Let me begin by saying that I just about gnawed my own foot off from envy that I missed the inaugural expedition of the Adventure Cartography Society. I am a philocartist of the first order, and a nicely drawn dungeon map is a thing of beauty. But I’m mostly a player these days, which alters my perspective. Maps are neat to draw and a joy to study, but they’re very boring to reproduce via spoken direction.
If you’re mapping a dungeon the way we used to map in middle school, you’re basically taking dictation. If the Dungeon Master is the type of guy who really gets into drawing sophisticated maps, this will likely be a very long and error-prone conversation.
A fictional, but hardly implausible, example:
DUNGEON MASTER: It’s like a capital J, but the horizontal part is really fat and long. I guess it’s like a capital L on its side? But fat on one side and stubby on the other side. Oh, and there’s a 20×10 chunk missing at the place where it rounds the corner.
MAPPER: Like this?
DUNGEON MASTER: Like that, yeah, except . . . Oh here, let me see it.
OTHER PLAYERS: (expire from a surfeit of tedium)
If you’re the mapper, it’s frustrating; if you’re not the mapper, it’s incredibly dull. If you’re the Dungeon Master you’re too busy instructing the mapper that you don’t realize that you’re boring several friends who made an effort to be here tonight.
Don’t get me started on all the weird things the Dungeon Master’s encouraged to do with maps. Supposedly these sorts of tricks are good sadistic fun. But from a player’s perspective the options at that point are to painstakingly re-map everything (at which point any sane players will remember they have an obligation elsewhere) or to just say, “Screw the map,” and all the Dungeon & Master’s lovingly drawn details will go to waste. And either way the Dungeon Master will feel insulted, as he or she should because it’s a dick move. I would be astonished if these Map Tricks were ever as entertaining in execution as promised.
Dungeons & Dragons is a game where there are a lot of sub-systems which aren’t particularly elegant, but get the job done because the procedure involved isn’t a necessary part of the game. As others have duly noted, the combat engine is highly abstracted–so you really have to throw in a lot of descriptive color to convey the frenzy of Sword & Sorcery fiction. The allegedly Vancian magic system conveys neither the tongue-in-cheek contrivances of Vance’s Dying Earth stories nor the eerie occult horror of Clark Ashton Smith. But, y’know, screw it: D&D is a game that involves fighting and magic, but it’s not about fighting and magic.
And that’s what makes the whole mapping business so frustrating. Broadly speaking Dungeons & Dragons is about the thrill of exploring strange, perilous places and using your imagination to overcome the challenges you’ll find. Making a detailed map basically excludes (say) 75% of your players for a notable chunk of game time. It’s neither entertaining nor, in the main, all that important–but it’s a tradition. You simply must have a map.
When I’ve made dungeons, I usually solve this problem by handing the players a treasure map with some details already included: this way “mapping” basically means adding notes or sketches to the existing diagram. Or I won’t even bother with any details myself: I’ll draw some circles connected by criss-crossing lines and declare these to be rooms and tunnels. These can be supplemented with a quick sketch on a battle-grid in case positioning becomes crucially important.
What you lose by this approach is the “Aha!” moment where someone looks at the map and realizes these two corridors must meet up, or that this particular empty space would be ideal for a secret room. But those moments tend to be rare in my experience.
Alternately, one could mount a digital projector on the ceiling and display the map on the table for all to see–but I suspect our public venues would take exception to that.
But generally I think the game’s Mapping System really needs to be updated. Maybe there’s a way we could just e-mail packets of 60 x 60 chunks of the dungeon, to display on a laptop or PDA. I’d be curious to hear suggestions.