Craft A World Map Prepping A Game World For GMing and Play

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0367

A Brief Word From Johnn

Creativity Is Key

Hot summer temperatures around here means only one thing: prime basement gaming time. In preparation for last week’s Ptolus campaign, it occurred to me that one of the things I like best about game prep is being creative.

I read on forums and in e-mails about GM burnout, and I wonder if we’ve lost our way when it comes to preparing. We get bogged down in rules, stats, accuracy, realism. It should be, in my opinion, all about the fun of being creative.

I enjoy creating NPC conflicts, interesting encounter situations, and goofy pencil crayon maps. It’s all a puzzle to me where I ponder the playing pieces, move them around, and tweak them until they fit into a numbered encounter entry in my notes.

Perhaps repetition has dulled our enjoyment of preparation. I think another killer is the self-critic. As adults, we’ve learned a lot about the world, how things work, trivia. A fear creeps in the back of your mind, while you try to prepare, about getting something wrong, creating something unbelievable, or that what you’ve built isn’t good.

I say take a step back, shake your head, take a big stretch, relax. Remember the fun you used to have when thinking of the possibilities and pulling fun ideas out for gameplay?

Creativity has to be part of the equation, or you will stop having fun preparing for games, and that leads to burnout pretty quick.

Telling you here to be more creative doesn’t help much, though. Sorry. It’s like someone telling you to do better without specific ideas, instructions, or suggestions. Gee, thanks.

I’m positive, however, that you’ve got to focus on having fun being creative while planning if you want to GM for long these days. Maybe this is a good topic for a tips request? How to have fun while preparing for next session?

Vampire Tips Request

A reader sent in this request:

“I was wondering if you have any sort of cool information, tips or links regarding Vampire the Masquerade that you could share?”

I don’t play VtM, though I hear it involves storytelling. If you have played the game, perhaps you have a tip or two about GMing, storytelling, preparing for a VtM session, or plotting?

Asking for general tips is tricky, because the lack of direction makes it harder to think some up. If you GM VtM, perhaps you could write in with tips about what tips to request? Perhaps think about specific pain points or challenges you experience that would give tipsters something to focus on.

D&D NPC Critiques?

One of the challenges with preparation for D&D 3.x these days is building stat blocks. There are good tips out there about limiting stat block building or speeding it up, but I’m wondering if there are any sites where you can post your NPCs and get feedback about your builds from not only a rules point of view, but a roleplaying and GMing perspective as well?

I’d like to post links to places where GMs can get help or even request NPCs be built for them, so they have more time to focus on being creative while planning.

Are there NPC critique and help forums, blogs, or sites out there?

Looks like I have three tips requests in this week’s Brief Word. I must be getting greedy or something. I’m convinced though that game prep feels like work for a lot of GMs out there, and that’s not right. You can have so much fun with it because it’s all about imagination and creativity.

Have some fun with session planning this week!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Craft A World Map Prepping A Game World For GMing and Play

Four Types Of Maps

In general, there are four types of maps in RPGs, which are different from each other in terms of scale and use:

World Map

The 10,000-foot view of the campaign realm. This map is sometimes secret from the players, and defines the predicted, geographical outer boundaries of a campaign.

For example, many RPG world maps include only one or some of the continents or areas present on a planet because gameplay isn’t expected to leave those landmasses.

Region Map

A portion of the world map, selected for campaign play, zoomed in. The scale varies according to campaign need, and is based in part on:

a) The farthest distance between two campaign-related locations. Most campaign maps will try to contain the campaign’s important and frequently used places and sites.

The locations furthest away from each other usually create the outer boundaries of the map, and the distance between the two combined with the physical size of the map itself creates your scale. If the scale is too big, then multiple region maps are often used.

b) The densest distribution of campaign locations. When scale becomes too big and the region map difficult to use, draw a box around the densest sprinkling of campaign-useful locations and make that the new map boundaries. Put the outlier locations on a less-used larger scale map, the world map, or new region maps that share the same scale as your main campaign map.

Example region maps might be a city, a country, a province, or the land between two rivers and a mountain range.

Location Map

Campaigns consist of locations where events and encounters happen. These places are noted on the region map, and locations the PCs explore are usually given their own scaled map. The scale is often based on action and combat rules, the length of a character’s turn, and distance travelled in that turn.

For example, a car chase through a town requires a street level map, and if turns are 1 second, then a good scale would be 30′ or 50′ per map square or hex. If the PCs are exploring a D&D dungeon, a good scale is 5′ per square or hex.

Cosmology Map

Some campaigns need a map scaled so far out it describes a cosmology. It could be a map of a galaxy or of the planes of existence.

I’ve found these four map categories useful as campaign tools, especially when I was just starting out as GM. They helped me grapple with things better at the campaign level.

I consider the campaign / region map as primary. Locations and information important to the campaign goes on that map. The other maps serve and feed this one. The campaign map is definitely most important when I do initial campaign planning.

If I need a bigger picture, I go to the world map, perhaps to see what external influences might trickle down into the campaign region, such as world events and world politics. It’s interesting to note that I’ve run several campaigns without a world map. The region map was enough to supply encounter locations and plots.

If I need combat or action scale, I note the location on the region map and create a keyed location map.

If I need the really big picture, such as for god-war or interstellar campaigns, I take a few steps back and look at the cosmology map.

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Game Map Versus Realistic Map

You can draw whatever kind of maps you want for your world. However, one distinction I like to make is that you are creating a map for a game. This has a few implications:

Realism is not the main purpose

Lots of advice in this e- zine and on the Internet detail factors that go into creating realistic maps. If you are world-building as a hobby, this tip isn’t for you. If you are GMing, then realize your maps don’t need to reflect real world physics or our current knowledge of planetary evolution.

You are making maps for a game. Often, feeling like you need realistic maps adds stress and pressure to the planning stages. If it doesn’t add fun or make you enjoy GMing more, skip the realism. Just draw your maps the way you like.

In all the years I’ve gamed, I have not had a player pick up a fantasy world map, say that it was crap, and quit. I’ve never had a player say they had less fun in my games because a desert was beside a glacier.

I _have_ had people look over my shoulder at my maps outside of the game and criticize the realism. Many times. Ok, that’s great; thanks for the feedback. When it came time to play though, much fun was had!

In modern and sci-fi games, sense of disbelief based on realistic maps is important. But please note you are still mapping for a game. Use common sense, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have expert knowledge. I’d rather get the physical landscape of a planet technically incorrect but mapped fast, than to delay a campaign for weeks or months while I research for accuracy.

If you have one or more players who do have less fun playing because they spot errors in your maps, then a great solution is to work with them. They have expertise you don’t. Hand them your rough drafts and ask them to give you feedback or redraw the maps for you.

Therefore, fellow GMs, let’s not get distracted by too much realism in our world maps. Let’s draw and move on. We’ve got lots of other things to do to keep the campaign going.

Fun is the main purpose

Another aspect of game versus realistic world map is what makes a world map fun?

For example, empty maps aren’t fun. If they are barren, consider increasing the scale until you reach a level where more dots and locations appear.

Sometimes the sheer scope of a map creates writer’s block. Focus on one part of a world, or skip to building a region map first and then return to drawing your world map.

Another example is gameplay locations. Glaciers and deserts don’t make good neighbours in the real world, but they double your potential monster types, offer additional interesting encounter possibilities, and perhaps inspire world design with culture conflict ideas and such.

Story potential is important

Look at the maps in fantasy fiction. You will see the majority of maps are built to support scope and story rather than realism. Cultures, adventure site locations, and travel considerations, for example, will impact fun and gameplay much more than realistic placement of rain shadows.

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Create A Blank Map First

One of the first things I do when processing a published world for gameplay is to draw a blank world map that outlines the major land masses and geographical features, such as mountain ranges, large lakes, and rivers.

This exercise gets you looking at the scope, scale, and shape of the world. It also produces a very useful tool. Armed with a blank map that you can make copies of, you have a visual way to document various aspects of the game world.

I treat a blank map of the game world like a scribble pad. It’s just like cheap notepaper, but instead of writing between lines, I’m drawing arrows, making labels, sketching out ideas. In the margins or on the back I write naming ideas, history ideas, and other notes.

If I’m using a published world, I’ll grab thin paper and trace the map with pencil. I’ll then go over the pencil with pen and then photocopy. Depending on the source, I might scan in the map and trace with software instead.

Using software or a photocopier, shrink your blank map down so you create margin room. Maps that stretch to the edges of a page and leave no room for notations, callouts, or margin notes make planning and design more difficult.

Aim To Create Diagrams

Maps are great. They are pictures that can convey a lot of information efficiently. They can also be analyzed and mined for ideas using different parts of your brain than used when reading text, and so you can get new results. For example, you might look at all the countries on a map for a while and imagine what kinds of relationships, conflicts, and wars they’d have.

You can get even more value out of your maps by creating diagrams with them. A map represents something; a diagram explains it. Combining the two opens up many possibilities for creating awesome reference sheets and design tools.

Do this by taking information in text form that relates to location, and add that to your map using charts, callouts, labels, and margin notes.

For example, you might have a city map, a table about distribution of races by district, and game rule information about races:

  1. Take a blank map and draw in district boundaries.
  2. Label each district name.
  3. Draw a rough pie chart circle in each district using a compass or freehand.
  4. Fill out the pie charts with race population ratios. Use colored felt pens or crayons to keep race pies consistent in appearance across all pie charts. (You don’t need to be exact, because once done you’ll have an at-a-glance tool for determining which races are minority and majority in each district. Perfect.)
  5. In the margins, note the game rules for the various races. Put the highest ratio / most populous race in the top left, and list races in the left margin and right margins, in descending order.
  6. If there’s room and you’re feeling creative, add archetype pictures of each race near their listing to help inspire in-game descriptions or to visualize races better.

Another example might be a policing diagram for a town. You start with a blank map of the town and draw in major streets. You add a color coding layer for street lighting conditions in various neighborhood’s. Then your callout guard post locations, guard patrol routes, or whatever way you prefer, to help determine response time in any given situation.

In the margins, you place stat blocks for typical guard NPCs. You also place a text box in the bottom left corner that outlines guard standard operating procedures, and a text box in the bottom right for typical crimes and punishments. If there’s room, you also locate the jail and do a small blowout floorplan map for quick reference.

Create A Physical Map

A key map to craft for your world is the physical map. Geography affects gameplay in numerous ways, including:

  • Travel times
  • Monster and lair location
  • Encounter site possibilities
  • PC and NPC homeland location
  • Campaign region choices
  • Matching up published materials, such as modules, with terrain requirements
  • Weather

I advise creating a physical map first, as geography also affects world creation in many ways:

  • Resource allocation
  • Political boundaries
  • Politics, conflicts, stress points
  • History
  • Climate
  • Culture, culture hooks

It’s also good to have major geographical features drawn out on your blank map. These fixtures impact so many aspects of the game, as outlined above, that most of your maps should have them for reference.

Create A Political Map

Another invaluable map to create if the game world doesn’t come with it is a political map. All the country, kingdom, and empire boundaries are drawn. This is useful for play and design.

The borders on a map have huge impact on people. Each border represents a closed loop containing a unique blend of factors that result in a new culture. The better you can make these cultures distinct, the stronger hooks you’ll have for plotting, race design, PC and NPC creation, encounter possibilities, and so on.

For example, inside each border you will find a different mix of:

  • Leadership type, style, and methods
  • Laws
  • Religions or religious expression
  • History: struggles lost and overcome, heroes, villains
  • Land and terrain types, and therefore resources
  • Holidays
  • Military: type, structure, strength

This is just a partial list, but even though the imaginary borders exist just on the maps of generals, nobles, and merchants, you can see how they create different flavors of NPCs, stories, and realms for characters to enter.

Turn your boring old political maps into relationship diagrams. For each major nation, where there’s room, draw relationship arrows and label them. Example arrow /relationship types:

  • Ally, enemy, neutral
  • Trade – what types of goods and services, how valuable is the relationship?
  • Immigration, emigration
  • Events: wars, delegations, marriages, treaties, exoduses

Also on the map, perhaps in the margin, note the personality of each nation. What makes each place feel and play differently during games? A nation should have a personality, just like an NPC, with appearance, motives, quirks. These are broad strokes, but such a diagram would help a lot when GMing.

Track Climates

A climate map is handy to have. Climate informs terrain type and weather. It also helps you design nations and cultures if you know where it’s:

  • Hot
  • Cold
  • Dry
  • Wet

Imagine how each of these general climate patterns could turn into an interesting culture in your game world:

  • Hot and dry
  • Hot and wet
  • Cold and dry
  • Cold and wet

Race Map

In the past I’ve often taken a blank map and drawn out race distribution around the world. This helps me determine natural political boundaries, and if I’m figuring out races before geography, then it helps me place geography. For example, snow elves will need a cold home, mountain orcs will need lots of triangles drawn in their region, and swamp gnomes will need their terrain staked out.

In addition, aliens, races, and sub-races have political relationships, just like countries. On your race map you can draw arrows and label who are enemies, allies, and neutrals. This is great fodder for plots, culture design, and history crafting.

Don’t forget to draw significant monster / alien populations too. If there’s a land of giants in your world, for example, draw a rough border around their territory and factor them into the global community.

Don’t forget to fill up those margins. Perhaps draw in a timeline, race info, or a random world race based event chart.

Track World Events

Speaking of world events, grab a blank map, put a year at the top, and draw out what’s going to happen and where, for the next 12 months. This creates a useful tool for plotting. It also helps in a pinch if you need to roleplay news, rumors, or gossip in an encounter.

Depending on how much time you have, create new world event maps whenever the campaign reaches a new date milestone. This could be monthly, yearly, or even weekly if your world changes rapidly. It could be when the PCs finally emerge from the dungeon, or finish an adventure, or return from a long journey.

Keep all of your old event maps to create a visual history for easy reference.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use Your iPod To Store Game Info

From Mark Meredith

The other night, while trying to put together my upcoming Star Wars campaign, I found a great way to store character and NPC information: use your iPod.

You can place txt files in your notes and bring them up instantly. If I want to check on the stats for a Storm Trooper, I only need to bring up my iPod and I’ve got all their information right there.

Another thing I did was place any pictures I would want the players to see in the photos of my iPod, so they can pass it around. It’s going to make the upcoming game a lot less cumbersome when I want to get information to my players fast.

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Free Custom Graph Paper Creator

From Leonard Wilson

I just realized I’ve been sitting on a very cool and useful link: Graphpaper

This web site will create PDFs to order, allowing you to set up your own printable grid-paper exactly to spec. Just tell it the page size, grid type, grid size, line weight, line color, and a few other variables, and it sends you the page, ready for printing.

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Supernatural Weather Ideas

From Monstah

Here are a couple of supernatural weather ideas:

  • After every heavy rain, a dense mist pours onto the village from the northern caves. When lit by the full moon, the mist has the strange property of reacting to magic. Any magic effect or item that touches the mist makes it glow and spiral away from it, giving a flaming “faerie fire” effect. Essentially, the mist acts as a detect magic spell, which everyone can notice.

The mist is actually produced by mushrooms which grow in the cave, after the heavy rains filters in magic minerals through cracks in the mountains. Each mushroom gives too little mist for the effect to be easily noticed, but the vastness of the caves and the large amount of mushrooms found within makes the effect build up.

  • Every few years, vivid blue clouds bring a magic stone rain. The purple stones are the size of a fist and fiercely explode like thunder upon impact. They have the strange property of animating plants and objects around them.

Some call them “golem hearts”, for if collected in time, they can be used for powering such creatures. If left in the wild for a few days, however, their power will soon fade, after giving birth to plenty of weird creatures that may later haunt the area.

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Nothing Like A Little Envy

From Palmer of the Turks

Players getting complacent? Do their characters seem to be dawdling, or taking their sweet time following up on a plot lead you dropped a while ago? Maybe they just missed a clue, like badly?

Next time they reach a town, have another adventuring party present at the tavern they visit, loudly boasting and swaggering about how they accomplished some goal. The goal, of course, was whatever the players were putting off, be it looting a dungeon, collecting a bounty, acquiring powerful magic or perhaps gaining a plot of land.

This should make the players sit up and take notice as they suddenly realize not every plot will be handed to them on a platter. Plus, well, they’re bound to envy the success of the other group, spurring them on to faster action in whatever else they’re planning to do…assuming they don’t just try to act directly against the other group to acquire whatever it was they got.

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Lay Out The Major Points And Let The PCs Connect The Dots

From The Jigsaw Man

As far as planning, I prefer to not plan. For my current campaign, the entire plot outline is like this:

  1. Rakshasa summons formians to world.
  2. Rakshasa forms army to combat formians, with magic anti- formian weapons.
  3. Rakshasa is hailed as conquering hero, granted emperorship of large part of world.

That’s it. The PCs were thrown in after point #1, where the formians were attacking villages. Over the course of six months, real-time, the PCs have realised the emperor is up to something nasty, and they are going to assassinate him. They have also become elven ambassadors, and been recruits for the Emperor’s Secret Police. They don’t know that he’s a Rakshasa yet, though.

Just lay out the major points, and let the PCs connect the dots.