When I started up my current Mage: The Awakening chronicle, I made a conscious decision to not use battle maps. When combat or exploration comes up, I doodle sloppy maps on the huge white board in our game room, and adjust them on the fly.
Could I have used battle maps instead? Sure — but I wanted to put up a signpost for my players that says, “This aspect of the game is less important than the others.” I wanted all of us to focus on the roleplaying side of things (this is the game that inspired my post series on roleplaying-intensive campaigns), not on the minute details of positioning, marching order and all the other stuff that comes with using a battle map.
On the flipside, I could have whipped out my set of Tact-Tiles for the first fight of the chronicle, and signposted that aspect of the game instead: “Tactical combat and the nitty-gritty stuff is important.” Battle maps don’t inherently detract from a focus on roleplaying, but they do change the tone of the game — and for me, change it in a way that wouldn’t work for this chronicle.
You Only Get a Few
The key with signposts is that you only get so many per campaign. If you try to signpost everything as being important, the end result is that nothing is important. Every aspect of your campaign can’t be equally special, so instead focus on signposting the stuff that really matters, and let the rest take a backseat.
Here’s a sampling of other signposts, and what they could signify to your players:
- NPCs talk in-character, instead of in the third person: In-character roleplaying is important.
- You make all your rolls in the open: I’m not going to save your bacon, so plan accordingly.
- Monsters just happen to be carrying the magic items the party is most interested in: Suspension of disbelief is less important than having fun.
- Props are handmade to look and feel like actual in-game items: Atmosphere and immersion are important — I want you to feel like you’re there.
- You crack a beer at the start of the first session: Let’s just relax and have fun.
The Tricky Bit
The sticky wicket with signposts is that you need to be sure that they convey what you want them to convey. It helps if the signposts you use reinforce each other, and if each one has just a single obvious significance.
My second example — rolling in the open — isn’t a great one from that standpoint. Open rolls could also just mean you love seeing how randomness takes your campaign in unexpected directions, among other things.
As long as you’ve put some thought into which elements of the game are most important to you and to your players (the latter ideally coming from a frank, open pre-game discussion), though, you’ll be in better shape than if you don’t think about signposts at all — even if your signposts aren’t perfect. It’s gaming: It should be fun, not perfect.
What signposts have you erected in your current campaign? Have they worked?