Where Are We Now? – Maps in RPGs

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately as I develop The Phoenix Covenant and the Hunter game is the role of maps in roleplaying games.

I’ve found that, over the years, the way I use maps in games has changed significantly. When I was much younger, I would spend hours mapping out complex dungeons on reams of graph paper, trying to make the most interesting labyrinths I could for my players to wind their way through. Now, I hate those huge, involved dungeons where adventurers are trapped to wander for session upon session.

I still love maps, though. A lot.

These days, I use maps as player handouts. I love watching players pore over the things, trying to figure out where everything fits, and what things I’ve left out, and what things are just plain wrong. They are in-game documents and, as such, I do my best to make them attractive and useful. Unfortunately, I suck at the visual arts, which makes the creation of attractive maps very difficult for me.

There are a number of programs available these days to build maps, though. Personally, I like Campaign Cartographer 3 from ProFantasy. It’s not cheap (especially if you get the add-ons like Dungeon Designer and City Designer) and there’s a bit of a learning curve with it, but it really does make it a lot easier to produce a map that I’m not ashamed to put in the hands of my players. I used it to create the maps for The Phoenix Covenant that you can see here and here. Sure, no one’s ever going to mistake my work for that of a professional, but the maps aren’t ugly, they are evocative of the setting, and they have useful information on them. The map of the empire took me about five hours to do to my satisfaction, and the map of the province took about two.

Ideally, when I create a map like these, I’m trying to accomplish a few related goals:

  1. Show the players where stuff is. Give them a geographical context for the adventures.
  2. Give some indication about the culture that produced the map. For the map of the empire, for example, I used a style based on the Mercator maps of the 16th and 17th centuries. I wanted to evoke some of the sense of exploration and the great empires of that period. The map of the province is much more spare and functional, as befits a remote region with limited resources.
  3. Generate curiosity to spur adventures. A few evocatively named locales or isolated features of interest will draw adventurers like lodestones.

That means that, as I create maps, I keep a few questions in mind:

  1. Who is making the map? What kind of culture do they come from? Do they have an agenda?
  2. What’s in the area that I’m mapping?
  3. What does the map-maker know about?
  4. What does he or she want to keep secret?
  5. What information is the map-maker trying to convey?
  6. What has changed since the map was made?

Now, I don’t have the chops to give actual tutorials on building maps – for that you should check out these guys. I just muddle through, trying different things until the map looks okay to me. And by okay, I’m looking for something that conveys the information and impressions I want and is not so ugly that I’m ashamed to put it in front of my players.

The other type of map I usually make is a battle map. For that, I use Dundjinni, which is a great, flexible tool for this exact purpose. I like it a lot, but it’s not as well-supported as I might wish. Still, it turns out wonderful maps to roll out on the table and push figures around on.

But what about those huge dungeon maps I used to love? I don’t use them anymore.

I’ve found that I, and my players, don’t like the idea of spending hours carefully moving from room to room, making choices that have little to no actual impact on the game. My players will spend a half-hour trying different things in empty rooms just to make sure they haven’t missed anything, and they wind up bored and frustrated. So do I.

What I’ve started to do – and this is not just with dungeons, but with pretty much all adventures – is use a flow chart. This lets me show the relationship and pathways through all the encounters (combat or otherwise) that I have in the adventure. White Wolf does this with their SAS system, and it works nicely there. It works just as well with other types of adventures.

I use Visio for these flowcharts, winding up with something that looks like this. Now, it doesn’t have all of the room details on it, but that’s what the key is for. I make my notes about the sizes and shapes and contents of the areas in a different document, flesh out the description and creatures and NPCs and situations, do up any battlemaps that I want to use, and I’m ready to roll.

This format lets me use some narrative devices to speed things along when the players start to get bored, too. I can say something like, “You’ve spent hours scouring the various workrooms, storerooms, and back hallways in this part of the castle, finding nothing of real value. Now, as you stand in the kitchen, you see and ominous glow leaking under the door to the dining hall. What do you do?”

And you know what? Not once has someone asked to go back and search the empty part more carefully. That’s a real departure from the standard tactics of my party when I actually had them going room-by-room through a fully mapped out dungeon.

The other advantage of this sort of mapping is that you can make sure that choices are meaningful. Forcing the party to choose left or right at every corner when it’s just rearranging the order of the fights is not a real meaningful choice. Flow charts spell out, very clearly, that option A leads to situation 1, and option B leads to situation 2. All the meaningless choices can be filtered out in the narration, with a line like, “After wandering through the twisty back alleys, you finally think you’ve found your informant.”

I guess that what I’m saying is that different kinds of maps serve different purposes. When you’re making a map, think about what you need it to do in the game, and then design accordingly. I tend to find that, for GM-only maps, simple flowcharts work best, while more elaborate and attractive maps are best for hand-outs.

Of course, if you’re good at drawing maps, and you like to do it, go nuts. And don’t be shy about posting your maps on the web.

I love looking at good maps, for inspiration if nothing else.