A reader asks in the comments to my latest Dwimmermount session report: "How do you handle mapping in your games?"
I am fortunate to have a player in my campaign who is both interested in mapping and is a good mapper to boot (that's Dordagdonar's player, for those keeping score). For as long as I've known him, he's been our group's official cartographer, producing some very impressive maps for a variety of campaigns, from D&D to Traveller. When I started up Dwimmermount over a year ago, he happily offered to take up the job of committing to paper the rooms, corridors, and caves of the ancient mountain fortress.
My practice, in general, is to verbally describe a room in a fashion like this: "The room runs 20 feet east to west and 30 feet north to south. There are doors on the eastern and western walls, in addition to the one on the south side through which you came. The eastern and western doors are in the middle of their respective walls, while the door you came through is in the southeast corner of the southern wall." Etc. If there is confusion about what I mean -- and there often is, because I have a very poor spatial vocabulary -- questions are asked and I do my best to clarify what I meant. Earlier in the campaign, we were regularly using plaster-cast dungeon blocks to represent the rooms, but we've become lazy over the many months and we rarely bring them out nowadays. It's a practice I probably should resume, given how many Otherworld minis I now own and because, truthfully, OD&D combat is much more interesting for us when we have a clear sense of who is where within the dungeon.
With few exceptions, I make a point of correcting any errors in the player map that arise from a misunderstanding of what I said. I don't think it's fair to penalize my players because I said "southeast" when I meant "southwest," for example. Those aren't the kinds of mistakes the characters would make, since they're physically present in the dungeon and can see plainly where a door or a yawning pit is located relative to themselves. On the other hand, if the characters believe that an illusory corridor is real and draw their map accordingly, I don't correct this, as they have no way of knowing that what they think they're seeing is mistaken. The same is true of any other type of error or misapprehension that stems from character knowledge rather than from a mere mistake of the player or, more often, the referee.
One of the benefits of keeping a careful map is the finding of secret doors, traps, and other dungeon oddities. In straight OD&D, finding a secret door, even for an elf, is something of a crap shoot. That's why I only make the characters roll for such things when they're literally fumbling around, banging on walls, pushing on stones, and otherwise wildly guessing where a secret door might be located. However, if the characters deduce, based on the layout of the map, that a secret door or trap or whatever is likely in a particular area, I either up their chances of finding it considerably (1-4 on 1D6, for example) or dispense with a roll entirely. To my way of thinking, using a hand-drawn map to figure out aspects of the dungeon's layout ought to be rewarded. Moreover, OD&D's extremely slim chances of finding secret doors only makes sense if you assume it represents random shots in the dark rather than informed investigation.
And that's the gist of it. I think the creation of maps by the players helps keep exploration at the forefront of most sessions. It also adds, for lack of a better word, a strategic element to the campaign, as the players get a "big picture" of Dwimmermount, the interrelationships between its levels and its inhabitants, and can plan their own actions accordingly. More than a few of their decisions have been based on assumptions drawn from the way the maps hung together. It's a nice counterpoint to the tactical elements we sometimes get in combats, particularly big ones. Far from bogging things down, I actually think detailed mapping has made the campaign more enjoyable for everyone involved. It's certainly contributed to the feeling of Dwimmermount as a place rather than as a mere "stage" for strings of disparate encounters.
The approach we've adopted in our campaign probably isn't for everyone, even many old schoolers, but it works well and we're enjoying it. This weekend I'm going to try to break out the minis and dungeon blocks again. As I said, I've rather missed using them and I suspect I'm not the only one.