2017-06-09 The Purpose of a Map

“A map is a symbolic depiction emphasising relationships between elements of some space,” says Wikipedia. But Sophie Lagacé goes further than. In Mapping the Veins of a World she talks about the importance of water shaping the map, the importance of rivers and “a multitude of smaller streams flowing towards the river like blood vessels or veins in a leaf.”

I agree with the beauty and I importance of water! I spent way to much time writing the river and mountain code for my Alpine Map Generator – and the documentation view where I get an image of the various stages so that I can check how the water flows.

At the end of her blog post, Sophie adds: “To be truly useful, the map should have an impact on the adventures. Otherwise it’s just a page decoration, and all to often a mediocre one.”

And that got me thinking. My maps are a way to structure access to locales, to explain realms of influence, borders.

In my current game I encouraged people to transport goods along the major river, and to build a road, and fords are hard to find so perhaps in the future there will also be a bridge to be built. This is the slow backdrop developing because people need to spend gold for xp in the game, so infrastructure built by players is a thing.

But I haven’t progressed much further than that. A lack of timber wouldn’t affect the game, more swamps wouldn’t affect the game, control of a mountain pass wouldn’t affect the game and I feel it should – but I also don’t want to get bogged down in details.

Perhaps finding that balance between geography as backdrop and geography as an anchor for adventure is what I’m struggling to find. Perhaps I need to have a table for random monthly events based on the surrounding territories.

And perhaps some rules that are always in effect:

I’d like to return to the question of usefulness of a map. What impact does it have on adventures?

Perhaps a look at the actual maps people use at their gaming table would help. Why am I not seeing a lot of people simply using Google Maps? I think that’s because it doesn’t highlight the things gamers need:

So why not the opposite extreme: what are the benefits of a point crawl, a graph of interesting locations like in the old text adventures?

Things that the graph doesn’t provide:

This last point is perhaps the most interesting to me because it allows me to discover more details in an existing map. The map is itself more than the set of its elements. If there is a valley here and a valley there, then perhaps these are also spheres of political influence. If there is a forest here and a settlement there, then perhaps there is a constant flow of timber between the two.

When looking at a setting map or regional wilderness map these days, I ask myself how much of a difference this map would make at my table:

The answers to these questions determine the amount of information I would like to see on a map.

If you’re looking for maps, there are two great Google+ communities I know: Map-Making in Games, The Library of Gaming Maps, and there’s Reddit: /r/mapmaking/, /r/papertowns/, /r/oldmaps/, and Cartographers’ Guild.

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