Friday, August 8, 2014

Maps: Who Needs 'Em?

Take a look at "Stone Mountain" from the 1978 Holmes Basic D&D set.

Who knows how many campaigns were inspired by that single illustration?
Or the Erol Otus side-view of The Haunted Keep from my beloved Moldvay Basic box.

Isn't that the real shame with Ravenloft's stunning isometric map?  If the players bother to map the huge  castle, they only capture it in two dimensions.  They never see the complexity and grandeur of the place the way that the DM does.

What starts as this ...

... appears to players like this.

And anyway ... how the heck were you supposed to use the poster maps in The Ruins of Undermountain? Are you supposed to struggle with the huge, cloaker-like thing behind a DM's screen?, If so, is it really bringing any value to your players, or is it just one more set of arbitrary hallways, indistinguishable from any other dungeon?
"Who needs a hug?"

Those maps, just like the smaller ones found in the lovely new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, are DM tools that double as eye-candy (again, for the referee).

But what if these compelling images had been primarily intended as player handouts rather than a DM tool?

How might that have shifted some of the locus of control in older editions from DM-agency to player-agency?  "Hey, this time let's repel down to level six and skip all the undead on three."  I can see how revealing more details about the dungeon beyond a handful of rumors could help put the players in the driver's seat of that sessions "plot" and encourage sandbox style play.

What if, as a matter of course, from the very start, dungeons always included a player map?

These maps would only be partial and would include inaccuracies as a matter of course, but think how the character of each map could communicate something about the unique character of that location.

There's plenty of rationale for these in-character documents of course.  What proper dungeon doesn't include the detritus of prior adventuring parties in the forms of broken gear and scattered corpses?

As I sat down this spring to draw the Bawal Bayan poster map, I knew from the start that I wanted it to be a player resource rather than just a DM tool.  The in-game rationale for the map was that other adventurers had surveyed the crater and the Forbidden City from a distance, naming key features and landmarks as they sketched the map in the same way that modern spelunkers might do.  

This added to the sense of setting and purpose too.  Rather than a half-dozen vagabonds randomly wandering some corner of the world, the player characters were part of a great company of scores of explorers who could provide resources, rumors, and replacements. 

Particularly with players who are completely new to the hobby, an evocative map can help them avoid getting bogged down by indecision and start fostering player-initiative from day one.

Think back to how the maps in video games like Monkey Island helped immerse you in that world.  Thror's Map is practically prototypical when it comes to fantasy adventure ... where would Bilbo and the dwarves have been without it?

I've decided to err on the side of giving my players more information in the form of annotated maps, letters, journal accounts, riddles, and rumors rather than starting them off tabula rasa.

I wonder how the hobby might have developed differently if the outside of those old modules were as devoted to providing the players with information as the insides were concerned with offering the DM charts and maps?

What techniques do you use to enhance player immersion and help make decision-making accessible (particularly for new players)?

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