Cartography to Conjure By: The Beauty of Player Maps

If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map; otherwise you’ll never make a map of it afterwards.

— J. R. R. Tolkien

I love a good map. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of reading too many fantasy novels in my youth; it seemed as though every book had its own map of some strange land — Middle-Earth, Witch World, Earthsea, the Hyborian Age, and so on. A good map is like a good setting: it tantalizes you with hints about the world while actually saying very little, leaving you free to imagine the place in whatever detail suits your fancy.

Few things in a game please me more than seeing a well-drawn player’s map of some part of the game world. The pleasure here is different; instead of teasing me with the mystery of the unknown, a player-drawn map turns a funhouse mirror on the original work. Viewed through someone else’s eyes, we see what the player found interesting by observing what they emphasized or overlooked. And any mistakes on the map turn into entertaining surprises as I wonder how they came to be!

I provided my players with a map of the surface works of my game’s megadungeon, the Chateau d’Ambreville. Tavis proceeded to sketch out the castle for himself, and followed this up by adding various notes based on the group’s reconnaissance of the area. Both maps are posted below for your entertainment!


16 Responses to “Cartography to Conjure By: The Beauty of Player Maps”

  1. March 11, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    The more finished one is very succinct and yet, pleasing to the eye.
    –Nice. :)

  2. March 11, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    You know, I’m not sure which map you’re referring to as “more finished.” Would you clarify?

  3. March 11, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    It’s interesting to see that your original has arrows showing directions to the town etc. I didn’t pay attention to that when I made my copy below, but wrote it in later after looking at the village map. I found it very satisfying to know the names of the towers and fill in details about them via exploration!

  4. March 11, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    Hey Tavis, I’m glad that you enjoyed the map and its interaction with actual play! How does it feel to be on the other side of the mapmaking process, given that Maldoor has been producing so many maps as a player in your White Box game?

    (Hey Maldoor! If you read this, stop in and give us your perspective!)

  5. 5 maldoor
    March 12, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    For me maps are fun in a bunch of ways. Lemme ramble through some of them…

    An emerging map is a story-telling device – literally, if you add comments and name features after memorable events. For instance, the “Doghead’s Chasm” on the first level of our Lost City map, celebrating Doghead’s amazing escape.

    A physical map serves a valuable purpose in helping the players and DM to be playing on a similar mental map.

    Many folks have played the game where one person or team writes instructions for some common task like making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. The second person or team then follows the instructions very literally, and rarely does anything resembling a sandwich get created, right?

    In a similar way I would love to play a few hours of dungeon exploration without the players or DM sharing any drawings, just verbal description from the DM. Then everyone takes 5 minutes on their own to draw a map of where they think they have been, and a paragraph on what it looks like. I suspect while many features will be common across the maps – “the room where we killed the goblins and found the dominoes” – a lot of the corridors, turnings, and other interstices will be vague and different, and the descriptive paragraphs will also be quite different.

    (As an aside, I think this is fine. D&D should live in the imagination of each player, and that is cool. But it is also pretty neat that a table full of people, each with their own vivid imagination and preferred fantasy decor can find a shared mental space to play in, and maps help with the process.)

    Maps are tactical if you want them to be (I mean the classic approach-planning sense of tactical, not the minis and 10′-radius sort of way that is typical of 3e and 4e). I like how a well-done map makes things apparent in their absence; the classic example is the perfect square on the map making the players suspect a secret door here. But maps are not just for finding alternate routes, chokepoints, traps, or ambushes. The act of making one forces the player to re-view and see the dungeon (wilderness, castle, town, or whatever) in a way that is different from the moment to moment experience of play. Every time I sit down and start to make a map of what we explored last session, I realize there are a whole host of things I do not know about where we just explored, things I did not think about at the time – like Tavis did not really notice the directions to town until after play.

    In the old-school sense of overcoming obstacles a map is key for finding non-linear solutions for things and supports a whole style of play around exploration and avoidance. Look at Eric and Tavis’ maps above, and there is a whole sandbox worth of choice around approaches to the Chateau, possible allies, signaling value of the name assigned to each tower, etc.

    And last, I like how maps are a tangible artifact. While I have zero interest in LARP and costume wearing, I do think having some artifacts to be passed around help create a shared atmosphere for a game – rulebooks, minis, dice all contribute to this, but a map acts as a sort of bridge between the players at the table, and the characters in the game.

  6. March 12, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Great reply, Maldoor! I don’t have anything to add.

    Would you like to post some of your maps of the Lost City of Thracia?

  7. March 15, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    “How does it feel to be on the other side of the mapmaking process, given that Maldoor has been producing so many maps as a player in your White Box game?”

    It’s fun! I took the role of mapper in the games of James Edward Raggi IV’s that I played in at Ropecon (in some of the earlier ones, I don’t think that was part of the players’ toolkit but I knew it was essential; in the overnight Tomb of Horrors we had multiple players mapping) and definitely found it gave me a more concrete visualization of what was going on and a way to generate ideas about what we should explore. I dunno why I haven’t done more Glantri mapping; is there usually someone else who’s not coming to mind who takes that role? Certainly in some of the recent adventures I’ve been part of you’ve laid out a map that we’ve used as players, but I think it’d be worthwhile to nevertheless map which parts we’ve been in and seen as opposed to those which we just believe are there.

  8. 8 maldoor
    March 15, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    > Would you like to post some of your maps of the Lost City of Thracia?

    Someday when time permits I intend to pull together a Mule post on the evolution of our Thracia maps, from the first few sessions to present. In text I will point out how the map was used as a tool.

    I do not have the time to devote to writing that post properly today, however – work beckons.

  9. March 15, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    I dunno why I haven’t done more Glantri mapping; is there usually someone else who’s not coming to mind who takes that role?

    Nope, we haven’t had a consistent mapper. You, Adrian and Chris have more or less taken turns with the mapping. I am ashamed in this regard to have insulted Chris’ mapping ability, especially as I may be at fault by way of describing the layout poorly. In any case, the Glantri game lacks both the centralized mapping efforts of a Maldoor and a single dungeon worthy of such efforts — the party is on its sixth dungeon now, having explored bits and pieces of the Ghost Tower, the Caves of Chaos, Quasqueton, the Vault of Illusion and Mienville Tower. We’ll see if the grand scale of the dungeons beneath the Chateau d’Ambreville yield a more dramatic player-driven mapping effort!

  10. May 23, 2016 at 2:16 pm


  11. July 2, 2016 at 8:56 am

    私が 推薦する 銀座のレーザー脱毛はこちらとなります。

  12. July 4, 2016 at 6:41 am


  13. February 3, 2017 at 5:21 pm


  14. March 8, 2017 at 9:46 am


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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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