Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Pros and Cons of Mapping

Maps and D&D are inseparable, and long before I was a proficient reader, the evocative maps of B2 drew me in (and helped me become a more proficient reader in the process).

Back when there were five channels on the TV, having a party mapper who drew the dungeons as described by the DM on graph paper was a cool feature of the game.  You could even compare maps after the adventure was over to see how proficient a mapper you were!

But now-a-days, there are more options and the charms of detailed mapping are often lost on players.

So here are the choices as I see them:

I've underlined the pros and cons that carry the most weight with me.

Image result for old map

1. I describe, you draw

  • player agency--if players make mistakes or get sloppy they can get lost, but if they don't it's because of their own expertise.  They can go any direction / I don't have to predict their route.
  • players can deduce the location of hidden rooms or secret doors based on features they've mapped, giving them a tactical advantage 
  • player engagement for the mapper(s)
  • this method preserves the "lost art" of mapping and can have some genuine educational benefits for younger gamers


  • this method slows things down at the table, creating conversations about that space that wouldn't happen if the players could simply see from the characters' point of view
  • it creates survey-centric conversations ("You said thirty feet east to west?" "Is the door on the east side or the west side of the south wall?") that don't really fit the tone of many of my adventures
  • players who aren't mapping can get bored pretty fast

Image result for bob ross funny

2. I draw on large paper, you watch

  • player engagement ... not bragging, but from vets to newbies, when I sketch I notice that my players all lean in to watch what unfolds 
  • I'm also very fast at it.  I can draw a section of the Caves of Chaos much faster and more accurately then I can describe it to a player-mapper 
  • I can add visual clues, red herrings, artifacts, monster sketches, and notes as I go, inviting players to do the same
  • the map becomes an interesting and visually pleasing artifact of play [sometimes my middle school players have argued over who gets to keep the map after the adventure!]
  • player agency: I don't have to try and predict their route and prepare ahead of time; their drawings reflect their choices, not my plans


  • with the dungeon laid out before them, there's practically zero chance of characters getting lost or turned around
  • if scaled to minis, these maps get so large as to be unweildy at the table

Image result for dry erase funny

3. I draw in dry erase

  • realism ... I draw only what characters can see at that moment
  • players can go any direction or leave the dungeon and explore a different ruin without causing me to miss a beat


  • when characters backtrack, I may have to draw the same areas again and again ... trying to maintain accuracy, 
  • if characters are moving quickly, then my drawing may slow play
  • these maps are fragile, easily smeared and erased by accident

Image result for dungeon tiles

4. I lay tiles

  • eye-popping visual appeal
  • invites use of minis


  • cool little artistic details on the tile may not match what's actually there, likewise there may be details I want players to be aware of that are missing
  • most tiles have very clean and regular lines and few organic shapes, making the dungeon feel a bit sterile 
  • I waste time looking for the tile that fits the next room, I don't have a tile for a seven sided room when I need one, the pool of water has to substitute for a pool of lava because I either don't have one or can't find it without slowing the game down
  • table space
  • do I remove what they can't see (wasting time) or leave it (eliminating the possibilty that they get lost)?
  • Tim bumped the table
Image result for peek under paper

5. I pre-draw the dungeon, cover it, and reveal select portions when appropriate
  • fast
  • I can draw it to minis scale
  • theoretically I could cover it back up when they move out of an area, but would I ever actually do this?
  • players can imply the shape and dimensions of the dungeon even while still covered.  No need to look for secret doors over there, it's at the very edge of the map and at the table edge.
  • if scaled to minis, I've still run into limits of table space
  • while theoretically a party could get lost back-tracking, practically speaking it isn't going to happen
  • it limits the exploration to areas that I think the players will decide to explore vs maintaining full player agency
So how do you handle mapping at your table?
Do you use more than one method?
How do your pros and cons compare to mine?

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