Guest Blogger Article, 2/10/2010

Cartography 101: Tips for making your game maps accurate and attractive.

by Johnn Four

This week’s article is all about maps! And it comes to us once again from that master of RPG advice, Johnn Four. In this first part in a three part installment, Johnn talks about Lines.

Maps Have Three Parts – Part 1: Lines

When mapping, I tend to just focus on the corridors, rooms, streets, caverns, and buildings. However, every map has more than just these areas; each has three zones in your design control. Next map you build, think of these zones and how you can change things up to be fun and interesting for your gaming.

Zone 1: The Lines

Most of the time, the lines represent walls and boundaries, and these things have shapes and textures. Lines are often hastily sketched on battlemaps and player maps, and then overlooked during descriptions. GMs draft their lines without much thought for mapping in-game.

Beef Up Description

When drawling map lines in dungeons and civilized areas, take a moment to think about what the lines represent, what the PCs would see and touch. Make notes about this directly on maps, with arrows, for easy reference. Use these notes to feed your descriptions of these areas.

Players groove off extra details like these to become immersed, and the little bit of time taken for this counteracts some of the hyper-efficiency of some game systems where it seems like you just get whisked from one battle to the next without much breathing room – without much living.

Use Evocative Materials

Notice how it gets boring telling the players the same descriptions over and over? “You are in a 10’x10′ inn room. It has the usual furnishings.”

Don’t give up. Instead, get creative. Fantasy offers so many options, thanks to strange materials, magic, slavery, potentially infinite project lives, divinity, and esoteric knowledge. Get yourself out of modern, scarcity-based thinking. Think big. Think wild.

* Gems
* Precious metals
* Magically hardened wood
* Strangely transparent – wood, stone, metal
* Alive
* Evil, demonic, or cursed
* Liquid
* Gaseous

Check out this rock and mineral directory [http://www.enchantedlearning.com/geology/rocks/glossary/] for more ideas. Bend anything from this web page to your imagination.

Faster Mapping

Cavern maps in modules are a pet peeve of mine. So is sloppy battle-mapping. Both involve such sins as partial squares, lines you can’t possibly recreate on player maps, and useless spaces.

Avoid Partial Spaces

If your game system has rules for partial battlemap squares, then this is not an issue. For my game of choice, though, you are screwed. What is the movement cost of half a square? Third? Eighth? Can a PC fit into such spaces? Can a large creature use those spaces?

If your game system rules only support full squares, then just map with full squares. Otherwise, it’s confusing and problematic.

Some designs might require partial squares. Ok. I support this. If you want to create rooms with interesting shapes, or decide builders would have used the shortest, straightest paths for connector spaces, ok.

Be prepared for interaction in these spaces though. Whip up some house rules, perhaps, or talk over general guidelines with players. One player thinking those spaces are just for show, while another uses them for advantage, creates group friction.

Take your average cavern map, for example. A tiny creature can fit into almost all the folds and creases, as can various rewards and other game elements. Just not the PCs. Unless they reach in. Are they allowed? I’ve played and GM’d games where it’s assumed those spaces were of no consequence.

Make Mapping Easier

Draw lines that are quick and easy to reproduce during sessions for players or by players, for battlemaps or progress maps.

For example, cavern maps are killers to reproduce. So, what ends up happening is the player map or the battlemap just gets rounded off. Fancy, curly walls and passages become straight or jagged lines. Who has the time and patience to turn an 8.5″ x 11″ map into a huge map for minis by hand during a session?

If the players aren’t going to see the benefit of complex lines and maps, then do yourself a favour and make your lines simple to recreate during sessions.

Same goes with weird shapes and complex areas on maps. Anything you can do to make in-game mapping faster and easier on you, the better. Keep maps simple, make descriptions and encounters rich.

What Goes On The Lines?

The lines themselves aren’t empty. They have strange inhabitants often overlooked during design. These inhabitants get quickly added on or neglected.

Entrances and Exits

Entrances and exits sometimes have strategic value. They restrict movement or enhance it. Do you want a villain to escape easily? It would be a shame that an ill-placed portal traps an important NPC. Remember: Dead ends eliminate choices and stop progress. Plan exits with pacing and exploration in mind.

Notice how the area around a door needs to be kept clear? This can carve up your game space in undesirable ways. For example, placing a door in a narrow, end part of a room makes that area unsuitable for furnishings and interactive bits. Or, placing a door in the middle of a line might split a space into two, limiting other design and encounter decisions.

Strategic exit and entrance placement helps guide trap and hazard placement. For example, a defile determines movement, and traps can be more precise with better triggering success. Traps in high traffic areas are hazards to the locals, though, so consider hidden entrances for them to use, or use traps that have better precision. A pit in front of the kitchen door means all the orcs go hungry.


Be prepared for the doorknob question. This trips me up often. Can the entrance be locked? If so, how? From what direction? Check out this sequence of DMing mishap:

DM: You come before a door. It has glowing runes on it.

Group: What is the door made out of?

DM: Wood with bands of metal for reinforcement.

Group: How does the door open? Can it be locked?

DM: The door has hinges, and there is no keyhole. It’s probably barred. [Looks at map. Realizes it has to be barred from the players’ side to make sense.]

DM: There is a length of wood nearby, resting against the wall.

Group: Great! We bar the door and camp out here for the night.

DM: Damn you dirty apes!

Yeah. That’s happened to me. Many times, in many configurations. Logic traps for everything from door location to door material to locking mechanism. One giant DM hazard if you’re not careful.

Light Fixtures

Light fixtures are another interesting element. Their regular placement might create a pattern that you can interrupt as a clue, perhaps to point out a secret door or important furnishing.

How are the lanterns, torches, or other light source fixed to the wall? If you are planning to use darkness for effect, be wary of placing portable light sources without thought. If you have cunning space-based challenges, such as chasms or traps, be wary of fixtures that grant advantage, such as rope tie-off spots (better yet, place these with intention as potential solutions to such puzzles).

The Lines Are A Lie

Lines narrow vision and creativity. They trick you into thinking there is less in a location than there actually is. During games, I become too focused on the path, direction, and distance. The lines are a lie. There’s more to any space than just its boundaries. Read the next part of this series: Maps Have Three Parts – Part 2: Adventuring Spaces.

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