In my continuing Kwai Chang Caine-like quest to find Prep-Lite mastery, I stumbled upon another place in my session prep, that was consuming a lot of my time, and begged for some prep-lite love. This time, my prep-lite scalpel made an incision into one of the cornerstone elements of our hobby…the Map. When I was done, I had once again removed precious time from my session prep without sacrificing the important parts. So grab your walkin’ stick grasshopper, and let us journey once again on our quest to Prep-Light nirvana.

In Our Last Episode

For those that have not been following along for the past few months, Prep-Lite is my current philosophy and techniques to reduce my time to prep a session, without crossing the border into total improvisation. You can follow that journey in the following articles: Prep-Lite Manifesto, Wireframes and Skins, Wireframe How To.

Why The Maps?

My entry into this Hobby was through Basic D&D and B2: Keep on The Borderlands, and I can still remember looking at the blue and white map on the inside cover with wide-eyed wonder. I have always enjoyed maps, though I have never been great at making my own. With the birth of PDF publishing, buying maps became a reality, and I spent some bucks on collecting maps to pull into games..

For some types of games, especially the Dungeon Crawl where the dungeon is a character of its own, the map is an essential component of the game. What I am going to talk about for the rest of the article, does not apply to games like that. .

For the rest of the games out there, maps are a nice-to-have visual aid for either the GM alone (to describe to the players), or to put out on the table between the GM and players. For the GM, the map gives you the spacial details for a location: the tomb, the altar, even the broom closet.

If you are making maps, then either you are creating your maps by hand or using software. The creation of maps can be time consuming, as you have to layout the location, and account for all the space, doors, windows, etc. For a small location like a convenience store, this may only take 10 minutes, but for a 100 room palace this can amount to considerable work.

If you are finding/purchasing maps online, then you are still spending time shopping for maps, and then reviewing them, and then spending time customizing them to your needs.  That can be as time consuming as making your own maps.

In either case you are using some of your prep-time for mapping.

The Essence of Maps

Looking at Maps with the Prep-Lite philosophy, some things become apparent. Maps can be decomposed to a few essential elements:

  • Interesting locations– these are areas of the map where cool things are going to happen when the PC’s are there. Examples: Throne Room, Lich’s crypt, Arrow trapped hallway.
  • Uninteresting locations– these are areas of the map which are often added to make the map complete and logical. While PC’s could do something cool in them, that was not their intention. Examples: Food pantry, Bathroom, Guest room #16
  • Spacial relationships– Maps show the relation of one location to another. Is the dining room next to the kitchen? Is the sick bay on the starboard side of the ship?

Now in all things Prep-Lite, we look for how we can keep the important elements and reduce or remove the rest.  So we can break down a map into two parts…

The Important

The important parts of the map are the Interesting locations and their spacial relationships. To create the prep-lite map, start with the locations, treat each location as its own set piece. List out the important locations with single word or short phrase descriptions.

For a recent game of Corporation, I put this into use. The Agents were responsible for breaking a person out of an high-tech, underground detox clinic. In my prep I had identified 6 interesting areas for the site:

  • Reception
  • Security Office
  • Medical Bay (a room where the patients consciousness is removed from their body)
  • Body Storage (where the meat is put into tanks and detoxed)
  • Matrix Storage (were the consciousness is sent on a pleasant vacation)
  • Storeroom (where a rival party would be entering to capture the same target)

Next, apply the spacial relationships between each of the locations. Don’t force the locations to line up nicely to one another, or even to conform to a shape, but rather show how each location relates to another. This will show which areas can be reached directly and which require the players to travel through another location.

Going back to the Corporation map, the spacial relationship is shown below. Thus, from the reception area, the Agents would have to travel through the Medical Bay to reach any of the other rooms.

Clinic Map with brief descriptions

You now have a simple map which shows the relationships between the important areas. In your notes, try to keep your description of each room brief. Here are a few tips for what you might want to note:

  • Purpose– every location has a purpose, it helps to define a single sentence about what the role of this room is.
  • Description– keep this down to the most important elements. Things that will jog your memory about the room.
  • Occupants– who is in this room? Monsters? Hostages?

Leave out the minor details about the room from your notes, allow this to be something you will ad lib during the session. Also, do not worry about exactly how the rooms are connected, that is something else that can be ad libbed as well: full of turns, with interior doors, wide, narrow, etc.

The Unimportant

All that is left then are the Uninteresting locations. Now these locations, while uninteresting are not useless. They are present, they just do not need to be represented on the map in advance. In most cases these rooms will not be a factor in your game, but when you do need one consider them Schrödinger’s rooms; they can appear when defined. There are two situations where these rooms may come up:

#1- Does this building have a copy room?

The first way an unimportant room comes into play, is when the players ask if it exists. Once the player asks about a room you can decide if the room exists. I use two rules when deciding on the existence of the room:

  • Is it logical for this kind of building/area to have the room in question? If the players want to know about a copy room, and you are in an office building, then sure there is one.  If the players are in a residential house and ask, then likely not.
  • Will the scene be cooler by this room being present? Players never ask for a specific room with out something in mind. Find out what it is; just ask them. Then decide if having this room makes the upcoming scene cooler (i.e. Rule of Cool).  If the scene would be enhanced by the room being present, then add it in.

Back to my Corporation example, as the players formulated their plan they asked me if there was a meeting room in the facility, because they wanted to meet their target in person before they considered breaking him out. There is not one on my map, but it sounded reasonable, so I added it to the map, right then.

#2- I open the next door to the left and go in.

In this case the players have opened a random door and entered the room. Perhaps they are being chased and are looking for a place to hide, or they are searching for something room by room.  In this case you will need to come up with the contents of the room. You can take a few approaches:

  • Make up an uninteresting room– The players open the door to find a spare bedroom.  Not every room is exciting.
  • Make up a new room with a twist– The players open the door and come upon the kids room where three little girls are having a tea party, and invite the players to come sit.
  • Make it one of the interesting rooms– The best part about not having a set map is that you can change the connections between each of the rooms on the fly. So now that random door leads into one of your interesting rooms.

Save That Graph Paper

Not every game needs a detailed map, in many cases just knowing how to get from one scene to the next is all you need. For those cases, employing the Prep-Lite mapping can speed up your session prep, and free up your valuable time.

Do you use full maps for your games, when they might not be needed? Have you ever tried to simplify your maps? What techniques have worked for you?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.



14 Responses to Prep-Lite: Maps

  1. I didn’t use maps for my Nobilis campaign. Well, not very much. When I was prepping one day I sketched out the basic layout of Arthur and Guinevere’s Chancel, but due to in-game events it’s impossible to accurately draw that on a real piece of paper anyway. The players never saw it, but it helped me get the orientation of stuff correctly into my head. Which I then probably mucked up anyway, but that’s why it’s fun to play in pocket universes. Maybe they didn’t notice, because there was a lake of fire, and a basin of water which acted as the gateway between two versions of the same island, and other such fun things. The kind of thing that bored demi-gods come up with when they’ve spent five hundred years sulking and not talking to each other and saving up their Realm MPs.

    The group’s current (really main as he does most of it) GM rarely uses maps, but sometimes he’ll draw one out for a particularly complicated or especially important scene where spatial positioning is critical. Like the fight in our CO’s office in a Godlike campaign where there were about eleven people involved, variously inside, outside or in an adjoining room (or hiding under the desk). That was exciting.

    I suspect it shows every time I open my mouth here, but I’ve never played D&D or any other map-heavy, mechanics-heavy game. What mechanics we do have in the game at the start tend to get adapted and modified on the fly anyway, and we’re generally quite happy with fairly broad categorisations and on-the-fly difficulty modifiers decided by the GM.

  2. @MaW – I also would like to point out that I’m finding this series on light prep to be very helpful with making my own prep more efficient – I have many things to try when the GM baton gets passed back to me again.

  3. I adore maps, and I do spend an enormous amount of time on them – world maps, city maps, maps of villages, maps of buildings. I DM a lot of D&D, too. Not every scene in a D&D game requires a 5-foot-per-inch tactical map, though. I can spend my play time on big maps, since I love doing it. But for games in and of themselves, this method seems like it’s really worth a try. I run between one and three games a week, so I could use some lite in my prep for sure!

  4. Every time I want to quick map I run out to my friend the internet and snag a bunch of maps from things that exist in the real world. Apartment listings, social studies courses, archetecture design webpages…these things tend to show off a lot of simple line drawings of small and large structures, and they’ve often already filled in what each room is for me. While I don’t do it as bare bones as in the article, I rarely ever have to put in anything other than the interesting events.

  5. @MaW– I have gone through periods where I run tactically heavy games and then drift off to more dramatic games. I am most comfortable with lighter games, but there are always times where a single drawing makes a world of difference for a scene. Glad you are enjoying the articles.

    @Hawkesong– My issue is that I love tinkering with maps, and then I would catch myself working on a map for a lot longer than it would be used during the game. Which, when I had more time, was an enjoyable activity, but as my free time dries up, I have had to look to where I could gain back some time.

    @evil — I am big fan of Internet maps as well, but I would find myself looking at one map, and then another, and I liked that map, but perhaps I would find another I liked more, and then I was just surfing away time on a map that often would be used for only a scene or two. For locations that were going to play a bigger role in my games, I did not mind spending the time surfing for a map, but for a quick location, I just want to get something simple down and keep writing.

  6. I hope to see more of the Prep-Lite series in future as all of the things that you talk about are are perfect for my lazy/improv style. Thank you for your efforts.

  7. @Quieo– I do plan on a few more installments. I am looking for more places whereI can develop some prep-lite techniques for. If you have any specific area you would like to see me take a crack at…just let me know.

  8. I’ve always been a fan of Dungeon Geomorphs and adapting them to genres other than fantasy is fairly straightforward. At the moment I’m making a set of 5″x5″ interiors with 1″ grid, perfect for slapping together quick and dirty building floorplans at a moment’s notice.

    Dyson Logos’ work is my current gold standard for geomorphs:
    http://rpgcharacters.wordpress.com/

    His geomorphs are incorporated in this awesome resource:
    http://davesmapper.com/

    He is also involved in this awesome project:
    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1764845067/dungeonmorph-dice-dungeon-geomorphs

  9. I suppose it is rather fitting that the first GnomeStew article I’m responding to is one about map-making, consider the username I’ve chosen.

    I love the approach you’ve taken with planning out maps in a manner that is efficient (both at the table and in the planning stages), and also rather practical. I regularly have an internal struggle with laying out a map in the most correct and precise way I can, while at the same time asking myself “Will the players care? Will they notice?” I usually take a set-piece approach, wherein I map out only the encounters and then just rely on narrative or quick sketches to fill in the gaps, but I’m not quite at the stage where I haven’t put plenty of thought into how each and every area connects with one another.

    In taking on more ad-libbing responsibility with this approach, have you found it useful to make a few short notes of possible items/descriptors from which to draw while ad-libbing? For example, if it is an office building, would you prep a short reminder of the wall coverings, furniture, etc. in that office environment, or do you find that approach isn’t any more helpful than simply drawing (in the moment) from your existing knowledge of offices?

  10. Also, while the following isn’t quite the same map creation as discussed in the article, I thought I might share the extensive approach I’ve taken to map-making, since the other commenters have mentioned their love of maps.

    About a year ago, I GM’d a Shadowrun game set in Las Vegas. In preparation for the game, I took the “Satellite” view of Las Vegas from Google Maps (with the labels turned off), downloaded some spatial datasets from Clark County’s GIS office, and then digitized my own “neighborhoods” onto the map. So, in the end, all of the Las Vegas neighborhoods I mentioned in the game were ones the players could relate to on a rather official-looking map, yet were also customized to fit my needs, rather than relying on a pre-existing product. Now, granted, this was really only doable because of the modern game setting, and having years of experience in digital map-making and access to expensive mapping software. I’m actually terrible with Photoshop and the like, so I’m limited in my ability to duplicate such efforts for non-modern settings.

    Anyone else go through that much trouble for their world-building maps, whether in Photoshop, graph paper, or otherwise, or is it just me?

  11. It probably has more to do with the tools and system I used when I started GMing (ie: Pre-Written Shadowrun modules), but I’ve never used maps too much. Even in other, traditionally map heavy systems like D&D, I’ve found I use them rather minimally.

    My most “map heavy” game was a recent D&D campaign. I provided the players with a world map, mostly for flavor. Other than that, the only other maps I ever gave them were tactical maps for battle scenes.

    I personally find that 95% of situations don’t call for a map. A little bit of flavor text goes a long way. Telling the party “You arrive at Gerald’s cabin, situated just outside the city with a small bit of farmland around it” is typically enough for the majority of situations. They’ll fill in plenty of details from there.

    Travel from major location to major location can be handled in a similar way. The players don’t need to know that a cavern extends straight for 25 feet, takes a 45 degree turn to the right and goes out for 15 feet, etc. when something like “The dank cavern winds underground for a long while. Its difficult to keep track, but you think you’re still heading generally northward.”

  12. Howdy Phil,

    Just ran the first adventure for my new campaign. I took inspiration from Star Wars: a strike team of rebels have to destroy the super-weapon of the Empire before it crushes all of their hopes. Except the empire is lizard-people, the super-weapon is a dragon ship, and the rebels are led by a minotaur. Anyway.

    I made use of this tool and found it exceptionally handy. To write the adventure (set in the port where the dragon ship is being constructed) I drew up this style of map, statted out the NPCs I figured the players were likely to fight (ended up with only two combinations of monster, a single monster, and only one full NPC profile, so pretty easy) and some mission objectives. I made the objective 100% clear to the players at the start of the session (otherwise sandbox games tend to get lost, in my experience) and threw in a few secondary objectives.

    My notes allowed me to run the session with great ease. I had no notes on what plans the party could take; just what challenges they MIGHT face. I left it to the players to come up with off-the-wall solutions to the problem at hand. Once they did (in old-school truly wacky D&D style, which I really think is an effect of the very “physical” and grainy feel that D&D offers, such that a 10-foot pole, or suchlike, is a useful inventory item; you would never see it in Dogs in the Vineyard, or even FUDGE) I could quickly determine what obstacles presented themselves to the completion of the plan. The session ran very smoothly, though it took the players a little while to adjust to their freedom (in the past I’ve run much more tightly-structured stories; blech), and everyone had fun.

    Muchas gracias!

    To generalise from my experience, I think your prep-lite is a good road for GMs who don’t want to take Benson’s improvisational approach, but who worry that they’re over-managing their parties. I think you and I share some GMing facets in that we get a lot out of writing backstory, designing interesting NPCs, and creating the world. Prep-lite lets you start with a handful of interesting tidbits, and at the table you simple have to draw on those resources to create the session (3-5 hours of fun). In a way, it allows for the GM and the other players to negotiate. The GM comes to the table with NPCs s/he wants to play with, locations s/he wants to explore, and problems s/he wants to deal with. Since that’s all you have on hand with prep-lite, you’re going to use it. But the party decides how. The party decides if they will infiltrate the castle and assassinate the count; storm the castle and battle the count; or secure an invitation to the castle and lull the count into a false sense of security. You get to use your notes, they get to use theirs. In the end, it seems, everyone wins! Cool stuff.

    • such that a 10-foot pole, or suchlike, is a useful inventory item; you would never see it in […] even FUDGE

      Fudge can be used for grainy games, many of the examples in the Fudge book has separate skills for everything and I can see a logistics/inventory game being fun with Fudge.

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