Saturday, March 17, 2018

Random Culture Generator Part 1 (LSotN Design Post - Basic Thoughts)

It's been over two weeks ... this blog needs some words! Something I have to tackle at some point for the game I'm writing, Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, is a Random Culture Generator. It's something rarely done for role-playing games. Let's find out why. But before we get into that, I'd like to take a look at what I already wrote on the subject and where I'm at with all this.

Ideas about culture

First, check out this post from 2016 reflecting on a post from 2014 (yeah, I'm slow processing like that). I'll also loosely take ideas from Jordan B. Peterson's book Maps of Meaning (or rather, the 2016 lecture about the topic, which I highly recommend checking out). You won't need all this to read the post, but documentation is everything and it's good reading/listening.

One might think the good thing with settings for role-playing games that lean heavily on history is that culture comes easy. It might be somewhat true, as it seems somewhat more archaic compared to what we call "culture" today. Easier, in a way. However, as soon as you look a bit closer you'll find that on the one hand cultures, even 2000 years ago and earlier, had been very diverse. On the other hand, humans will always be humans and we can recognize that over time.

So there is patterns that will always surface and variants that might go in all different kinds of directions, depending on the circumstances. You can define those people exploring, recognizing and reproducing those patterns in an abstract way as artists. And it is an important distinction in as afar as it explains how art seems to be what lasts (here's a good talk on creativity and art).
It also gives those old stories and fairy tales an easy credibility. They touch on something. That said, it's crucial to keep the "abstract" part of it in mind, just as important it is to recognize that our ancestors found ways to comprehend and communicate what they (what we) are. Psychology and biology have proven all of that nowadays, interestingly enough.

There is evidence that fairy tales are very, very old ... [source]
I had a dispute once with a guy about how I believed that there's ultimately no difference between believing that a thunderstorm is the gods making some noise or believing whatever scientific explanation we have come up with. He thought the idea was atrocious. I didn't know then what I know now, but I defended my case (and lost a friend).
Today I'd just point towards the research and advice him to make up his own opinion on the subject. I think it all comes down to pragmatism: it's a philosophy stating that you don't need to know the whole "truth" to construe a working theory for anything.
Here's an example: there's this famous cave found in Turkey that emits deadly fumes and had been worshiped as an entrance into Hades way back in the past. You'll notice that both the archaic and the scientific approach will yield somewhat the same results: they'll tell a story about how dangerous the cave is. The pragmatic part is, that you can tell it anyway you want as long as the result is what you intended it to be.
Reconstruction of the temple at the entrance to Hades! [source]
At their core, cultures are formed around this thinking. We can use that for our games.

OD&D and 10 year olds (intermission)

When D&D came out in the early 70s, it became hugely popular and to a huge degree with very young players. The reasons for this are very much described above: D&D described the world in abstract patterns and even without fully grasping the rules, the concepts themselves are so true to how we analyze, deconstruct and communicate the world around us (brilliantly so, I might add), that the success cannot be a surprise.

I've heard people claiming they had been as young as 8 when they first started playing. I had been 12 when I DMed my first game. Now, after roughly 25 years of playing role-playing games, it's somewhat hard to look back and understand how we could grasp the game back then, being so young and all that.

Again, it can be explained with pragmatism. It's how the mind explores the world in simulations. We all know this and we all know how good children are at it, too. So I'd say, children can grasp the game for those reasons at an almost instinctive level.
Found this great pic over at reddit .. [source]
I once drove with a guy from Leipzig to Ulm. We'd talked about role-playing games, as he hadn't the first idea about it to begin with and I like talking about it. We talked a bit about the basics and he recognized them from a game his 6 year old son played with his friends called "Level". They had a game master that gave a premise (like "you are stuck on an island") and the players had to negotiate their way out of the situation.

They didn't use dice or anything, but rules seemed to emerge naturally as they played along (established from the shared narrative, as I understood it). They'd been camping once and he had an opportunity to experience it first hand (as a spectator, as he had been cooking) and he described the game as fun and creative and as very social.
That's anecdotal, of course, but there are many, many stories like that out there, but it seems to underline the connection I described above: we explain the world in stories and we explore it in simulated stories. D&D is a game about exploration and children grasp that on a very archaic level.

If you look for any "deep" meaning in role-playing games, this is where it's at.


Here's a sentence from that lecture linked above that stuck with me: " You don't resurrect your father, you become the puppet of death." This needs context, of course. The basic idea here is that across time and cultures we have an understanding of duality in the world. Yin and yang, male and female, chaos and order ... it's very well represented in the three-fold alignment system in D&D, actually.
However, you'll have the same in almost all religions and pantheons in some form or another. Tiamat and Abzu are the oldest we know, but you'll find variations of that theme all over the place once you start looking. It's one of those patterns that keeps turning up. The two concepts interacting here are chaos (female, yin, nature, ...) and order (male, yang, culture ...). It's powerful stuff.
The individual and the world ... [source]
To bring the male/female aspect into it is necessary to understand fundamental functions of the genders in human society. Females are allegory for natural selection, so that's the nature part covered. Males are create the conditions and hierarchies in which the selection takes place, and that's culture.

Again, very abstract concepts condensed to pragmatic theories to make interaction work. However, read the stories that stayed around for thousands of years (pick any source, really, the Bible, the Tao Te King, the Edda, Grimm's fairy tales ... you name it) and you'll find them telling you about life in all the detail you can imagine.

Another pattern you'll see emerge on a regular basis is the fluidity of all things. The gods fight and love and betray and create and everything has consequences. It's what that quote above refers to: the father figure represents culture and people have to keep it alive (actually "resurrect" it, as in, making it a conscious act) or they'll become "puppets of death", which is another way of saying "governed by chaos".

It's a great example of the dynamics of culture, as it shows what happens when culture/order is neglected: chaos will rear its ugly head. It could be argued that the rise of fascism in the 20th Century is exactly that.

The third prominent pattern is the hero facing all kinds of challenges to overcome chaos. I that sense the knight facing the dragon could be an allegory for a man courting a woman or a woman facing mental illness or a child facing a bully (among other things, in all kinds of varying scales).
Heroes are agents of order, fighting chaos in an ever changing world to achieve some sort of balance ...

Things that go bump in the night

A word on monsters in that regard. Humans basically think of their surroundings in 3 categories: (1) safe territory (order, routine, home), (2) risks outside the comfort zone (all the things we know we shouldn't do for reasons) and (3) the unknown (chaos).
Monsters are traditionally situated in the unknown. It's the first thing you imagine when you wake up at night in the dark because of some noise. The first thing we imagine is a chimera of possible dangers. Then we start exploring, maybe by listening if the noise occurs again, then by turning on the light, and lastly by getting up and looking for the origin of the noise. It's a simple example of facing your fear, too.
This is all monsters ... [source]
But this applies to the big pictures as well. States work like that, institutions and religion. It's why we have borders, it's the reason for cultural distinction through, say, dialects or local cuisine. Because we can only accept a limited amount of shared safe territory before we decline to risks (the barbarians beyond the border, for instance) and the unknown (climate change, maybe, epidemics, the threat of terrorism ... everything we only have a vague notion of).

Risks and the unknown needn't be bad. So it might be risky to ski down a mountain, but the prestige might be worth it. And the unknown? That's the dragon from mythology and if you can overcome that, there's always a hoard, right (analogue to the idea of fighting terrorism to gain freedom, maybe)? But you might also break your leg skiing down that hill (low risk, low reward) or the dragon might kill you (high risk, high reward).
And here's another thing: people can be destructive forces as well. Agents of chaos, monsters. It's all part of the whole thing ...

Generating culture randomly

All this describes the dynamics of culture. It's the pattern we need to copy to create a credible culture from scratch or even on the fly. Ideally with one roll, right? The pieces we have are the duality of all things, the strive for balance through agents of order, the limits of cultural perception (or range?) categorized as safe, risky and unknown, and the circumstances surrounding and shaping a specific cultural entity over time.

Building something like that is what Part 2 will be about. Lost Songs already has a Random Territory Generator and a Random Narrative Generator (that works exactly for the reasons described above because it is based on fairy tales) that produce entities of chaos and order on different levels, so all I need to do is bring all of that together in a meaningful way.

Next time.

I think I need to close this by stressing that I have no interest at all to have a political discussion about any of the above. I intent to use this for my elf games, yes, and I believe that the assumptions I base the designs on are scientifically proven as much as they are rooted in our psyche. I might be wrong, but even if so, what does it matter if it works enough to make for a better game. Pragmatism, right? If it works, it's good enough.

Might not be true, works nonetheless ... [source]

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Don't pay the DM, pay the service (slightly NSFW, no pun intented)

Time to say something about the subject of "DMs for hire", me thinks. Not that I have made up my mind or anything, it's just something every DM growing up in a culture informed by western civilization will have day-dreamed about at some point and you can literally here the grinding of teeth when you read sentences like "Yeah, sure, if someone can make a buck with it, more power to them!". I was about to not publish this, but a friend told me to do it nonetheless. I also thought I could cut this in pieces and publish it over 4 parts, but decided against it. So here we go, have it all at once and RAW ...

There is supposedly two ways to see the activity of running a game for others: it's either a sport or it is art (could be both, gasp). Both sides have implications and real life solutions. Let's get into that.

You don't pay a referee to decide your way ...

Or at least you shouldn't. Okay, okay, sports is such a bad example because of all the corruption that plagues the high end of it. Fifa, anyone? IOC? It's a mess, right? However, I had an interview once with a trainer of mid-tier football club in Berlin and we had talked a bit about why he did what he did (which involved a 40 hours week at work and then another 30+ hours a week to train the club's youth without proper compensation) and it had been eye opening for several reasons.

First of all, work in clubs is not done for money most of the time (I'm excluding the big clubs here, because corruption, see above), it's done for the benefit of the work. Children joining whatever kind of sports club will more likely than not have a real educational benefit from it: working in teams, learning to win and lose, fairness, empathy ... all good things to learn.

That trainer told me how he lead children through puberty, how often parents didn't care (on several levels) and how hard the fight for help and recognition is, even when it's about children. The popularity of a sport like football (in Germany) is just a vehicle to keep the boat afloat. Of course kids aspire to become football heroes, but it's the journey they take to get there that really benefits them.

I think this is a really important first point to stress here: the popularity of a sport will get people to play and support that sport. Not because they all are going to end up playing for a big club, earning the big bucks (because most of them won't), but because to be a part of something they admire and aspire to. It needs that kind of beacon, corrupt or not*.

The second lesson here is that many, many (many) people do club work for almost no compensation at all, regardless of how popular a past-time is (but getting less and less paid in the fringes). As a matter of fact, most people will pay some way or another to participate. Clubs have fees and those working for clubs or helping them pay with their time.

However, the play's the thing, right? So there are at least two types of people that get payed for their trouble (sometimes, mind you, not always) and that'd be trainers and referees. Actually, clubs will invest into their training so that they'll get the job done properly.

A job well done ... [source]
And that's the third point we can glean from this: learning to be a trainer or a referee is like getting a drivers license, you'll get certified that you are able to preform certain tasks with a certain level of expertise. That's not to say that you are good at it, that's to say you get the benefit of a doubt because you'll potentially do a good job but at least will do it within a defined and acknowledged spectrum.

I know this is tricky, because people will be people, but that is why rules are established. It ensures that referees will rule a fair game more often than not. It also ensures that they are left to their devices to do so. If you lose in an official game, there'll probably be good reasons for it, too. Rules are established to elevate the referee to a position where a player's (or spectator's) wish fulfillment is not dependent on the decisions the referee made. The referee is absolved because of the promise of fairness.

The pay is also always indirect. That is very crucial: those who benefit from the outcome of a sporting event (not only monetary, sometimes winning is enough) cannot be the ones paying the referee in a direct exchange of goods. Remember that, it'll be a recurring theme in this post.

The DM as performer? No!

A performer is, in my opinion, a hybrid between the sports and the art approach as it forces the role of the DM into a very specific purpose: that of an entertainer. It's not anymore about the benefits of playing the game for the experience it offers and instead to consume a joyride of sorts.

Look at that D6! [source]
Those jobs already exist. We have topless DMs out there, doing their thing for bachelor parties and what-not (at least requested, but surely found?), we have DMs in funny clothes and with sets of tools equivalent to what a hired clown or magician would bring to a party. Actually, it's worse than that. Keeping with the sports analogy above, it's the equivalent of a aging boxer offering staged fights for hire to milk his former popularity a little more.

I'm not saying this out of contempt, I'm saying this as an advice for caution. No one but the deluded will take that boxer for the real thing (or more than a sad shadow of the real thing). However, there is a real danger that we won't be that lucky for Gamemasters if role playing games get popular through venues like this.

Look at the DMs in contemporary pop culture and tell me they are doing the hobby a favor. Big Bang Theory? Just sad. Harmon's Quest? Funny at times, but just a vehicle for some egos. The list goes on, most of them really do not care about the game, they care about the entertainment.

The closest to something I could relate to was how Stranger Things had it, to be fair, and there is hope that there'll be more than that in the future (Freaks & Geeks was solid, too, just wasn't mainstream). But there's also a very real chance that dungeon masters will be seen as goof-balls instead of getting the respect a referee (for instance) would get because of popular shit like Big Bang Theory.

I'm not saying people shouldn't earn money that way. To each their own, but if done as a performer it should be clear that it is just mimicking the game in a way a theme park is mimicking adventure for cheap thrills. Sure has its place, sure isn't the real thing.

Role-Playing Games as media ...

Yeah, that again. I think it's important to see that aspect of it as well in that kind of light. The short of it is: you (usually) buy a book before you read it. Actually, you don't buy it to read it, you buy it to own it. Of course, reading is your intention in some way, but ultimately you buy it to have it around because the idea to read it somehow enticed you. At that point you don't even know if it is any good or if you you like it. You paid for the opportunity.

Now, I've worked in book-selling and one thing that happens really only on rare occasions is that people read a book (entirely or partly) only to bring it back because they didn't like it. It just isn't done (or if, it's frowned upon). Only the audacity of opinion could make people believe that the world orbits around them and needs to be formed towards their bidding ... In other words, it'd be a sign of bad character :)

Take movies. I've heard of people that tried to reclaim their money from the cinema after a bad movie, but try to buy a movie in a store and bring it back afterwards, saying something like "We didn't like that, we want our money back!". Wouldn't work. And even if someone could make this work, the intermediaries in those scenarios (the bookseller, the DVD store or the cinema) will not go and take the money back from the publisher or the author or the director, and so on.

Good advice ... [source]
There's actually a whole lot more to consider, to be fair, but the argument stands, you pay for the opportunity to get entertained, not for the guaranty.

There's also the whole player side to consider with role-playing games. They participate and each contribution helps shaping the game, for good or for worse. This at least gets tricky when considering that the DM is paid. However, computer games are very much like described above. No one goes to Blizzard to get their money back because other players didn't behave. It'd be ridiculous.

Playing role-playing games is using a medium, just like reading a book or watching a movie or playing a video game. Just like all the other mediums, there are different levels of involvement, it has the full spectrum from producing content to just consuming product, with all kinds of shades in between.

If you pay for any of that, regardless of the level of involvement you bring yourself to the table, you should only be able to pay for the opportunity to be entertained and you should be fully aware of the "why". A DM does so when he buys a game or an adventure, why shouldn't players be when they pay a DM?

The DM as artist

There is that. DMs aren't authors, but in many ways they are like authors in regards to preparation and research, even the skill-sets you'd need for each overlap to a huge degree. Actually, DM can have aspects of many different artistic expressions. Stand-up comedians come to mind, as do actors.
Fair representation? [source]
The closest you will get, though, is the old tradition of storytelling as performed by (drum-roll!) bards or skalds, in that a story is woven for the participants as the elements of it are collected.

Let's take this one step further. Say, a DM not only prepares the game him- (or her-) self, say they write their own game or they publish blogs about their process or write adventures ... Our hobby gives many opportunities to express ones creativity and there are some that earn money with it. Admittedly, indirectly, but nonetheless.

The thing is, for a DM like that, money will most of the time be a nice coincidence. To get better at DMing doesn't have you also publishing and doing the marketing or the social networking. It's possible, but something always has to give if you do it all.

Here's another aspect of the "art": a DM needs to be good at managing a group and it is a commitment over years at a time. I see this in direct conflict with the whole DM-for-hire schtick. To give an example of this: I'm totally able to sit down in front of some strangers and DM a game for them. Chances are, they will be entertained. I did so just the other day for the free RPG day here in Leipzig. And while it had been fun, it lacked for me one important aspect: a connection beyond the game.

Nonsense, you might say, and I agree, it is strange. I don't fully understand it yet, but the idea to DM an evening for people I will not see again afterwards, just for a couple of bucks, is missing a crucial ingredient I need to make it all work. I need to get to know the players and I believe there is an art to forging a bond like that. At least it's one of the qualities of a good game (not necessarily the "we need to be friends"-argument, but that direction).

Maybe there's another perspective connected to this, as DMs are not just producing content, they are (in many ways) players too. There needs to be a mutual understanding in that regard. The whole idea that anyone can be a player, but a DM is something you could just as well pay for, is ludicrous from that point of view, as it reduces the DM from a player to a function. I want to be able to decide who plays at "my table" or whom I'm offering to join.

I also want to be challenged by a game and have fun.

And now, I rant a bit:

Our hobby has almost no structure beyond the commercial one provided by publishers (which is weak to begin with). We are also woefully behind in finding out what our hobby actually is (compared to, say, books or video games), so from that point of view alone I think commercializing it further will only throw us back.

Not that it can be helped, people will do what they always do and seize any given opportunity. Seeing how role-playing gets some traction with the main stream media, I'm sure all possible ugly faces of capitalism will manifest. They always do and just for the reasons stated above, people will get duped or will pay for inferior services or will demand their money back because they are not happy with what they payed for ... the whole kaleidoscope of capitalism fueled, unreflected bullshit is going to happen. I guaranty you, we'll see players for hire before long.

Maybe it needs to happen, too. We just have to take that bullet until people out of sheer greed up their game by offering "certified DM schools", which will have them proof at some point what they are doing ... It'll go a bit rampant there for a while and maybe we won't be alive to see all this calming down eventually.

Which leaves the question, why I even bother, right? Well, I wasn't sure when I started writing this, and I still don't have an answer. Role-playing can be more than just entertainment. We see this happening all over the place, in schools, in therapy, in jails, even. It has a tremendous effect on young players and we've only just started to explore what the possibilities are.

The entertainment industry, however, is the enemy in this regard, just as the big publishers are. They don't want to explore things, they prefer things to stagnate (just look at all the reboots, is all I'm saying, there'll be another Interview with a Vampire, ffs, and Star Wars is effectively killed to death). It's all about the next buck. Let them do their thing, but don't expect anything beyond what is already established. They'll harvest our hobby as they did with everything else and that's just that.

Is it insulting to earn money on what all those other people do for free? It's a question everyone has to answer for themselves. Just remember all the DMs out there not only offering their services for free, but also investing in tons of product to make it happen. Isn't it kind of a perverse system, where companies can not only sell people stuff, but also reinvent it in cycles to earn even more money, without actually doing that much? What do publishers offer besides their product? Gaming culture? Places of exchange? Recruitment??! I don't think so. Who has the money, who has the time, right?

And there are always those doing it for free ... Maybe we all should ask for money. I'll write a letter to some publisher right away:
Hello good Sirs, I'm about to start DMing a game of yours, I've already recruited 5 players (Recruitment fee: 50 Euro), we'll play every week for at least 4 hours (40 Euro per session, but we could talk a lump sum for the year). I expect to invest at least 1000 hours of work into this, preparation included. My fee could be reduced by future products from your side and all sorts of services you can offer around the game. Thank you very much.
Sincerely ...
I don't see this fly, do you? Now imagine the DM at the end of the session saying something like: "That's 10 bucks now from each of you, thank you for participating. See you next week." Or starting an offertory? Yeah, why not, I like money as much as the next guy and I most certainly DID THE WORK!
I know, nobody cares about that shit enough to even break a sweat. The personal benefits of simply gaming are still greater than anything greed could destroy, I guess. Or rather, hope.


This isn't against people earning money with rpg products, it's against a culture where people think everything can be bought with money, that convenience should be above all else and that everything you do should have a price tag attached, but doesn't. It's bitter, isn't it? Try go to your wife and say "I've cleaned the kitchen, that'd be 20 Euro for services rendered." Or charge your children for driving them to school ...
My point is, telling us everything has a price tag is the lie that gets imprinted in our brains so hard, we actually started believing it. Here's how it is: we do things without getting payed and not everything we do is worth money, but maybe worth something else. What that is? Doing something worthwhile for others, I'd say. An evening making a group of people happy is an evening well spend.

I believe the very reason why role-playing games became as popular as they are, is that you need nothing but a set of rules, some dice, pencil, paper and a couple of friends and you are set for life. Offering this opportunity to people is priceless. It's why I blog, it's why I tell people about our hobby, it's why I DM.

It's also why I think asking money for playing the game is diminishing not only the efforts of others, it's also against the spirit of the game. There's so many unexplored or untouched ways to earn money with this, it's uncanny. Look at roll20, there's a great idea. Offer a platform to bring DMs and players together instead of offering DMs for hire. Write and publish, do research.

Establish the hobby to a point where governments support it as art or sponsors as sport (although I rue the day a DM for hire comes to a gig with banners from Nike or McD on his shirt ... let's not do that). Official games, streamed live? Why not? Certified DMs? Go crazy!

Most of all, support a piece of culture that's not driven by profit (at least at it's core, the game itself).

Actually,  we all know it's already done in some places, with different levels of success. Little clubs here and there doing their thing, with many people doing projects with libraries or comic and gaming shops, schools even. They don't do it for the money, they do it because they see value in it beyond that.

So, before you start charging money to DM a game, contact your local club and ask them how you can help. If you think you are a good DM, offer seminars. It's something even clubs can pay for, if money is what you crave ...

Of course, this is just my opinion and I haven't made up my mind completely. It's a complex subject. As I said above, the trend is there and it will happen regardless of my arguments. I hope I could offer some food for thought for those on the fence, though.


* Shit, sorry for the detour, but there is something to be said about how much evil we are willing to accept because of the benefits something brings to a community. I won't go into this further, but the movie Spotlight pretty much shows it all and from all sides (although being about the church, it pretty much shows the dynamics behind a lot of looking away). Check that out, if you haven't.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities 7: Dungeons (including: the only picture of a dungeon map in the RC)

Every now and then I discover something odd in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and decide it is worth a post. Considering I started this series 2013, I don't get to write a lot of them (not for the lack of material, tbh). Anyway, without further ado, have another installment of the Rules Cyclopedia Oddities series! This time we are talking dungeons, because the odd thing is: there isn't much to talk about ...

Oh Dungeon, Where Art Thou?

As most reading this will be aware, the Rules Cyclopedia has a bit of everything and can be considered a complete game on all accounts. It spans an epic arc for characters from level 1 to 36, it has a domain game, a mass combat system and some great rules to create and run a setting (among various other things). What it doesn't have is proper rules to create a dungeon, though. Compared to what AD&D had to offer at the time, the topic is woefully neglected. For shame ...

First indication that something is off in that regard is the fact that the game is not only called Dungeons & Dragons, the referee is also still called a Dungeon Master. One would expect that dungeon are a major feature. However, the only picture of a dungeon in the whole tome is this beauty:

I'm actually not quite sure what is happening here ... [source]

Right, that's not even a proper dungeon to begin with. It actually shows people doing the very thing the game is lacking: planning a dungeon. But it gets worse.

You'll have little tidbits here and there how classes relate to dungeons. There is a bit about why wizards build dungeons beneath their towers to attract monsters: For research and to get the newest gossip from the world of monsters (p. 20). There are also spells that have rules for their use in an dungeon environment (cloud kill, among others).

Actually, a huge part of the game is geared towards dungeons: exploration, there is a random encounter section for dungeons and lots of monsters that would (only) live in a dungeon. Standard Rations spoil over night in a dungeon (p. 69) and you will get assigned damage if you are barefoot in a dungeon (p. 70). Movement is different in dungeon settings (p. 87).

You get a lot like that, the game takes every possible aspect of exploring, moving, encountering, fighting and casting under consideration. Dungeons are a vital element of the game if you read it as a player or DM it just around the characters as the game emerges.

What isn't there, though, is proper advice to build and prepare a dungeon as a DM.

How bad is it with the advice?

A DM will find the first proper advice how to build a dungeon on p. 148 (after a few notes what building a dungeon would cost in the Dominion chapter, for some reason) and it looks like this:
"When you design your own dungeons, use straight corridors and square rooms at first. You may try other shapes and twisted corridors when you and the players are more experienced—but even then, it will still slow down the game."
Woah, that's ... I don't know, it's probably and actually a very "old school" understanding of a dungeon. Something you'd see in Gary Gygax's playbook, maybe. That said, there's not much to work with here and he's basically saying that complex dungeon design has no real in-game benefit.

Gygax's binder, Level 1 under Greyhawk Castle ... [source]
Moving on.

Not much else to read about dungeons in chapter 13: Dungeon Master Procedures. There's a bit about thieves and traps, but reading it depressed me a little (which might be enough for yet another RC Oddity ...) and then the RC starts talking Monsters.

Again, we get all kind of incidental data about how the game works in dungeons compared to wilderness encounters. Monsters per room, how monster behavior in a dungeon might be different to encounters outside, more rules about encounters ... and then lots of monster entries before we talk mechanics again (liked the bit about mountain lions wandering further into dungeons than any other cat species would ... long time readers and players will know why).

The next big entry is on page 235 and it's about treasure maps. Read it all here:
"Maps to Treasures (Normal, Magical, Combined, or Special): Each map should be made in advance by the DM. Such maps show a route to the location of a treasure in a dungeon or a wilderness area. The treasure is usually hidden or protected by monsters, traps, and/or magic. Based on the type of treasure given, the DM should select a challenging monster (who has a similar treasure type) and design the map and monster lair accordingly. Note that the map may be partially incorrect, omitting an important detail (such as the type of monsters, dangerous traps, etc.) or giving some false information; however, the treasure mentioned should actually be there. Sometimes maps are only partially complete or are written in the form of a riddle. And some can only be read by a read languages spell."
While I appreciate the advice in general (maps for players need to be unreliable is a big plus here), it doesn't give a DM much to work with at this point. And we are almost through the book, too (yes, we'll go through the whole book here).

The first time we encounter some actual meat about the topic is in Chapter 17: Campaigning. I don't care when it happens, as long as it happens, though. Let's take a look. Well, first of all Allston advices us about dungeons with this little tidbit: "Simple dungeon explorations are very entertaining on occasion, a release of frustrations and a welcome return to the basics of the game." (D&D RC, p. 256). It sets dungeons apart from more "serious" goals you can set for your campaign.

The thing is, I do not disagree completely, it is important and more satisfying to have your campaign manifesting in arcs (planned or not), but using dungeons here as the main contrast to this is a bit much, imo.

Okay, okay, let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's more. When you build your setting, having dungeons on the map is among the advice, with hints that there'll be more about the topic later in the book.

There's little stabs towards the subject, though, like this sentence: "If your campaign makes use of dungeons (described later), you can locate a dungeon near the home town [...]" (D&D RC, p. 257. If you've read the book straight up to this point, you'd be at least irritated about the subject: so much space dedicated to playing in dungeons, the game even has it in the title, but there's a huge reluctance to talk about designing dungeons or the DM part of the matter, with little snippets like I quoted above, seemingly advising against it. Damn.

So sad ... [source]
Finally, on page 259 we get the promising heading "Designing adventures and DUNGEONS" (emphasis mine). Suddenly the word "dungeon" is all over the place. We talk setting and stocking and different scenarios ... it's all pretty general and uninspired, but there's still hope. When we get to the part where it specifically talks dungeons, though, it simply doesn't add anything but empty phrases.

Go, check for yourself, if you don't believe me. It starts page 260 and goes on for the most part of page 261. Self-evident stuff, like dungeons can go in all directions and that the first level should be the easiest, but you can experiment there. Some simple terminology, like pits and corridors and trick monsters, a couple of rules about simple random stocking ... nothing solid, there is even the advice to check out published dungeons. It's disappointing.

After that entry you'll have some notes about Mystara (the default setting), some alternate and conversion rules and lots of overland maps. Add character sheets and an index and that's the Rules Cyclopedia for you.

Why oh why?!

Let's talk reasons. I think this is a huge oversight, but maybe it's for good reasons. Well, the cynic in me thinks, they wanted to sell product and leaving a crucial part of a DMs work out of the book would ensure some sales, right?

Doesn't have to be the sole reason, though. Space could have been an issue. Rules for playing in dungeons are all over the book, maybe it was considered enough (although a DM would have to be very, very familiar with the D&D RC to run it that way).

Another reason might have been that Allston (as the one compiling the book) just wasn't too fond of dungeons to begin with and just did the bare minimum because he had to.

Scope might be another aspect and I think it has the most clout here. A possible range of a campaign leads characters from level 1 to 36, with a good chance to play some more for immortality. It means that the reasons to explore dungeons will vanish beyond, say, level 9, but at least as early as when characters get more xp for role playing and clever play than for killing monsters or even collecting loot (read all about it in Part 5 of the Oddities!).

D&D can do so much more than dungeons and giving them more room in the rules would have given the wrong impression there, right? Add to that the huge corpus of works leading to the D&D RC and there isn't much reason to have more about dungeons right there.

Still, it is somewhat odd that what is there, isn't very useful to anyone but people playing for the very first time. No example of play, no example of a small dungeon to show people the ropes ... Nothing.

And that's that

Don't get me wrong, I do love the Rules Cyclopedia. I think it's one of the best D&D books out there for everything it does half-heartedly, everything it does right and most of all for the great potential beyond the sum of its parts. It's just that, as far as dungeons go, it could have done more with little effort.

Well, or maybe I'm wrong and it is totally enough! The older I get and the more I read in this book, the more I think that the main game isn't about dungeon crawls at all.

However, please, feel free to chime in here with your observations, thoughts and knowledge about the RC. I'm, as always, happy to hear it.

Also, check out the other Oddities, if you haven't already:

Part 1: Damage to Magic Items

Part 2: The Druid

Part 3: The "Type of Human" and "NPC Reasons for Appearing" Checklists

Part 4: Race as Class

Part 5: Experience

Part 6: Diversity

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Map is not the Territory - Part 4 (procedural moving)

Alright, let's finish this series. I want to get this done properly, but I also want to write a couple of other things (yeah, there's more to come, maybe even this month), so we'll take one more dive into the subject, talking about maps I think are great for the game, a bit about how I like to do it and why, and finally about what else we can do for gaming maps.

Disclaimer 2: I like pretty maps, I really do, but using them in my games has always been a problem for me and that's why we are talking about this here. Not that it is going to change a thing, mind you. Nonetheless, the process had me thinking about the subject in depth and the discussions that followed changed some of my opinions on aspects of this. And old school dungeons are fun! Going a little board-gamey never hurt the experience ... When all is said and done, you do you want and I do the same. It's always about what works for you, right?

Part 1 is all over the place and should maybe be Part 0 instead (or Part 3, not sure yet), but Part 2 will bring you up to speed about the topic and my approach towards it. Part 3 talks a bit about how movement in RPGs is connected to numbers and not to maps. It also takes a look at maps computer games. The D&D RC has a guest appearance, too (because I like what they did).

There's also (always) stuff others wrote to consider. So we have +Vb Wyrde with two articles about maps worth checking out here and here. +Brian Murphy wrote a nice blog as a response to an aspect of part 2. It's a defense of the Tolkien map and fantasy maps in general. Also very much worth reading (adding some great maps to boot) and you can do so here. I'm sure there's more like this around.

You can read all that (which is a lot, I guess) or you just go in cold right here. Whatever floats your boat.

Good shit!

Let's make this a quick one: I love, love, love the walkthrough maps of classic RPG modules done by Jason Thompson:

Check the source for all the beautiful detail -> [source]
What a great way to introduce a DM to a module! It connects all the dots while highlighting some crucial points. Sure, it's just one interpretation how any given adventure could go down, but I always thought it should be mandatory with huge location-based adventures to give an overview like this. It's not done often, but when it's done, it's a great tool for a DM to get the basics before the main work is done.

The only problem I see with this is that it's also a great tool for players to get an overview of a module (that is, actually, one of the points against maps we didn't get into yet: cheating players and player expectations because of maps).

A variant of this are detailed but uncommented location maps. Something to show the players to give them the idea what a location looks like. But they are very specific most of the time and there's always a chance you don't get to use a map like this because the players don't show up. Anyway, a great example of this is yet another Temple of Elemental Evil handout:

That's what I want from bought RPG material [source]
It's easily something the characters could see from some vantage point and the chances that the moat-house will see some action when playing this are very high. Plus: it doesn't give away one thing about the location, but works well enough as a map (bonus: you can compare it to the pic posted above!).

Imagine a SF setting done like that! [source]
The beauty of those maps is that they are unreliable and that's the only kind of map you can share with players. It tells the players what the characters might kow about a world and inspires exploration and a vague sense of place, but doesn't interfere with how the world manifests through the DMs imagination (shout out to +trey causey, his blog is where I've seen the map above first). The whole point-crawl concept is based on this approach. I like it a lot.

The last one (I can come up with right now) is the classic treasure map, very much for the same reason stated above: it's unreliable and players can use it to interact with the world in a way where they check how the map connects to the setting, not the other way around. Also (as all of the above, actually) it's a great way to give a game some atmosphere:

The problem is that maps like that aren't done at all. It's such a great opportunity, but it's also just not done by drawing a map with a dotted line leading to an "x", it needs clues and riddles and some tight rules for exploration to make this happening. But wouldn't it make for a fun game? Searching a location for some hidden treasure?

It's sad, but that's the best I could find ... [source]
Wonder why it's never done. I bet you, if you take any decent treasure in a module you own and make a scavenger hunt map for the group to get there through the dungeon, it'd be a blast ... Actually, if you know an adventure or module that does that, point me in that direction. I'd appreciate it.

And that's that. Usability is key, the more the matter. This is not about accuracy or completeness (even when depicting dungeons, as I already alluded to in Part 2), it's about supporting immersion without interfering with the DMs idea of a place.

That's especially true for sold products. If it's DIY, the sky is the limit and the only thing that matters is focus. That's another aspect of maps that got a bit neglected in this series so far: how to draw and what to draw or if to draw at all. It is rare to find advice about this in most rpg books ...

Here's what works for me: the DIY sandbox

I'm all for DIY. I know, you have to take time of your day to make it happen, but the results will always speak for themselves when you get down to it, I feel. Of course we talk individual solutions here, but who cares if you can make it sing, right?

Anyway, I talk a lot about this stuff here on the blog and I was looking for a long time before I reached some satisfying solutions (if you want to explore where I'm at with this, you could read this post and get back to me about it). As I said before, what follows is a very individual approach.

The material I'll use here is from Monkey Business, the module I wrote (no affiliate link, btw). It's different to what I have seen so far in that it allows a DM to create his own jungle crawl. That way, the module has almost no spoilers, just ideas and tools that help manifesting the setting as the players explore it. Here goes.

You'll start with a hex-map, of sorts. I made the decision early on that the main information I want for a hex-field is the height compared to the sea-level and it's complexity. That's a 2d10 roll per hex with the sea-level being at 4. That way you can create all kinds of terrain with just two numbers. You can see where rivers flow and where you get lakes, you can see where trees grow and where mountains are or how weather moves. Just like that.

One thing that really got important to make this work was something I called "cheat sheets". It's not that different to character sheets, but it's for the DM to get an overview for his creation. In MB it looks like this:
The module not only has a result noted for every one of the 100 possible results, it also features a Resource Level to go with the results (where the fertile ground is and all that), which leads to another random generator to fill this with all the available factions (which you'll note on the second and the following pages). An early version of this method can be found here on the blog, for those interested. Here's another example (a hack of the system for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs)
Example with borders, with the arrows indicating the flow of the land ...
As you'll note, I do not care that much about where something in a hex is, and instead more about what it is and how much of it. All this is expressed in numbers, signs and some words. For the module all of this is navigated through the random encounter table or whatever the players can come up with (by asking the way, for instance).

It'll also generate vistas and a DM should get a sense what characters will see when they climb a tree or are on a mountain top and look around. As they explore the area, they'll collect hints or stumble across ruins and so on and so forth (all of which with tools for random creation). Just like with the D&D RC (as discussed in Part 3), the map manifests as the characters explore. Before that it's just numbers.

However, as already pointed out, it doesn't stop with this basic map and annotations, it goes further. There's a random generator for Cannibal Villages that looks like this:

It'll give you a map and lots of numbers and aspects to work with: how many live here, are they friendly or not, hungry, at war ... There's a lot you can generate with little (one roll of dice on that piece of paper and writing down the results).

Again, characters move in numbers, so numbers is what you need for a meaningful interaction with a world also described in numbers. The map this generates is a by-product of the process (still, a map it is). If you want to see the whole thing, I posted the village generator with all the tables here.

There's also a ruin generator that basically produces a mind map for a random location, but it's a bit more complex than what is shown here and a post of its own to go into, but you get the idea (and you can always get Monkey Business for free to play around with this).

It takes a good afternoon to create a huge jungle location with this and it will generate an indefinite number of them, if you want to. You can also go beyond that, if you have the means and the skills to do so and generate those vistas, for instance, make treasure maps to navigate the jungle towards a certain goal (the random treasure generator in there will also produce quest items, for instance).

A DM can go as deep as he wants with this, which includes creating maps for the jungle he already has in numbers. It's all I'd want for a game, really, and I use a huge part of this for my home campaign (as I said, it's an individual approach).

In the End: The Map is not the Territory

We need to ask ourselves how role-playing games really get to benefit from maps, respectively what kind of effort we should expect from publishers in that area. A simple map of an area does not cut it, in my opinion, there's room to evolve here (see some of the examples above).

The main issue I came to realize when writing this here post is that there are no treasure maps out there. None I could find with a couple of Google searches, anyway. But still, why is that?

The next big thing is that DMs need help in that area. Many (many!) role playing games fail to explain DM procedures in general and some philosophy about what maps are needed and why and to what extent (although the D&D Rules Cyclopedia does that, which comes highly recommended, of course). It's a sad affair.

So, the map is not the territory in role playing games, it's the other way around: once you have a territory, you can draw a map of it. My solution is to have all that in numbers, symbols and words before I start drawing anything (or have the players draw something!).

Okay, I'm all out of words for today. I hope this series had something for everyone. Comments and suggestions are, as always, very welcome. If you happen to know a great treasure map, I'd love to hear about it. While we are at it, I'd love to see examples of maps you guys like, so please, share away :)


Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Map is not the Territory - Part 3 (guest starring: the D&D RC)

Here we go, Part 3. In a timely fashion, no less. Anyway, things got a little interesting the last two times around. No hostilities, but under observation. Because maps are a staple in role-playing games, right? And lots of people make a decent buck drawing them, so I guess I start this post by pointing out that I'm not against maps or map making. Well, you might say I'm against lazy map making, especially for something that is sold. But who isn't?! Okay, that being out of the way, I'd say we talk some maps. There will be a Part 4, though. Sorry.

DISCLAIMER: I couldn't draw a nice picture to save my life and I have only a passing knowledge of all things maps. What I know, though, is games and I'm coming at this from the perspective of a game design enthusiast, hoping that I can add an interesting perspective to a fringe discipline of gaming that could benefit a bit from a more procedural approach every now and then.

Part 1 is all over the place and should maybe be Part 0 instead (or Part 3, not sure yet), but Part 2 will bring you up to speed about the topic and my approach towards it. Or you just go in cold. Works for most.

Characters move in numbers ...

Not as in "many of them". Everything we know about our characters' strengths and weaknesses is expressed in numbers (and words, but numbers distinguish characters a bit more). We know how fast or how strong or how clever our character is only by those numbers and how they compare to other numbers.

You want to know if your character is able to do something? You make a roll of the dice (or some other system of resolving chance, but mostly dice) and compare the overall result to ... other numbers. Then there is some form of abstract interpretation of how the result manifests in the game and the figments of our imagination just moved a little bit. Rinse and repeat. Numbers talking to each other.
The world in numbers, right? [source]
Now, all that considered, how figure maps in there? Maybe just a bit more than a character portrait would?

I know, heresy, but think about it: you know the terrain the characters are moving in and their moving speed and you know the direction they are walking in (or think they are walking in). Everything else can be determined by chance (random encounters go a long way here).

You want an example? Check the D&D Rules Cyclopedia! For starters, maps are not factored into wilderness travel (that is: the characters owning or using maps). Without a road or a guide, you'd need a character with the skill Navigation or Knowledge (Area) to get around without getting lost (having skill checks, though). If you don't have any of that, there's a freaking 1-3 chance (in d6) that the group gets lost in the woods without realizing it (see p. 89 in the D&D RC).

More fun facts: players are expected to draw their own wilderness map, using hex-maps with the DM giving the scale (p. 87, D&D RC). You also have movement rates for different terrains and different encumbrance rates, with the simple rule that the slowest character determines the overall travel-rate. It's a numbers game and short of knowing where you are going or finding out by asking around, the players have no chance to get anywhere.

What kind of maps a DM would use is a bit vague in the RC, but it shows at least one approach how a DM is supposed to do this:
"Sketch the terrain in pencil first, so you can make changes; draw the one most noteworthy feature of a one-hex area in that hex. (For example, if there is a mighty city in that hex, use a symbol for a city; if the hex is predominantly forest, use a symbol for forest.) Though you only mark one terrain type in each map hex, many features are assumed to be present in each hex and each type of terrain. For example, a jungle contains clearings, hills, valleys, swamps, and so forth—all represented on the map by a palm tree.
Make up terrain descriptions as needed during games, but don't try to make notes on everything you say. The players should keep records if they want details on wilderness areas. Keep only the information you need to remember for the campaign—cities, castles, important monster lairs, and so forth." (D&D RC, p. 257)
See, that's the most basic map you can have: a hex with a scale and a symbol for the main feature. The DM is not even supposed to have or make notes for everything, it's what the players do! That's it, the rest is notes and "common sense" (actual advice from the RC). Works fine, too. If you play wilderness travel RAW with the RC, you will not lack anything without using any other maps but the basic ones the DM prepared and the ones the players made.

And really, it's just a simplification that allows all involved to give the setting a sense of place. which is (incidentally) the best argument anyone could make about maps: they visualize a setting or aspects of it.

Anyway, player maps!

A short word on this, since we already brushed the subject. The only thing players know about a setting is the notes and maps they did themselves. Sure, it's possible to give them maps as playing aids, which is cool as hell (as all kinds of props are if you are not scared of the effort or cost).

There is an argument to be made, that the word is more powerful to conjure a picture in a mind than a picture would be. I stand by that. Pictures can capture moments and even alter our perception with certain moods and styles. It most certainly can enrich the experience. But so can language and I'd argue this is our main tool when playing role-playing games. Everything else is dressing and preparation. I think we should never forget that.

Another argument for the DIY approach is that it's easy to feel an achievement that way. A player-drawn (dungeon) map (or, really, any extra effort a player is willing to bring into the game) is a beautiful thing to behold and players will hold it dear. Premade material somewhat lessens that experience to something you can buy and own and that changes the way we treat those gaming artifacts. Am I wrong?

A hand-drawn map from Zork 1, made 1981 ... beautiful! [source]

We are not talking computer games, folks

All this stands in brutal conflict with what we have come to expect from computer games, where everything is visual first and words just to a very, very small extent. And more so every year, I think. Nowadays you don't even need to be able to read to play most games and talking is sparse most of the time, too.

This is where maps have always been great tools adding to the experience, especially early on, when the visualizing part wasn't as evolved as it is today. Some of the oldest adventure and role-playing games would have printed maps as part of the package (even Morrowind had that and it was a great way to navigate the game!).

The thing is that computer games always have been (and still are today to some extent) way more restricted than classic pen and paper role-playing games. Words being more powerful and all that, but also the need to be visually specific and the pressure to add more and more detail (down to individual blades of grass and how they move in the wind ... the illusion that it is possible to recreate reality in its entirety and all the problems that come with that).

However, while maps add a huge deal to computer games, they do not work the same way for role-playing games. Actually, many of the problems I see with maps and how they are used derive from computer game culture (as one can say for many problems we see in our hobby, especially regarding expectations and usage ... but that's for another post, maybe).

It's simple, the traditional mode of "travel" in computer games is by clicking a point on some map. Or walking there (Mario-style). It's not that those are real options or that you could stray from a given path. Even today, in computer games you traveling from one point to the next means nothing else but a short intermission giving a sense of place between the more detailed gaming locations.

A place you won't explore ... [source]
I can see how that could work for certain analog role-playing games. Yeah, why not. However, if you simulate it all without the shortcuts, if you go the full monty, in other words, if you play for the complete experience, as (for instance) the D&D Rules Cyclopedia offers, then maps have to work differently. They simply fulfill a different purpose than they do in computer games.

Still, not quite there yet ...

... but we are getting there. It just ended up being a longer post than expected. Maps are an interesting topic and I think I'm warming up to it ... There are some curiosa to talk about (I'm thinking about checking HackMaster 4e for some tidbits ... they have a monster called the Mapsnatcher if I remember correctly ... maps are a thing there).

However, the main thing for Part 4 will be the procedural generation of setting content and the kind of maps I think useful for our (my?) games. We'll see what's out there and stuff I came up with over the years. Maybe I manage to throw a list of dos and don'ts. We'll see. Soon, when we finally talk about why the map is not the territory.

For now, I'd like to collect ideas and impressions. What are you people doing out there? Someone working without any maps? DIY or buying? Did anyone prepare a campaign with the Rules Cyclopedia RAW? Which other systems out there give good advice about the subject? Are there any at all? Please, share your thoughts if you are so inclined.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Map is not the Territory - Part 2 (map trivia)

Yes, already the second post. I need to get my jive back and for that, it helps to work this keyboard as hard as possible ... Anyway, Part 1 left lots of question marks and some of that needs to be resolved. Not sure if a third post will become necessary (yes, it will). For now, we take a deep dive into maps and what they do. 
Clarifications for Part 1

If you haven't read that, this will get you up to speed. I'll start by quoting something I wrote on g+ to illustrate part of the idea:
"... imagine yourself in the middle of a forest without a map. What are your options, what is it you can do to get around, etc., etc. ... Now imagine yourself with a map. What would change? What is it you can do now? How does the map relate to what is surrounding you? Your options change, but not as much as one would actually think. As a matter of fact, if you don't know where you are or how to work a map, it might end up being useless to have a map, right? And now imagine the players having a map without the characters having one ... that's the discrepancy I'm talking about."
I'm not talking about how maps lead you from point A to point B. What I'm talking about is what maps do for the game, what they should do for the game and what they can do for it.

There's a little detour in the post about how damage can be handled way more abstract than it is done in D&D by leaving the notion behind that every aspect of a creature needs to be quantifiable. The principle is the same as with maps: you can cut the fat by answering the question which aspects of a creature you really need to allow a meaningful interaction with the characters.

Contrary to common practice I believe that you can get away with scratching the notion of hit points (among other things). The reason for this is the same reason why we are talking about maps here, it's about how the system translates the interactions with the narrative environment surrounding the characters. There is a lot to this, but the basic idea is that characters more or less are expected to experience the world around them as we do ours. That's how we relate to what they experience and that's what we base our decisions on what they can do or what their chances are to succeed.

So, characters in a forest would mostly see what's directly surrounding them. They may have a notion where they are or where North is or how to find that out. However, since the narrative environment is not so much a virtual space as it is an emerging pattern, we can get away with just creating enough content to create a credible sphere of continuity (that is: basically being ahead of the players at least a couple of steps).

Which means, in a way, that a monster having hit points is equivalent to having an idea where all the trees are in a forest, while all we might need is the idea that the hit points/the trees are there and how that interacts with the characters. The idea is to show that while maps are useful and have their place, there's also a divide between maps depicting spaces and role-playing games creating patterns.

This is where Part 2 starts ...

Problematic Maps

There's a great article over at Tor about how problematic Tolkien's maps of Middle Earth are and it is an interesting read for that alone, so check it out. The main take away here (for this post, at least) is that Tolkien would have been better off without the map. Why? Because the story doesn't need it and the internal logic of the map (or lack thereof) actually hurts the story (or will after you've read that article ...).

As a matter of fact, if Tolkien had left it at just describing the journey of the fellowship of the ring, it would have produced a huge range of maps made by publishers, artists or fans and some of them are bound to get it right while staying true to the source. As it is, the map that does nothing for the story but codifies what Middle Earth looks like, warts and all.
See the problem? [source]
It's not a problem, I hear you thinking. Well, role playing has it's very own and very similar problems with maps. Although somewhat reversed. Check out, for instance, the 3e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. Or rather, every published D&D setting from AD&D 2e onwards, to be honest, but let's look at the Realms. The short of it is, it's full.

So full, in fact, that there's almost no room left for a DMs own stuff. Of course, that's also (and to a huge degree) due to the texts accompanying those maps: cultures, sigils, names, seasons, religions, stories, non-player characters, politics, world events ... lots and lots and lots of stuff there, ready for the taking. Or taking away creative wiggle room.

Just like with Tolkien above, though, it's the maps that make it worse. They codify the texts while creating the illusion of completeness and putting all of the described locations into context. It creates a restricted space where just the texts would have left enough room for interpretation for all using it.

The thing with maps is, they try to fill the gaps and the empty spaces and while resorting to generalizations out of sheer necessity, it still occupies everything. Text alone doesn't do that.

Maps vs. Reality

Maps just don't do reality. Full stop. They heighten certain aspects of an area. It's more of an interpretation cut towards certain needs, but never the complete thing. Can't be. If a map would depict every aspect of reality ... it would be reality. Maps are the tip of the iceberg or the proverbial tail of the elephant. They show aspects of reality, sure enough, just not the whole. I can't stress enough how crucial this is when talking about fictional maps. Because if maps never show the real thing, what does that mean if all you have is the map?

Keep that question in mind, I will come back to it.

Examples. I wrote a post a couple of years back after I had visited a real-life dungeon in Oppenheim and you can read it here. The main takeaways are: it's chaotic and multilayered with small tunnels for messenger dogs, with underground weather and sealed tunnels. There is not one straight tunnel. As far as maps go, it is impossible to map. Here, have a picture:

This is a very small portion of the dungeon under Oppenheim.
This place grew all over the place, like a fungus. That's how dungeons are more often than not. It's not how dungeons are usually depicted in role-playing games ... Which offers a nice transition to how problematic maps get if they are too concrete in what they depict. There are some beautiful 3d maps out there and if you get a chance to use them at the table, it'll add a lot to the gaming experience

And that's already where the problem is. The random nature of the game does not guaranty that the group will end up in a specific location at any given time (unless you force it ...). It's (again) the problem of fixed space versus emerging pattern.

You want a little bit more crass example? There's another post I wrote as a follow-up to the Oppenheim post where I tackle spelunking (it's here) and it's coming to some very similar conclusions about caves: they are chaotic and very difficult to navigate, even more difficult to map. Here is a picture of what a map for a real-life cave looks like:

Open in new tab and check the post for more details on that one ...
It's the closest you can get and (I think) a great example of what maps can do respectively what the limitations are. Here is another dimension to this: it has no purpose other than depicting what is there in a way that makes it possible to navigate it.

In other words, no one thinks "I need a place for my Ogre to live ..." or, to circle back to Tolkien, "We need mountain ranges around Mordor ...". It shows there's always nature before purpose, random before potential. It needs a lot of chaos before a pattern can emerge from it. Check the names they gave the areas they found in that cave map above. Meaning after the fact.

If nothing else, considering all this can give games and maps authenticity.

Finally: the map is not the territory?

No, well, yes! But we are not quite there yet. I think I managed to circle the problem this time around though: maps are always about what they depict and never the full picture. Where gaming material is (often) lacking, is when the map lacks context on the one hand, while occupying too much space on the other.

Maps offer great chances but are not an end unto themselves.

Where to go from that? Well, I guess we need to talk about procedural creation and player maps for a bit. Maybe an excursion to computer games is in order as well. The third (and final, I'm pretty sure) part of this series will conclude with an example how we can produce that abundance of material in our games that is needed to give maps authenticity and depth.

As always, comments, questions, and ideas are very welcome. You can also read on in Part 3!