Saturday, September 13, 2008

Best Map Ever

Maps have always excited me, particularly maps of imaginary places. I can still recall the first time I ever saw a map of the lands of Hyboria in some old paperback edition of Conan. Likewise, the maps included with my copy of The Lord of the Rings inspired me as I attempted to put the geography of my own fantasy world down on paper. There's just something enthralling about maps and I still love them passionately.

I don't think any map for a fantasy RPG setting has ever captivated me the way that Darlene's maps for the World of Greyhawk did. They are the cartographic counterpart to Dave Trampier's AD&D Players Handbook cover -- an icon of the old school. The reason is quite simple: these maps combine attractiveness with utility. That is, they're not just pretty pictures; they're eminently useful too. Certainly one can balk at the map's lack of realism -- the way the terrain nicely conforms to hexes, for example -- but that seems beside the point to me. Far more important is that the map is pleasing to the eye while still being usable in designing wilderness encounters and tracking PC movement on a large scale. With the possible exception of the Hârn maps -- which I find a bit too realistic -- I can't think of any RPG setting maps that can hold a candle to these masterpieces.


  1. I've got a laminated set of those maps on the wall right over my desk, as a matter of fact.

    For some reason, I prefer the original Darlene maps to the newer (larger) ones that were published in Dragon a few years ago. There's something almost primal in them. They have an almost-amateur-but-not-quite quality that's hard to express.

    I couldn't agree more, but can't wait to see your comments about the JG maps.

    Although I should point out that ICE put out a GREAT series of maps, both for Middle Earth and their own campaign setting, Iron Wind (if memory serves... too lazy to look it up in one of my old Dragons).

  2. This will seem incredibly pretentious, but I think the beauty of maps comes from something similar to the feeling you get when you've climbed a high peak or tall building and then look over the landscape below. It's a touch of omniscience, and with maps you can do it vicariously and on a larger scale. With fantasy maps, there's also the thrill of discovery, because it's a new world that you're gazing upon.

    That'll do for the pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo. ;)

  3. Kelvin, I think you're on to something there.

    I've used the Darlene maps so much my set threatens to come apart at the fold lines, but I've always disliked the numbering system. The standard wargame numbering method as used in the Wilderlands and Trav subsectors is much more functional. But for overall appeal Darlene's map is still the best.

  4. I agree -- the numbering system of the maps is unnecessarily baroque, but, as a kid, I always found it part of the charm.

  5. Where can I find a description of the method of numbering hexes? I am working on a unique method of creating campaign hex maps. Any reference would be helpful.

  6. I disagree about the hex numbering. It would really clutter up the map to have numbers in each of the hexes, especially since they're so small.

    The description of how the hexes are numbered is on the inside front cover of the Glossography in the original boxed set. Basically, you go straight down from the letters at the top, and up-left from the numbers along the right edge and bottom. The intersection describes the hex number (for instance, the Forgotten City in the Sea of Dust is at J6-163.

  7. It's a touch of omniscience Olympian view. It works particularly well in fantasy games like that - the viewpoint of the gods or the eagles. Once the ordnance survey takes over the maps look, and mean, something else again...

  8. The terrain-types on Darlene's map corresponding to the hexes is actually extremely useful as far as tracking movement, which random encounter tables to use, etc. and is plenty realistic when you consider that, at the scale of this map (~ 900 square miles per hex) almost every hex would almost certainly actually contain a mix of terrain types anyway -- small creeks, streams, and ponds, marshes, woods, meadows, etc. Even in the desert areas you're going to have a mix of rocky vs flat areas, scrub vs sand dunes, dry creekbeds and ravines, etc. All of that detail is lost in the grain on a map of this scale, so why not just make it user-friendly by declaring a single predominant terrain-type for each hex?

  9. While the Greyhawk map is better than many of the "hex" conforming maps, I still dislike the large expanses of single terrain. The Greyhawk map does have some smaller terrain features spread about.

    I have always been partial to Judges Guild's maps, and for me, I find very few maps that I like better. I did like the Harn maps for being able to mix elevation and vegetation symbols, but they are also hard to read sometimes.

    Trent has a point about the ease for game mechanics of hex conforming maps and that combined with the Greyhawk maps at least having some smaller terrain features makes them up there on my scale of liking.

    But I think my order of likes of maps would be:

    JG First Fantasy Campaign
    JG Wilderlands
    RuneQuest Trollpack
    Then maybe Greyhawk

    Part of the problem may also be that I never gamed with Greyhawk. In college, I did have a friend who ran a Greyhawk campaign and had the maps pinned to his wall which was cool, but I've never played in or run a campaign with the maps.


  10. clicking on the link and seeing that old map.

    chills up my spine.

    I really, really wish I still had that damned box. *kicks self very hard*

  11. is plenty realistic when you consider that, at the scale of this map (~ 900 square miles per hex)

    Absolutely. I probably should have said this myself, but I've spent so many years arguing with people who make the case that it's terrible "unrealistic" that I fear I've internalized that mindset to some degree myself, even though it's not really to the point.

  12. Part of the problem may also be that I never gamed with Greyhawk. In college, I did have a friend who ran a Greyhawk campaign and had the maps pinned to his wall which was cool, but I've never played in or run a campaign with the maps.

    That's almost certainly part of it. Greyhawk, for me, will always be the setting for D&D, which is part of why I think so fondly of these maps. But it's only part of it. The other part is that the Darlene maps are simply beautiful, while still being functional as game aids. Very few gaming maps can say that.

  13. I think one of (many) the strengths of this map could be attributed to the fact that Darlene is a master of typography. She's got such a wonderful feel for how text plays with images, and it certainly shows in this medium.

    There are cartographers that are good artists and then there are artists that are good cartographers (Darlene), and this is an excellent example of the latter.

    I've got so many fond memories of this map... It embodies my earliest D&D days, and every time I look at it I can clearly remember my ranger from the Vesve forest, my thief from Greyhawk, and their many adventures in that wonderous land.