Please note: I am going to include a series of maps at the bottom of this post that may be spoilers for some of my players. If you are one of my players and do not want to be spoiled, and you shouldn't, then do not look past the spoiler alert. For everyone else, please enjoy the maps selection as they demonstrate the various kinds of maps I will be discussing.
Maps for the GM
World Maps can include entire worlds (or star systems), or parts of them, and show distances, avenues and barriers and key points of interest. Less commonly, maps can show story elements (I like this kind of map and call them Story Maps), main characters, symbols representing themes, and so on. There are also Cosmological Maps, which may show the metaphysical or cosmic scale aspects of a World, including Deities and their relationships to one another, planes of existence and dimensions among other things, of which there have been any number published over the years. And lastly I have Concept Maps that show aspects of the world that may represent inner symbolism or relationships between non-physical things, such as Alignment & Political Doctrines.
GameMaster maps contain GM secrets which are simply things that the Players and their Characters do not know. These are not maps that are used for combat, and players typically do not see these maps. Should these maps be beautified by the GM? That's a debatable question. Given we only have so much time in a week, and game prep takes a lot of time, beautifying maps that only the GM will see could be considered wasteful. On the other hand, a true craftsman will want to beautify anything that they work on and turn it into a work of art, regardless of whether or not they are the only person who sees it. On these maps things do not necessarily need to be to scale.
The GM's dungeon map (or wilderness) is a very detailed view of the tactical layout of a given area, revealing various secrets such as traps, secret doors, and where the various monsters and factions of the dungeon are located. The GM does not show these maps to the players (usually). They may or may not be beautified. They should be to scale. They can also take a number of forms but the most common is the top down viewpoint map, where you are looking at a blue print of each dungeon level. Another style is the oblique projection map which shows the dungeon from an angle so that you can see the three dimensional depth and get an understanding of the relationships between the various levels of the map. These maps are fun, but can not be used as combat maps easily (as miniatures would have a hard time fitting on such a map).
Maps for Players
These can also be maps of Worlds as well, but will not have GM secrets on them. These maps should be beautified by the GM (or whomever makes them). They are not combat maps. They are not necessarily to scale. They do not necessarily even show what is truly out there. These maps might come to the Player Characters via a merchant, an adventure guild library, or discovered during the course of an adventure. Or they may not be maps that the Player Characters have, but simply ones that the GM shows to the Players themselves because their Characters happen to know the region well enough to see it on a map. Often these maps are used to help players understand where places are in relation to each other so they can plan expeditions, or consider factors such as kingdom boundaries, trade routes, or where wilderness happens to be located.
Then there are Dungeon Maps (which should be distinguished from Combat Maps as they are not quite the same thing, and serve a different purpose). These usually are drawn on graph paper and show the layout of the levels of a dungeon. They can be paper maps that the players look at over the GM's shoulder. They can be maps that they themselves draw based on the GM's description (in the old days this was how everyone did it, and I'm not exactly sure when or why this changed). The GM may use this as the sole map for a dungeon, describing it verbally to the players during the game while their Characters explore the thing. As such the GM description might be something like "You're Characters are heading West down a ten foot wide corridor made of gray stone blocks. They can see by the torchlight into the darkness ahead about 40 feet and up ahead the leading thief spots a wooden door on the North wall of the corridor. What do you do?" Then the player who is designated as the mapper would be drawing what he hears on a piece of graph paper to keep track. Not all parties designated a mapper. Many of those parties got lost in the dungeon and never found their way out. After that most parties had a designated mapper. Player drawn dungeon maps, by the way, are often wrong. This is used to simulate the idea that when in a dungeon it's relatively easy to get lost in the maze. So the party usually relied on the mapper to get it right, and as often as not, they failed somewhere along the line. That said, it is not necessarily the case that the failure is noticed by the Players for quite some time, even in some cases taking years before the issue becomes apparent and the disaster of being lost down the wrong corridor becomes a serious problem. I've seen that happen. Also notable is that Player maps are rarely beautiful, and quite often rather ugly affairs, scrawled in the heat of play, and barely serviceable beyond the rudimentary function of showing the way back out.
Then there are Combat Maps which should definitely be to scale, often show only small section of an area and are specifically used with miniatures or tokens representing Characters and their foes. The combat map is used to keep track of exact distances so that movement and attack ranges can be properly and accurately determined. They may or may not be beautified, and can take any number of forms. There's the standard large grid map where the squares are one inch, and the GM draws the dungeon as lines on the map. I often use this style. Then there's the table top diorama map where the dungeon is build out of plastic pieces or some such, and shows the exact layout of the dungeon in 3D. These are often quite handsome. They also serve as battle maps, and are probably the oldest form of battle map in the hobby, as they come directly out of the game Chainmail which predates the original D&D. Lastly on my list are virtual combat maps, which are becoming more popular these days as you can share them over the web via interfaces such as Roll20. Again these maps can be beautiful or not depending on the GM's inclination, talent and time. These maps should always be to scale.
*** PLAYERS SPOILERS ALERT ***
|Virtual Tactical Combat Map (Elthos RPG System I)|
|Dungeon Map on Graph Paper - Top Down View (Aphid Tample)|
|Dungeon Map - Side View (Murder Hole)|
|Dungeon Map - Top Down View (MS Excel)|
|World Map - City View (Hobbington)|
|World Map - Simple (MS Paint)|
|Player Combat Map|
|Player Wilderness Map (Harrows Gate)|
(note there are no names and parts are missing)
|Player Combat Map - Wilderness|
|GM World Map - Side View (Mysterio Island)|
|GM Dungeon Map - Oblique Projection (Grimdel's Lair)|
|Story Map (Yellow Clay Campaign)|
|Story Map (Yellow Clay Campaign)|