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Community Interview: Thorfinn Tait

from Threshold Magazine issue 11

Community Interview

Thorfinn Tait

The idea for this interview with Thorfinn Tait, the master cartographer famous in at least two worlds, Mystara and Calidar, and pillar of the Mystaran community, was introduced in this thread at The Piazza by forum member and Threshold editor Julius Cleaver. The questions were decided by members of the Mystaran community.

What originally got you interested in fantasy and science-fiction?

One of my earliest memories is of my brother saying it was the twenty sixth time for us to watch Star Wars. And Return of the Jedi was one of the first films I saw at the cinema. We were crazy about Star Wars — we had most of the action figures and even some of the bigger vehicle toys. One Christmas we asked for an AT-AT walker, and our parents were able to get a good deal on them, so we ended up with one each.

That and all the cartoons back then meant I was familiar with science-fiction from an early age. My beginnings with fantasy probably came from children’s books my mother read to us. We went through all of Roald Dahl’s books, Edward Lear’s nonsense verse, and Eric Linklater’s Pirates in the Deep Green Sea.

Later I read a lot more myself. I particularly remember reading The Hobbit, and then spending six months slowly crawling through The Fellowship of the Ring. After that came Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. It wasn't until I was 17 that I took another crack at The Lord of the Rings, and ended up reading the whole thing in a few days, followed by The Silmarillion — which was hard going at the start, but eventually turned out to be an absolute masterpiece.

What was your first introduction to RPGs?

At the same time as I was reading and watching fantasy and science-fiction, I also got into computer games. My first computer was a Commodore 64. I was three years old, and my father brought it home, set it all up, and turned it on. Then I knocked the power plug out, and zapped the power supply. He had to get it replaced before we could use the computer! After that first incident, my brother and I grew up pottering around on that computer, playing all sorts of games. Later we graduated to an Amiga, then to PCs.

My mother also got us into board gaming, and we played something with her every week when we were younger — Cluedo, Monopoly, Game of Life, Pay Day, and so on. So we were very much into gaming from a young age.

I came to RPGs first through Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy books. I still remember The Warlock of Firetop Mountain well. At about the same time, we started collecting Citadel Miniatures, and our grandparents gave us Frank Mentzer’s Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. (Much later we found out that our aunt in Oregon had bought us it some time previously, but they had held onto it until they thought we were ready for it.) We often used some dungeon floor plans with miniatures to explore dungeons using the red box.

After that, my aunt sent us a new rules set every Christmas, until we had everything up to the Master Set. I devoured these rule books… The expanding possibilities and the cool new stuff each set introduced fascinated and delighted me. I quite literally grew up with this series.

We also got into Games Workshop’s games, including Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Blood Bowl, Space Hulk, HeroQuest, and so on. With so many great new games coming out, we were spoilt for choice in what to play.

I’m not really sure when precisely I discovered Mystara, although I do know that it was later in the publication of the Gazetteer series — probably around 1990. This was also the year I started secondary school, and gained a whole new set of friends who were into D&D — one of whom introduced me to Mystara.

I quickly became a fan, and regularly persuaded my father to order books for me from TSR Hobby Shop UK, starting with the Gazetteer series, then the Creature Crucibles and all the rest. (There were no shops in Orkney that sold D&D, so never saw these books for sale in a regular shop — and I still haven’t.) I remember excitedly awaiting GAZ13, and I became a regular reader of The Voyage of the Princess Ark in Dragon Magazine.

The end of the Princess Ark series was a blow, although I did enjoy the Known World Grimoire almost as much. But when that too came to an end, the change of Mystara to an AD&D campaign setting boded ill for me. Devastated by the loss of my favourite product line, I drifted away from D&D for a few years.

What is your favourite nation or region of Mystara?

Tough question… I think the answer would have to be the Shadow Elves, although I also love Serraine, Nithia, Alfheim, and Rockhome. As you can see, I have a great liking for demi-humans, especially gnomes, but also elves and dwarves.

GAZ13 was an amazing book for me, because it held such secrets, and the setting seemed so alive from the lowliest slug wrangler up to the Radiant Shaman. The fictional elements surely helped a great deal to create this image.

But I never wanted the Shadow Elves to go to the surface world like they did in Wrath of the Immortals — on the contrary, I always felt that they had made their subterranean domain their true home, and that they would be much diminished without it. I’m sure the wonderful map of their realm had an influence on me in this.

How did you become involved with the Mystara community?

I returned to D&D and Mystara near the end of my first year at university, in early 1997. I still have the e-mails from the Mystara Mailing List back then, and I remember first being amazed how many other people loved Mystara, and second how great most of those people were. By that point I had been involved with various online communities, but Mystara’s was the friendliest and most pleasant by far — and of course it still is.

I got involved with work on the Almanac, with the Hollow World team. I remember having a great time with the Azcan Empire and the Schattenalfen with Fabrizio Paoli and others.

Unfortunately life got in the way, and I wasn’t able to keep a consistent presence in the community over an extended period. This always seems to be how things work for me, but at the time I’m sure it caused some trouble for Fabrizio and the others, which I still feel bad about almost twenty years later!

When did you begin to work on Mystara’s maps?

I’ve never been good at drawing, but I’ve always liked working with computer drawing programs. So making digital maps was something I had been wanting to do for years. Then in October 1999, my father bought a copy of Adobe Illustrator 8. It naturally came to me to learn how to use it, and it didn’t take me long to realise its cartographic potential.

I actually still have the file I worked on back then: it was Northern Iciria, and I started in the top left of the map — but not before drawing all the basic hexes in Illustrator. Looking at them now, some are completely cringe-worthy, but surprisingly I still use all the major settlement icons from 1999 still today, with only a few minor tweaks.

In any case, I started on Northeast Iciria’s ice floes, only I had decided to use the fancy icon from the Gazetteer series instead of the blank white one from the Hollow World Set. The trouble was, my computer at the time was incapable of handling this, and I ended up shelving the whole project after creating a truly pitiful area of the map.

Why did you move to Japan?

Orkney may be a small place, with a population of just around 20,000, but we have a great tradition of going out into the world. Who knows, perhaps it goes back to Viking times, when Orkney was a staging point between Norway, Britain, Ireland, and Iceland. Whatever the case, during my third year at university I heard about the JET Programme, and decided it was for me.

My interest in Japan began with Zelda and Final Fantasy, and then expanded into studying kanji and learning how to speak the language. So in July 2000 I found myself on a plane to Tokyo, and shortly thereafter to Akita in rural northeastern Japan.

And I’ve been here ever since. Along the way I met my wife, got married, became a full time English teacher at a local high school, bought a house, and had a family.

How did the Atlas of Mystara project start?

In late 2004 I discovered Wizards’ (now defunct) Mystara Message Board, and started to get involved with Mystara once again. Many of the familiar names from the MML were around, and I really felt like I had never left. I was also enthused to see Bruce Heard, who I had missed in the early days of the MML.

Naturally, I fished out the file for my old mapping project, and started to see if I could do anything with it on my computer of the time. This was January 2005, and the answer was a definite yes.

So I got to work, revising my old symbols, and working up map after map in a flurry of activity that lasted for a few months, until once again life got in the way (in this case, it was my wedding). From 15th February, I posted a map every day to my Thorf’s Secret Project, Stage One thread on the Wizards boards. This was the beginning of the Atlas of Mystara project, although I didn’t announce the true name and scope of it until a few years later.

Since then, I’ve come back to it every few years, before drifting away again to other things. These times away are actually a great help, as I often find that I come back to the project with renewed motivation and interest, and can see previously insurmountable problems with a newfound clarity.

The Atlas of Mystara is now hosted here:

How did you wind up being a cartographer?

It’s really all thanks to Bruce Heard. When he returned to the community in 2012 with his new blog, he began to detail Alphatia in a new series of 8 mile per hex maps. Naturally I was overjoyed at this development — new hex maps for Mystara, from the master himself! — and I approached Bruce about remaking his maps as part of the Atlas project. I assisted him with some early teething problems, and started to work through his maps, recreating them in the Atlas style.

Life (the birth of my second child, to be precise) got in the way, and I fell behind, but I kept in touch with Bruce, and continued to remake his maps piece by piece.

Then everything changed in March 2013, when it became clear that Bruce would not be able to get the Mystara license, and Bruce announced this, together with his intention to create a new setting of his own to write about. I wrote a rather emotional response to this, which you can still find on Bruce’s blog; it was at once a moment of great sadness, but also great potential for the future.

A couple of months later, Bruce asked for my opinion on his fledgling new setting, Calidar, which led to a series of discussions. Finally in July, he asked me to do Calidar’s cartography, and I accepted.

What is it like working with Bruce Heard?

Bruce is a man with a vision — when he asks for something, he already knows what he wants. Of course it’s not always the same thing as I have in mind. After doing maps on my own for so long, working on Calidar’s maps has been a lesson in compromise for me, which is really an invaluable experience, because being able to compromise and communicate frankly but diplomatically are essential skills for a cartographer.

I’m continually amazed at Bruce’s productivity and creativity. He’s also very much on the ball when it comes to using technology and the Internet. He draws all of the deck plans for Calidar, and his style continues to evolve as he has branched out into floor plans and heraldry.

I can’t help but feel that it’s an honour and a privilege to be working and talking with someone whose work I have admired for so long. It’s no secret that I’m one of Bruce’s staunchest supporters, and I would love for his work to be more widely read.

What was your first published contribution?

The first Calidar book, CAL1 In Stranger Skies, includes more than ten maps I created. There are also two poster maps: one in my new topographical style, the other a Mystara-style hex map.

It took me the better part of a year to do all of these, during which I learned how to do a lot of new stuff. I spent a long time following tutorials, reading websites and books, and asking questions in forums, learning all the new skills I needed. The rest of the time was spent creating maps. The 3D model for the main area of Calidar, the Great Caldera, took me six months to do. It’s the basis for all of my topographical maps in CAL1, and it contains enough detail to map out the whole Great Caldera for years to come.

The hex map of course was a lot easier, but after all my experience with Mystara I was determined to make things as accurate as I could from the very beginning.

What area or topic would you like to map next in either Mystara or Calidar (or even elsewhere)?

For Mystara, I’d love to do some more underground realms — especially Rockhome’s underworld. Aside from that, I’m determined to get Mystara to a level of accuracy that satisfies my tastes, with full georeferencing — consistent latitude and longitude coordinates throughout the world. I realise that not everyone is interested in such accuracy in fantasy mapping, but it has become my hallmark.

Ultimately, I would like to do for Mystara what I have done for Calidar, but on a global scale, with a 3D height model of the entire world — yes, inside and out. It’s a massive undertaking.

For Calidar, my long term goal is to map out the rest of the world in 3D. This is partially underway, but the techniques I used to do the Great Caldera don’t really scale up. I can’t spend three years on a model for the world! So for this as well as Mystara I’m looking into new ways to generate the terrain, sculpt it as I want it, and erode it to make it look real.

In the short term, I’m eager to see more hex maps, starting with Meryath’s provinces. We’re considering doing these at 2 miles per hex, to go with the 10 mile per hex poster map.

I’d also love to map out Kumoshima, the moon with a feudal Japan-style culture. Bruce has had no need of it yet, unfortunately, so I’m still waiting for this chance.

What kind of techniques and/or software do you use in your mapping?

My hex maps are all done in Adobe Illustrator. Lately I use Adobe Photoshop to composite smaller maps together into larger chunks. Photoshop is far more able to deal with large images, and you can link the Illustrator files when you place them, so that changes made in Illustrator will automatically be reflected in the Photoshop file.

For my topographical maps, I use mainly Photoshop, with Illustrator for vector and text elements. I have Avenza’s amazing MAPublisher and Geographic Imager plugins for these programs, which add GIS features, allowing me to georegister maps. This means I can change the projections used, which is vital for mapping with accuracy.

I do my 3D modelling of terrain in Photoshop, with Wilbur for erosion. But I am looking into replacing this workflow, likely with World Machine. I need to move into procedural terrain, which has great possibilities for mapping a wide range of landforms.

What do you do when you get stuck on something?

As I mentioned earlier, taking time away is often a big help. With the really big problems, talking to others can also lead to a solution. They don’t have to be experts; just talking the problem through can do the trick.

There’s a huge amount of tutorials for all sorts of mapping things available around the web. These can be invaluable in solving problems. My mantra has always been learning by doing, and tutorials cut to the chase and present exactly how to do things. For me, the advent of video tutorials on YouTube and has been really empowering.

What challenge do you hope to address next in your cartographic endeavours? (i.e. is there any technical ability or limitation you hope to overcome? or even any graphic limitations or capabilities you are hoping are resolved in future software versions)

Every map presents some sort of new challenge. Tackling these is immensely satisfying, although also time consuming.

The main one on my plate at the moment is how to create 3D terrain, and specifically how to erode it, in a more reasonable timeframe. I’m very proud of my work on the Great Caldera, but I need to be able to produce a whole world in a much tighter timeframe. And I want to do it better, too.

In many ways, I find myself working in parallel with Anna Meyer. We both seem to be treading very similar paths; we have similar styles and design choices; and we both started out mapping our favourite campaign setting extensively over the course of many years. She has been able to use that as a springboard to become a successful fantasy cartographer, and I’m hoping to follow in her footsteps. I’m a big fan of her work, and in many ways she continues to show me the way forward.

The other big challenge is with mapping Mystara. The Hollow World and its polar openings present a unique challenge that’s probably amplified by my desire to map with great accuracy. But I’ve been making a lot of progress in this lately, which you can follow in my Lining Up Mystara series of articles.

Name some maps that have inspired you.

Mystara’s Trail Maps have always been a great inspiration, and continue to be something to aspire to. I especially like the way the tables around the outside complement the maps. But perhaps you meant non-Mystaran maps?

Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Beleriand maps are firm favourites. I love Tolkien’s art, too. His clear, elegant style looks deceptively easy.

Google Maps and other satellite map services are a constant inspiration, because the real world is often far more fantastic than we might think in our everyday lives.

Finally, I love old maps of all kinds. Working to recreate the style of a map is something I have great experience in with Mystara’s hex maps, so it’s only natural that I’d want to do a similar thing with other old maps.

Of the maps you’ve made, what is your favorite map?

It has to be Calidar’s Great Caldera map. One of the benefits of being the cartographer is that I have the full resolution version. My computer has a really nice 5K monitor, and I have a shrunk down version as my desktop.

For Mystara, usually it’s whichever map I last finished. But the best is definitely still to come.

Which of your maps did you most enjoy making?

I enjoy them all, or I wouldn’t have made so many. But the close-up map of Meryath’s Royal Domain was probably the most satisfying, since it allowed me to use the 3D model of the Great Caldera at full resolution for the first time.

I also had a blast collaborating with Geoff Gander on Selhomarr1, and of course with Bruce Heard on everything Calidar. The constant back and forth, striving to satisfy you both, and working towards a compromise where you disagree — for me, working on maps together is just far more fun.

Which was the most challenging Mystaran map, and why?

Shahjapur’s map comes to mind, as it was one of the very few maps done with horizontal rather than vertical hex rows. This occurred because the map had east at the top of the page. Of course it had to be changed to a standard hex orientation, which involved a madness-inducing overlay of a normal hex grid onto that map.

Otherwise, I’d have to say that Bruce’s Alphatia maps are all pretty challenging, due to the sheer volume of their content. It’s all too easy to miss something!

What do you like — and dislike — most about the hex map style so iconic to Mystara?

Great question!

I love the overall look, the hex map aesthetic. It’s funny, this seems to be very much a matter of taste, because I’ve heard people say they think hex maps look ugly, but I don’t see this myself.

I really like how it makes it easy to map an area without worrying about details too much. The symbol on a hex represents its main terrain features, so that it’s always possible to have something unexpected hidden in there if you want it to be.

I dislike the impression they give of perfect distance, shape and area throughout a map. No projection shows all of these aspects without distortion, and most show only one — and often imperfectly, at that. The best way round this that I’ve found so far is to use hexes on top of an equal area projection, which retains their accuracy for demographic calculations.

How do you manage to find a balance between mapping, family, and a full time job?

With great difficulty, I’m afraid! I would probably be a far better father if I spent all my time with my kids instead of mapping. But I’m also determined to show my kids that working hard on something you care about is one of the best things you can do in life, so it’s not all bad, I suppose. My son has inherited my love of maps, that’s for sure.

I do enjoy my work teaching at a high school. It’s true, a lot of times I would far rather be mapping — especially when it comes to exam time, with my two least favourite jobs, invigilation and marking. But it also gives me a life, with lots of human contact outside the house. If I was a full time cartographer, I might actually become a hermit!

What are your plans for the future?

Long-term, it may be a pipe dream, but I’d love to turn cartography into my full time work. Everything I do these days is with that in mind. For the same reason, although on a personal level I am quite happy to give all my work freely to the community, I’m also conscious of the fact that I will never attain my goal by doing so. If I could break through more fully on to the professional stage, I would be able to produce a lot more material.

Short-term, I have four main goals: continue to map for Bruce Heard’s Calidar; work towards completion of my Atlas of Mystara project by executing occasional shorter mini-projects; broaden my cartography skills and enlarge my toolbox; and do more professional maps in addition to Calidar.

The recent opening of the DM’s Guild suggests to me that I may yet be able to produce one of my dream projects, a printed Atlas of Mystara. But of course this is dependent on Wizards of the Coast adding Mystara to the list of settings allowed there, and there’s no telling if or when this may happen.

Regardless, I will keep moving forward, and keep on mapping. Thank you to everyone in our wonderful community for your continuing support! I wouldn’t and couldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for you all.

Visit Thorf’s blog to see more of his fantastic maps, here:

Many of his Mystara Maps are also stored at The Vaults of Pandius:

And in the Geographical mapping forum at the Piazza:

1Maps of Selhomarr are stored at the Vaults of Pandius here: