Is Mapping Unfair?

I was thinking about the mapping for my game, because i’m considering giving my players a couple of “work-in-progress” maps of the Maze of Nuromen, representing where they’ve been so far; the first to the group of goblins, who, since they started in the middle of the dungeon, need something for a bit of orientation, and the second for the alpha party, whose mapper is a novice.

The eldest member of the group pointed out to the novice mapper that he should be grateful that I’ve helped him with mapping and pointed to a few significant mistakes (“dude, you mixed up East and West; here, let me just turn your map upside-down. Now it’s right. I’ll draw you a compass rose”)

I guess the reason why I feel like mapping is unfair is because it’s much easier to draw a map based on what you’re seeing around you than what you’re being told. I mean, the game already takes into account “mapping speed”, implying that the characters, if not the players, are carefully measuring and taking account of things. Room descriptions can be somewhat cumbersome, because you have to tell your players what’s in the room that immediately jumps out at them (either an encounter or a more figurative ‘jumps out’, like a big statue or altar or whatever), what’s in the room, what’s in the room after careful inspection of the room, dimensions of the room (god help you if you’re in anything that’s not a rectangle or something that resembles a tetris piece!), the locations of the exits from said room, and you need to figure out the best order in which to tell the players this! The problem is even worse if the players are in the subterrain and the walls and tunnels are irregular. For instance, while Dyson is a phenomenal artist when it comes to dungeon maps, a lot of his maps I would have a difficult time describing effectively enough to my players for them map.

I like some of the things I’ve seen for 4e, which wholly embraced the board game nature, of which there are many vestiges found in Basic, of Dungeons & Dragons, that took iconic dungeons like the Tomb of Horrors and made printable tile-sets for the rooms and tunnels. No worrying about where the players were actually stepping, whether they did or did not walk over a certain spot or getting lost even though the character in game are mapping and are capable mappers (the player doesn’t have to know magic or be good with a sword to play a wizard or a swordman, but he has to be able to map to play a character who can map; that hardly seems fair).

But you can’t always print off your dungeons in handy tile or geomorph format, and you can’t always work your dungeons onto a HeroQuest board (unless you’re running a HeroQuest to D&D conversion!), so what’s a DM to do? Right now, I don’t have the answer to that. My game is running myriad OSR dungeons, all of which are using the 10′ square grid maps.

One thing I’ve been considering as a future solution, however, is flowchart dungeons. I’m inspired partially by Random Wizard’s interactive node maps of some of the old modules and also Matthew Schmeer’s incredibly bizarre One Page Dungeon, The Wizard in the Woods is Up to Something (Maybe), which has almost twice the real-estate of Maze of Nuromen on a single page thanks to its keyed flow-chart. Even Zork, with its massive underworld, is just a big flowchart. Thinking about how we conceptualize space, locations and the distance between them, the flowchart makes more sense than a rigidly scaled map, and is much easier to convey to your players. It’s easier to say “You’re in a large underground room held up by 4 pillars, there are 6 exits; north, northeast, east, southeast, south, and west” than “…there are doors north and south, and a door on the opposite end of the room from which you came in. Also there are two doors on the east wall at the northeast and southeast corners of the room”, which would be the Room 2 in the Maze of Nuromen.

After this dungeon, I might experiment with treating the mapped dungeons as a flowchart rather than in concrete terms. If they ask for or need dimensions, I can give it to them. We’ll see!


22 responses to “Is Mapping Unfair?

  1. I’ve done flowchart maps. they work well but can get too samey after a while.
    worse is trying to map caves in 3d – mapping in general is tedious and there is no easy solution I think.

    also +1 for using myriad correctly šŸ™‚

    • Thanks! After I finish this module, I might see how the flowchart style works. Not necessarily using a flowchart, but treating descriptions as such; if all the connecting nodes are in place and make sense, it might make room description easier. Plus, some of the other modules I’m looking at using have a bit easier room descriptions than Maze of Nuromen.

  2. I wroked as a surveyor’s assistant for a a little while a few decades back and it isn’t easy for the experts to map things accurate and well all the time an surveyors use actual measurement gear that no dungeon explorer ever uses. Everything a surveyor measures on site is reduced to a shorthand of measurements and notes which are then carefully laid out by hand not in the field.
    What’s unfair for D&D play is to expect folks to be able to draw accurate floorplans in a dark and hostile dungeon environments, it just wouldn’t happen. Mapping is important however and in my experience it works better to develop a verbal shorthand and consistent manner of description. Players generally don’t need floorplans accurate to 10′ a more shcematic/floorplan map will do the trick most of the time.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I’m trying to get a bit better in my descriptions, and part of that has been not going into dimensional detail unless asked if there’s a lot going on in a room. I’m looking forward to running some of the other modules I’ve got saved up, in no small part because the rooms are written in a bit more friendly manner.

      As for equipment, I sort of assumed that 10′ poles and the measured ropes would/could be used as mapping tools. It’s something that might be interesting to do some research into.

      But yeah, I do want to get away from floorplan style mapping in favor of something that players might be able to handle better.

      • Nope. 10′ poles are used for probing or tapping uncertain footing or stonework (for example testing for pit traps, collapsing ceilings etc.), rope is used for climbing and/or tying stuff together.

        Medieval surveyors used rods & chains. A rod was 16.5 feet, a chain was 4 rods or 66 feet. These units will make a lot more sense if you look up how they were used.

      • While it’s true that those are not the in-book purposes of those items, there’s nothing preventing their use in ad hoc surveying.

      • true on the 10′ poles, but rope stretches & lengthens over time, especially if it’s not kept dry. that’s why chain was used.after a few weeks of use in damp or wet dungeon environments you may find that your 50′ rope is actually 57′ long. bad for mapping…

  3. I believe there are two sides to this coin that make this topic challenging to “solve” at the table:

    1) I absolutely agree that mapping via verbal description is technically “unfair” since the players can’t actually see what you are describing, so there is bound to be inaccuracies due to language and interpretation.

    For the most part, I have hand-waved player mapping my own game (and this appears to be a “new school” style of play) . Part of this is due to my own lack of gaming time. My players and I are all older and only have a few precious Friday night hours to wile away. We don’t want to waste a lot of time on the “in between” stuff in the game. We want to “get to the fun” quickly. We want plot advancements, role playing and combat. Using up 10-20 minutes on mapping minutia in a 3 hour session is not productive use of our limited play time… so we ignore it. Flow charting is a perfectly acceptable work around for this same kind of issue. If it’s not fun for the table or doesn’t add enough flavor to the game for the amount of effort, lose it.

    On the other hand…
    2) Mapping a non-square cavern should be hard. In the link example, you note that describing those maps would be very difficult… but my first thought was actually mapping those caverns would be extremely difficult without extensive surveying knowledge and tools. If you dropped a group of people into Luray Caverns with some pencils, paper and flashlights and without the helpful paved walk ways, you’d probably find their desiccated corpses years later. Even seeing the details in person, it would be really easy to get the details wrong and still get lost.

    I don’t know if I have a solution for that except to say when we would do these kind of maps back in the day (as a PC) they would look more like a Visio diagram than an accurate map. Rooms were essentially rough circles and squares with the exit directions indicated. That way the map would be accurate in terms of “we took the left (northwest) passage out of here and entered this other room from here…” It was accurate enough for the purpose of the PCs not getting lost even if it looked very little like the actual map.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. It sounds like something I’m probably going to end up trying. I’ve found myself that when I have a hard time coming up with my own maps for settings, I just flow-chart it instead. If my world map is a flow-chart, then it makes sense that the dungeon maps could be flow-charts.

      I’m also looking forward to running some of the modules I have stacked up that give better descriptions for the rooms. A room’s dimensions is low on my list of things I’m trying to rattle off, and low on the list of things my players care about after I’ve rattled off the first few interesting things. One thing I’ve noticed is that the players are wanting to interact with things in the room without even caring about where, or even if, there are exits until after they’ve played around with whatever there is to play with.

  4. You know, this approach might be exactly what I need to make the “dungeon scores” I’ve been developing work properly. I tried mapping some of the random dungeons I rolled up, but didn’t get very far.

    Perhaps ignoring all but the most basic elements of layout (A to B to C) would help me reach the next step in developing the system. Hmm.


    • Flow-charting also works well for procedurally generating your content, I’d think. While Random Wizard’s geomorphic combinations of B1 are pretty nifty, they’re not really something you can use in every situation. But set piece rooms with ad hoc egresses can be dropped anywhere.

  5. I think you are somewhat missing the point. read some early history of the hobby. Of course mapping is hard–it’s supposed to be. At least half of Gary Gygax’s “tricks & traps” were specifically designed to interfere with his players ability to map accurately and make them get lost.

    if players insist on trying to make exact maps, track the time it takes to measure distances & angles. require them to explain how they determine compass directions & slopes. make sure the light is adequate for mapping. increase wandering monster encounters accordingly.

    when describing rooms do it in visual terms, not directions & measurements. use vague terms for measurements: big, small narrow, gigantic…

    if you have appropriate drawing skills, sketch some of the more confusing rooms. use first person shooter type veiws, not floorplans. or find software to do renderings of your dungeons, again as FPS views, not floor plans.

    all the players really need for their maps is a roughgraph w/ boxes or ovals or blobs representing rooms and connecting lines for corridors

    mapping as they explore is the players problem, not yours. if they want to survive, one or more of them needs to learn to do it effictively.if you want to help, learn to give more visual dungeon descriptions. if you want to help them learn to map, point them to gaming q&a forums and suggest they search the archives or ask. google is amazingly NOT useful for this.

    • My point about unfairness comes more from the fact that someone in D&D can play someone who can wield magical fire without being able to wield magical fire in real life but is unable to make a map or play as someone with a modicum of cartographic skills without possessing them themself.

      Some of my PCs do have some actual mapping tools. My current problem is figuring how to keep mapping in the game without substantially slowing down play. This last session, I didn’t have to do any hand-holding, and multiple players got in on discussing whether or not their map was accurate, with everyone contributing, which was nice to see.

      As much as I’d like to make sketches or renderings of dungeons, I just don’t have the time or the talent. I’m looking forward to trying out some less clumsily written modules, which will undoubtedly help with the visual description part.

      • basic mapping is a skill that most gamers find easy & intuitive. when they don’t, there is usually one of two types of problems: the mapper is clueless (in this case some one else should try it); or the mapper is trying to be too painstakingly accurate. sure, your players may not be expert cartographers, but their characters probably aren’t either. they don’t have to be. the point of a dungeon map is to be able to find your way out of the dungeon, or back to where you left off, and to note hazards like traps, or monsters you avoided last time. you’re not trying to win a cartography contest.

        try this experiment: hand each of your players a bar napkin and a pen. ask them to draw a map to their house from the nearest major highway exit, or from your current location, or whatever.

        that is the type of dungeon map they should be drawing. and the person who draws the most useful map in the shortest time is probably the one who should be mapping.

        and for simple outdoor stuff, especially small villages (as a rule of thumb, something you could see all of in a couple hours or less. like fewer than 20 streets & 100 buildings) just give the players a rough map. for larger towns or cities, strongly discourage the players from mapping. anyone who takes the time to draw a map in a medieval city is a yokel who deserves the attention of every beggar, cutpurse & thug the DM can throw at them.

        Mapping doesn’t have to be “fair’. It isn’t a goal of the game. You’re trying to have fun. experiment a bit and find the right balance between time spent on mapmaking & recordkeeping and the stuff you enjoy..

        And again there are lots of resources available to learn to make maps effectively during play. Start with the player’s guide for whatever game you play. if you have access to Dungeon or Polyhedron magazines, they’ve run lots of articles with good mapping tips. Try gaming sites like ENWorld or Cannonfire.

      • Or here’s an evil thought: next time someone starts whining “mapping is unfair”, “I’m a girl, directions confuse me”, etc, offer to let one of their characters handle the mapping for the party, just like wielding magical fire. The players need never touch a map…

        You keep track of what they’ve seen & mapped, roll a DC for the character every time they update the map a failure means the map contains some sort of error (it’s important that you make the roll in secret so the player doesn’t know if it succeeds) When they need to consult the map you roll a DC. If it succeeds you give them correct answers, unless of course they are asking about a part of their map with an error.

  6. Since the mid-80s my players have never had problems with mapping, for a very simple reason – I bough a whole bunch of those cardboard cut-out dungeon (and wilderness) floor plans and have been using them ever since. They were the first thing I used after the old dominoes trick we got from some D&D book or other, and I still love them. Over the decades players have annotated the backs with noteworthy events, so they serve a dual purpose as a sort of nostalgia time machine. Anyway, the point being that it’s much easier to map what is laid out on the table like that!

    • That’s definitely true! Using cut-out geomorphs is an option, but right now we’ve settled (for the moment) on abstract descriptions + a wet-erase battlemat, and so far they’ve worked out. Though only getting 3 rooms in, last session, it may be early to really judge.

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