Monday, November 21, 2011

Double Edged Maps

I love maps in RPG products. There’s something utterly compelling to me about detailed maps of things and places that don’t exist. They’re a joy to look at, and they’re fantastically information-dense. You can derive a lot of meaning about relationships and tensions in a setting just by studying a map and considering how people get form point A to Point B, or wondering how people in that mountain kingdom get crops, and how that impacts their relationship with the folks on those rolling plains next door. To this day, I have a huge fondness for Sunndi (a section of Greyhawk), despite never having actually played in it, because I really spent a lot of time zoomed in on that section of the map, thinking about it.

I want to make that love very clear, because I’m about to say something that seems to contradict it. When I see an RPG product with a huge map of the world, I immediately flinch and worry about the quality of the game. It is, to me, a red flag.

See, to me, a map is a promise. It shows me what’s going to be important to the game, and if you give me a world map, then I’m going to think that the game operates at a global level, and this is a problem when it does not. If the game has a narrower focus (as most do - truly global games are rare) then not only have I been handed a bait and switch, but I have also been handed a great deal of extraneous data. That might be annoying, but not merit a red flag, except for one other issue: It makes me wonder what the designer was thinking. That is, if they don’t understand what their game is about well enough to scale the map appropriately, what else is off base? It’s a brown M&M.

This is not to say that all large maps are bad. A large, detailed map is entirely appropriate for games of a certain scale, and I don’t begrudge them it. In fact, I think it’s pretty easy to spot the game/map mismatches if you look closely. And it’s fun to look for, since it also helps you see the games that really, really understand what their map was for. To that end, I want to call out a fantastic post by John Harper about what makes maps really fly in Apocalypse World, and add a big thumbs up to it. This is what a map should do for your game, and if it doesn’t, ask yourself why not.


  1. The John Harper link sounds neat but doesn't work for me. I think it might be a special blogger reference to the post or the like rather than the post itself.

  2. A recent discussion on exploration in RPG had me remembering the fun involved in Source of the Nile, a boardgame which featured a map of the outline of Africa with the interior blank dry-erase hexes. Terrain (and inhabitants and possible resources) was determined randomly (feeding from the surrounding terrain). You knew where the major river mouths were (and the outflow determined the minimum length of the river and tributaries (the catchment). And the coastal cities where expeditions were likely to start. But the rest of the map was blank.

    There are so many unwritten stories waiting to be told in that blank map. Not just the stories of the players as they fill in those blank places, but also the gamemaster as they make sense of the random rolls.

    [One fun part of Source of the Nile is that if the explorer dies whilst on expedition (and before reporting his discoveries back in London), the part of the map he discovered gets erased...]

  3. @Rev That was also the kind of brilliant part of the old X1: Isle of Dread adventure. One of the player props was a map of the coastline, with most of the inland hexes blanked out. It's a great example of how a map can be bigger than the known play area and be an essential contribution to the game.

    Now, the interesting contrast is between the random generation and the pre-existing terrain laid out in the GM's map of the Isle. Some part of me likes the idea of randomness more, as something that captures a real spirit of exploration. Filling in hexes that the GM has already filled in requires a much more careful balance to help keep things from feeling like an exercise.

  4. The difference is indeed quite qualitative, when even the gamemaster doesn't know what's out there when it's random. Back in the day, when random encounter charts were de rigeur for D&D, half the fun for the gamemaster was working out why the encounter had happened.

    This was part and parcel of the encounter process. After all, if you had a group of 1st level characters encounter a randomly generated adult red dragon it doesn't make much sense for there to be an immediate fight between them - since there is no challenge or story in that - but consider the possibilities inherent if they see that same red dragon on the wing, hunting for wild game (or cattle in civilised areas). After the characters emerge from wherever they hid, you know that there is a lair of an adult red dragon somewhere around here (within easy flying range). Perhaps the characters might come back later when they feel capable of taking on the dragon, but it also can raise other questions. What if there are villages encountered in the area later on? Are they taxed by the dragon? Have they invested in asbestos roofs and large iron spikes?

    Encounter lots of dwarves? Obviously the area is of value to dwarves. Mines! Iron? Gold? Jewels? How are they feeding themselves? Hmmm. Is there money to be made running caravans - food for metal? Etcetera.

    The fact that what lies out there is truly unknown to gamemasters adds to the excitement and is easily communicated to the players. The added advantage is that events come as a consequence of the character's actions and encounters, so in a very real sense the campaign is about them.

    Although it does take a lot of work to properly set of the random tables for a campaign (both encounter and terrain generation), and the gamemaster has to have a few ideas of the general structure he wants to take with these unknown lands when creating the random tables. And one should always readily include random set pieces (more traditional adventures) in the campaign.


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