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.

Hunter Redux: One Year Later

Last Friday, I ran my second of two playtests for Hunter: The Vigil. You can read about the previous playtest here.

We used the One Year Later quickstart adventure available for free at DriveThruRPG.com. This used the same characters as the previous playtest we did (The Hunt), with some experience applied. We all liked this, because it meant that the players were able to grab the same character as last time and have a great deal of familiarity with it.

As for the adventure itself, it was about as good as the previous one. Looking at my original post, it seems I was quite hard on that adventure, and that wasn’t my real intention. Both The Hunt and One Year Later are written for very specific purposes, and they fulfill these admirably. They are good introductions to the kinds of things that you do in the game, they provide interesting and challenging scenes with a range of activities, and they show you how the rules work. And they are designed to run in a limited time.

The main problem we had with the scenarios was that we weren’t under the time constraints assumed in the writing. We had a whole evening to play, rather than just two or three hours. That made the adventures seem sparse and linear, lacking in opportunity to follow player choices in unusual directions. They are very much designed as demo scenarios, or convention scenarios, pulling in a bunch of people with minimal preparation and completing an adventure in a very tight time-frame.

One Year Later continued this trend, and it worked just as well. Sure, I had to tapdance a little bit when my players asked how they got the information that led them to the guy they’re following at the start of the adventure, or when they killed the only vector in the adventure for a critical piece of information, or when they decided to completely break away from the way the final encounter was scripted, but that’s fine. I was able to adapt and deal with that.

On the whole, my players liked the adventures, liked the pregenerated characters, liked the game. After the game, I asked them what they thought, and they were all pretty positive about the experience. Then I asked them if they would be interested in starting a new campaign.

They gave me a qualified yes.

See, we’ve already got a large number of campaigns running. Pretty much any given weekend, I’m either running or playing in one or two games. But they’re all Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing wrong with D&D, but nothing wrong with mixing it up, either. A little variety, like a modern horror game, is just the thing.

But scheduling is tough. We’re all adults, with family and work commitments. We’re already scheduled pretty tight.

So the suggestion (from Sandy) was to make it an episodic thing, more a series of mini-campaigns. Each episode would be three or four sessions, then we take a break while I build a new one and run that one in a couple of months.

That seemed a popular choice.

I sent out an e-mail message to the five players containing a number of questions I want them to answer, the first question being, “Are you in for the game?” Other questions cover things like setting of the campaign, level of lethality, level of supernatural, level of conspiracy, how much combat, etc. This should give me a solid basis to start constructing a campaign.

On my end, on the advice of one of the folks who commented on the last post*, I picked up some non-free .pdfs for Hunter. I got pretty much everything on this page, and I’ve been working through it, mining it for ideas. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself until I get the responses back from the questions I sent to the prospective players, but I’ve got some ideas percolating.

Oh, yeah. And I bought these dice, because I’m a great big geek.

I’ll let you know how things go.

*Named, suspiciously, Chuck. Could it be…?

Encounters vs. Scenes – RPG Terminology and Philosophy

I really started to notice it starting in 3E D&D, and it’s become even more prevalent in 4E. Adventures for D&D are breaking down to a collection of encounters. That’s the way the DMG addresses adventure creation, that’s the way the majority of the published adventures are written, and that’s the way I’ve been thinking about creating adventures.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, really. But it does encourage a specific type of thinking about adventure construction, and that in turn shapes the type of game play you get in that adventure.

Let’s start with some definitions of terms. According to the DMG:

An encounter is a single scene in an ongoing drama, when the player characters come up against something that impedes their progress.

p. 34

Also according to the DMG:

An adventure is just a series of encounters. How and why these encounters fit together – from the simplest to the most complex – is the framework for any adventure.

p. 94

For contrast, I’m going to be talking about White Wolf‘s SAS adventure structure. Here’s what they say about scenes in their SAS Guide pdf:

Each scene is built as a discrete game encounter (or a closely-tied collection of game encounters) for the troupe to play through.

p. 2

And here’s what they say about their adventures:

Think of a Storytelling Adventure System product (SAS) as a story kit…

The basic parts that make up most SAS stories are simple: Storyteller characters, scenes and some advice on how you can put them together.

p. 2

So much for contrast, huh? They both seem to say pretty much the same thing.

Except they don’t, really.

D&D focuses on encounters, challenges for the characters to face, things that cause them to struggle. Whether it’s a combat or non-combat encounter, it is a point of conflict.

White Wolf adventures focus on scenes, which may or may not contain conflict, but that are focused on moving the story ahead.

What difference does this make?

Well, after my last D&D game, the discussion of the high points were things like how tough a monster was, or what a cool combat that one encounter was.

After my last Hunter: The Vigil game, the discussion was about what a cool NPC the Rag Man was.

It’s a subtle but profound difference. By thinking about the basic building blocks of the game – encounters/scenes – differently, a different mindset is created during both adventure creation and play. In D&D, the focus is on challenges overcome. In World of Darkness games, the focus is on story progression.

Let me put it another way.

In most D&D games*, the idea of spending an entire session attending a party with minimal dice rolling and no combat would be seen as a very unconventional session. Not necessarily bad, but different from the normal adventure. Especially if they didn’t have a mechanically-governed objective in mind**.

In most World of Darkness games, the idea of spending an entire session prowling through the sewers killing monsters and looting their corpses would be seen as a very unconventional session. Again, it wouldn’t necessarily be bad, but it would almost certainly be a departure from the norm. Especially if success (whatever that means in context) was based on the number of monsters killed.

Now, there are a number of reasons why this is. We can talk about genre conventions, the differences in appropriateness of tropes between fantasy and horror, modern versus medieval setting, and target market for the games. But all these things are focused through the lens of adventure creation, and the way the designers have chosen to address the universal RPG question of, “What do I do with my character?”

D&D is a game about heroic pseudo-medieval fantasy adventure. World of Darkness games are about dark modern horror stories***. The designers have chosen the tools, including the philosophy behind the adventure creation, to focus on the ideas that they feel work best given their respective games. And in many ways, I feel, the difference between the two is encapsulated in the simple choice of encounter or scene to represent the basic building block of the adventure.

So why am I going on about this?****

Because I was running into a brick wall designing the next adventure for my Post Tenebras Lux campaign.

Part of the goal was moving away from what my players called the Fight Club design of adventures, giving them more options and more freedom to respond to different situations. So, I’ve got a fairly loose, open-ended kind of adventure set up, with a small adventure site and a fair bit of exploration and interaction surrounding it. I sat down and created the combat encounters, and the traps and skill challenge portions, for the adventure in an hour or so, then sat looking blankly at the connecting portions, trying to think how to make the adventure more than just a bunch of strung-together encounters.

So, what to do?

Well, I’m stealing from the SAS school of adventure design, along with my years of experience running other games*****. I’m putting together a bunch of NPC notes, notes on the locales, little roleplaying scenes that provide story information without conflict, and other things. I’m using a very loose flowchart of the the adventure to show how one thing may lead to another, and how different parts interrelate.

And then, I’m gonna play it by ear, and let the characters set the pace and direction.

I think this will give me what I’m looking for.

See, I needed to make the mental transition from encounter-based design to scene-based design to make this adventure what I wanted it to be. Once I did that, I was able to look at the whole setup in a very different way, and see what needed doing to produce the result I wanted.

I want to be very clear about something, though. I don’t think that scene-based design is intrinsically superior to encounter-based design. I don’t think that D&D is wrong about how they design their games and adventures. I don’t think White Wolf games are inherently superior, or that all games should follow their model of adventure design.

What I do think is that we, as GMs and players, need to be aware of the underlying assumptions and design philosophy inherent in the games we play if we want to be able to make them be the games we want. The design and the system is just the toolkit. What matters is that, when you sit down to game, you and your friends have fun.

That’s all.



*Yes, I am generalizing here and, therefor, lying to some degree. I know that some people have different play styles. And don’t worry; I’m going to generalize about White Wolf games in the next paragraph.

** This is one of the blessings and curses of the skill challenge rules in D&D. Now, you can have a whole skill challenge centered around making a good impression at a party, and everyone can roll their dice to do it.

***Another example of the impact of language: adventure vs. stories.

****Dude, I’m at about 750 words, and you’re just asking this now?

*****In trying to gain some mastery of the 4E rules, I’ve been cleaving very close to the party line with adventure creation, doing things by the book. This has meant ignoring some of the skills at improvising in the middle of a game, or building a very loose structure, that I’ve picked up in running things like Unknown Armies, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Amber Diceless RPG.