Player Maps Will Look Pretty Bad

I like having a good map of whatever thing I’m DMing, and describing to the players what they see, and if they want to map it then they can.

There are problems: what about players who feel the need to map every alcove with precision? What if it’s hard to describe a complex room?

There are things that could be problems or benefits: what if the players screw up their map and get confused? What if nobody wants to map and they keep getting lost?

And there are benefits: will they be more connected to the game world? Will they feel mystery at not seeing the whole map? Will they feel accomplishment at mapping on their own? Will the player map as a shared-creation artifact be a cool thing?

I like to consider the game-ability of any place I map. Is this going to just be a pain in the butt to describe? Maybe I simpify it. Or maybe I think of ways to describe it in terms of structural shapes instead of map squares.

What’s important to me is to implant what the thing looks like to players. It’s fine if the specifics aren’t quite right. When you get into a fight you draw stuff out quickly on the grid mat or arrange your building blocks or whatever, and that has to be a good map.

Not showing the map to the players means I can make my DM map quickly and it doesn’t need to look nice. I can mark all kinds of DM information on it that they shouldn’t see. It can be a map that’s maximally useful to me and drawn quickly.

The players have to make their own map based on what I describe. It doesn’t need to match my map. It just needs to give the players perspective and show the relationships of different features. If the player map shows that the players have to head south to get to the pass, that’s cool. If they arrive a day early and the distance was not what they expected, that’s fine.

Some blogger recently mentioned using tracing paper or a light table to make edited copies of a DM map for players, maintaining accuracy but leaving out the grid, secrets, and DM notes – and probably mapping only a small section. I like this, but its utility is limited to times when you want to give an accurate map. I’d rather scrawl something on unlined paper that’s kinda like the dungeon outline.

I like making a poor quality DM map and adding notes. I can make a good game-able map in a very short time. All I need is room size, hallway length, and I’m good. For wilderness maps it’s easy to just draw stuff, and I think drawing on ungridded paper is more common for wilderness than dungeon maps. Maybe it’s because there’s more wiggle room: it’s ok for your wilderness map to be off by 1/4″ but not your dungeon map, because the former adds an hour of travel but the latter changes spell range and area of effect.

You might not appreciate fast mapping but if your party heads off to a dungeon you haven’t detailed beyond a line in your notes that says “abandoned dwarf mine – center hole – spiral walk down – side passages connect – plants in bottom and level below has lava” you’ll be glad you can whip it up while the players are settling in and picking their spells.

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