mapping is stupid

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.

6 Responses to “mapping is stupid”

  1. October 12, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    It’s worth thinking about how to maximize the benefits of maps and minimize the tedium. Next game I think I’ll give y’all sketches on one wipe-erase Tac-Tile at a time; that way the players have a visual for what they see, and maldoor (or whoever else is maintaining the map) can use it to guide his cartography without needing as much dialogue.

    I’ve played with a visual projector before in 3.5/4E games – they’re great for visual aids (one DM used Google Image to find pictures of caves, forests, etc. that evoked the one he was describing) and pretty good for tactical battlemats, but all of the virtual tabletop-style programs that would handle a scrolling exploration-scale map, dynamic lighting, etc. had too high a learning curve for me.

    I think the main benefit of a map is that it guides planning – the players are more likely to want to go talk to Ondessa the Sphinx because the map reminds them she’s there, and makes explicit which challenges they might face to get there – and makes players take ownership of the information that they have.

    I also like designing an adventure so that the PCs already know the layout of the dungeon before they enter (this is especially useful if you’re using pre-drawn maps or Dwarven Forge terrain, so that you don’t have to cover and reveal parts of it as they move around). However, a map that’s handed to the players isn’t as useful as one they make themselves, because the act of making it forces you to think about the thing you’re mapping.

    P.S. For the sake of player-cred I should say that I was the one who volunteered to map in Raggi’s games at Ropecon and chgowiz’s at Gen Con, so this isn’t me-as-DM prescribing what I think other players should do!

  2. October 12, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    As the DM, I never experience the tedious delays you propose, because I don’t bother to check the players’ map for accuracy. The inaccuracies that result are high entertainment on my side of the DM screen!

    Seriously, though, there’s no reason not to have the DM sketch the map out for the players. That’s one advantage of the overlarge wet-erase battlemat: the DM can draw the map as the adventurers progress, and the players can make their own copy of that map along the way, in their own time. Pre-drawn “treasure maps” are also good, especially insofar as they’re incomplete and/or inaccurate; the map is a prop, a puzzle and an obstacle, all at once.

  3. 3 Rod
    October 12, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    This topic has been worked over in the various interviews and Q&As with Gary Gygax, Rob Kuntz, et. al. that have appeared over the years. The main point as I remember it is that even in the earliest days, different players had vastly different levels of interest in map-making. I’ll try to draw some specifics from memory, which as always is treacherous, but nevertheless: Ernie Gygax was apparently highly enthusiastic about making accurate maps and most of the “confuse the mapper” tricks recorded from Castle Greyhawk were aimed specifically and exactly at him. By contrast, Rob Kuntz was happy to rely on memory, intution, tricks like always turning left, and so forth. He’s said that Robilar had elven boots and a ring of invisibility, and with these he used to go on epic solo scouting missions into the Castle, just roaming corridor after corridor observing for future expeditions.

    What I take away from all this is that there is absolutely no reason to believe that you MUST play the game of mapping and counter-mapping in order to experience “how the game was really played”, or becuase it’s a purported tradition or whatever. The game was “really played” many different ways, even from one player to the next in the same campaign, almost from day one of the hobby.

  4. October 12, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    I’ve also heard that Ernie was the one whose interest in mapping caused that mini-game to evolve. I’ll see if I can draw him about about that at Gary Con II – which all y’all should also go to & assist me in this endeavor!

  5. October 13, 2009 at 3:47 am

    My original group included one player who had a near-photographic memory for maps (as does Rob K, apparently). So I never even had to consider the issue. A few years ago I had a player with an artistic background, and he was VERY into getting all the proportions right, etc. I concur that such is not really interesting, certainly for me. Absent some special conditions (I recently ran an adventure with a whole host of teleporters) I generally let the players go back to areas they have been, assume they know the way out, etc. I want them to focus on the room descriptions, puzzles, etc. rather than the mapping.

    As you point out I think there were players that really enjoyed the map as a puzzle in its own right, and while I can understand that I’ve not had a player with that predilection.

  6. 6 maldoor
    October 13, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    The transmission of the map from the DM to the players can fall prey to James’ example above, especially if the DM delights in taking advantage of an awkward mechanic to confuse the players, or there is an especially detail-oriented player who insists on detailed maps (I admit this can be me, if not kept in line by wandering monster checks).

    But most of my time playing D&D, mapping has not been a problem: the DM somehow sketches out each bit of map as the characters get to it, and the players eventually piece the bits together to create a larger map. The focus is to facilitate movement and group shared-comprehension of what they are “seeing.” This may not be “by the book” but is practical and makes sense, and the player maps only need to be good enough to create a shared sense of the situation. This is mostly what I have seen in our Lost City sessions (with the exception of some of Tiburon’s astral exploration, but that is a different issue.) James may disagree – and as the mapper, I may not notice if we are getting bogged down.

    I see the real problem in James’ critique of mapping not with the mapping rules but:

    “the way we used to map in middle school”

    Speaking for myself only, pretty much everything I did in middle school was awkward, burdened by a foolish regard for consistency, and a general missing the forest-for-the-trees-ness.

    @Tavis, above re: getting the best out of mapping. On top of being a tactical tool for planning, the map can -and should! – be a player-created record of what happened, a travel-guide, history, and commentary on past events – as the game goes on the map should be an important part of the mythology, along with spoken-stories and in-jokes.

    I also note that I have been mis-spelling Ondessa the Sphinx as Montessa.

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