Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Maps

Here's something I learned very quickly during my earliest days refereeing RPGs: if there's anything that you need to run a game besides dice, it's a good map. Maps are indispensable. There is no more useful aid for the sake of structuring gameplay and keeping things running smoothly. But there are several kinds worth creating.

  • The "dungeon map". The best-known and most widely used, these are usually drawn on graph paper (.25" or .20" scale, with one square usually representing ten feet). They generally depict indoor areas of all kinds: labyrinths, caverns, buildings. Rooms and corridors are keyed to descriptive text entries, which relate the rooms' contents (especially enemies, treasures, traps, and other special features important to adventuring).
  • The "overworld map". Also considered essential to most old-school RPGs, these maps depict stretches of outdoor areas, wilderness and civilized alike. Traditionally drawn on paper with a hexagonal grid, each hexagon represents anywhere from 1 mile to 24 miles of distance. Use of this kind of map enables a "hex crawl" game, whereby wilderness travel can be structured and played out as part of the game. An overland journey becomes more than simply, "you take two weeks to get there, no random encounters". Even moreso than a dungeon map, an overworld map simply cries out for curious players to explore it: there could be literally anything hidden in a given hex!
  • The "star chart". Very similar to the fantasy overworld map, in that it's drawn on hex paper and meant for sandbox exploration. But the star chart shows the locations of different star systems, so each hex represents light-years or parsecs. Otherwise, it's basically the same idea.
  • The "plot map". Essential to running a good mystery, intrigue, or urban adventure, the plot map literally depicts plots. Similar to the idea map used for brainstorming in grade school, each key NPC (or faction) in an intrigue gets their own "box" on the map. The things they're up to and the places they frequent also get boxes, usually of different shapes. Lines between all the boxes show the relationships between each element in the plot. Movement on this kind of map isn't geographical; rather, as the player characters investigate the situation, they uncover the plot elements previously unknown to them and perhaps trigger new events.
  • The "conversation map". Like a plot map, this takes the form of a web of interconnected boxes, each devoted to its own topic. The boxes contain bits of information that a particular NPC knows (as well as things the NPC wants to know, and any misinformation the character might be trying to spread). Players navigate this kind of map by conversing with the NPC, possibly rolling skill checks as needed. This is a very specialized sort of map that only really sees use in campaigns which are heavy on intrigue or investigation. In a more traditional adventure campaign, a map like this is still useful for running a spy NPC that the player characters are almost certain to capture and interrogate (or torture... *sigh*).

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