6 Miscellaneous Map Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0060

  1. Keep Your Maps Simple
  2. Make A List First
  3. Create An Outline And Copy It
  4. Map Materials Ideas
  5. Protect Your Maps
  6. Mapping Software

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Using Sixth Sense Clues To Drive A Story
  2. Use Symbolism For Clues
  3. Clue Tips & A Warning
  4. Creating A Classic Clue Driven Adventure

A Brief Word From Johnn

FFN Seeks Reviewers and Game Specialists

I thought this might be of interest to some subscribers. My friend over at the Fiction-Fantasy Network is looking for people interested in either becoming a Game Specialist for one of their RPG related areas, a reviewer for fiction/fantasy related products, or both.

The Game Specialists will be in charge of answering visitor questions about the product lines they are responsible for, overseeing a message board about that product line, retrieving news about the product line, etc.

For more details contact Mike O’Connor.

The Reviewers will be in charge of writing product reviews for fiction/fantasy related items. Currently the areas we need reviewers for include Novels & Ebooks, Computer Games, RPGs, and Web Sites. You don’t need to be a published/accomplished writer to apply, but we’d like you to have a good command of the English language and be able to express yourself well.

Reviewers will receive copies of the products they review as payment (if applicable).

Contact Martin Dougherty if you’re interested!

Laminating Calculation Error

Last week I reported that laminating cost $1.50CAN per square foot. But I erroneously calculated a square foot as 1? x 12?. It’s not. A square foot is 12? x 12?. That sure makes laminating your maps a more affordable alternative!

Thanks to the subscribers who pointed this out.

Maps & Figures Tips?

I had over a dozen tips for this issue and thought I should separate the general map tips from the “figures & maps” tips. My group uses figures during play and we have a lot of fun with them.

But figs aren’t popular with some groups so I’m hesitant about publishing an issue covering figs and maps. Please let me know how you feel:

Yes, I would like tips on using maps & figs

No, I vote no tips on using maps & figs:

Do you have some maps & figures tips of your own? [email protected]

Thanks for your time.

[email protected]

6 Miscellaneous Map Tips

Keep Your Maps Simple

This is a personal preference of mine, and it may suit your group’s style too: keep your maps simple.By simple, I mean create maps as if your only material was a napkin. Use stick lines, no shading, brief labels, no intricately jagged lines (i.e. for coastlines), and few and simple terrain symbols.

I keep things simple for a few, specific reasons:

  • Complex game master maps can slow down game play
    • can take longer to reproduce for the players
    • many details won’t be necessary for the players to make their decisions or to get a feel for the place, but you feel compelled to provide them anyway because they’re on the map
    • more clutter to sift through when trying to read
  • Simple GM maps translate into player maps more easily
  • The time it takes you to develop beautiful, overly detailed maps could be better spent elsewhere in your campaign planning (like creating NPCs, plot twists, clues, etc.)

For example, in my current D&D campaign, my players are exploring an island. I’ve drawn an outline of the island on hex paper and drawn in roads and rivers, and used pencil crayons to colour in terrain types. While I don’t have fractal coastlines and neat terrain symbols, the party is easily able to create and update a map of their own by using a blank sheet of hex paper and the same scale. And my map took me about 15 minutes to make, after which I moved on to other campaign planning.

Here is a slightly different opinion from a reader. It’s valid too and it may suit your style better than some of the advice above:

From Jens

“Don’t use graph paper; this only encourages the use of right angles and “grid-snapped” distances. Chances are you will be surprised to see how much can be hidden in odd angles and inaccurate measurements.

And don’t even use graph paper yourself, use plain paper instead. If you like, you can use a piece of graph paper underneath with the grid enhanced using a felt-tipped pen, at various angles, as a guiding “underlay”. That way you can make two rectangular sections of a building meet at an odd angle, say 32 degrees, without losing the guiding lines for each part.”

Make A List First

For years I made maps by drawing an outline and then filling it in with terrain and labels. But then I stumbled onto a new technique, and it’s saved me a lot of time in map re- writes, erasing and confusion.Make a list of what you want on the map before you draw it.List all the cities, countries, unique features, specific places (i.e. a dark, dense forest of 2000 year old trees), special rooms, districts, specific buildings, weird groups, etc. that you want to include on your map.

Then, draw your map and fill it in according to your list. You won’t forget anything this way and you’ll have better spatial use awareness before beginning.

I’ve also started drawing my initial map as a simple blob outline first. I then place my list items on it by number. When I’ve got everything located to my satisfaction I draw a more refined map version for my permanent records.

Create An Outline And Copy It

Another technique I’ve started using for outdoor maps is to create an initial outline and then make multiple copies of it.

I then use each copy for a specific purpose:

  • Rough copy for initial planning
  • Political divisions (i.e. borders, races & species…)
  • Roads, paths, shipping lanes
  • Terrain (i.e. mountain areas, rivers, forests…)
  • Labels (i.e. city and region names, terrain names…)
  • Special areas (i.e. massive underground complexes or sky realms)

I currently use my home fax machine to make copies. Scanning/printing and photocopying are easy reproduction methods too.

I’d desperately like to have all my different map layers on transparencies that I could simply overlay for compound views (i.e. the labels map on top of the political map on top of the terrain map). Do you know of a way I can do this cheaply?

Please let me know! [email protected]

I’ve also started experimenting with mapping software. And I’ve noticed that the software I use (see Tip #6) has a feature called “layers”. I can put specific information on a single layer and then show/hide that layer when I want. While that does give me my transparency and compound views, it does no good when printing. But, it’s a step in the right direction.

Map Materials Ideas

My mapping style is pretty basic, but I have tried a few different things in the past that worked out pretty well.

Drawing Surfaces:

  • Parchment paper
  • Coloured paper
  • Stationery (i.e. scroll borders, textured backgrounds)
  • Cloth (i.e. an old shirt, cloth napkins, an old tablecloth)
  • Vellum (I’ve never used vellum, but my friend Chris, a mapping god, uses it and the maps look and feel awesome)
  • Textured paper (i.e. different weights, glossy and flat, raised patterns)
  • Wood (I used a sanded piece of plywood, drew on the map and covered it with a lacquer finish)
  • Cardboard (I’ve tried corrugated and regular cardboard of various thicknesses; Maps can be drawn directly onto the cardboard and or the cardboard can be used as solid backing)

Drawing Materials:

  • Crayons (very fun and easy to use; hard to write over though)
  • Pencil Crayons (fun and easy, hard to write on top of, but can be erased with a vinyl eraser if you don’t press too hard)
  • Calligraphic pen (they make great coastlines as well as labels)
  • Markers (you can get nifty sets with calligraphic tips for about $30)
  • Water paint (use to give colour to the entire map surface then draw over when dry; also gives regular paper a nice texture and stiffens it up)

A mapping materials tip from: Gareth H.

In-game information on paper doesn’t have to be typed on A4 white paper, or scrawled on the GM’s notepad…only a few dollars at a newsagent can get you a few sheets of different coloured, textured and sized paper. Thick yellow parchment paper makes a great map, and don’t forget, you can use candles to do the seal.

If you have experience with other mapping tools and materials, please let me know and I’ll share with the group: [email protected]

Protect Your Maps

Although some of these tips are from previous issues, I though I’d lump them together for easy future reference for you.

Here are some ideas on how to protect your finished maps:

  • Laminate them (i.e. use a printing service like Kinko’s, or purchase your own laminator; this week Staples in Canada has a cold laminator on sale for $50CAN after a rebate.)
  • Use Mac-Tac, a clear wallpaper covering, to seal in your maps. I’ve used this stuff successfully several times.
  • Purchase individual laminating pages from your local stationery store.
  • Use plastic protective sheets in a binder. Just slip your map in and take it out when needed. Also, using these means you can store your maps in a binder without having to punch holes in them.
  • Use photo albums
  • Use cardboard. Cardboard makes excellent backing and helps protect your maps. You can glue your maps directly onto the cardboard, or use it as backing for lamination, plastic protective sheets or Mac-Tacking.

Mapping Software

I’ve found two excellent mapping programs that I’m just learning to use (Windows only, I’m afraid).

Both have a nice interface, layers, freehand and object drawing tools, hex and square grids and fractal functions. There’s more features but I won’t turn this into a sales pitch.

Here are links to software that prints various types of graph paper:

Also, here are some links to other mapping programs, though I don’t have personal experience with them:

Finally, does anyone out there use Visio? If so, have you found any good mapping libraries? Let me know: [email protected].


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Using Sixth Sense Clues To Drive A Story

From Joe the Wombat

I’d just like to comment about clues and a White-Wolf campaign I had the pleasure of GMing a while back.I needed a system of clues to move the story. I’m big into letting my characters take the initiative but I had been running out of ideas. Until I came across some things in the books. I got the idea to give each character a sixth sense.They began as basic triggers whenever they were encountered by the base evil entity within the storyline.

As it progressed, their hidden powers were activating when coming on the trail of the creature (though they never knew it) and soon they would begin to get abstract thoughts leading them this way and that.My favorite (and one that terrified my players) was one of my vampires, who had taken the medium merit, being able to talk to the dead. I mixed this with his sixth sense (going into a deafening silence) and used the combination to have him encounter a young spectre from London, a victim of the creature.

I explained most visuals with sound descriptions, how bright colors screamed in and out of focus, the base vibration that the chill gave his skin as the ghost moved through the room. I also dimmed the lights of our gaming environment as well, to add to the effect.It was a major plot turner; My group was suddenly off to London (from which the ghost had mentioned) in order to learn more of the creature they were facing. I also foreshadowed.

“The beast has come, to inherit his land.” So not only did the clue give the group initiative in a new way, it also made it much easier to fill the scene with atmosphere and mood.Sixth sense clues are an awesome way to create new experiences overall within the game and I’d suggest to almost all gaming groups.

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Use Symbolism For Clues

From Andrew B.

Just writing to suggest a possible method of introducing clues into your campaign. I will frequently use symbolism and naming to suggest ideas and paths to my players.I have this book called Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (by James Halls), which sometimes works. Some of the symbolic ideals in this book tend to be religious and do not fit into most campaigns, but some of the symbols work quite nicely given that they are universal.

If you wanted to suggest a path or even the nature of something in your campaign, you can surround it with a specific type of symbolism. It’s worth mentioning, though, that many players are not up on the more esoteric associations of some symbols and their meaning.As for naming, simply work the nature of a character of place into its name. Charles Dickens did this well. There is a character in Great Expectations called Mrs Coiler who is clingy and smothering, for instance.

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Clue Tips & A Warning

From Django

One very important aspect about clues: You know the whole picture and your players don’t. Unless you have a bunch of players who are Agatha Christies or Hercule Poireux, they just might not understand what they are looking at. The gold coin minted from another country may be a dead giveaway to you but to the players it means a night on the town.So, here are two tips for helping your players along:

  1. Use props to help with clues. You’ve talked about index cards in the past – these work out great. Put the clues in front of their eyes, not just their brains.(Make sure to include some red herrings though: “Hey, a card -it must be a clue!”)
  2. If the players are stuck, tell them. Through the use of a “Deep Throat” archetype or fortune tellers or unexpected divine intervention, help keep your players on track.

You’ll be less frustrated at your players apparent inability to see the obvious and your players will think that they are figuring out the story (because an NPC told them, not the GM).

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Creating A Classic Clue Driven Adventure

From RexidesYo

I recently played the computer game “System Shock”. Its whole story was evolved around clues the player found inside notes and diaries left by the dead crew of the station. You got little information from alive NPCs (and it was just from emails), the story was revealed through the clues. It was great!So, I thought of making an adventure for D&D the same way.

About the players getting stuck inside an abandoned mage guild, and having to figure out what happened to the mages and how they could get out. The only way to gather information would be from clues left on the diaries of the– now dead–mages of the guild.So, here are some guidelines to create your own entirely clue-driven adventure:

  1. Think of some great evil that would be used in the adventure.
  2. Make an isolated place (a building, an island etc.) to be the setting for the adventure.
  3. Make the main characters that are somehow connected with that evil in step a. Make notes of what they know about that evil or the place in step b.
  4. Make the map for the place in step b. Split it into “levels” that must be visited by the players in some order. Leave many empty rooms.
  5. Spice the map (add traps, locks, items etc.)
  6. Add minor NPCs. These NPCs will know little facts of the story. They will mostly know how to open some locked doors, the location of items or traps they left etc. (Note: Don’t add too many or too few NPCs, a good number is about 5-10)
  7. Make a time table of the events that happened to the place in step b. Make notes of the connections between the NPCs and the events.
  8. Using the notes you made, write some pages of journals, memos or messages for the NPCs. Spice them up.
  9. Put the journals etc. you made on the map. Notes containing small clues for the adventure should be placed in the first levels of the map, major ones should be placed at the later levels.
  10. Kill all NPCs! I hold no responsibility if you got attached to them in the previous steps. Kill them. Please. It’s for the good of the adventure. Having corpses all over the place and none to talk to, the players will get into the climate of the adventure.
  11. Add enemies. ‘Nuff said
  12. Bring the PCs into the place. They may have found it by chance, heard tales of great wealth, or just got teleported there.
  13. Make sure they can’t get out.

Spicing clues:

First of all, write each clue in a page and hand it to the players when they find the clue.If you can, make the paper look old. Remember that the clues are pages from diaries, small memos or letters, so, write each in it’s own style.

Example of a diary: “May 15, Tuesday. Today, while cleaning the meeting room, I overheard Cane talking to someone. I didn’t get much, but I understood that the gem they are studying in the upper floors isn’t your ordinary valuable stone. I think I’ll tell Misha about it tomorrow…”

Example of personal note: “Left door: Ashla, curah, fei. Right door: key”

The players will understand that there are two doors somewhere that are opened by the means described in the note (the left door is opened by saying the magical words) written probably by a forgetful mage…

Example of letter: “Dear Cane I hope you got the gem I sent you last month. Some of the prisoners I interrogated about the powers of the stone said something about “Devourer of Souls”. I have no idea what that means, but I had to warn you…

–Lieutenant Peregrim”

Ok, that’s all, I hope I have been helpful [Johnn: that sounds like a pretty neat recipe for an adventure. You could create it (and don’t forget to provide the PCs a way out after the mystery is solved) and keep it for emergencies. Such as when you didn’t have time to prepare or when a key player can’t make it to the session. Thanks Rexides!]