Saturday 28 March 2015

Mapping During Play

A perennial problem is how to map for players. I've tried out various methods over the years: describing the dungeon whilst a player tries to draw the convoluted description and everyone else sits round looking bored...

"The door opens into a room which is 40' by 60'. You enter halfway along the west wall. There is an door in the north wall, about 10' from the eastern end, and a corridor in the middle of the south wall. Oh, and there's 5 orcs in there."

I've tried cutting out map sections which get handed out and stuck together...

"You enter a room which looks like this... hang on... it's here somewhere...oops no, not that one - that's room 7. Ah, it's fallen out."

I've tried filling notepads with map sections which I then hand to players to copy out...

"Right, that's rooms 1-15 drawn. I never knew that two hours could go so quickly. Now all I need to do is draw all the corridor sections. I don't have time to do the eastern half, so they'd better not find the eastern entrance." 

I've tried the "character's wouldn't have the skills or time or instruments to map" method - that was a quick way to suck the fun out of a session!

How about drawing the map on a computer and revealing it to the players one room at a time - technology can solve every problem... until the players go off piste and you have to improvise an encounter.

So in the end I decided I wanted:
  • the physical process of mapping should not detract from the game
  • should not have to spend hours of my life prepping sessions
  • be able to improvise new maps on the fly
  • have the same system for dungeons, towns, and wilderness
  • have the same system for purchased modules and home-grown adventures
  • have the same system for floor plans, side-elevation maps, and isometric maps
And finally, but far from the least important
  • If the map is cool then the player's map should be cool
One day I bought some thin paper you could overlay over a map and trace through it. As we adventured I would pick up their map, put it over mine, draw on whatever extra was needed whilst describing what they saw and put it back down. One minor but important detail is that I keep the paper the same way up as my map, that is for them the map is the other way up, else I find it really confusing!

I have never looked back!

Here are some examples from our Star Frontiers campaign.

First a spacestation map, and the player's traced map:

DM's Map
Partial Tracing for Players
Here is an isometric map of a compound:


  1. I really like the isometric map of Slave City One. I might just have to make a version of that for the Frontier Explorer. Very cool.

    1. Glad you liked the map. If you put something in Frontier Explorer please mention my blog :-)

      The skill system I'll be posting in a week or two has its origins in an alternative Star Frontiers skill system, and I plan on posting that as well.

      The other map is also from our Volturnus campaign replacing the lame box text at the end of the last module. After infiltrating and sabotaging the Sathar ship (a long story involving hacking the computer system to redirect the poison destined for Volturnus into the air suply) they ended up stranded in space with their only chance of survival a derelict space station. After docking they find an alien creature has made a hole in the hull and broken in (hence the sections marked vacuum) and is feeding on the Eorna eggs. It’s basically the old Dr Who story “The Ark In Space”. Google that to see what the space station looks like – the central bit is a long crawl space up and down with eggs arranged all around.