You know what I really love about Roleplaying games in general and pre-published adventures specifically? Maps! I really like a well-drawn map of a fantastical location. There’s something about a map that makes a place a tangible, real location instead of just some place in the mind of the game-master.
Other pieces of artwork can have the same effect but maps are special to me. You see, a map provides the thing I value most in roleplaying games: Consistency. You can look at a map and compare with the location the PCs are at and know that if you go left, then right at the fountain, you’re going to end up in the room where you fought the bugbears.
However, a lot of people seem to have issues using maps well in their games. Speaking with a friend about this topic, I noticed a few things that almost everyone can easily incorporate into their games to enhance the experience. I’ve also got a few tips and tricks to get you started using maps.
First of all, know that you don’t HAVE to use maps and that maps can be a lot of things. I’ve had maps that were just a few scribbled lines to indicate paths, I’ve had maps that were nothing but a flowchart of rooms indicating the order of encounters. But I’ve also drawn maps in preparation for games, sketching out entire dungeons in advance so I had an accurate map of what the players would be exploring. This helps a great deal when the players decide to explore some strange corner because you already know what it is and where it leads but it does take a lot of time (and a little artistic talent). You don’t need to know what’s in there but knowing a location and having an idea of what’s around it tells you a lot about a location.
As an example, my megadungeon has a part on the second floor that I didn’t have any ideas for. I had drawn the caves that existed there but hadn’t filled in what lived there. I ended up rolling up a random encounter for that specific location and ended up with some Mycoloths (fungus people) in that location. Just getting that meant that the area was dark, damp and perfect for a small town of fungus folk. Adding small features to a map such as water, small cave-ins and other such details helps you figure out what exists in that area and why and lets you quickly add features to your game like in the example above.
As for actually making maps, i’m a bit of a traditionalist, preferring to draw with pencil in my GM notebook (if you don’t have one, get one, they’re great). I occasionally will scan in my notes and take photoshop to it but that’s a rarity.
Now that does leave me with a bit of a conundrum when it comes to showing the map to players, which is where the tried and true dry-erase marker comes in.
Either using a whiteboard (a cheap one that can lie flat on the table will do) or a slightly fancier vinyl battlemat will do just fine. Grab some markers and show the players what’s up. Alternatively, you can do what the really old-school D&D used to do and have the players draw the map for you. Describe the twists and turns and watch as they produce a map entirely of their own. Soon enough, they’ll start adding notes to the map to remember where things are and before you know it, you’ve got yourself a pretty neat prop for you game. Or if you’re like me and still have the map that came with D&D 3.5’s Dungeon Master’s guide, you can roll that out and add doors where necessary.
Now things start to get a little more complicated when you start having to deal with exact positioning. Games like D&D and more futuristic games where cover and Line of Sight are important tend to require a fairly accurate indication of position for the player characters. Maps can be of great help here but they need to be a tad more accurate for these sorts of situations to prevent arguments.
I ended up buying some packs of differently colored magnets to use in combination with a whiteboard for this since I’m not terribly interested in using exact measurements but you might want a more accurate method. I prefer this method to just drawing the map since moving magnets around is a much better way of indicating a changing position. Alternatively, you could use a battle mat or graph paper. Or if you want a more persistent map, some office supply stores sell these large sheets of paper with 1 by 1 inch squares on them.
At any rate, using maps and other ways to represent your gameworld in a visual manner can be an enormous boost to how immersive your game is and I highly recommend it. One last piece of advice: your artistic talents don’t matter. So long as you’re reasonably clear in your artistic endeavors, you’re probably fine.