Monday, January 12, 2015

The Problem with Beautiful Maps

People are doing some spectacular RPG cartography lately. Best I've ever seen. I've experimented with some new styles and have come up with some interesting maps myself as well. The maps look beautiful.

That said, lets think about this. There's two kinds of maps in RPGs. There's battle maps, and then there's geographical maps. The Players may see the battle maps as that's the point of them (though just as often they do not as there may be things on the map they should not see, such as hidden doors). The geographic maps, on the other hand, ... the GM sees, and those the Players often don't get to see as they may wind up being spoilers for the World. After all, for a lot of Players half the fun of the game is exploring and discovering.

So here's the problem... The more beautiful the map the more inclination there is for the GM to show all that lovely beautifulness to the Players... especially if it is the GM's own map that they hand crafted themselves. Of course, we like to share our creative work. Especially when we bother to make it look as beautiful as we can. And the Players love to see that work because it lets them know that the GM has really put some time and thought and serious effort into their world. Which adds enormously to the Players sense that the World is a 'real' thing (in the GM's mind) and that they're actually exploring someplace, as this is what makes immersion possible. All good stuff. But that pesky problem ... we have to be careful not to make our geographic maps with things on it that the Players shouldn't see. But we do want to record those things because ... well, the map is supposed to record what's in our World... so we wind up with this weird situation. We can either make multiple maps that show two (or more) different views of our world (and that's really asking a LOT of anyone). Or we can make our Maps for Our-Eyes-Only. Or we can try revealing little bits of our maps as they become revealed to the Players. Each of these solutions is less than optimal. The least odious among them is to reveal little bits at a time, of course, as that requires the least amount of labor and still allows us to share our beautiousness with our Players. So that's the one I go with.

But there's a rub. Sometimes I make beautiful maps that are somewhere in between Geographic Maps and Battle maps. They're lovely to behold. But they contain all sorts of stuff the Players shouldn't see until they get to it. We can't quite use them as Battle Maps either as they're not quite entirely designed to be used for that purpose. I'm thinking in particular of some of the isometric projection maps I've done recently (similar in style to the one in the image at the top of my post, but you can also see it here). Their purpose is to show me, the GM, what's in the dungeon. Including where the Pit Traps, Magical Thingies, and other WhosieWhatsIts are located. In fact it's completely awful because I have this lovely looking map that I can't share with my Players. At least not before the end of the game. And when does an RPG game actually end? Oh that could be months. Or even years. And even then, sometimes you still don't want to share it because you think "They might someday show up here again, and they still haven't seen the whole thing... don't want to spoil it for em... I'll just hold on to it." And so, in this case you have this lovely map that no one ever gets to see except the GM.

Then we have another form problem as well. What happens when you like someone elses maps, and you want to use them for your game... but the Players may have already seen it because it's been posted online or in a module or something somewhere? My Players are the sort who would not go out of their way to find a map that I was using from another source (I don't do that anyway, but even if I did, they wouldn't) ... in fact I know them well enough to believe they'd specifically avoid it. But not every Player is like that. And sometimes having a map's secrets in hand (especially if the GM doesn't realize you already know the map) can make a big difference in the outcome of a campaign. "Should we turn left at the fork, or head head to the right?" ... "Oh, lets go to the right. Maybe there's treasure up that way or an old temple or something ..." And lo ... there is. Big difference (especially when the left path leads instead, for example, to a muddy cavern of giant Bobbit Worms, ya'know?). So this is a different variant on the same basic problem. Maps are designed generally to benefit the GM. Not the Players. Stuff on maps most often must be kept from the Players. And yet, ... when they're so gorgeous... how can you not share them? Wahhhh...

This entire issue is about Fog of War in relation to Maps. And the problem I have with loving to create beautiful maps, but hating to share them before the Players have completely finished with the scenario. I want to make them useful for myself as GM, so they include all the little details the Players mustn't see. And yet... it's beautiful and I'd love to share it.

Case in point. The other day I was having a computer problem. My players came into my little side room to help me troubleshoot it, and on my desk was one of my nicer-than-usual maps in a new style my players haven't seen yet.

"WOW!" they exclaimed. I had to quickly grab the map before they could take a real look at it. Now they really would love to see it. That's good and bad. I can't reveal it to them without giving important information away. So I hide it. Oh duh. Why is this such a problem?

Because that's just how it is. It's a weird and convoluted thing, frankly. And I'm not sure what the elegant solution to it all may be. For now I will just hide the maps and reveal them little bits at a time by covering over what they haven't seen yet with black construction paper. And believe me... that's not really all so ideal... though it does have it's benefits. The maps are intriguing them sufficiently to make them want to press forward to look around at everything they can get their eyes on. Which is kind of cool... but may well turn out to be misleading and dangerous for them. After all ... somewhere in that maze of gorgeous looking chambers and caverns is the Serious Bad Guy. They might just not be up to it... but their desire to see then next thing on the map could compel them forward. It's like a bit of meta-gaming in reverse and at a diagonal. And I'm not at all sure how that aspect might play out. We'll see. Hopefully, I'll come up with a good way to handle the whole kit and caboodle of this issue before that happens. And in the meantime I will refrain from publishing my map for you on my blog ... where they might see it. Waaaahhhh.... :p

Ok. Nuff said for today on this. If you have thoughts, suggestions, insights or epiphanies... please let me know. Darnit, I'd love to hear em.

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