nightmare.
  • Established Settings. This is a bit of a Catch-22. SketchUp can get more efficient as you use it, but it can take a while before it is efficient enough to be worth using for a game. Why is this? Well, again, if you are building your models well, you will start to accumulate a library of components that can be quickly plugged into other models as needed. If you don't need to create a creepy statue for your 2nd or 3rd creepy statue dungeon, you can save a lot of time if you slogged through the work in the 1st one.

So, perhaps the best way to start using SketchUp for a game is to build game-like things for fun... without session prep deadlines, or real requirements. Once you have your system down and a library built up, then take the plunge to work it into actual game mapping.

Of course, all of this rumination on SketchUp has both given me an idea and gotten me tempted to try my hand at game mapping in it again. I think that I will take a stab at creating an online version of my intro to SketchUp seminar, but with a focus on creating things for use in RPGs. I don't have a schedule for it, so it will likely be slow to roll out. Nevertheless, I think it could be helpful for those game mappers who want a leg up to use SketchUp well.

In the mean time, if you are currently using SketchUp for fantasy mapping purposes, you can find some furniture and other dungeon/castle elements (along with a couple unrelated projects) for use in your models in my SketchUp warehouse here.

It's like some sort of kobold-filled Ikea


  1. Wow. Interesting stuff. I use SketchUp occasionally for architectural or mechanical structures as underpaintings for my art. Hadn't thought of using it for gaming maps. Very cool!

  2. Good read Geoff. You are so right about groups and "components" Besides making things not stick together (groups), components are great in that if you edit any one of them, the others automatically reflect that change. But beyond that, I want to expand on what you said about the 3D warehouse. My God! There are so many models there. FREE! I found the warrior guy there (hard to see in the link above) There are complete buildings. You can even download a building and ungroup it, and take its parts (Dome, columns, etc.) Also a good texture library is nice. What I did was pretty darn easy. If any of your readers want to try SketchUp, I would say go for it! Just have fun and play. There are many YouTube tutorials out there when you are ready to learn more. - Kevin Campbell

    1. The component thing is also key for keeping file size down on larger models. Its much less processor and memory intensive for the program to draw and object once, and then just plant copies of it around than to draw unique instances of the same thing.

      The one downside I find about the 3D warehouse is that some people inexplicably build in a scale other than 1:1. As I tell my students, the program can handle everything from fractions of an inch to hundreds of feet in dimensions. THERE IS NO REASON TO WORK IN A DIFFERENT SCALE! Nothing drives me more crazy than downloading a model of a piece of furniture and having it be 20 feet long.


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