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.


  1. I started with the RC and so have always had the player as map drawer for dungeons. I my GMs campaign for the last 16 years, the setting was an ever shifting desert, with mobile cities that were basically caravans movinv to avoid sand shark infedtations. There are a couple areas; in the far south is the sea, the northeast is a rocky land mass; the far west s mountain range sith a forest beyond that...that's it, and it's worked for nearly two decades!

    1. That sounds awesome! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. I usually have a nearby-nations section-of-the-continent map covering about 640,000 square miles (roughly the size of Iran or three Texases). This map is pretty vague on details and exists for the same reason these sorts of maps are found in the front of fantasy novels: to give a vague sense of scale, to describe the geographical relationships between places, and to remind the players who the big political movers and shakers are. Players get a copy of this map usually before the campaign starts, though it might still be in a pretty vague and rough format.

    These days I often have a hex version of this map for measuring distances and judging travel times. For instance, if I have an army of gnolls invading from the west, how long will it take them to cross the Broken Lands and reach the western outposts of the Flower Emirates? That message the PCs sent by trade caravan will reach Locksport on which day?

    I wrote a series of posts using hex maps for an exploration-themed campaign based on the rules in Cook's Expert D&D, a predecessor to BECMI, predecessor of the RC. It also included rules for the PCs unknowingly getting lost and introducing errors into the map they create of previously unmapped wilderness. It's rare to find players interested in that sort of gaming these days, but it can be fun.

    My current players have little interest in creating their own maps, even of dungeons. We miss out on a lot of the classic fun of Old School play but make up for it with the things we do enjoy. However, I will, on occasion, hand them a map of a place they need to infiltrate or assault to let them better plan their attack. (I'm more prone to do this if they've done their due diligence on digging up intelligence on the place and its inhabitants, and the more work they do, the more info they get.)

    For my part, I mostly use dungeon maps to answer questions like, "How long does it take to search the room?" and "Who might have heard that?" and "How much of these tunnels does that fireball fill?" So I prefer gridded maps, but when possible I'll give my player a non-gridded version (which is why Dyson Logos' maps are awesome for this sort of thing).