Mapping: From the DM’s Brain to Yours

The DM has a map with secret information on it: secret doors, locations of treasure, monsters’ guard-posts and lairs and favorite ambush-sites, on-map text notes, and escape routes. It isn’t very fun to just hand the players this map. Somehow the DM needs to describe the area so the players understand it.

Players also want to keep a record of the area so they can get out easily and so they know which areas have been explored. But the terms you use to describe the area to the mapper are different from the terms easiest for other players to visualize as a physical space.

Here’s how I do it these days:

I have a wet-erase mat with squares printed on. I use wet-erase markers to draw the map of the dungeon level as the players explore it. The party mapper can copy it if he likes. We have already had game sessions where the map was never written down so the players were left guessing.

The party has a marching order established on the wet-erase mat to the side, and the whole group is represented on the area map using the lead PC figure. The PCs are actually strung out behind the lead sometimes as much as three more squares.

If we get to a situation where placement of figures matters, usually a fight, I bring out 2″ x 2″ Hirst Arts dungeon floor tiles. They’re made from four 1″ squares of flagstone floor tile, glued to cardstock, painted, and sealed. These are arranged on the table to show the local area within about 60′ at a scale of 5′ per inch, upon which we place everyone’s figures according to marching order. Once the fight ends, we sweep the tiles away and go back to the leader’s figure on the wet-erase mat at 1 inch = 10′.

The earlier method was for me to describe the room to the whole group, which got them to thinking about how they would tackle it. Then I would describe it to the mapper again because he needed more information about exactly where things were. I tried to make them realize they didn’t exactly need that much detail, all you need is a line-drawing with squares for rooms, but oh well. This way is faster because you don’t need to go back and forth to fix mistakes the party mapper is making, and the players have a better idea of the area they’re adventuring in. Alternately, it does destroy some of the sense of helplessness and being lost when only the mapper really knows what’s going on. I don’t know which is more valuable, or to what extent each is lost with the two mapping methods.

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