Cartography in RPGs–My take on maps

Celtic_Compass_Rose_by_west2[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

Recently there was a discussion about maps and I found very interesting people’s takes on maps and on the need and purpose of maps in role playing games.

When I read a book and I read it in images that I conjure in my head, like watching a movie as I read along. When is about games, though, I like the visual references to be given to me and then I develop the story based on them. I guess is because of the nature of both mediums. Although both come in the shape of books (mostly), one offers you a closed and inflexible environment and the other offers quite the opposite.

Therefore, for me to be able to visualise the novel as I go along is a very important part of my enjoyment because it means I am adding something of myself to the whole plot, characters, locations, etc. With games, though, I want to have the basis so my imagination can then build upon that. Probably is just a matter of either laziness on my part, but I feel it’s a matter of finding something that will start the inspiration and bring a story to the table.

However the geneses of maps in games differ greatly and there is one thing that has to be very clear: Maps are there for a reason. If a map is there just to add fluff, then the map is useless. On the same line, some locations need maps, and without them, the locations are totally useless.

First of all let’s identify what sort of maps I am talking about. I will divide maps in five categories: locale maps, local maps, global maps and world maps.

  • Locale Maps: These are the maps that show very specific locations. Dungeons, houses, rooms, cemeteries… In short, any location in which the action takes place and the character will interact with them in detail.
  • Local maps: This maps show wider areas. They can be anything from a village to a city, a mountain, etc. These are location the players will become familiar with and will interact with, but not in detail. No need to show every rock, tree or alleyway in minute detail.
  • Global maps: They show countries, regions or continents. They are very big areas of land or sea. Unless is a massive campaign, the players will not interact or get to know all the areas.
  • World maps: The name says it all. A whole world, with continents, oceans and mayor geological features and pivotal location referenced.
  • Universes: Need I say anything? Star Trek, Star Wars, Hellas, Mindjammer… You get the drift.

athas_map[1]Of course there are lines that can be blurred between those categories. An island could be either a global or a local map, depending on size or importance. Global and World maps could be the same if the world only has one continent. So please don’t’ take those four sections as gospel, they’re very generic and as such they’re not accurate.

The biggest point of a map, though, is its relevance. A dungeon without a map renders the dungeon useless. On the other hand, to give you a map that covers a whole country when the story only happens in a city would also be pointless.

I’ll give you some examples. Two of my favourite places are Middle Earth and Athas. I have played in both worlds, read books and imagined countless adventures in both of them. However there is no world map for any of the two settings. The available maps show you the relevant portions of the planet where the events take place. However this doesn’t detract from the experience of being in those worlds.

Now let’s take a look at The Forgotten Realms  campaigns and Shadowlands, the world from Black Star Studios. They show you huge portions of the worlds. This is completely necessary. If Toril hadn’t been mapped out, it would be a lot more difficult to come up with politics, creatures affected by the weather and the terrain, wars, locations…

610_218287200_001_HB.inddSo what do you think would happen if we swap? If we add a whole world map to Middle Earth and Athas, and then only detail a smaller portion Toril?

Probably the Lord of the Rings and the full “let’s liberate Tyr” stories would become diluted, lots of useless fluff would be generated and the focus would disappear, laying the whole thing awaste. If we only had a chunk of Toril, Krynn, Birthright… it just wouldn’t feel the same.

So choosing the right type of map for your location is pivotal to add the visual clue the player will need to get started.

But then what happens with uncharted, or “unchartable” territories? There are no global maps or the Underdark. Yet, we all know what it looks like, what it could be originated there and how big it is. Or maybe we don’t know how big it is and that’s what makes it interesting.

Middle-earth-film[1]Then there are the worlds and settings that are so universally accepted that don’t need maps. The many planets mentioned in the Star Wars saga and the Star Trek series are two perfect examples of that.

So I think maps are in some cases the seed that help adventures sprout and blossom. Sometimes are the very heart of the adventure and sometimes they’re just unnecessary. Of course it is then down to the cartographer, the writer and the publisher to come to an agreement as to what’s needed or not.

In short I feel a setting without a map is just not going to work. Unless it is so familiar that everyone think they know the locations, you need to provide with good quality visual references to the land where your adventures happen.

Ignore that or get that wrong, and you’ll be in for trouble!

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