Game Master Diaries #6: Making Maps
This week is all about maps! From large-scale global maps, to city maps and dungeon maps, you should never leave home without some amount of cartographic preparation. Different GMs use maps differently, and the style of your adventure may require more or fewer maps than you typically would use, but unless your story is completely abstract when it comes to physical space, there will come a time when you need a map. If you were to peek behind my game master screen during a typical RPG session, you would see somewhere between two and five maps on average. Some of these maps are there simply for reference and may not come into play at all, but others are essential to maintaining the flow and cohesion of the game. In this post we’re going to talk about the different types of maps and how I like to use them in play; if that sounds like fun, buckle up! (If that doesn’t sound like fun, nobody is forcing you to read about it, but we will probably look down on you a little bit.)
We’ll start with the largest possible scale: global. Depending on your setting, your global map may actually be a map of an entire planet, but it could just as easily be something much larger or significantly smaller. The point of a global map is that it is the largest possible map that will be relevant to your game. In a modern setting with fast, reliable travel readily available, this will be a world map, but in a medieval setting where no one has yet circumnavigated the globe, it could just be a continent or a few countries. On the other side of the scale, in a galaxy-spanning sci-fi epic a global map may include all the important systems in the local cluster. Whatever the case may be, most games need a global map, and most of the time you will want to give your players access to that map. Having a common reference point that represents the known world as far as your game is concerned can help to get players on the same page geographically and keep them there. It can also give them ideas of what types of places they may like to explore in the game, and it can give them a greater sense of your game’s scope. This level of map does not need to be super detailed. In fact, sometimes it’s better if it’s not. The more detailed information you put on a global map, the less there will be for your players to discover when they focus in on a region. If you have a lot of time, and/or you really like to draw maps, you could draw two global maps, one with all the details that you keep hidden, and one that is simplified and public knowledge for your players. If your world is a version of Earth that doesn’t vary significantly from the Earth that we know, you can save yourself some time by simply using existing maps and the geographical knowledge of your players. This is what I did for my ongoing GURPS adventure, Shadow of the Ancients, a Lovecraftian cosmic horror/mystery game set in the America of the 1950’s.
The next level down in terms of scale will depend on the size of your global map. If you started with an entire galaxy, then the next level of detail could be a solar system, but if it was a world map, it may be a continent. If it was a continent, then it may be a nation, but if it was a nation, it may be a state or county. Regardless, the steps in between the global map and the small-scale maps are all up to your desires and needs. Is it important that you have more details available about the continent your players start on? Map it out! Do you need to have easy access to travel times between planets in a system? Map it out! Use the level of detail that you will find useful, because maps are tools after all. If these intermediate maps provide sensitive information that you don’t want your players to have access to, keep them hidden. Sometimes it may be useful to have a character with area knowledge about a certain kingdom or continent, and in those cases you can give that player a map that represents their character’s geographical knowledge.
The smallest level of map making is variable as well. Simply put, the smallest map you can make is the smallest location you could need a map for. If your game takes place outdoors, that may be a county survey map, but if you are going to be investigating in the residential areas of a city, you will need a city map and several maps of individual houses. Whatever type of story you are running, make sure that you have maps for the closest you may want to zoom in, as well as the farthest you want to zoom out. Don’t get crazy with the minutiae though. If the floor plan of the houses in your city doesn’t have any significance to the story, then you don’t need to spend hours making a map for every house. You could either make a map that is the average home, and adjust it slightly for each house your players visit, or you could just make up houses on the fly using houses you’ve seen as inspiration. If you don’t need to know the details of a particular thing, then you don’t need to make a map of it. These smaller scale maps can be a challenge when trying to decide how much to show your players. On the one hand, it can be a lot easier to show them a map of where they are than it is to describe it all in detail, only to have one player look up at the end and say, “What? Sorry I wasn’t listening.” On the other hand, you don’t want to give away too much information about where your characters are because then your players will be less prone to explore. I tried something recently in my ongoing game that I liked quite a bit, but it is a little time-intensive. I bought a pad of 1″ ruled easel paper and drew up a large-scale version of my small map, but I left off the details and simply gave the outlines of rooms and buildings. Next I made individual rooms to scale with the big map, and I put the extra details in each room that I had left off originally. When my players were exploring, I was able to lay down each room on the big map as they entered it, giving them a good sense of what their characters were seeing, without giving away too much too soon.
There is an even more detailed kind of map, the dungeon map, but that gets into the topic of next week’s entry: dungeon design. For now, I’ll leave you with these three levels of map: global, intermediate, and small. At each level, the amount of detail is up to you, but I have found that the more prepared you are for any possibility, the more easily you can improvise when your players throw you a curve ball. Sure, you may not have planned for your players to go to the next village over, but it doesn’t hurt to have an idea of where it is and what it looks like, just in case.