Creatures and Cartography

I’m terrible at all forms of keeping a journal; I suspect this will die an ignominious death when I lose interest, but until then it gives me a better place to record my musings than bothering Andres or Alek while we’re ostensibly working!

So, as the gentle reader may-or-may-not be aware, the next edition of the world’s most popular role playing game is coming: Dungeons and Dragons 5e News. I have a long history with that game; today, I’m going to kvetch/vent/idealize/reminisce about that relationship and cartography.

Stop reading when you get bored ’cause it’s going to get wordy!

In my Freshman year of high school (… maybe. I firmly remember doing this in the high school cafeteria, but if I get called on this, I may have to sheepishly admit it was middle school or something, because my memory is terrible!), I attempted to find some others with whom to play D&D via the official club/pub system. I requested a table to try to spread the word and everything, since I was an awkward youth!
To set the scene (hazy though it is!) a little better, this event was packed with people doing real things: various cultural clubs that organized for the occasional fancy meal, sports teams that actually had funding any uniforms, poetry magazines that actually resulted in print runs, and so on. I was only doing this administrative task to con someone into giving me some space in which to play and to meet like-minded mutants; I felt super-intimidated.

I  could see that I would need more material than just my Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (Second Edition) rulebooks to entice people into the wonder and excitement of my favorite hobby.

Having been raised on a steady diet of brick-thick fantasy novels with maps on the inside covers, by parents who would comb the Frommer’s or Lonely Planet maps with an eye towards edifices to explore, I could tell that what this table needed to really inspire people to play with me could be summed up in one word: Maps. In seven words, Maps for me (but not the players).

I drew garishly colored maps of countrysides that I could imagine kings and princes conquering. I drew maps of caverns in which my goblins and dragons could live, in glorious 80-foot-to-the-inch scale on paper as large as I was. I mapped cities and named the districts (and the businesses, and the proprietors of the businesses). I drew a lot of maps because playing D&D required scheduling a playdate or carving out time and space and interest, but preparing to play D&D just required paper and pencils and imagination.

So, there I was, sitting at my lonely table at the club/pub fair with my D&D books, my DM screen, and my reams of wasted paper. I learned something very important from the total-lack-of-interest I was exposed to that day: I learned that those maps were boring and hideous and nobody but me loved them.

This is because those maps were never actually made to be consumed by others; they were made to be consumed by me. I imagined I’d use them to declare, calmly and with the objective backing of my prepared notes, that that tile that Grunkle the Thief stepped on was, to his dismay, a one-hundred foot drop into spikes covered by an illusion, and that Grunkle’s player should please roll up a new character. By their nature, I could describe the loveliness of these maps to my victi^H^H^H^H^H players in terms of what their characters could perceive, but the actual players around the table could never be allowed to see the map. They’d know what was lurking in ambush behind the door! They’d know where the secret passages to the surface were! They’d find the hidden treasure too easily!

If the players get to see the map, they’ve already won.

Dungeons and Dragons in its third edition and fourth edition, however, has had an extremely different take on the beauty and usefulness of maps. Instead of keeping them as the personal treasure of the DM, they’ve actively encouraged (the paranoiac amongst us will say ‘required’, but I think that’s new with 4e and that 3e was more permissive here) the use of a grid to at least do combat on. This means that the Dungeon Master has had to draw the map — often on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper — quickly and under pressure. I sort of resent this, since I no longer have the time to lavish that much attention to detail to an artefact of the game. I rarely want to spend more than an hour preparing actual written notes; this kind of map takes time!

Alek, a coworker I play with, has a different strategy and relationship towards maps than I do. Coming to the game relatively late, he does the tactical map thing with a lot more aplomb… and with a lot more preparation, investing the kind of effort that I did into world maps into the high-detail local maps that you can move minis around, and where you have to know precisely which areas are impassible terrain, which areas are cliffs, which areas are flooded to waist-depth with water and which areas are flooded to ankle-depth with acid. I have no idea how he does it.

Maps have gone from something that hides secrets (at low precision, should I go upstairs or downstairs while exploring the dungeon?) to something that informs tactics (at high precision, while trying to kill that goblin, where should I stand?) and in so doing, really value-and-reward attention to detail.

5e may be changing this. In my next post, I’ll try to reveal — in less detail! — one way I could see making both the tactical-map-lovers and the strategic-sketchy-note-lovers happy through better game design.

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About lackhand

I was born in 1984 and am still playing games, programming computers, and living in New York City. View all posts by lackhand

3 responses to “Creatures and Cartography

  • Alek

    So, most of my maps tend to be on the fly. I typically prep how I generally want things to look ahead of time but for individual maps I rarely spend more than 5-10 minutes sketching out my plan for the area.

    I have a funny relationship with maps. Part of what I like about the battlemap is that it forces me to describe the scene. I find I’m _very_ forgetful of details I mean to present and looking at a map in front of everyone helps me remember. It also prompts others to ask me for details that even with the map I forget to mention.

    If I didn’t have the map in front of me, I’d probably work with more of a flowchart of locations and still hand out nice maps of the region.

  • lackhand

    I’ll touch on that “flowchart of locations” in the next post — it’s specifically the loving-caring-highly-detailed objet d’art that you do so well that I’m discussing in this post.
    The flowchart stuff is strategic-level, not tactical; strategic stuff requires a lot less preparation than 4e-style battlemaps can, because it’s easier to wing or procedurally generate.
    It does, however, require a lot more creativity!

  • Tom

    I am usually to lazy/busy to do much of any mapping before games, so pretty much everything gets done on the fly. Does lead to problems sometimes when my scribbled out in 30 seconds map ends up not quite what I wanted, but ah well.

    Along the “procedurallly generated” comment direction, how hard would it be to write something that would generate detailed battlemaps? I am envisioning giving it a few parameters (room size, amount of obstacles, maybe some obstacle themes, and the like). Then you run a few random iterations and pick out one you like.

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