Monday, December 3, 2012

Everything You Know About the Map is Wrong

Hic Sunt Dracones.  Terra Incognita.

Certain knowledge is an enemy of wonder.   We frequently see advice on begetting uncertainty through monster usage; use a custom bestiary, or mix up the characteristics of monsters to keep the players on their toes.  For me the problem goes further - the very act of creating statistics to define a thing limits the possibilities by bounding them.  I consider this a curse of Westernism, and blame Aristotle.  This is not escapable on the DM's side of the screen; to define a thing is to reduce it, and as game masters, this is what we do.

But today I'm considering a complimentary topic, regarding the hex map; as modern people, we take for granted that maps are accurate.

Where do fairy tales take place? It's always "once upon a time in a land far, far away", an indeterminate period in an indeterminate kingdom  - the tales can be anywhere in Europe, but left to the reader's imagination.  The great 1930's horror movies I like so much are vaguely placed in central Europe or Germany, someplace east of the Alps but west of Russia - a foggy land of pre-modern technologies and lonely castles and superstitious peasants you also won't find on any maps.

As the game master, you need to know the monster statistics, just as you need a firm grasp of the geography of the game world.  A map is an awfully convenient way to organize information, after all.  But the intent behind custom bestiaries is to keep that sense of discovery and unknown in the encounter system; can't we do a similar situation with our maps and exploration?

I've never placed a high premium on wilderness maps for the players that deviate from the game master's map, but my opinion is clearly changing.  Sure, I've used the simple approach of leaving white space, but for a scrawled warning of "beyond here, there be monsters" or "unknown lands".  How about distortion of scale or coastlines, the way old maps of the globe show a clearly defined Europe, but vague outlines for the New World continents?

Another approach is presenting the map like old street directions.  For instance, I really liked a Salisbury player's map I saw in Pendragon; it was an abstract collection of heraldic devices, landmarks, and walking distances, delineating the extent of player knowledge through areas known via oral tradition.  I could see a similar approach in a nautical campaign where the "map" consists of sailing directions and distances.

What it comes down to is appropriately defining the well-known local world of the players, while keeping the larger world vague or incorrectly described to reinforce the thrill of exploration and wonder.  A nice side effect is that maps of far off places become a much more important source of treasure.  Englishmen in the Age of Sail were knighted for returning home with maps and charts taken from the experienced navigators of the Spanish or Portuguese.  The value of a good map is apparent if you're going to travel off the edge of the world.


  1. Nice concept. I guess the question is how to make it practical? I think one option is for the DM to maintain a private "master map" and for the players to do their own mapping based on DM descriptions and give them occasional partial maps i.e. to a specific place, of greater or lesser accuracy.

    The catch is you need players who want to map, which could really depend on your group.

    The other catch is that the DM can't show the painstakingly detailed map he spend hours drawing to anyone else :)

  2. This is something that has been a gripe of mine in our group's Earthdawn games. Our GM, a lovely man, is enthralled with that setting and all its detail... and he cannot resist the urge to spill it all for us players. He regularly pulls out the official map and points out our location and destination.
    I'm supposing maps would likely be more accurate in a setting with airships such as Earthdawn has, but still... I find this drastically reduces my desire to explore what lies 'over the yonder hill' since I've had it shown to me already.

  3. That's one of the reasons my Gloranthan campaign is set in Umathela: it's one of the areas that has been really poorly mapped in the past, with conflicting versions depending on the published products. The upcoming Guide to Glorantha, however, is going to change the situation.

  4. This is one of the things that intrigues me about the idea of a "pathcrawl" (

    You know routes from here to there, but you could have missed a sidepath, or there could be something off the path that you just haven't heard of yet... Focus on presenting travel as a itinerarium to reinforce that for your players, even if you're doing some conversion into hex locations behind-the-screen.

  5. The last game I ran the players only got to see a map of their immediate area, meaning the fort they were living. They knew the mountains wrapped around them to the north and a forest to the south. A stream lead to a river west into the forest, but not before encountering a small marshland. They only heard general concept of the land they explored until a site was found, such as a crumbling temple of some unknown god, isolated villages and strange land formations that if visited at the right time would become portals to a new land. They kept a very generic type map and looked pretty cool when they were done. I'll have to see if they still have it and post it.

  6. I'd love to hear more examples (like what Tim is saying) where the players start with an abstract / incomplete / partial map and get the chance to fill in the edges, and whether that added to the sense of exploration or not.

    1. Another approach is to give the players what appears to be a completed map, but with the caveat that it was created by So-and-So based on various tales, legends, rumors, and hearsay...and the understanding that not everything on the map is guaranteed to be where the map says it is, or to exist at all!

      That's the approach taken in S. John Ross's Uresia: Grave of Heaven systemless setting book (a review of which is forthcoming on my blog). Oh, and maps are measured not in miles or feet, but in "minutes by foot" or "leagues by hour" and so forth.

  7. I've been working on the maps for my next campaign, set in Eprius Nova (Albania) at the height of the Roman Republic. I've used Google Maps and GIMP to create then. Google maps providing me with the accurate detail I crave and GIMP allowing me to layer the information and create masks for parts the players are not yet aware of. That way I can provide the players with a limited subset of the geography knowledge and expand it as they explore. i.e. the players will start with the coastal geography and location of the larger towns, but no detailed knowledge of mountain valleys, villages and lairs. I've been documenting my approach here.

    I'm seriously considering providing them with a Roman style itinerary to really screw up their world view.