21 July 2020

The Purposes of Maps in RPGs

This is a follow up to this post and this post

First I think it is important to differentiate between the game world and a mere map. Your game world exists independent of any maps or notes you might make. The game world exists in your mind and is brought to life during play; that world changes based on the play of the other participants of the game and leaves your control once play has begun. A map is simply a tool to facilitate the game, either to make running the game easier for you as a DM, or to give the players a sense of the reality of the game world and their place within it.

Page 212 of Thematic Cartography and Visualization 3rd edition by Terry Slocum, Robert McMaster, Fritz Kessler, and Hugh Howard states, " Cartographic design . . . is driven by two goals: (1) to create a map that appropriately serves the map user based on the map's intended use, and (2) to create a map that communicates the map's information in the most efficient manner, simply and clearly"

How does this apply to maps in an RPG?

First, we need to determine what the intended use of a map is; this can be complicated and varied, especially in RPGs. This is the reason I advocated for a series of maps to cover different uses in my last post on the subject. We shouldn't be trying to mash what should be 3 or 5 or 7 different maps into 1 just because we want to be able to do everything with one map.

Second, we have to determine the best way to communicate information to the map user; this again will vary map by map. In some cases hexes will be more useful, and in others a scale bar would be better; there are multiple ways to communicate the same information, and how we do so is dictated by the intended use of the map.

Given a baseline that intended use, or purpose, determines how we will design the end product, I think it is prudent to outline some possible purposes or uses of a map in an RPG and how that might affect design. A brief outline of different types of maps is discussed here where maps are divided into the basic category of reference, thematic, and battle maps; I will be differentiating map use at a somewhat more granular level.

Let's start with the Player Map. Any map given to the player needs to embody a Sense of Place; to give them the feeling that the world presented to them is real and they have a tangible connection to it. But a Player Map must also contain concrete actionable information; specific spatial elements must be displayed in a manner that can impact the decisions of the players. So to sum up: A Player Map must present information to the players in a manner that (1) enforces the reality of the game world and (2) affects their choices within that reality. 

These maps can be in a variety of scales and styles, yet I feel they should all be from the perspective of a character in game world. This can mean from a fictional cartographer or from the point of view of the players. Point of View maps tend to be larger scale, best used to show small areas like rooms, or view down a city street; though they can also be used to make panoramic perspective maps of an entire country side. This is where the map is really a work of art and less a functional map. To provide more functional maps to the players I recommend trying to emulate real world maps that fit the genre and time period, whether it be medieval, modern, or sci-fi. Of course there are no 'real' sci-fi maps, but I think a diagrammatic approach like that used for modern bus and rail systems captures the feeling of most science fiction settings. Modern maps should follow the standard street maps or topo maps that are most common these days, you may even feel that an existing modern map is appropriate for your world. For quasi-medieval games (like D&D) player maps should really be emulating historical maps like the Mappa Mundi or Da Vinci's overland maps; player maps really shouldn't look like they came out of a Tolkien novel, medieval people did not think in the same terms that modern people do and the in-game maps should reflect that. A great resource for viewing what historical maps actually looked like is the David Rumsey Map Collection.

 Any other maps that you create will by their very nature be DM maps, and though players may glimpse these maps from time to time, these maps will be made with the goal of helping you, the DM, to run the game. What specific maps you will need depends on your style of DMing. If you use miniatures you will probably make use of battle maps with large scale grids where 1 inch equals 5ft, but if you run 'theater of the mind' then such maps will be useless to you. Given that, I'm going briefly touch on some different maps that a DM may find useful for different purposes.

First up is the general reference map. What do I mean by that? Well, I don't mean a map that just has all the information you think you might need during the game; in this sense a Reference Map allows the DM to track the location of the players and measure the distance to any given location. Basically it is a reference of the spatial coordinates of any important locations in the game world. You may find a modern-style topographic map useful to track elevation changes, and a hex grid is extremely useful for measuring distance at a glance, but this reference map could be as simple as a series of points and interconnecting lines(also called a node map) with a few notes denoting distance between each location. There are many different types of reference maps, and you should use whichever one will serve your purposes best.

A climate and/or biome map may also prove of use. A Climactic Map informs the DM about the weather and flora and fauna that PCs might encounter in any given area. When creating a climate map, the Koppen Classification system is pretty standard, although there are some newer systems that expand on it.  You can use a climate map as guide to google a real world location with the same climate and just use that place's current weather in your game, or the map can just give you a rough idea of the type of weather that should be occurring in any given season. You could also create tables or code a random generator to create realistic weather for any given day based on the climate. Climate can affect the Biome, but they are not the same thing. In any event you have essentially the same options in how this map will affect your game as above, you can pick and choose from real world locations, just keep the general idea of the biome in your head, or make complex tables for each biome.

Last, but not least is the Political or Wargame map. A Political Map informs the DM of geopolitical tensions and the behavior of NPCs on a more granular level. This map shows the DM not just where borders are and which countries are most powerful, but it also allows you to get in the head-space of the characters in the world. Just by looking at the map it is easy to determine who an NPC might be rivals with or loyal to, prejudices arise out of geography and community and what is a political map, but a map of communities? There are many ways make a political map, you could make a modern one with delineated country borders, or you could make a dot map of each community being a different color based on their allegiance. Another option is to use the classic hexmap derived from wargames, not every hex needs to have an allegiance, there could be neutral or wilderness hexes with no meaningful population residing there. The benefit of this method is being able to also play a war game in the world without having to make a different map just for that purpose.

There are of course other types of maps each with their own purpose, but I think this covers the essential uses of maps in most Role-Playing Games.

No comments:

Post a Comment