Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Mapping Love

I'm really loving this map.

Mapping in D&D is always one part science and two parts art. The science part is a matter of very consciously putting the PCs in a place where they can manage to get to a wide variety of environments very quickly. Putting them into the equivalent of, say, Medieval France, is likely to bore them sooner or later ("Yay, more woods."), and they're not too likely to deliberately travel down to the Middle-East. This is why Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms both have inexplicable magic deserts right next to the core campaign areas.

And, of course, there's the art.

Many game masters complain about their lack of mapping skills but when you get down to it, how much do you really need? The famed West Marches campaign was drawn as a simple vector map that was easy to zoom in or out of at will. Blackmoor was apparently based on a redrawn map of Denmark. For a non-gaming example, Robert Jordan's original Wheel of Time world map isn't all that much to look at. I doubt Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms maps looked much like the finished product either.

And yet all of these worlds have enjoyed fame and long life. Why is that? Simply put, because each of them had the map as a starting place, a framework on which to build the narrative, not as the end goal. I noted in my previous post that I've been guilty of forgetting that when creating my own maps, resulting in work that is very pretty to look at, but not robust enough for continued adaption in gameplay. My current map project hits a nice middle ground, I think, between inspirational beauty and gaming utilitarianism.

Despite the above, I do have to say that inspirational beauty is an important component to me when making my maps. That's not to say that the map needs to be a frame-worthy work of art, of course. What it does need to do is make the DM wonder, "What's in this little corner over here?" and "I wonder who lives around that lake over there?" It should be a jumping-off point for fleshing out the world even in the middle of play. A simple sketch on graph paper can be every bit as useful as a professional poster map for that--it just has to have enough incidental detail.

Incidental details like odd little woods in the middle of the grasslands, long lakes in the middle of rivers, the odd hill overlooking the great plains, circles of monoliths, cairns, broken towers, etc. should be sprinkled in liberally. They give the PCs landmarks, places to get a better idea of the lay of the land, mysteries to pursue, and otherwise give the world a feeling of verisimilitude. Not every ruin needs to have a dungeon beneath it (though enough should to encourage the player's to look), a five-page history, or even a name. Nor does every hill, though if a random encounter roll turns up goblins, one should consider the possibility that the hill is their lookout. If you come up with names and histories for them all later, wonderful--especially if such development was for the needs of the campaign. If not, they only took a moment to scrawl in anyway.

As long as we can avoid the temptation to barrage the players with six minutes of historical exposition every half-hour, they'll enjoy the detail of a map well made.