I have a complex love/hate relationship with the process of player map creation. I fully support the notion that exploration is a key component of old school gaming, and that the physical artifact of player drawn maps are a testament to that focus. However, the actual process of play around exploration is one that I think was only ever loosely defined if at all, and unfortunately there are a lot of difficulties in managing it. I find the following interaction at the table all too common:
GM: After coming around the corner you see the passageway extends thirty feet to the north, then turns west.
Mapper: Do you mean the turn happens after thirty feet of straight passageway, or does the thirty feet include the turn?
GM: It is thirty feet to the northern wall.
Mapper: Does that include the square I’m standing in? Or is the total length of passageway forty feet?
Mapper: (Holding up map) Is this right?
This is unpleasant for a variety of reasons. At the surface, it eats up play time, and focuses too much of that time on interaction between the DM and a single player. Worse still, it’s not even particularly fun play for either the DM or that one player. There’s a communication break down in the above that goes beyond simple difficulty describing the length of a passageway, and can quickly lead to frustration on both sides of the screen.
The DM is often working from a map with very explicit dimensions — usually graph paper with ten foot squares. Ultimately though the he doesn’t really want this level of precision when describing the environment to the players. It breaks immersion, moving the group away from feeling like they’re standing in a spooky underground tunnel and towards the awareness of sitting around a table drawing on paper. The characters are surely not carrying tape measures around the dungeon precisely measuring the length of every hallway. Are we playing dungeons and dragons or construction sites and quantity surveyors?
The player though is just trying to play the game well. If this is a game about exploration, then keeping an accurate map is a key tactic for success. A good map is an important tool for making decisions on where to explore next, or to form theories about where hidden areas may exist. Play without any mapping is just as difficult, if not more so, as the players become unable to make any kind of informed decision on where to explore and decline into frustration or boredom.
What we are left with is directly opposing goals. The DM is enticed into using less specific language to heighten immersion while the players demand more specific language for tactical success. How do we play in a way that both sides find engaging?
Modern techniques often involve simply having the DM directly draw for the players, either on graph paper, or a battle mat, or using fancy digital tables to reveal sections of a pre-generated image. It works for video games, so why not roleplaying games? I’d argue that this approach is simply a shifting of the scales too far in the direction of game-playing tactics. The players are satisfied with understanding the map, and the DM does not have to spend excess time converting imagery into words, but lost is the sense of immersion. The exploration portion of the game becomes rote, and I’d argue that this is a clear step in the direction of changing the theme of the game from exploration to battle tactics. “Why even bother with that boring walking around hallways part, let’s get on to the next fight!”
There are also ways to shift the scales in the other direction, though strangely I’ve only seen them as player initiated. For example, I’ve seen players make higher level conceptual maps without graph paper that simply define locations, connections, and decision points. These maps don’t distinguish between a short straight passage and a long curving one if there are no branches or doors along them. They simply show a short line connecting room A to room B. While this method is faster, cuts down confused language, and increases immersion, it also sacrifices some of the tactical use of maps. They won’t, for example, be as good at revealing potential locations of secret doors. Also, as I’ve said, I’ve only seen this approach taken as a short-cut on the player’s side. Would players accept a DM-mandate of this kind of practice? It’s hard to imagine players not balking at a “no graph paper, unlined paper maps only” rule.
I suppose we could try starting from a source map without explicit scales or measurements. Has anyone ever tried this? It sounds terrifying to me but I’m kind of curious. Does anyone have any other ideas?
I started writing this in hopes that like many topics by describing the problem I’d arrive at a solution, or at least some ideas to lead me towards one. That didn’t quite seem to materials though. Perhaps if I sleep on it I’ll come to something. Or maybe one of my clever readers has some good ideas?