DC HeroClix: Arkham Asylum
Designer's Notebook: HeroClix Map Design
by Seth Johnson, Arkham Asylum Lead Designer
Cleaning up my desk, I found a lot of drawings and sketches related to the design of the map we’ll be releasing alongside Arkham Asylum. I thought it’d be fun to share those with you, with some of the process and thoughts that went into designing and producing the map.
Sometimes when we release a new map for HeroClix, we like to release a map depicting a more generic environment where superhuman battles might take place: a prison, a bank, a lab. But at the design meeting for Arkham Asylum, the HeroClix team agreed that we wanted something a bit more specific—the asylum in the expansion’s name.
Here are a couple idle sketches I made during that meeting. My goal when designing a map is often to create a balanced environment that doesn’t give one force and their choice of starting area an advantage over another. That’s what I was attempting here, with the added tweak of corner starting areas at the top right and bottom left corners. I played with the idea of an S-shaped line of cells dividing the map up into two ‘arenas’, one by each starting area. In the right sketch, I added a gap between the two areas that created a chokepoint for the conflict. But that resulted in ‘dead’ areas on the map (the shaded-in cells), so I threw that idea out.
For the next design, I threw out the dividing line of cells and just ran cells down both edges of the map, roughing in a guard station in the center of the map to prevent straight-line shots from one starting area to the other. Four large cells line each side, with big windows (the orange lines) on the front of each one; after randomly using the orange marker to indicate the windows, I remember some brainstorming about making the windows a special type of wall that allowed line of fire but not ranged attacks, but that was quickly thrown out as needlessly complex.
Even with opened doors, the cells just seemed like dead space along the edges, so I blew some holes between cells, as if there had just been a particularly destructive mass breakout. I liked the extra movement paths this opened up, but the resulting ‘story’ of the map just didn’t make sense.
It was time to go back to the drawing board.
Years ago, a special version of Shadow of the Bat #1 came polybagged with blueprints for the Arkham, and I pulled them out while working on the map. One of the things I really liked about the blueprint was the spiral layout of the cells, a twist on the panopticon prison that really seemed to reflect the madness of the place. There was no way to recreate that layout on a 24-by-36-inch map, but maybe I could use it as inspiration.
This new layout played with the idea of spirals, specifically two spirals of cells interlocking yin-yang-like and guiding forces from their corner starting areas inevitably toward a central conflict area, while allowing many potentially twisting paths for characters to take through and across the area. The numbers are me speculating on how big cells might have to be at certain points (3 by 3, 4 by 4, 5 by 5) to sit along the spiral. But there was only one way to find out if they would actually fit and do the job, and that was to take it to the grid.
Turns out that a lot of adjustments needed to be made…
But eventually I arrived at a layout I liked. Then it was time to make sure I could still map the metaphor of the map to the mechanics I wanted. To justify the open areas the forces would be starting in, I made them public areas, with tables and chairs for the inmates. Then I started assigning cells to inmates, putting Dr. Arkham’s office (naturally) at the heart of the madness.
I considered leaving the cells closed and letting battles rage around them, but that didn’t seem nearly as fun as letting characters duke it out in the cells (or setting it up properly for homebrew rules where cells could be opened and closed, etc—I always loved it when players came up with those kinds of scenarios.)
Most cells (appropriately) only got one door, but to encourage flow I decided that a few should have multiple entrances and exits. It was natural enough for the office at the center of the map to have two entrances, but for the other two cells, I reached back to the ‘breakout’ idea of the earlier design and blew a couple extra holes through the walls.
Then it was time to start adding some terrain, mostly via furniture. I played with the idea of adding water terrain outside Mr. Freeze’s cell where the ice was melting, but it seemed silly to declare a puddle a type of terrain.
Finally it was time to bring all my ideas together in such a way that the art department could actually produce the map. This is my final sketch of the map, which was handed over with a four-page key. The art department always has an unfortunately limited amount of time and resources to work on any project they’re given, but when designing maps I always tried to give them as many ideas as I could for ways to reuse a standard set of objects and then create just a few special objects that make the map sing.
Here are some samples from that key document:
Map: The Asylum
High concept: Arkham Asylum, where Batman’s villains are locked away…until they break out again.
I’d like to make sure that we avoid making it visually too similar to the Prison map (sample attached)—perhaps by making two default floor textures, one for the general area and one for the cells; I’m thinking dirty hospital-style tiles and old-prison stone. Each cell has a bed, and a prop helping to define it as the cell of a particular Bat-villian. A standard bed is fine with white sheets/pillow, but I’d like to be able to have a different color blanket for each room (appropriate to the character as noted below.)
C: The two starting areas, each surrounded by a purple line. In the center of each, a round table surrounded by four chairs—standard prison-issue stainless steel or plastic, maybe—surrounded by the green line of hindering terrain. Every crazy villains gotta eat, and here’s where they do it.
D: The Joker’s Cell:
Bed: Green blanket, like the Joker’s hair. Blanket is pulled up, but the pillow is at the wrong end of the bed. He so crazy.
Prop: Playing cards scattered around the room. Maybe a circle scattered in one corner where he’s been tossing the cards into a not-hat.
NOTE: Like all the cells, the barred door is swung wide open. But this cell also has a hole blown out of one wall, with a card sitting on top of the debris. Looks like the Joker led off the mass escape.
E: Two-Face’s Cell
Bed: A gray blanket on a bed divided into two parts, like its occupant. The left side is neat and made hospital-sharp; on the right side, the blanket is disheveled and dirty. The pillow may be the same.
Prop: The room has two chairs; the one on the left side is neatly in the corner. The one on the right is tipped over, and a leg may be broken off.
F: Poison Ivy
Bed: Since there’s so much green in the room, let’s make the blanket the orange-red of her hair.
Prop: Three big plants, as leafy and viney as possible. Some creepers reaching toward and out the door.
Of course, when the results came back the next week, they were beautiful:
Click here to see the final version of The Asylum map
As always, the detail work from the art department floors me. From the Mad Hatter’s improvised tea party to Zzasz’s cell, it’s even better than I imagined it. And early testing showed that the map played just as I hoped, with good fights taking place at the center of the map but also a lot of run and gunning around the edges, with characters ducking in and out of cells. (This, of course, also led to lots of good game-story fun, as the Floronic Man holed up in Poison Ivy’s cell, and Grodd took up residence in the office and ‘posed as Dr. Arkham’.)
Hopefully you have as much fun playing HeroClix on the map as the HeroClix team had making it. And we’ll keep scouring our desks for more behind-the-scenes stuff to share with you in the future!