I was helping a DM friend prep for a session the other day, and we got talking about maps. I really like maps. I'm not a cartography nerd or anything. I can't draw a coastline for shit, and I'm not very proficient in map-making software.
But I still consider maps one of those invaluable tools in the DM's toolkit, with an amazing effort-to-output ratio in terms of campaign content. Maps are easy, maps deliver, and maps probably deserve a spot at your table!
First, let's be clear that I am not talking about combat maps. Grid-based combat (or hex-based combat, if that's your thing) isn't used at every table. Some people love it, some people hate it. There's a lot of good advice out there already about designing interesting tactical encounters, and this post isn't going to add to that.
Instead, I'm talking about using maps as a narrative device. The point I want to drive home is that you don't have to be "good" at making maps to enjoy the benefits of using a map. You certainly don't have to be good at drawing.
My maps are pretty much just chicken-scratch on plain white paper. Sometimes they don't even have labels or features other than terrain. Sometimes they are more detailed. Occasionally I will steal a map from some module or website, and just replace some labels/names with my own.
So, why should you use a map?
Maps streamline player interaction with locations
The main advantage of maps is that they help your players interact with the location(s) you've set out for them. The players no longer have to rely on the DM's description alone to figure out where they want to go and what they want to interact with.
Sometimes your descriptions are great, and your players walk away with a good understanding of the location and how they can interact with it.
Often, you will just want to describe the location's important features. And you either have to restrict yourself to describing important features only, in which case everything becomes Chekov's Gun, or you inevitably end up throwing in some "unimportant" features, to give the world some depth and sometimes act as a Red Herring.
There is always the risk that you spend too much time describing unimportant features, or too little time describing important features. Or that your players just miss something, or forget about an area/feature entirely until you remind them. Maps take the burden off of the DM to lay out every important feature of a location in its initial description.
Giving the players an overview of the location and inviting them to investigate further via interaction with areas/features makes it easy for you to drip out important and unimportant details organically, over separate scenes, and avoid worrying about the players missing an opportunity to interact with something cool or important (except by their own dumb choices).
Maps give structure to free-form encounters
One of the best uses of maps is as a supplement to combat, social and skill-based encounters. This can be storming a fortress; chasing down a thief; exploring a dungeon; sneaking into a cathedral; investigating a mansion-murder, or even just travelling from point A to point B.
Maps can provide an overall structure and flow to your skill challenges, and help the players visualize their progress as they overcome successive obstacles.
Your story structure doesn't have to be open-ended to use a map. Even if you're running a straightforward linear travelling sequence with a set destination, a map can be helpful to chart progress, provide fodder for visual descriptions, and even introduce decision points (e.g. "the bridge is out!", "the rats ate our food, should we cut through that forest to save some time?").
If you are running a branching or open-ended adventure, then maps become doubly important as an easy way to present your PCs with parallel decision paths, while at the same time constraining them to the limited content you have prepared.
Maps help players build their own descriptions
An overlooked benefit of maps, that you might find more or less relevant depending on your table, is that they can increase player immersion and buy-in by letting them "fill in" your descriptions with their own head-canon.
Players will generally "know" what a Nobles' District looks like. If you describe the Docks as poor and grimey, and show the players they're situated on the far end of the river estuary, your players will already be conjuring up their own mental picture of that area.
This makes it easier to get away with just a few sentences of fluff, and skip straight to the important descriptions and social encounters. If you struggle with longer verbal descriptions, like I do, this can be incredibly helpful.
Maps allow for easier "back-filling" and improvisation
If your DM style involves a fair bit of improv, you should look at maps as a very effort-efficient tool for campaign design. Having a general overview of the location where the adventure is taking place allows you to "back-fill" your content across the map as the players enter each location. Think of it as a form of "top-down" campaign design, where you sketch out some big details and leave the rest to fill in when you like.
You can place your prepared encounters wherever the adventurers land. If you know the general features of the area, it becomes much easier to improvise random encounters that fit the setting (Barbarian North, Civilized Coast, Elfish Wilds).
You don't even have to have all your towns named! It just might happen that the next town your PCs stumble upon was always going to be Phandelver. Having a firm grasp on your adventure setting will also allow you to better react to unorthodox player decisions that you'd like to allow.
When should I use a map?
I am of course up-selling maps. I think they're great. I am a map shill. But you shouldn't go mapping every single village your PCs pass through. That would obviously get exhausting.
One of the reasons we like maps so much is that they don't require a whole lot of effort to be useful. You can draw up a shitty MS Paint map for your scene or encounter, and it will serve its purpose just as well as a professionally-made map, even if it looks like garbage and your players have to squint a bit. You can even make a pretty map, I don't care.
So it's important to know when to use maps. It's more of an art than a science, but the rule of thumb is that you should consider using a map when the location you're presenting contains important scenes, features, or sub-locations that you want your players to interact with in a semi-structured way.
Always, your main questions should be "Will my players spend a lot of time interacting with this location?" and "Will a map help in some way?".
Good places to use maps
- Exploration or travel sequences in unsafe/interesting environments
- Towns, Cities, or Regions where the players will spend a lot of time
- Locations with multiple important features/sub-locations
- Complex skill challenges that interact with location (e.g., sneaking into the bank vault; escaping a jail)
- Complex combat encounters (e.g., storming the encampment; defending the city)
- Complex social encounters, rarely (e.g., a murder mystery)
Bad places to use maps
- Random villages
- Travel sequences in safe/uninteresting environments
- Towns, Cities, or Regions where the players will not spend a lot of time
- Inns, Shops, and other basic locations
- Simple skill challenges (e.g., navigating a fog, crossing a river)
- Skill challenges that don't interact with location in a some way (e.g., solving a puzzle; scamming a noble)
- Most social encounters (e.g., visiting a Temple/Castle/University) unless there's a good reason for it
While I maintain that you don't have to go all-in on creating super fancy maps to enjoy their benefits at your table, if you're of the cartographic bent, this post has an excellent compilation of map-making resources. Me, I'll stick with my scribbles.
What do you guys think? How often use maps at your table? Do you have any maps you're proud of, or any resources/tips for mapmaking?
Cheers and happy gaming.
- How should we use maps?
- How to Run Roleplaying Encounters
- How to Roleplay Exploration or Fun Map Travel
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "The Case for (chicken-scratch) Maps" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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- My views on understanding the alignment chart and morality, for those still interested in it. Content Warning.
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