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 :)



  1. As someone who was witness to how much time and energy you put into the procedural generation section of "Monkey Business" I have to admit to being happy to see you going back to that well and giving it some more space here on the blog.
    I feel it's a system that can yield tremendously interesting results when a reader is willing to put in the time to learn how it works and then put it to use.

    1. Thanks, Mark! I sure appreciate that. I don't get much feedback about this right now, but I also don't have the time to do more in that direction (you know I have plans, though). In a perfect world I will keep coming back to this every now and then :)