Where A Map Can Take You
I love props at the table. I may, one day, post about props in general, but I want to talk about a specific type of prop that I think people are, in general, pretty familiar with: the map. I divide maps into two gross categories: Big Maps and Little Maps. These names have nothing to do with the size of the paper the map is printed on or with the size of the area they cover. Rather, they have to do with the importance of the map to the campaign.
Big Maps are those that are applicable to your whole campaign. In Kjemmen, which is intended to take place pretty much entirely within the city of the same name, I have a map of the city, which is my Big Map. If you were doing a campaign where PCs were expected to planet hop, your Big Map might be the whole quadrant and/or their space ship.
I love big maps because they give the campaign a sense of place. They really ground the events for the players by letting them see where things are happening compared to other things. If you provide a big map (especially to each player so they can write on it), they’ll always be asking for you to pinpoint on the map where some location is that they’ve been.
Little Maps are incidental maps. Mostly, they’ll be good for just one scene. I don’t use miniatures, but if you do, I imagine all your battle maps are like this. If I need a map of a battle space, I generally draw one up on the spot and tell the players it’s loose and not to scale. We can point with our fingers and I arbitrate distances. In fact, for most Little Maps, I draw them up on the spur of the moment. I have an idea of what the space is like in my head already, so I sketch it out really quickly.
This requires some artistic ability, of course, but I’m mostly just drawing boxes, curves and circles on notebook paper, so it’s not that you need to have a degree in Architecture or whatever. I generally don’t even know when a Little Map is going to be needed ahead of time. You might be pretty sure that there’ll be a battle at the Keep this session, but my players regularly wonder what the layout of a random stretch of street is because they want to ambush someone in an unexpected location or whatever.
In The Middle
Okay, I lied. There’s sort of a third category. I ran a paranormal FBI campaign sort of like the X-Files. I even copied the episodic nature of the show (some cases unrelated to the over-all story). One of the cases took place in a ski town for which I made a map. Another had to do with the tunnels that are under Niagara Falls of which I made another map. Both of these maps were around for more than one session and I prepared them ahead of time, so they don’t really feel like Little Maps. However, neither was applicable to the entire campaign, so they don’t feel like Big Maps. My only point, really, in bringing them up is to say that these are also fine and a thing that I do. This isn’t a strict classification system.
So What Goes On There?
Another thing that I have sometimes found difficult is deciding what goes on a given map. Sometimes that means I’m having a hard time deciding the boundaries of a map. For Kjemmen, it’s easy: the game happens in the city so the map should be of the whole city and not much more. For a game set in, say, the Star Wars universe, though, do you want to have a map of the whole galaxy? Of just the little part of the rim where your smuggling-focused story takes place? It’s sort of a hard call. The only advice I can give you is that if your map is big, it gives the impression that your world is big (and fleshed out) as well, which is good. If your map is small, the players’ attention will be more focused on the region covered. I think the happy medium lies in having a map that covers more than you’ve strictly detailed out, but not more than you could make up details about if they go somewhere unexpected.
Another quandary is deciding what sort of markings should go on a map. For a region of land, say, you might be wanting to put cities and towns and roads and forests and rivers and bays and mountains and… all with names. You also want to print it out on an 8.5×11 piece of paper. Things can get a bit crammed. A couple of solution ideas I’ve had are: Cut your map up, which basically makes it larger, and hand out more than one sheet of map; Make more than one map. For Kjemmen, I wanted to include specific locations as well as the names of noble houses that controlled a given stretch of territory (which ended up being like landscape names). I printed off two maps for every player: one was the land-scape with the noble names and the other was dots and names for the specific locations they knew about.
Finally, is an idea I’m stealing from Stewart. Sometimes, the best map is not a map. He and I like to think of a campaign being centered in a specific location and so we talk about that aspect pretty early on when discussing campaign ideas. He ran a campaign called Amunaven for which all the PCs were among the youngest generation of a family of, more or less, gods. The eldest were on the order of Ares and the youngest more like Achilles. We had crazy abilities in a bronze age world and could teleport about with magical stones. So a map didn’t make sense, really, because he didn’t really want to hand us a globe. Instead, he handed us a family tree. The family was big (maybe 30 total members over 4 generations) and very central to the plot, so the family relationships were, in essence, the location of the campaign. This is more generally applicable than just family trees, of course: the point is to keep in mind that the purpose a map serves is to make concrete some aspect of the story that is central and omnipresent, which is often, but need not be the physical space it occurs in.
My next post will explore map making in a bit more technical detail: I’ll talk about some resources I’ve found helpful, some techniques I’ve used and probably share some examples. What kind of maps do you make for your campaigns? How do you decide what to map? Let us know in the comments.