Maps are a staple part of fantasy adventure. They’re not just pieces of paper that tell you where to go, they’re a visual representation of the places you could explore, as well as a rich and detailed plotting of how each area relates to each other.
It’s easy to see why maps are great for the game, but mapping in Dungeons and Dragons can be a real challenge for players unless you are providing them with the map yourself. When the players explore a new dungeon or cave they can have a pretty difficult time accurately mapping the rooms you describe. Descriptions just don’t translate perfectly sometimes, so how do we overcome this if we want our players to be the ones to build out the map as we go along?
Mapping in Three Styles
If you want to have a game where your players “generate” the map as they go there are three main ways to accomplish this. We will discuss them in order of most difficult to least difficult, but they all have their own pros and cons.
Describe and Draw
The most difficult way to get your players to create a map as they explore is to ask them to draw it from the descriptions that you give them. This sounds great on paper, but in practice it’s actually very difficult to craft descriptions for your players that easily translate into an accurate map.
That’s because you often won’t use scale the way you think when playing with theater of the mind style games. Asking your players to map a room they’ve only heard described is a bit like asking them to draw a creature they’ve only heard of but not seen. It can be done, but it will be a little off.
To solve the issue of going from description to drawing you can take a few approaches. The first method is through planning your mapping descriptions ahead of time. The mapping descriptions can tell players with coordinates where things are located and use very consistent measurements for size and scale. To make this work your players will either need a ruler or some graph paper, but it will lead to a more accurate map.
Another method to solve the description to drawing gap is to have very consistent rules for how things are described to be mapped and ensure the map’s dimensions can have a bit more tolerance to the game. What this means is you’re still preparing descriptions, but if the rooms don’t line up perfectly, it’s not going to mess up the game.
Your dungeon layout should also be constructed in a way that is designed to minimize layout confusion when someone is mapping it. The main downside is that typically a literal dungeon is designed to be as complicated and confusing as possible, so you might lose that aspect in this type of mapping. Still, careful description can generate passible maps if you really want to avoid stilted, grid-based descriptions.
The final method to make hand drawn maps more functional is to teach your players how to draw relational maps instead of literal ones. These are maps that are made solely of circles and lines. Each circle represents a room. Each line represents a connection to another room. You can actually design a dungeon without any corridors so long as you know which rooms lead to each other room.
These are the least realistic maps, as they don’t describe a scale visualization on the dungeon’s layout, but they are the easiest to draw because they are simply telling your players how the rooms are connected, not what size or shape they are. These types of maps can even be drawn where the rooms are all in the wrong spots. As long as your players draw lines from each room that connects to the correct locations they’ll be able to navigate no matter how far off the drawing is to the actual layout.
Any method you choose for having your player’s hand draw a map will still need accuracy. It will be important to check their work and correct any major mistakes that would disrupt gameplay. Minor mistakes can actually be kind of fun, but only if they are from the players’ end and not a direct result of a poor description.
Additionally, you’ll want to make sure your players want to do this kind of mapping. If no one wants to take these kinds of notes, someone will be upset that they are saddled with the burden of mapping out a complex dungeon.
Handout and Place Mapping
If none of your players want to draw the map but you still think they need to create one for the dungeons, you can also use modular, handout-style maps. These come in several forms, ranging from paper cutouts to battlemap tiles. Instead of having your players draw the next room they enter, whenever they can see into a new room, you hand them a cutout of it for the map.
The easiest way to create this is to take your battlemaps for your dungeon and just scale them down and print them out. You might not have them readily available, but you can usually mock up a quick minimap in under an hour. Using programs like DungeonDraft or Inkarnate can make this process even faster.
To use these effectively you really need to keep the mapping process in mind. One method is to hand out a room or corridor piece to them when they can see the area. For example, if there are slats in a bunch of doors that your players can see through, they should be able to add those rooms to the map. If the doors are solid for the area they would need to open each one to be able to map them. This can get tricky when you’re dealing with twisting hallways. You really don’t want to cut a corridor into pieces for each bend in the path.
The other method gets rid of the line of sight issue. If the players have been in a room, then they get the map piece for it. This makes it much easier for you since you can take a map and just cut along each enclosed space. The downside to this is that oddly shaped rooms can reveal things your players might not have encountered yet if you give them the map piece right when they walk into the room. To avoid this, you can give them the map piece at the end of exploring any room or section and keep it in the theater of the mind until they fully experience that area.
While cutting up areas for this type of mapping is an easy way to reveal things, you might also want to explore the idea of putting your map onto a series of tiles. The advantage to this is that your players will know where they have and have not explored based on the tiles that are not yet attached to the layout. It encourages them to move throughout the grid in a manner that yields maximum exploration. These obviously have some drawbacks, as they don’t necessarily yield clean room divisions. But they are easy to manage and could make the process of laying out the map a bit more simple and compact.
Virtual Visual Aids
It’s 2021 and it’s time to get digital! Starting in 2020 we played a lot more DnD online, so much more than we ever had before. Because of this we tried a lot of different tools for simulating the visuals that you would get sitting at a table with your friends.
We found that in many virtual table tops, or VTTs, we were able to have a fog of war option that helped automate a lot of the mapping that we would normally have our players do. This can be as complex as revealing areas of the map around player characters as they moved around, or as simple as enabling visuals manually as the players progressed. We’re not going to go into each VTT we’ve tried here, but needless to say, most of them do this well.
To really make this work for mapping you can often set up what is effectively a minimap for your players. While the battlemap portion of the screen works really well to allow your players to see things for combat, setting up a minimap that you gradually reveal as they go allows them to think of the dungeon more comprehensively.
This makes a lot of spatial reasoning and backtracking puzzles possible. Getting your players to understand the layout and logical connections within your dungeon can be exceedingly difficult without virtual minimaps. When you’re just revealing the map as they go, it becomes much easier to have the illusion of player mapping while still giving them accurate information to base future decisions on.
We could spend a whole article diving into different VTTs and how they handle this (and we probably will). But for now, we just want to point out that you can often create options for your game that function much more like a video game would by allowing you to automate some features of map exploration in really compelling ways.
The Value of Player Mapping
We’ve spent some time looking at ways to get your players to map out the areas they travel through themselves, but what does this really provide you with? Most notably, the players get a sense of exploration when they go through this exercise. By creating the map as they go, they feel like an explorer and they also are more engaged with the layouts of where they have traveled. It’s a very easy way to get your players feeling more like adventurers and less like they are playing them in the game.
Beyond just the mental change that mapping can help accomplish, you also get the ability to have your players interface with visual puzzles that would not be feasible without a map.
Think of classic games like Metroid, Castlevania, and The Legend of Zelda. All of these rely on detailed mini maps to help the player solve problems and explore the world. By looking at the maps in these games, players are able to find treasure they might have otherwise missed, overcome obstacles through clever re-routing, and even backtrack to areas they would have otherwise forgotten to get deeper into the dungeon.
Mapping adds a whole layer to the game and it gets very little attention in core rule books. We highly encourage you to take some time and think about how getting your players involved in the mapping process might help you take your own games to the next level.
Player Mapping Makes Adventures Better
No matter how you choose to tackle player based mapping, the engagement the players get with this exercise can’t be overstated. There are ways each of these types of mapping can fall short, be it miscommunication, oversimplification, or over-automation. But most games can be greatly improved with some form of mapping even if it’s the most simplistic version available.
Finding the type of mapping that works best for you and your players might require a bit of trial and error, but when player based mapping is done correctly it can make an adventure shine.