The importance of maps

I’ve gone back and forth with maps. On one hand my free time is limited. Rarely I have the time (or skill) to hand draw an elaborate map for my game. While mining online resources is always an option, it does take some time and usually difficult to get a map that is precisely what would fit your game. So at times I’ve slipped into giving a locale or backdrop environment a narrative description. While it does cut down my game prep time, just describing something doesn’t seem to grasp my PC’s interest.

As one deficiency to using a narrative approach, I don’t spout a thesaurus-like vocabulary when I try to evoke a mental picture in everyone’s head. I just can’t seem to get that descriptive and it never seems to match that of a physical representation. Having a physical document, where everyone eagerly props their elbows up on the table to gaze over a printed page, just seems to capture their imagination more.

This works for me too, I just seem to sprout more ideas when I sketch out something. It even works just looking at maps. The Nentir Vale seems more alive when you have a map to gaze at. Even a sparse one like over at D&D Doodle gets your story gears churning. The paved road through the woods depicted there just oozes theme. Could there be bandits? And what of the Farmer’s stead nearby? Does he offer a reprieve from the elements? Or are travelers forced to camp near the waystone before the long trek through the forest? And what of the barren patch of hills to the north?

For my recent Savage Worlds weird west campaign I managed to snag a wonderful alternate history map of the US. The various political states got me thinking about different movers and shakers within this fictional Americas. How did Texas become an independent republic? How friendly would the Union be towards the British Possessions in what would be Canada today? Would the former colonies be close or would they have better relations with the relatively independent Dominion of Canada? All of the partitioned country boundaries of these Americas got me thinking of potential allies and villains for my PCs.

Maps do that. They spark the imagination of players and can certainly get your creative juices going as a DM. There’s a certain concrete feeling of having a physical document in your hand that cordons off potential wild thoughts into tactile plans for stories.

So when considering thinking up your next grand adventure or new campaign. Spend some time sketching or searching for a suitable map. You’d be surprised how many ideas you can get from an image of transecting lines and the stories that might spring from them.