2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?

Hex Describe sometimes generates “dungeons” or “lairs” that basically consist of multiple “rooms” or “zones” with residents. On the first screenshot you can see how I stuck a Set temple description into my notebook. It consists of the following zones:

I feel this more or less linear arrangement has about the complexity of the Thulsa Doom dungeon in the Conan movie.

The question is: does adding a map help the referee run the game?

I just spent some time drawing a map. It doesn’t add too much complexity, I feel. Giant lizards are kept in stables and have extra gates... that’s it, I guess?

I’m not convinced that these kinds of dungeons need elaborate maps. They need a short key that delivers the necessary punch.

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Image 2 for 2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?

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There was a reply over on The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms. I said:

I agree about the multiple exits. Furniture? It depends. Would one kitchen improvisation really differ from another? Many details only need mapping if their spacial arrangement is important for the game and non-trivial to improvise. But that gets me into another problem: at the end of the day I’m going to use words to describe the rooms to my players and if I can’t put it into words on the screen then chances are I won’t be able to it into words at the table. That’s why I’m drifting towards ever simpler layouts.

Some of the thoughts I had regarding maps were due to me wondering what I should add to the Gridmapper bot – do I really need to add pillars and chests and beds and tables and shelves? It would look nicer for sure. But would it be more useful?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-25 11:44 UTC


I think I agree with your assertion that for simple layouts maps are unnecessary. In my experience, even with more complicated layouts, it’s easier to run off a flow-chart diagram than an actual map.

Beyond necessity though, I find maps to be one of the pleasurable pieces of the D&D experience (like the act of rolling physical dice). Not necessary per se, but part of the fun. I like looking at maps just like I like looking at pictures of monsters.

I think where maps add the most, is when they are player facing. You can convey a fair amount of flavor with a well drawn map. Plus, it gives players something to focus on, and, at least for my players, really speeds up the adjudication of where everyone is relative to everything else.

deadtreenoshelter 2020-01-25 19:22 UTC


Yes! Absolutely, maps as artefacts for players to have and to hold!

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-25 21:57 UTC


A lot of my maps these days are more scribbles and flowchart like. Whatever their quality, my player groups have generally found maps, even of simple situations, to be of use. Good text and word pictures are useful, and help, and may be enough sometimes, but I’ve never found a good diagram (which is often all a map is, really) to be surplus to requirements.

– Alistair 2020-01-26 13:23 UTC


Yes, I agree. If the map is basically a flow-chart that provides information that you can’t achieve by using a bunch of bold words in a text, then it’s definitely not superfluous.

I think my point still stands regarding room geometries. Back in 2017 I wrote a blog post about dungeon mapping and I said: “If I can’t communicate it at the table in a reasonable amount of time, it’s a waste of time.”

I also quoted Noisms who made the following point in Elementary Principles of Dungeon Drawing: “Snazzy weird shapes and arrangements of rooms look good on paper but in my experience are really hard to explain at the table without ending up with the DM doing lots of drawing, which defeats the purpose of having players do the mapping.”

Once we drop mapping the details, I agree that maps can be useful.

Back in the same year I also wrote about the purpose of a map and focused on wilderness maps. It can’t really be reduced to a pithy point. I end the post with a list of questions:

  • Are the distances important in my game?
  • Is the terrain important in your game?
  • Are rivers and mountain ranges important obstacles?
  • Are the locations mines, pastures, or forests important assets?
  • Is the distribution of settlements important in terms of politics?
  • Is there an opportunity to get lost, take risky short cuts, claim unsettled terrain?

I guess I just want people to make a conscious choice regarding the mapping they do. Not everybody needs to draw maps like Dyson Logos or Paratime Design. Not everybody needs to draw the kinds of maps you see on the Cartographers’ Guild.

I guess when I draw beautiful maps, it’s just to entertain myself. It’s something I do to get into the mood as I prep for an upcoming game. It gets me in the right head space. But I doubt that it is useful beyond that.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-26 15:23 UTC


I’m seconding the head space aspect of maps. I like to doodle on maps to get my creativity going. So I can’t “extract” much meaning from randomly generated maps. Simple and gameable information which I can easily work into my own maps get my vote.

– Freddy W 2020-01-28 12:37 UTC


Talysman writes To Map or Not.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-03-20 11:22 UTC


Regarding you comment from 2020-01-25 11:44 UTC, specifically:

do I really need to add pillars and chests and beds and tables and shelves? It would look nicer for sure. But would it be more useful?

I really like these kinds of details on a GM map. I feel that when done well they allow me to almost run the dungeon straight of the map without referring to the keys in play, narrating from what I see on the map. On maps without such details I tend to try to draw then in myself if I have time.

That being said, this works best on “small” maps with quite large squares (larger than Gridmapper?). This might be approaching the limit for practical map size.

– Björn Buckwalter 2020-07-14 22:56 UTC


Yeah, there seems to be a size limit if you’re going to add useful detail for the referee.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-07-15 08:21 UTC


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