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Maps in games

June 21, 2019

I’ve been thinking a bit about prep, and maps.  I think there’s a value in thinking about how maps get used in your games, whether that’s “How will I use this map for this campaign?” or “I’m designing a whole game, and how do we use maps in the broadest sense?”

Maps as setting builders

A lot of games, I might use a map as a thing to define setting – the map helps us get an idea of where the fiction is happening, and, say, where characters come from.  But, that’s about the limit of the map’s usage – we never refer to it for travel or worry about distance or time or anything.

It’s mostly to orient the characters in a way – “Oh, my hometown is next to this forest, I’m probably familiar with hunting at least a little.  There’s no rivers around, so I probably have never seen anything larger than a stream or a creek and a pond.”

Depending on your game, the map might be “unreliable” – as in, rather than a representation of how the fictional game world IS, it might be a representation of how the society or characters in that fictional world perceive it… “Here there be dragons” is very different between a world where there are actual dragons about, vs. a world where the characters just believe it must be true because no one has traveled that far.

Maps for situations

If actual travel and placement on the map matters at all, but you’re not bothering with specific measurements, this is using maps for situation.  This is how I usually run most games – the map is sort of a vague “How close is trouble and how much trouble do I have to deal with to get somewhere?” without bogging down into times, travel specifics, etc.

The nice thing about this style of game is that you only really need to mark the map for interesting places, and not worry as much about specifics.

Maps as mechanics

Maps as mechanics deal with actual travel times or how difficult travel might be.  Aside from large world maps, this also includes grid maps for combat – distance and difficult terrain also applies, just in the most immediate way.

The specificity assists in creating specific strategies and choices – where to be, how to get there, how long it will take.  It also means you have to take design into consideration, otherwise you end up with large sections of the map unused or creating types of play you’re not interested in.   Also, the players need to find this interesting as well, otherwise they’ll just consider it tedious and not consider the choices it offers at all (“charge straight ahead”, etc.).

“Map making” maps

And of course, the classic dungeon crawl where the players make a map as they play.  In this case, the “actual map” – the one the GM is using to describe the world, is the map in play as hidden information, and it depends on the players to accurately note and draw out their own map as a reference.  For people into this, it can be quite rewarding, and for people who are not, it is the opposite.  It’s really important to let people know if your game expects this up front.

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