Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Useful and Non-Useful Maps: Three General Principles

You see a lot of maps being shared in various online groups and forums. Many of them are excellent. Not all of them are, though. This post is offered in the way of constructive critique for all those kind souls who share their work with others.

Three General Principles of Usefulness in Maps

Maps must be for things that are difficult to envisage in your head, difficult to explain verbally, and difficult to sketch in 30 seconds on a scrap of paper. You sometimes see maps that look a bit like this:


It ought to go without saying really, but in such a scenario a map is not really necessary. Everyone can imagine a fallen tree and 6 goblins on one side and 4 on the other attacking, and the DM can readily explain it to the players. If it becomes necessary to work out who is positioned where, it is trivially easy and fast to sketch it all out on a scrap of paper.


Make Use of White Space. White spaces on maps, whether inside chambers or outside, are useful for communicating information. Numbers to look stuff up on a key involve faffing around and are best avoided if possible. See below:


The number 6 directing the reader to a key is more of a hassle than the others. Communicate info even by shorthand in the actual spaces on the map to aid comprehension at the table.

Maps of Towns Are Frequently Not All That Useful. If it's important because it may be the likely site of a battle or chase, or it contains lairs or dungeons the PCs will have to escape from or navigate their way to, then a map of a town can be handy. Otherwise you simply don't need detailed town maps at the table. If the PCs want to go to a certain inn, library, whatever, then they can just say they're going there and go there. If a random encounter takes place, you can sketch a few streets around it.

7 comments:

  1. I wonder if the proliferation of useless RPG maps owes something to the use of miniatures. In that sense, it might be a bit of a hangover from RPGs' wargaming origins.

    While I'm keen on the use of miniatures in some games (especially Tales of Blades and Heroes, which I've run with great success for my kids and their friends), I increasingly think that they're a constraining factor in all kinds of ways: cramping scales by limiting things to the size of the tabletop; limiting the GM's imagination to the available models (even if subliminally and irrationally); and entailing a huge amount of NPCs and stuff (e.g. for a fight in a crowded marketplace).

    Tales of Blades and Heroes - an RPG that draws on a very cleverly designed skirmish wargame - gets round all this by working from the miniatures up; you pick a model and design a character to fit it, rather than the customary opposite process. But for D&D-style games, the use of miniatures rather highlights the game's roots in a long-outdated wargame - obsolete maps and all.

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    1. Yeah, I never use minis. I despise them in RPGs for exactly the reasons you suggest. It's like willingly putting on a straightjacket for your imagination.

      I do scrawl a lot of maps during play on scraps of paper to show what positions people and objects are in when it's necessary to do so.

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    2. Being able to play fully without a grid was one of the main draws that had me drop E6 Pathfinder for B/X.

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  2. The proliferation of maps may just be because they're an easy product to produce and charge premium prices for, and the miniatures-focussed style of recent D&D editions has meant that a lot of playwers were brought into the hobby believing that maps are as much a necessity as dice. Not that earlier ages are without the excess, even Chaosium liked to pad out it's sourcebooks with pointless maps.

    I'm actually in a period of experimenting with maps at the game table again, having experienced a few games as a player where the aid did a lot to focus play (in particular, ironically, a town map). But I'm using them sparingly, because I don't want players to look at all situations as tactical ones.

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    1. Yeah, I think that is quite astute.

      My own feeling of dissatisfaction with maps, particularly town maps, came on early. When I was a teenager I remember playing in a game of Shadowrun set in a future version of my home town. Somehow one of us had got hold of a photocopied street map, and we spent the entire session plotting out journeys, ambushes, chase sequences and so on using it. It basically just became a war game.

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  3. What's your take on the need for miniatures in crunchy games, versus their irrelevance in narrative ones?

    My group and I played Only War (part of the WH40k Dark Heresy line) and while we didn't use miniatures, we might as well have, considering the absurd amount of time I spent making gridded maps. Now that we play Dungeon World, we never need more than a cursory sketch for the most complex battlefields.

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    1. I have been in crunchy games in which minis were used, but I dunno...I suppose I've never seen the advantage over just scribbling on scraps of paper to show people's positions. Minis look more elegant but there is a big buy-in (literally).

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