Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Clickable Map

Ok, so this is the overland map for the video game, Dragon Age:As you might expect, you click on one of the little squares to go there. The images in the icons have meanings (town, dungeon and so on - that one in the upper right is "make camp") but the base idea is pretty simple. Predictably, there are a few other twists: the map changes over time for one, and when you click to go from point A to point B, there's a chance you may have an encounter along the way.

There are similar maps within cities and such, and it works pretty well, but what I want to really look at is how this interacts with tabletop play. See, I think there's an instinctive resistance to this kind of model in play because it's so obviously and (seemingly) arbitrarily restrictive. We treasure our broad, open ended maps with the idea that if that spot right there is of particular interest to us, then by god that's what we can set out for.

The problem is that, in practice, things end up looking a lot like this map. There are points of interest the players are aware of, and more of them are revealed over time, and those are where they go too and from, encountering things along the way. The only real difference is on those occasions where the players might actually "pick a spot" that doesn't already have an icon, but when that happens, there are two possible outcomes:

1. The GM already has something prepped, so effectively it's a hidden icon.
2. The GM needs to make something up, effectively creating a new icon.

I like both options. Stuff like that is why you have a GM and not just a computer.

And, heck, it's not like this is unprecedented. Replace every icon on that map with a number and you have the map from pretty much every adventure ever. The difference between that and the video game is sleight of hand, and I wonder if we might be better off dispensing with it.

Anyway, this is obviously not applicable for all games. If you are actually interested in hard core exploration with full on Oregon Trail dysentery and inventory management, then obviously you want an open map because you're in it for the _process_. But for the rest of us, perhaps acknowledging the role of structure can help free us up to focus on whichever part of play we're actually interested in.


  1. I would be incredibly proud of my DMing if I could run exactly the campaign from Dragon Age.

  2. I've started doing this with most of my campaigns. But, I look at it more from a cinematic point of view. Jumping from point A to point B is just a scene change. (If you're playing pulp, a red line drawn on the map is mandatory.) If I feel it is necessary or flavorful, I might include a travel montage. In some cases, I might play through a scene or two during the travel, explicitly for character development (Willow springs to mind as using these scenes well).

  3. Have you encountered Maelstrom Storytelling? It had an interesting mechanism in that places (and other things) were connected to each other (and descriptors) by relationships.

    So for example the main city of Diodet has a strong relationship to a river ("Diodet is always on the Warmouth River, near where it enters the South Sea"), a strong relationship to the Anterior region ("Diodet is always in the Anterior"), a mild relationship with good weather ("the weather over Diodet is mild and fair, with little rain and a long spring and fall"), and a weak relationship with the Empire ("there is an affinity with the Imperium which generates the studies and research of the Empire, and a strong fascination with all things Imperial").

    Moving amongst strong relationships was easy (for example roads tend to forge strong relationships). Whereas mild and weak connections were more transitory. But it also meant that, for example, that sometimes a specific path had to be travelled to find something or someone, and sometimes it was impossible to travel back along the path, because the relationship was hidden from that side. I always found this idea intriguing, so your map became a weighted directed graph (of the mathematical structure kind, not the pretty chart type of graph). It was also kind of cool because it connected directly with the skill system (which used the same idea of relationships to describe the character and their abilities). It emulated a very non-symbolic approach to a fantasy world (whereas we modern people are literate in cartography and generally have little problem reading charts and maps, this approach emulated a less literate approach quite well, where one navigates by landmarks).

    And as players adventure in the world they create new relationships and extend the basic mapping of geography, plot, people, and politics.

    [Of course it helped that the world of Maelstrom Storytelling had been shattered by some catastrophe so maps weren't reliable at all, but it still makes an excellent method of building a world. Although they were later forced to produce a map in a later supplement (which described the above-mentioned city in more detail) because people weren't used to this type of abstraction.]


    I was having a very similar conversation yesterday and decided my Map-a-Day project for today would be based on that conversation.

    Here's what I proposed:

    We think we want the wide open spaces map, but usually do not need it. The map could be a blank piece of paper with a dot "you are here." Only when the players get a mission (whether through GM fiat, plot, sandboxing, etc.) does another point appear. And then, despite the wide open spaces, the players will take a relatively direct route.

    I asked: Why not use the Diaspora-style cluster generator? I answered: we want terrain details. So? We can represent those on the connecting lines!

    Thick connecting lines show ease of travel. Thin lines show difficult routes. Each line would be labeled something like "forest, paved road," indicating that as one traveled along that route, that's what one would encounter.

    Then, we can do what Marshall suggested: just narrate what lies along the lines.

    If you want there to be a point of interest along a travel route, then that point should be its own node with its own travel routes. Perhaps it doesn't show up until the characters acquire more information. But if it's just a scenic mile marker on the route, it should be an entry along the route-line.

    Did that make any sense?

  5. Someone once upon a time on RPG.NET took the default setting of Reign and designed it as a flow chart that looked more like a map from an old king's quest/zork game, where you had squares that connected to each other, rather than a map in and of itself.

  6. Sore spot: I had Maelstrom, but loaned it to someone and never got it back. I have a lonely copy of Dacartha Prime sitting on my shelf.

    And Sam? That map sounds awesome.

  7. Rob - if you want to see the map (yesterday's is nodule, today was a "real" version of the same map) let me know and I can send it along somehow.

  8. Interestingly, mid-high level D&D 4E play, once you have ready access to various linked portal rituals and addresses, ends up very similar to this for travel. At least it did for our Paragon tier game, although the plane jumping going on in our Epic tier game isn't that different.


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