Maps in roleplaying games: Unexplored opportunities

Tabletop roleplaying is a game that revolves around maps. If you’re not placing figurines on a map surface, you’re navigating a mental map that has been provided to you by the gamemaster’s description. There’s a sizable cottage industry in map illustration in the Tabletop RPG hobby.

But often, beyond providing the locations of things that exist in the space where encounters will take place and needing to be understood by all the players, there’s not much thought put into how the map affects game play.

At least it seems so to me, because that’s how I usually operate.

I’m not generally one to put much effort into maps. Don’t get me wrong, I do love a good map. When they’re provided in a rulebook or campaign module, I love them and use them until they’re falling apart at the seams. The lovingly detailed maps of Middle-Earth (the featured image is one of them) were one of my favorite things about the old MERP game. But when I’m making up a scenario or campaign of my own, the maps will be rudimentary at best…and that’s if they exist at all.

A few chicken-scratchy lines on a piece of scrap paper will have to do. Kind of like this.

“Is that the train?”

But a post from Castalia House on Soviet mapmaking — the commies were very, very serious about their maps in the Cold War era — made me think a bit more about the interesting role maps can play in a tabletop RPG.

Exploration and surveying are the necessary antecedents to mapmaking. Before a cartographer can do his thing, someone has to find all the mappable features of the landscape and accurately measure their dimensions and the distances between them.

In an Old West/Wild West roleplaying setting, this could be an endless source of adventure. Surveying was good business in those days, and not necessarily a job for the faint of heart. The Lewis and Clark expedition was essentially just a surveying expedition…but what a trip it was.

The surveyor back east was probably laying out plats in a peaceful township. While the surveyor out west could be doing the same thing, he could also be risking the wrath of hostile Indians (or the miners themselves) while surveying mining claims in remote areas; rafting wild rivers to see where they lead; traversing a parched desert; or trying not to freeze to death on a mountain pass.

More than that, there’s unexplored potential in simply having different maps. This piece of the Castalia House post really got me thinking:

An innovation is a game with three maps: the actual terrain, the map possessed by Side A and the map possessed by Side B.  Mistakes or omissions in the map a side possesses may prove consequential during game play.  Depending on the period of history the differences between the three maps could range from the immense to subtle. Compare a game simulating Cortez in Mexico to a 1985 Fulda Gap scenario. This concept can also be extended to different mental images of the same terrain possessed by two different sides (think of a city block in Baghdad as seen by the U.S. player and the insurgent).

Wargames and computer games were the focus here, but the potential extends to tabletop roleplaying as well.

The “hidden until explored” feature that came into computer games has always been a factor in tabletop RPGs. The DM knows all, and reveals only a small portion of his knowledge. The entire game revolves around the fact that none of the player-characters know what’s around that corner or behind that door. Heck, they may not even know there IS a door.

But there’s a lot of unexplored potential here. If your players go into a scenario with a map in hand, how accurate is that map really? I love the idea of two opposing forces — or maybe two groups of PCs who need to coordinate their actions — going into a situation with very different and possibly inadequate maps.

I should note that when I say this idea is unexplored, I mean only that it’s unexplored by me. Plenty of people have probably done this in their games. It’s just that I hadn’t thought of it, and nobody I’ve played with seems to have thought of it either.

If you’ve done this in a roleplaying campaign or seen it done, leave a comment; I’d love to know what you did and how it worked.

One thought on “Maps in roleplaying games: Unexplored opportunities

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  1. I write and publish adventures that are mapless. I describe the terrain where an event should take place but let the GM place that in their own game.

    The last one was two layered. The current inhabitant was using structures on an island for their own purposes but those structures massively predated the current inhabitant. So we had an obvious story of someone raising and training a private army but quite literally below that was the site of a Cthulhu-esque Old Ones site where Shoggoths were being matured.

    Of course Shoggoths do not die of old age so digging around where the characters are not wanted could be very bad for them.

    Liked by 1 person

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