Recently someone emailed me and asked about how I approached using maps in my various games. This question is a bit bigger than my usual “Ask the guild” fare, so I decided that it deserved a longer response by itself – because it’s quite contentious! There are actually two general schools of thought for how you should present and use aids like maps in a game, with one being “Not at all” and the other having a variety of different styles. Depending on what you’re trying to do, providing your players with a map or making them draw it themselves can be a core part of the gameplay. On the other hands, sometimes you might not need a map and there are various circumstances where that speeds up play quite substantially.
So, firstly, let’s talk about where you might want to use maps and why you might not.
The Theater of the Mind
Generally speaking, sometimes it’s actually not that useful to you or your players to have a precise map of what is going on. An encounter where things are moving a lot or is a part of a chase, for example, might not benefit from having a map. In these cases, encounters can be done easily by keeping less precise track of where everything is and by generalizing (more or less). Simpler encounters, where you’re unlikely to be murdering PCs any time soon, are also useful to be run in this way. If nobody is going to live beyond a round or the combat would be so easy, the player characters aren’t expected to lose, preparing a map is kind of a waste of time.
And this really is the crux of the issue: Maps are play aids and can be kind of time intensive to actually prepare before the game. Especially if you’re the sort who likes to have things ready for the session. During the game, as I have observed many times, drawing a tactical map out while playing can slow things down considerably. Depending on the frequency that you and your players meet, not to mention how long you have when you do, this can really take a big bite out of your roleplaying time. As a result, it might only be worthwhile preparing your big showcase time encounters precisely, while otherwise going with a more gridless or non-precise map (like the above) just to give players an idea.
In my Dungeons and Dragons or 13th Age games, I tend to do precisely this where I’m using a mixture of precisely drawn gridded tactical maps and using just general “The guy is standing next to the bar” kind of descriptions. My decision to use a map or not is entirely dependent on how fair I feel this combat will be to the players. If it’s just a couple of random guys in a bar, where there is no major threat to the players and I can just handwave distances/objects easily, I won’t use a map. This is really good for unexpected battles or for fights that are more about advancing a story/plot than any challenge. Any combat where I want the fight to be dangerous or potentially challenge the players, I draw and use a precise map for.
Maps like the above from Keep on the Shadowfell (4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons) are precise tactical maps, which are designed to give players as much information as possible. If something is in the room and visible, like barrels, tables, alchemy tables and such forth it’s displayed on the above map. The barrels up top even have a handy triangle on them, which is to instantly remind anyone who looks at it that the area is difficult terrain. Adventures that use tactical maps like this will often go a step further, putting where the enemies are o the map from the rooms description as well. All of this takes a while to set up and draw, especially if you’re going to stop the game to draw out the area for each combat as the players move around.
Additionally, this is a considerable time and potentially a monetary sink as well. In my games, I always like to have my tactical combat maps drawn up ahead of time. So this means either sitting down with suitable grid paper or printing them off at a usable scale. It’s worth noting that when people use tactical maps like the above at the table, it tends to have 1″ squares and miniatures (or tokens) that suitably fit into that size. The miniatures or tokens made by both Wizards of the Coast and Paizo fit this scale perfectly, for example. Some DMs dislike using maps and models for this reason, because it can drastically increase their preparation or monetary investment in running the game. Plus I will concede, if you get really into this sort of thing, it can begin to feel more like a tactical wargame in some ways.
As a result, sometimes a decent compromise is not to use a highly specific 1 to 1 map of the area. Instead, using a simple map that shows the general room or surroundings or even art of the dungeon – like the first image I posted – to give players a sense of space. Then allow things to just proceed from there, almost like you’re playing TotM style, but allowing the player to say “I hide behind that iron maiden up there”. You’re not fussed if they could precisely reach that iron maiden and get there in particular, you just let them do it because it’s on the map (and you’re generalizing distances). This style of using maps is generally how I run my non-DnD style games, which don’t use (or worry about) precise combat systems.
In Night’s Black Agents the above map was used to represent a tanker overrun by a vampire shipping company, who used the crude oil transportation as cover for something more devious: Actual live people. Within one of the holds of the ship, was a secret compartment where they would stash some of the living cargo. Every now and again, some of the Renfield crew would even go down in there and indulge in their unusual tastes. The agents job was to infiltrate the ship and figure out what was going on, then stop whatever plot the vampires had.
Now as you can see, this isn’t a precise map but it gives the players enough of an idea what’s going on that they can suggest things their character wants to do. In a fight, I just cared about what overall rooms the agents were in during the combat scene – not if they were precisely standing next to the flipped mahogany table or elaborate ottoman couches. The best thing about a map like the above is I found it in only a minute of googling and just printing it out like it was (or multiple copies in fact) would be sufficient preparation. In fact one thing to bear in mind, depending on what you’re playing, is that games set in real settings like Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents can make great use of the internet. Architectural plans and schematics like the above are easy to find, clear to players and make your life much easier!
Finally, if you are using a map there is one really important rule: Show the players only what you want them to see. The difficulty with using some 4E maps and similar, was that their maps naturally don’t have a clean player version with trap markers and secret rooms removed. Naturally this can be a bit hard if you want to disguise these things and honestly, while players shouldn’t metagame it’s hard to ignore the secret room elephant in the room (literally). Likewise, make sure if you’re doing a tactical map that the most important elements are on it. A few ottoman couches, probably not important, that large rail system with out of control minecarts flying around it? That’s probably important. Essentially, anything that dramatically effects the combat should be shown on a map – extraneous details that don’t can be ignored.
Remember that the point of using a map is to make life easier and speed up gameplay at the table. If your maps are doing neither, then they aren’t performing their function of being a play aid to help the game along.