The Metagame – Makin’ Maps

Here’s one for you that I’ve been thinking about for a while: the use of maps in RPGs, and how it’s changed from a PC-driven to GM-driven duty.

Back in the day, when adventures were printed with pale blue maps to discourage xeroxing, players handled all the mapmaking duties. Someone would always show up with their graph paper and pencil to record hallways and rooms in terms of five- or ten-foot squares so we wouldn’t get lost in the labyrinthine dungeons. It wasn’t quite universal, but I brought this up to the old-school players I know, and they back me up on this: it was standard form for the PCs to record dungeon levels, with the GM acting as a descriptive intermediary for their recordkeeping.

I realized, when I was hashing out a quick battlemap of Kelmarane on Reuben’s oversized Chessex mat, that with 3e came a changeover: it’s now the GM’s job to make the maps so the players can see what’s going on. Now, if a player asks for a map and I tell them I’ll repeat the descriptions so they can draw it, I get blank stares and sulking. If the GM isn’t doing it, it’s almost a slight against the players.

It’s notable to me because I started gaming during the transition years; those 2e and early 3e games had the players handling the map duties, from general sketches down to square-by-square battlefields. Many battles were won or lost by a player’s artistic licenses, adding in things like rocks or trees or furniture instead of leaving the area/rooms featureless blank terrain. And some of my GMs were intentionally confusing with their descriptions, especially when we got slack and didn’t draw the minor rooms in his mega-dungeon. Somewhere along the line, it transitioned; most of my players can’t imagine things any other way.

I’ve always been a big fan of maps and mapmaking (and that’s cartography to you). Products like Dundjinni and Campaign Cartographer 3 (well, mainly Dundjinni) make up for my lack of fine artistic skills to produce something usable for the gaming table that doesn’t look like crap. Maps and miniatures give a good feel for space, scale, and relative location, all important things for a heavy tactical battlefield like Pathfinder. On the one hand, it feels like the abundance of maps diminishes the point of roleplaying as imagination; on the other, maps are awesome, and it’s good to have a visual aid. I’ve run a lot of my 3.5 sans-maps, but given the choice, it can be worth the extra five minutes of work.

So, it’s not really a critique, more a comment on the changing metagame; it’s not an extra workload for the GM if you like makin’ maps and getting into the tactical bent. Games are less focused on meandering dungeons taking up swaths of graph paper, and are more focused on the immediate surroundings of the battle as depicted on a group of battlemap squares. And this is only focused on the tactical RPGs, D&D and Pathfinder; in something like Exalted or TORG I’m more likely to sketch something out on a dry-erase board, because making a Charge or Double Move is no longer a factor.

It’s also worth noting that a large part of the 3e download market is/was “GM aides” to take the burdon off the GM’s shoulders. Amongst other things, there’s a ton of maps and tiles out there… Oone and Skeletonkey Games come to mind, but there’s quite a few out there. So, not only is it now the GM’s duty, if you’re too busy/lazy/what have you, there’s easy-out options like generic maps (in varying quality) and reusable tiles. The metagame changes, and the market changes to meet the new demand.

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