To map or not to map?

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m a big fan of maps. My fascination began as a child, staring at an Atlas or an Ordanance Survey map, trying to imagine what I would see if I were there or I would loose myself in fantasy maps such as those in the Hobbit & the Lord of the Rings and imagining my own adventures. In the most obvious sense, maps are like stories. They tell the tale of the land: how geography, the weather, and we have changed it. They are an artistic display with their own language of strange and mysterious symbols. In reality they can be very useful for getting around or on occasion quite the oppisite. I cannot tell you how many times Adam and I have bickered over directions. Sometimes the shortest distance is not the most direct route!

This is also the true in Tabletop RPGs. Somepeople find maps invaluable, others a distraction or a nuseance. After a year of game play and having been very MAP heavy at the start, then experiencing a non mapped campaign I’ve landed somewhere in the middle, and I thought for this post I would explore the concept of maps within TTRPG’s, focusing predominantly on Dungeons & Dragons ( becausethat’s what I know and play), and hopefully come up with a few guidelines on when to deploy a map in a campaign.


History of Maps

As far as I can tell maps have accompanied D&D games for a long time. They were simple yet beautifully complex. Below, to the left is an original map from In Search of the Unkown adventure by Mike Carr from 1978, whilst on the right is a modern map in the old style by Kristian Richards (2018) of crookedstaff.co.uk.

These maps have a beautiful simplicity and remind me of blueprints. They have a functional purpose which they achieve easily. They come with their own keys or legends, room by room detail, and they can be used as either something to be shared with the player characters or simply for the DM’s reference.

As time has moved on though the games aesthetics have changed and with this the maps have naturally evolved. During the 80’s and TSR’s turbulent 90’s, colour maps were introduced. These rich highly detailed maps are fantastic and have a great artistic style that reminds me of old Rupert Bear annuals my grandmother used to give me to read when I visited. As D&D continued to mature in the new milienium the maps continued to develop into the highly detailed, rich and beautiful images we have today. See below the Cragmaw Hideout map from The Lost Mines of Phandelver introductory adventure.

Cragmaw Hideout, Lost Mines of Phandelver (2014)

Compared to the early style maps, the Cragmaw Hideout gives you a sense of height and environment, the colours are deep and enticing. There is also a nice degree of detail that populates the page with enough interest but ultimately the map remains functional and uncluttered. Furthermore the decision to produce such maps makes financial sense when you consider D&D is a marketable product. Maps like this add to the overall value of that product and give a high sense of polish and quality. But I also think these high quality maps can be alienating. Budding DM’s see these maps and when designing their own adventures, may want to replicate them in one way or another. If your a talented artist/illustrator this won’t really be a problem. But for the rest of us who are less artistically inclined, we fear, or at least I know I worry, that simpler, paired down maps won’t be as appealing to your players. Then there comes the planning and production. High quality means attention to detail, that means time and alot of planning and if your in rush that can cause you some issues, very late nights or both!

The pros and con’s of maps

There are of course fantastic map makers out there who do amazing work. Here is a list of are a couple of my favourites, it’s by no means exhaustive and I am setting up a links page with all these peeps and more on:

The maps by these mapmakers are excellent and you can get them relatively cheaply from the artist or some give them away for free/with a patreon subscription. They can be really useful when you need a quick map in game. For example I usually have a couple of spare Watabou one page dungeons with no notes or names etc to hand for an impromptu romp underground or through a ruin. Or you need inspiration for an area/encounter. Or you have limited time/artistic talent and can’t draw your own maps! But if I’m 100% completely honest I often find other peoples maps are missing something. It could be a little thing like a specific detail that would be impossible for them to anticipate, or there are additional things I wouldn’t want in my map. But generally, by the time I am looking for a map, I’ve already got the bones of the encounter planned in my head and the map is just somewhat different to what I imagined. Therefore I would need to alter my initial plans to suit, edit the map itself, or make my own… Often in these situations what I should be asking is: do I really need a map?

Nancy Reagan: “Just say no” campaign during the US war on drugs

In truth, probably not. In the past I’ve wasted hours looking for a map of a hags hut or prison for situations I really could just run in the theatre of the mind. So I have been trying to learn to just say no to maps. As hard a pill that is to swallow, I believe it pays off:

  • If you have multiple maps you need to switch between there is a chance this could break immersion in the game. If your a DM with players anything like mine, who have been enduring extended lockdowns and have lacked sufficient social interaction for too long the slightest distraction can result in conversations going down wierd random tangents!
  • Something going wrong! I was once told along time ago, when designing or creating something, anything you add, increases the liklihood of something going wrong. If you add a map, your adding the chance of something going wrong to your session! Seems broad and vague statement but I think it is a good principle to stick by, because 90% of the time your players won’t know what’s going on anyway!
  • Players fixate on the minutia of tactics. Here is an example: I was using a fantastic Two Minute Tabletop map. It was amazingly detailed, multilayered, and had all sorts of interesting knooks and crannies. I didn’t spot one particular cranny that allowed the players to get the jump on a hag in the middle of a ritual. The cranny wasn’t the issue though, the issue was that half the players had ignored the cranny, gone on to learn the where-abouts of the hag and found the door to the ritual room. The other half of the party had discovered the cranny and began to argue with the other half about tactics on stopping the hag. Now this problem is more a product of my amateur DM’ing skills than one to do with the map, but had I not used the map it wouldn’t have occured in the first place. But then again I suppose the adult way to approach this kind of problem is learn and improve as a DM rather than blame the map. A bad tradesman blames his tools!

The above list make maps seem like a truely terrible idea for a campaign. They are not, often issues are more the product of DM confidence/competence, and there are certainly moments when the use of a map is recommended, for example:

  • Large numbers of enemies. It can be a nightmare tracking the location of a small horde of creatures. Having a map can really help minimise the stress of remembering where they all are.
  • New/learning players can struggle visualising a setting or encounter. It can also help them learn how all their different character actions or abilities work.
  • Environmental factors. A good map will very quickly inform the players and DM what obvious environmental factors there are, such as cover or difficult terrain.
  • Immersion. Maps can help the players imagine the setting and the environment. It can also help the DM describe some items. For example in your map there is a statue you may not describe in your telling of the scene. It could prompt the players to ask an NPC about it.

So for the conclusion, I’m going to take all my witterings and synthesize it into a workable statement:

Only use a map when it ADDS to the encounter. Don’t use one “just because”. It should enhance gameplay and immersion and not detract from the experience, and ultimately… if in doubt, don’t!

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