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If you’re like most people, you’re capable of effectively keeping track of seven plus or minus two “things” at a time. This phenomenon is sometimes called “the magical number seven plus or minus two.” We can remember and juggle around seven pieces of information—numbers, words, names—and use them without too much effort. Much more than seven, and we start to lose track, dropping details and never quite picking them back up.
These “things” are chunked together in our minds in ways that make them meaningful as a unit to us, so we can remember a “cat” as “that furry thing that keeps knocking my coffee off of the table” (one “unit” of information) rather than as a collection of cat-like traits, with each trait being its own “unit”.
We’re a tool-using species—when we find ourselves reaching the limit of our abilities or our willingness to expend effort, we find ways to offload some of that work to things we make. When we’re sick of lifting things, we use levers. When we want to move farther than it’s convenient to walk, we use wheels. When we need to remember what more than seven things are, we use lists. When we need to remember where more than seven things are, we use maps. When we need to remember what more than seven things are, we use lists. When we need to remember where more than seven things are, we use maps. Share79Tweet1+11Reddit2Email
It’s tempting to think of maps as suitable only for huge set-piece battles and aggressively tactical games that linger over detailed rulings on range and movement. There’s nothing wrong with that, but having a physical representation of characters and objects in space is useful for so much more than just dungeon crawls and skirmish games. So with that in mind, here are seven (plus or minus two) reasons why you may want to inject some more maps into your game.1. Because your players might “chunk” information differently than you do
I’m really, really bad about getting lost when I go places. Not “loses track of routes after two or three turns” bad at directions, but “ends up in the wrong ZIP code” bad. “Donner Party” bad. While I haven’t yet had to eat any of my passengers, I wouldn’t recommend myself as a partner for a road trip through any place that has bad GPS reception or barbecue restaurants with lax supply standards.
For me, even the most basic directions are not a matter of “remember this distinct route,” but a string of relationships that require all of my attention to manage. Directions that would be a single “chunk” of information for many (maybe most) drivers instead require all of my memory to keep straight.
Your players may be having a similar problem when it comes to imagining the situations their characters are in. This isn’t necessarily just the case with battles, either. Relative positioning matters in games for everything from picking pockets to genteel but vicious cocktail parties. For some people, keeping track of where all the moving pieces are while also keeping track of the board they’re moving on is a really difficult task.
Players who are spending all of their mental energy trying to juggle what is going on in the room aren’t concentrating on adding to the game; they’re struggling just to keep up with what’s already there. A map—even a simple one—provides an easy reference for everyone at the table.2. Because maps don’t need to be a big deal
To expand on the pickpocketing example, a “map” can be something as simple as setting up a handful of coins to represent where the party leader is standing while they distract the guard, where the guard is, and where the party thief is sneaking from to try to snag the key to the cell your bard is being held in after yet another disastrous liaison.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can sketch out a couple of lines to represent the alleyway where all of this is taking place in case the thief wants to take the roof approach. It takes seconds to draw two lines and set down three coins, but it saves time, frustration, and confusion when the dice start rolling.3. Because it helps clarify the confusing
Your players only have the information you give them, and as anyone who has ever tried to give instructions can tell you, there are a lot of wrong ways to interpret a sentence. For instance, take the statement “there are two goblins in the corner of this room.” The GM could mean to communicate this (goblins in green):
Meanwhile, the players are imagining this:
These are two very different configurations, and the difference between them becomes very important when the party wizard says those three words every GM longs to hear:
“I cast fireball.”4. Because creating stuff is fun
Tabletop RPGs throw a pretty long shadow—almost any skill you can think of has a place somewhere in it. Tabletop RPGs throw a pretty long shadow—almost any skill you can think of has a place somewhere in it. Share79Tweet1+11Reddit2Email
If you like woodworking, your table is likely to have some pretty neat wooden props. If you’re a writer, your game’s fiction (or your characters’ backstories) are likely to be deeper and richer for it. Even folks who do statistics for fun add to our games in ways that someone without those skills or interests couldn’t.
Maps, like props or probability curves, are a way to bring your creativity and valued skills to the table—it doesn’t take being a cartographer or an artist to add to the game, but more than a few times, making maps for games has awakened an interest in art or cartography.5. Because it encourages players to engage the details of the environment
There are probably people out there who really enjoy listening to the GM recite lengthy, detailed descriptions of everything in a room from lighting placement to the number and types of pieces of furniture. I have never met any of these people, and I’m not entirely sure I could stay awake in their games.
Practically, there’s a limit to the number of things in the environment that are available for players to remember their characters can interact with (that limit is probably right around seven). But with the details that come with even a simple map, that list expands dramatically, limited only by the detail that the GM or players are willing to add. Tables exist to be flipped over, cupboards are filled with cutlery for hurling, and windows provide curtains for swashbuckling swings. The map provides a concrete reminder of the availability of those things, and prompts players and GMs to use them.
Theater of the mind is wonderful. I don’t want to downplay it or say that it doesn’t have its place, but not everyone has the creativity or attention necessary to see a masterpiece in every blank canvas. Having details available for players to look at and think about when the GM isn’t directly talking to them invites players to speculate about (and add to) the world that the GM is building, rather than letting their attention wander.7. Because it encourages the GM and players to add and flesh out detail they may otherwise miss
Drawing boxes for rooms is quick, but boring. With a few extra seconds, GMs can look at a room and think about details that a verbal description could easily gloss over. Does the room have a door (probably)? What about windows (sure)? A spike-lined pit full of snakes (always)? With a few extra seconds, GMs can look at a room and think about details that a verbal description could easily gloss over. Does the room have a door (probably)? What about windows (sure)? A spike-lined pit full of snakes (always)? Share79Tweet1+11Reddit2Email
By seeing all the elements of a room at once, the places where more can be added become more apparent. Even better, it encourages players to add their own flourishes to the imaginary space where the game is taking place.
When players ask “is there a campfire?” if you place a coin or a die or even a piece of pocket lint to represent that fire, it becomes a persistent detail that otherwise may not have existed, and that adds to the options players have to interact with the world, improving gameplay and verisimilitude.
7+1: There are a lot of cool maps already out there, many of them free
If you’re into quickly providing lots of detail for your players to engage with in your games, there are a lot of maps already out there, ranging from the expensive but awesome, like map packs/tiles put out by Paizo and Wizards of the Coast, to cheap or free options on Patreon or DeviantArt. If you have access to a printer, you can print out and tape even the free options together to add a “wow factor” to any game. Building up a library of these gives you the option of flexibility when your players go in an unexpected direction, and provides inspiration when you’re brainstorming session ideas.7+2: There are great tabletop crafting and mapping communities out there
There are large communities of people who make maps for fun, sometimes using specialized software and sometimes using more standard office products. If you find yourself going down a deeper rabbit hole than you expected, there’s a whole world of tabletop crafting out there. Some crafters make entire cities out of foam and paint; others use 3D printing, and at least one designer is making animated maps for display on TV screens. Here are few resources to get you started.
- Cartographer’s Guild (
- Tabletop Crafter’s Guild (
- Thingiverse: a free site with files for 3D printing (
- DeviantArt (
- Tabletop Crafter’s Guild (
Maps aren’t all gridded excuses for arguments about bonus actions and five-foot steps; they can serve a variety of purposes: enriching the game world and providing clarity so that all players are operating with the same set of assumptions being only two. As a player and as a GM, I find that having visual references greatly improves the experience of everyone involved, but I’m interested to hear if your groups have a different perspective. What do you think; do maps have a place at your table?
Just a quick reminder: All submissions for GDC 2019â€ s Virtual Reality Developers Conference (VRDC), GDC Summits, and Game Career SeminarÂ are due tomorrowÂ (Friday, October 5th)Â at 11:59 pm Pacific! ...
Join Ang and Chris on this special 50th episode of Gnomecast! Our hosts discuss their personal history with RPGs, the state of the hobby today, and what their futures might hold. Even with 50 episodes under their belts, will the gnomes be spared a trip to the stew pot?
Download: Gnomecast #50 – Not Just Kid Stuff
For years I’ve been kicking around a system in my head for simplifying hex crawls, point crawls, West Marches style games, megadungeons, etc… Something that keeps but abstracts the process of wandering, searching, and eventually discovering points of interest without requiring the potential for entire sessions to end up as fruitless wandering and random encounters and without demanding ridiculously detailed maps. It would probably revolve around skill checks of some sort with a chance to discover points of interest and add them to the map. I even hinted at it in a prior article, but I never really firmed it up or got it to a state that I thought it would work quite right. So of course in the process of looking up overland movement in the Pathfinder system, I discover that last November they beat me to it, publishing a “Discovery Point system” in their book: Ultimate Wilderness that not only hits all the high points I would want to and is elegantly simple but is largely system neutral. It DOES make use of Pathfinder-based skill checks and DCs but it would be simple to swap them out for skills and DCs or an analog from another system. What’s more, it’s scalable and nestable in a way that means with appropriate scaling and adjustment you can use it or a variant for pretty much any exploration mechanic that you need in your game.
- The system on the Pathfinder SRD with an example
- The book on Paizo’s site in case you want the full work it comes from
The basics of the system are simple:
- Discovery Points: The system introduces a new currency type called “Discovery Points” that are used to uncover points of interest on the map.
- Each day each character makes a survival check: More success=get more discovery points, More failure=LOSE more discovery points (because you just drew part of the map upside down or misidentified a landmark or something). This encourages characters who aren’t really cut out for exploration to use the aid another action or spend their time doing other things: fortifying camp, using a subsystem to make maps and gazetteers, hunting for food and water, translating an old book the party found, whatever.
- Characters can accumulate bonus discovery points by “interpreting waypoints”: This terminology makes it sound like inspecting physical landmarks but it’s just shorthand for any way of figuring out the location of points of interest other than stomping through the wilderness. In the example territory given three methods are flying overhead, talking to locals, and decoding a journal.
- After some discovery points are accumulated, the party spends them to uncover known or unknown points of interest: Points they KNOW are there, they just don’t know WHERE, get paid for directly. If they’re looking to just uncover anything of interest they can blow a specified amount of points and hope there are unknown points of interest that cost half that or less.
The SRD explains the system as well as some subsystems and details target numbers and some other finer points. There is an example territory to illustrate, a small canyon with 3 points of interest and 4 defined waypoints, along with target numbers and a small random encounter table. For a free system on the internet that’s easily portable into any number of other systems it’s surprisingly useful. While the book has no new material (on this system anyway. It has 250 pages of additional material on other things) the PDF is also pretty cheap and it’s on sale at the time I type this. Here are some additional thoughts I have on the system so far:
- A day and four encounters per day isn’t quite right: The system assumes a certain size of territory. See the example territory given and the suggestion that a single 12 mile hex constitutes a territory. But consider that sometimes an area of a much different size warrants territory status and that while the system still works as described, it creates some interesting issues.
- For a larger territory: (let’s say a few dozen hexes across) you run into the issue that you can conceivably accumulate discovery points and “discover” a point of interest much further away than you could have traveled to in the time it took to discover it. You COULD figure out a bunch of sub-rules for where the party is in the territory and thus what they can and cannot discover, BUT it’s far easier to just change the length of time it takes to make a check and the number of potential encounters that could happen during that time. Using the initial hex and day, a good rule of thumb is that the time it takes to make an exploration check for a territory is about the same amount of time it takes to travel across that territory. That assumes the characters are traveling the length and breadth of the land beating bushes and peeking into corners and ensures that no matter where they discover a point of interest it makes sense. While that also means that you should check for 28 encounters for a discovery check that takes a week, that seems excessive. Instead assume that the party has many encounters over a time of that duration and avoids or overcomes most of them and instead make the regular four checks, assume the party is fully rested between each and populate your table with a selection of “notable” encounters. i.e.: with powerful individual creatures or with multiple encounters with weaker creatures. So you might say: “You explore the area for a few weeks. During that time you have to fend off many goblin hunting parties but several days into your exploration, through either accident or because of the creature’s determination you are attacked several times in succession.” Then run a single encounter with several “waves” of goblins that are separated by minutes to hours of “real time”.
- For a smaller territory: example: the PCs are searching the local rancher’s back 40 for clues to his disappearance, it makes more sense to make a check every few hours and roll for an encounter each check. That said, if they area gets too small it’s probably best to move to a traditional dungeon exploration system or series of checks.
- Where’s the rest of the party?: The base system allows each character to make a separate survival check to gather discovery points. While that makes sense, it also assumes that you’ve split the party and that each character (or group of characters if some are using aid another actions) is by themselves exploring or back at camp doing other stuff. This introduces the issue that any number of characters might end up meeting an encounter. In this case I think it’s safe to assume that characters are relatively close to one another and have some way of signalling one another (from magic items to bird calls to outright yelling) so in the case of combat, you can probably assume that missing characters show up in a few additional rounds. If you go this route, make sure that players understand it might happen so they have the option of not letting the mage wander off by themselves.
- Other uses: While this system is presented as a system for handling overland exploration with minimal (or no) reskinning it can also be used for:
- dungeon exploration: think really big dungeons like megadungeons
- investigation: where waypoints might be clues that point to other evidence and points of interest are evidence, and the checks made are investigation instead of survival
- information gathering: where waypoints are hints as to who may know things and points of interest are pieces of information and checks are gather information or diplomacy etc
- social networking: waypoints are people who aren’t interesting or useful except they grant access to those who are (think a bouncer or David Spade’s secretary character), points of interest are contacts etc
- Nesting Nesting Nesting!: One of the coolest aspects of this system is that it can be nested. You can start with a large territory and one of your points of interest can then be another territory all it’s own, but on a smaller scale. Conceivably this could go through multiple layers. Imagine a reasonably sized territory the size of a hex or two and one of it’s points of interest is the ruins of a city which is much smaller than a hex (a few square miles) but which can be explored as it’s own territory with it’s points of interest being buildings of interest, treasure caches, five room dungeons and the like, one of which is the entrance to a large megadungeon, which is its OWN territory. Nesting would also work very well for sci-fi star exploration, first discovering systems, then planets, then points of interest on those planets.
- Save some for later: when placing points of interest, remember that not all of them have to necessarily be level appropriate challenges for their territory. While it’s not necessarily fair or fun to have characters stumble onto some alpha beastie’s lair and immediately get TPK’d, putting said beastie on the random encounter list (and letting players know that there will occasionally be out of level challenges they need to be careful of) and giving them bonuses to avoid it once they know the location of its lair gives them a reason to come back later and remove the menace or capture a trophy. Similarly, putting in treasures hidden in vaults with DCs too high to crack at the time they are likely to be found, and sealed doors in point of interest dungeons give the players a reason to return.
- Gazetteers are awesome: One of the fun parts of the system is the ability for characters with the right skills to make maps and gazetteers for territories. The rules in the system allow for creating these even when most of the points of interest in a territory are still undiscovered. More complete ones might be worth more, or less complete ones might be worth less (or worthless depending on how incomplete) BUT one of the really fun ways to expand this subsystem is the potential for different kinds of gazetteers. The base assumption is that a gazetteer is a written guidebook of the territory and they take the literacy skill to create. But there is lots of potential information that can go into a gazetteer and characters should be able to make more money, though not necessarily increase the bonus they get to survival checks by making a similar number of successes with secondary skill checks to add in additional useful information to their gazetteers. Two or more characters might even work on this simultaneously, one cataloging and recording additional information while the other makes the literacy checks to do the actual writing.
- Knowledge: Nature checks will create a guidebook with detailed information and sketches of the local flora and fauna and their uses and properties
- Profession: Miner will create a guidebook with information about local rock structures and composition
- Diplomacy will create a guidebook with information about the cultures and practices of the local inhabitants
- Craft: Painting creates a guidebook with multiple attractive pictures of local landmarks of interest
- etc… The limit is really the imagination of your players.
- West Marches: So if you have a massive crush on Ben Robbins’ West Marches campaign but don’t have the motivation to crank out insane vector maps like he did to prep for it, today is literally the day you get started. All of that gets wiped away and replaced with this simple system… except maybe not. Because there is one major difference between these rules as presented and the West Marches: Multiple groups. If you want to run a West Marches style for a single group, then go get started. I mean it. Go. But if you’re going the whole nine yards and running for multiple fluid groups with all the complexity, confusion and jealously guarded secrets that entails, you’re going to need a few more tweaks to the system. For this you will have to figure out how to handle points of interest that are only known about by some players, if a character who was in a group when a point of interest was discovered can get back without the rest of the group or a map, who “owns” and “carries” discovery points that a group gathers but has not yet spent and other concerns. My initial thoughts are:
- The local lord or some other NPC organization wants the land explored and is paying for all the info they can get. They are the primary market, aside from other PCs, for maps and gazetteers of unexplored territory.
- Existence and location of points of interest become common knowledge when a map that contains them is sold to an NPC (similar to the West Marches communal map). We can assume this represents the map eventually making its way to the aforementioned patron who then makes it readily available to aid exploration.
- That no one can find a point of interest they have discovered without a map or re-paying a fraction of it’s initial cost, but that once points are common knowledge, maps are cheaply available (cribbed from the communal map probably)
- Discovery points are held by those who created them with their survival check or by interpreting a waypoint. If large numbers of them are gathered in a single roll, some may be shared with a character who used the aid another action to help gather them.