Mastering as Game Master: Maps Episode.003

You continue down the stone corridor with the sounds of water echoing off in the distance.  Up ahead, you see a turn to the right and one to the left.  You choose the right tunnel, which continues for about 60 feet before turning left.  No…left.  No, you turned right then left.  You drew two rights.  Right.  Like that.  This tunnel is about 120 feet long before it splits into three tunnels.  No, the tunnel is a bit longer than that.  Bit longer.  Right there.  Basically 12 squares.  Well I know that makes the tunnel run into a part of the dungeon you were just in, but this dungeon is impossible to map.  I told you that when we started.

I’ll confess as a graphic artist, I have a weakness for beautifully drawn maps.  From line drawings on graph paper to fully colored cartography illustrations, they bring out our imaginations of adventure, exploration and discovery.  They can also help clarify or paint an accurate picture in your mind of a place that isn’t immediately in front of you.  It’s been a staple in tabletop role playing games since the start of it all.


RPGs can be split into the kind that use miniatures and the kind that don’t.  Although a well painted mini looks outstanding on the table and makes one appreciate the artistic skill behind it, there are draw backs to using them that are still out for debate.

I have played in a game that included Dwarven Forge terrain once, and I enjoyed it because of its rich visualization, but I was not using my imagination at all as we explored the underground cavern.  Why should I?  The visual was laid out in front of me.  It did assure there was no confusion on positioning at any time, however.  We knew exactly where everyone was and how many monsters remained alive.  When the traps were sprung, it was neat to see the miniature boulder roll down the ramp.  However, it felt like I was playing a very expensive board game rather than a role playing game.  It felt more tactical than imaginative.


Some GMs enjoy bringing their grid battle map to their game session with markers to create the top-down view of the players’ progression on the fly.  Others enjoy bringing an already drawn battle map and reveal it all to the players at once to save time.  Then there is the “classic” style where one person is assigned the duties of drawing the map as they go.

There have been a couple of games I have sat in where mapping was requested by the rest of the players, and I just shook my head and wondered “why?”  If you were to travel through a dungeon or some underground fortress, would you bother to bring a piece of paper and pencil and try to draw the area without any form of surveying tools?  Of course not.  You’d walk through the tunnels with trepidation and not bother with it.  So why bother while playing?

At times players will come across a dead end or room that requires some backtracking to get through.  If the dungeon is so complex they need to point to a specific place on a map and inform the GM they want to go back there, then they should alternatively take notes.

“Room 1: Large room with statue in center.  Mysterious humming sound coming from it.”

In the scope of the game, it doesn’t matter if you trace your finger across the map, room to room, until you point to the room you’re wanting to travel to.  Simply saying, “Okay I want to backtrack to the room with the large statue in it,” is sufficient.  If the party comes across a split in the corridor or an alternative route, make a note of it.  “Corridor with 2 turns, we went left.”  The GM will have the map hidden behind his screen.  He can make a mark on his map that is “Split #1” so the players can refer to it later.  It’s irrelevant that the corridor to get there turns 3 times and goes up a 15 foot incline.

The other option for the artistic GMs who enjoy map making is to create the entire area before the session, keeping out the secrets.  Depending on how large the map is on paper, one could even go to the trouble of having an equally large paper with a hole cut out, showing only small areas, and moving the paper around.  Personally I would recommend breaking the map up in smaller sections and having smaller sheets of paper.  I don’t want to reveal the large ominous room on the other side of the dungeon that is clearly where they should go.  Instead, I’ll have sections, perhaps on the back of index cards, and lay them down piece by piece as they make their way.  I seldom use miniatures because I believe role playing is about creating images in your mind.

One of my favorite D&D map makers is Dyson.  He has an excellent (and long running) blog over at Dyson’s Dodecahedron.  In it, he explains various techniques that GM’s can use to enhance their maps.  If you are a GM who doesn’t have a lick of artistic ability, then following some of his suggestions can really help along with bringing out flavor in your maps.  Pulling out a large map you drew of some fortress your players are going to storm this evening can be very satisfying (and you’ll get plenty of compliments for the effort….or you dock XP).

Whatever you do as a GM, either don’t allow map making or don’t stop the game to correct any confusion they may have.  Part of that confusion they have would be trying to get through a winding dungeon.  Map making without any surveying tools is inaccurate and time consuming.  The characters are bound to get lost at some point, and that can be part of the adventure!

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.

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