Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mapping and Me

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.

21 comments:

  1. "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."

    Quite right, James.

    I sometimes struggle with spacial vocabulary as well. Fortunately my group is also blessed with a patient and skilled mapper.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's pretty much how I do it.

    And th epoint about mapping offering giving a "strategic" element is dead on.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I remember back in the early 80's when I started. You wouldn't think of going into a dungeon without at least one mapper.

    I remember going to the second level of Joe's dungeon one night. After the game I went to a friend's place (he couldn't make it to the game). He asked what we'd done, and when I told him I'd mapped part of Joe's second level, he demanded to see the map and wouldn't say another word until he'd updated his map with my new info!

    That's the way it used to be, and that's the way it ought to be.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "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."

    Also definitely agree with that. My game margin notes say "Following a clue, riddle, or suggestive map adds +1 or 2 to secret doors."

    I've been interested to see brand-new players (like my girlfriend) immediately fall into an old-school desire for a perfectly measured and well-drawn map. I tried to soft-pedal it and not give suggestions one way or the other, but every 10-ft square she wants to see correct. She's an artist, so maybe that biases things.

    ReplyDelete
  5. > immediately fall into an old-school desire for a perfectly measured and well-drawn map.

    "Old-school desire"? :)

    Methinks that leads to a somewhat confused conclusion if detailed /mapping/ is an inherent OS trait whilst detailed, strategic /placing/ of one's characters (for combat, in particular) is still something to be eschewed as being new-school 3e/4e.
    Pray tell, how does one place characters in a precise location when one does not have a detailed map? :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Does everyone let their mappers use graph paper?

    Sure, it makes things easier for the mapper, but realistically how common would graph paper be in a pseudo-medieval setting?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you for the blog post! Interesting and informative.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sure, it makes things easier for the mapper, but realistically how common would graph paper be in a pseudo-medieval setting?

    More power to anyone who wants to take that approach, but it's not one I can get behind. Why stop at graph paper? Why should the mapper be allowed to use a pencil? They're not medieval either.

    I appreciate the desire for verisimilitude, I really do, and I've occasionally indulged in it myself, but it's not something that much appeals to me these days.

    ReplyDelete
  9. As a gamer caught between the old and new schools, I have one question for the grognards: How does one handle some of the bizarre room shapes in early dungeons?

    For example, look at B1, Upper level, rooms III, X, XXXI, and XXXIII. For another example, look at the entire lower level. And don't get me started on the Caves of Chaos...

    ReplyDelete
  10. MX,

    In the case of very strange room shapes -- usually caverns -- I just give a rough description of the rough "it's an irregularly shaped 40-by-50 room, with openings in the northwest and southeast corners" description. If the characters want anything more specific and detailed than that, I give the mapper help but it takes extra time and I roll for wandering monsters while it's happening, as well as increasing the chance for surprise.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm an old schooler DM who stopped playing in the mid 80's. My players were religious about exacting maps as well.

    Over the years I've mused as well over the other extreme: a blank sheet of paper and just general descriptions of rooms and hallways. This discussion prompted me to do a quick search on ancient secret doors. At a glance, it seems that most secret doors are concealed behind furniture or statues, or are built into features affixed to the wall, e.g., a bas relief or a column.

    So, in defense of sloppy mapping, secret doors could rely on a room's accoutrements to conceal a door rather than relative positioning on a map to encourage discovery by the players.

    I also wonder if a dungeon designer could use the principle of sloppy mapping to his advantage. Like creating a layout which leads the players to mistakenly believe that room B they are entering is the same as room A they had visited previously.

    It seems like sloppy mapping is an area ripe for creative exploration by DMs and dungeon designers.

    ReplyDelete
  12. "Pray tell, how does one place characters in a precise location when one does not have a detailed map? :)"

    Seems trollish, but a simple distinction can be made between (1) player-made maps during exploration from verbal descriptions, and (2) DM-made battlemaps laid out during combat encounters.

    ReplyDelete
  13. > Why stop at graph paper? Why should the mapper be allowed to use a pencil?

    Blame Thomas Jefferson, eh? http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/Image:Ruledpaper.jpg

    Pencil and graph paper is probably better treated as a meta-tool, IMHO; to help the players understanding during and between sessions a process which may or may not be being carried out in a proximate manner by their actual PCs. If anyone's character is actually mapping out in detail I'd like to see their guild of coordination accreditation, so to speak, since that's none too easy by torchlight at the best of times. I've usually taken the line when mapping is used (not just indoor/underground) that what is actually presented to the players can be built up in different ways by different PCs memorisation and innate skills, short-hand notation, use of tracking symbols, revisiting, etc., and that maps are by their nature mutable and inexact depending on character skills, background, time taken, etc. Don't screw over the players by abusing that lack of precision /too/ much and it shouldn't become an issue that gets in the way of gameplay; or, indeed, that it can actually aid player's mindsets in that they become used to the nebulous becoming less so, rather than simply the unveiling of a inch-perfect work of cartography on a computer screen.
    (This approach also helps somewhat in the old debate as to what happens when a red dragon torches the one-and-only "map-maker" *g*).

    02c only, anyhow, fwiw ^^
    d.

    ReplyDelete
  14. > It seems like sloppy mapping is an area ripe for creative exploration by DMs and dungeon designers.

    Amen. ;)

    (Next time I have to type a bit more quickly, too *jk*)

    ReplyDelete
  15. > Delta wrote:
    > Seems trollish

    *g*. Videogamish, perhaps?
    I can visualise those characters following transit routes between "encounters" and spilling out onto the DM's battlegrid when those occur. :)
    OK, I know that's not quite what you were meaning, sorry!

    Yeah, maybe some oldtimers do believe in "an old-school desire for a perfectly measured and well-drawn map" (anyone?) but where that /is/ required to a greater degree is undoubtedly the new-school crunchy versions of D&D which require precision of spatial awareness; either on the table or the screen.
    - Rolemaster works better for that, anyhow, without having to buy into the rest of the new-school gaming mentality... (*yay* for blanket statements!)

    Personally, I prefer to map for the players. Saves on arguments and allows me to illustrate their characters' comprehension of something they themselves are not privy to.

    ReplyDelete
  16. [W]hilst detailed, strategic /placing/ of one's characters (for combat, in particular) is still something to be eschewed as being new-school 3e/4e.

    One hopes you are speaking only for your self. Having played D&D since 1976 (starting with the wood grain box), I have been using miniatures and maps from the start. New-school... I think not. It is merely a preference, and one likely influenced by broader gaming exposure.

    ReplyDelete
  17. > One hopes you are speaking only for your self.

    Since I didn't actually write what you're quoting, it appears you're actually speaking for me.

    If you've been using a detailed gridded playing surface, ruled strictly on the precise direction a character is facing in, applied precise bonuses for distance, penalties for move, used area effect templates, etc., in a rigorous manner since 1976, fair enough.
    That would certainly be rather more than that the "big picture" alluded to in James's blog.

    ReplyDelete
  18. If the characters want anything more specific and detailed than that, I give the mapper help but it takes extra time and I roll for wandering monsters while it's happening, as well as increasing the chance for surprise.

    Serves 'em right! ;)

    That's a good point though, if you're going to take your sweet time, then you sacrifice safety.

    What about mapping in sci-fi RPGs? Do they benefit from more accurate maps if they use some sort of scanning device?

    ReplyDelete
  19. I tried this approach with a group of 20something gamers using one of Mike's excellent Stonehell quadrants, and they hated mapping, mostly because it exacerbated how much more pleasant it would be if we were all just using computers instead.

    (Perhaps some of the new "Surface" technology will allow us to bridge the gap between the twisting "old school"labyrinths and the simpler, smaller "new school" dungeons?)

    For now, I'll stick with the new-school approach and leave the graph paper to you 30+ yr ancient types.

    ReplyDelete
  20. how much more pleasant it would be if we were all just using computers instead

    Is this just referring to playing something like WoW instead, or nowadays does everyone use a computer to supplement a sit-down RPG session?

    ReplyDelete
  21. In my forays into the old school, I never bring up the issue of mapping, I just start describing thing and let the players decide how to handle it. Inevitably someone appoints themselves mapper, and I've seen everything from scrawled boxes and lines to careful cartography result. As James said, I'll correct anything that would be an obvious mistake from the characters' viewpoint, but otherwise imprecisions and errors stand. The best part has been being able to offer maps drawn by players as treasure to other parties!

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.