Mapping Tips: Planning Your Map Saves Time

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0368

A Brief Word From Johnn

Handwaving Past Slow, Boring, Inconsequential, and Static Parts

A recent post at Treasure Tables about handwaving got me to thinking about what I do as GM. Handwaving involves fast- forwarding through certain parts of gameplay. It’s a great technique to bypass times when the game gets slow, boring, inconsequential, or static.

My goal each session is to blast through as much game material as possible. I prefer a brisk pace, though that sometimes gets me in trouble. I handwave through clean-up parts of an adventure where there’s just minor critters left with little hope for cool moments. I handwave past encounters that seem to offer no value at the time (I put them in a bucket for later re-use). I handwave past travel periods, shopping trips, and basic character-world interactions. I often handwave past character planning moments where I know players are working with bad or incomplete information and their decision will be rendered moot the moment they act.

I think the process of handwaving is just as important as the benefits of skipping past undesirable game time:

  1. I usually announce my intentions to the group first, and provide reasons why (that don’t reveal secrets).
  2. Next, I ask for player feedback. Opt-out tends to be more efficient for this kind of thing, as long as you’re confident your players will speak up. Some brief conversation usually follows as I answer questions or address concerns.
  3. If we opted to continue without handwaving, then we do so. Otherwise, I summarize the decision to handwave, describe what we’re handwaving past, include any player amendments, and ask for any last objections.
  4. I conclude with a description of how things proceed, tying up any loose ends as required.

If you don’t handwave, I suggest you try it when you see a spot of dead game time approaching. Communicate with your group as outlined above. Do this a few times before passing final judgement, as the process becomes quicker each time.

Here’s the Treasure Tables post:

Try to get some GMing done this week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Mapping Tips: Planning Your Map Saves Time

RPGs are a do-it-yourself hobby, and one of its treasured activities is making maps. It’s too easy, though, to pick up a pencil and start drawing without thinking. Most botched maps fail for the preventable reasons outlined in this week’s tips. However, you can improve your map-making with some quick but effective planning before you start each map.

Hopefully this week’s tips will help you draw better maps in faster time by using just a little forethought.

Make An Inventory List

Unless I’m copying a map or I’m mapping out a well-known place, the first thing I do is make a list of map contents. I keep this list handy and add to it when ideas come to me.

We are usually creating maps of fictional places, so there are no pre-existing guides and maps to base our mapping requirements from. To save re-draws, erasing, and mapping hassles, it’s best to know before you start all the items that need to be present on your map.

Names of places and things are best inventoried so you can locate and label with confidence (label placement has been the bane of many of my maps).

Even a guide as to the amount of any given element that needs to be situated will help you with distribution while drawing.

For example, for a kingdom map you might list:

  • # of provinces or states and their names
  • # of major cities and their names
  • # of towns per province, state, or square inch on the map
  • # of villages per province, state, or square inch on the map
  • Number of paved roads – all other roads will be dirt, tracks, or trails (paved roads require money to maintain, so they won’t be common in poor societies)
  • Castles, forts, outposts – names or quantities
  • Number of nobles who might have estates
  • Name of the capital
  • Names or types of unique monsters and lair preferences
  • Humanoid populations and location preferences
  • Villains and home base preferences

For dungeon maps, you will have your notes and keyed location entries as a beginning inventory list. You might also give thought to ecology and features, to help remind you to include them when it comes time to draw:

  • Formation method(s)
  • Historical use
  • Entrances and exits – each faction should have their own
  • Water sources
  • Trap ideas
  • Lair preferences per faction
  • Terrain ideas
  • Special locations
  • Special minerals
  • Special encounter ideas or plans – stage bosses, huge creatures, choke points, conflict points, etc.

In some cases, though, we might not know what must go on a map until we start drawing it. If you try mapping first, then make a critical mistake and begin re-drawing, stop before crumpling up that first draft. Make a list of the items you’ve placed on it, and cross things out on the bad map as you list them so you don’t overlook any.

I have bungled maps in the past where I’ve forgotten key elements when redrawing botched attempts. During redraws you need to learn from your mistakes and relocate everything without mishap, and an inventory is the best way to do this.

Define Boundaries

Determine where a map should begin and end before you start drawing. What area must the map depict? Where are its outer boundaries? Figuring this out before you start drawing will save you grief later on should you realize you need more space.

You can always tape on more sheets of paper or increase the document size, but planning boundaries ahead of time will ensure your map is properly centered and drawn out according to your vision.

For example, you might start drawing a city from the middle. As you reach the edges of the paper you begin adding walls. It’s not until you’re done that you realize you need to know what’s beyond those walls, but there’s no room left on the paper to draw in fields, roads, manors, and offsite locations. At this point, you can either get the tape and attach more paper, or zoom out and draw a regional map. Either way, your vision for a tidy, one-map system is lost.

Another city example: you start with the boundaries. First, you draw landscape boundaries. The city is walled, so you draw in the walls next. Just as you start filling in streets and buildings, you remember the population count and do some quick estimating only to determine that the area is too small for that many people. You can either increase the scale of the map and hope it still fits within your region map; you can go vertical to increase population density with taller buildings; you can change the population count, which will impact kingdom or regional resources; or you can map again.

Before starting your next map, look at your inventory list and envision what you want your map to show. Plan how you can fit everything in with proper scale and position selection before drawing.

Sketch Your Maps Out Before Starting A Final Version

Whether you are pushing a pencil or pixels, make rough sketches of your map until you are clear what you need to draw in your final version. This will save you a lot of pain and tears, and minimize the number of re-draws.

Sketching first also helps with writer’s block. The task of drawing a final map version at the same time as you are making up what goes on the map is difficult. Do one thing at a time.

I often start with blobs. Using my inventory list, I’ll draw rough shapes first and label them. This helps me ensure everything is going to fit. It also gives me my first view of borders, neighbors, area, and position. Armed with an eraser, or through fast redraws, I’ll tweaking the blobs until I’m happy.

For example, I might be drawing a dungeon that needs to hold orcs, lizardfolk, dwarves, and an undead region everyone avoids. My first attempt might put each faction in a corner. I draw rough squares on paper and label them. Time: 10 seconds.

Looking at that arrangement, I decide it would be more fun to stick the orcs in between aggressive dwarves and lizardmen. Perhaps the PCs end up working for the orcs, without knowing it, as the creatures are getting squeezed hard along two fronts. I cross out the old labels, write in new ones, and scratch out some changes to the boxes. Time: 1 minute.

I then decide to put the undead in the back of the lizardfolk region and make it a dwarven graveyard, giving the dwarves a strong reason why they’re trying to break through orc lines – to rescue their ancestors. I grab a new sheet of paper, draw revised blobs, and label. Time: 30 seconds.

Sketching blobs out also gives me an idea of proportion. Population density, access to resources, neighbour size, and other factors are revealed with blob size and placement as well. On my new draft, I draw in items on my inventory list: small pond, stream feeding pond, mushroom cave, and well- protected rat’s nest. Seeing this, I revise a couple of blob borders, their shape, and territory a bit. Time: 2 minutes.

When it comes time to draw a final map now, with four minutes of planning under my belt, all the important details are hammered out. I can focus just on using or learning the mapping tools and my drawing style – the content is planned and laid out for me already.

Use Layers

Before drawing your map, make a use case list. What are the reasons and ways you want to use the map? Sometimes this reveals specific map versions with special requirements. If you make your finished version, for example, and then realize you want a player version without all the secret doors and notes, you could be stuck.

Example uses:

  • Template – blank map with just the basics drawn in
  • Player handout
  • Faction or political map
  • Event or encounter planning map
  • A version with all traps, secret doors, and hazards noted
  • Historical snapshots
  • Blank map for taking in-game notes

Use layers as a way to get multiple uses from one map. If you are using software that supports layers, then use them often. If you can merge layers, then go crazy with them, because you can combine and group layers when you’re done.

If your software doesn’t support layers, then you can save versions of the map as you go. This is where your use case list comes in handy, because you can plan out ahead of time what map versions need what features, and you can plan on doing a series of drawings based on a linear progression to get you all the versions you need. Store this solution somewhere because you can use it as a template for all future maps of this type.

If you are drawing on paper, you can also plan how your sequence will evolve so you can get most or all of the map versions you need. If you have a copier nearby, you can finalize a stage, and copy it to start drawing in the details of the next stage. Alternatively, you can create a blank map template, and draw up each version you need from there. Another option is to create your base map and use acetate (overhead projector) sheets with markers to layer on information.

Note, with templates and versions, if you ever make an important change to one map, you’ll need to update all copies. This is where good planning pays off. If you can prevent forgetting to draw in important elements, get your borders right, and know what features each version needs, you can minimize errors and save time.

For example, you might decide on this progression and set of use cases:

Layer 1: Draw in physical landscape, such as shoreline, mountains, and two rivers.

Layer 2: Layer 1 + city walls.

  • Blank map
  • Sketch stage with blobbed out districts and faction

Layer 3: Layer 2 + streets and key buildings.

  • Player’s man
  • Encounter locations and keyed locations map

Layer 4: Layer 3 + guard, fire brigade, powerful NPCs information and locations.

  • Emergency response map and planning in case the PCs do something naughty or foolish
  • GM planning map in case PCs do something unexpected

Layer 5: Layer 3 + sewer lines, tunnels, and sewer entrances.

  • GM planning map
  • Player’s handout

Layer 6: Layer 3 + parade route and encounter locations for next session’s parade adventure.

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Just a few minutes of planning can save many maps from the trash bin. Planning also gives you greater confidence when you start drawing or using your mapping software. You should know what you’re drawing first, so you can save time and energy.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Simple PC Characterization

From Scott Gorham

I’m a DM in my mid-twenties with a background in theatre. I run adventures with a group of 4-5 guys whose ages span 18- 22, and they are all definitely power-gamers. Suffice to say, I sometimes have a hard time getting them to roleplay characters while they are powering over encounters four times higher than the party average.

For a recent adventure, I took a few pointers from the boys doing the WotC DnD Podcast:

Strong Stat, Weak Stat

As my players rolled up new characters, I gave them the option of either taking a simple array of ability scores or rolling them. But when rolling them, four rolls were normal (four dice, ignore the lowest). The other two were for extremes. One ability score had to be rolled with only three dice, ignoring the lowest. The last allowed for five dice, ignoring the one lowest.

Most of the guys took the array, but one decided to take the risk. He ended up with a 22 Dexterity, but a 5 Wisdom and a 6 Intelligence. “Sweet, now I can play that dual-wielding whip-master I’ve always wanted!”

One-Word Descriptors

The next step was character background. Again, off of the WotC boys, I told the guys to not make backstories or motivations yet, but instead to pick just one strong adjective for their character. We ended up with:

  • Bernard the crotchety dwarf cleric
  • Jane “Chunko” the oblivious half-orc barbarian
  • Vash the forgetful human druid
  • Our whip-wielding friend, the cute human fighter (with 13, he had the most Charisma of any in the group)

There was a smart NPC to lead them through the obvious spots, but mostly he just sat back and smoked while the boys Forrest Gumped their way into the secret tunnel and the pit beyond.

These power-gamers spent about three hours negotiating the pit, keeping the dwarf in spiked full-plate from drowning in 4 feet of water, getting him off of a spiderweb, then fighting off the monstrous spiders while he held his breath entangled underwater.

For powergamers such as these, killing 7 small monstrous spiders doesn’t count for much of an accomplishment, but they admitted later that it was one of the most entertaining encounters they had had in weeks. Most of the time was spent not in intricate plans or arguments about rules, but asking, “How would my character try to untangle someone from a spider’s web?”

A running jump and a barbarian tackle, that’s how.

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Vampire the Masquerade Tips

From Daniel Burrage

Always make sure they don’t know what they’re dealing with, even if you have to roll for them. Don’t tell them, “it has a defense of 2, so take 2 out and roll. You missed.” That’s bland and lacks suspense.

It should be, “the creature skitters in a rather unnatural, lizard-like way when you swing, and you don’t even touch it.” Or, “You swing the antique cutlass with all you might, but the werewolf’s changed form is too much, and your arms ache with vibration from striking something that solid.”

Whenever possible, keep the players in the dark, literally. If you turn out all the lights, maybe play some heavy metal quietly, that’s set the mood for unknown danger. Many is the time the contemporary lovers argued the musical choice, but it always set the mood for some hardcore vampire escapades.

Don’t make monsters too tough, but make situations tough, and make creatures seem impossible to defeat. A team of vamps with archaic weapons, heavy duty firepower, and full riot gear is pretty tough. Yet put them in the middle of a parade, where they can only bring brass knuckles and knives, add a vampire slayer who doesn’t care about civilian’s attack, and you have an interesting encounter.

Spread rumors to keep players on their toes. You could tell them there have been recent animal attacks where only half a corpse or so is left, and they’ll probably look into it. You tell them they hear there’s a werewolf killing people downtown and they’ll load up on silver and trash your monster. Or better still, spread false rumors, then ransack or booby trap their haven. Always zig when they expect a zag.

Don’t feel bad about hitting them where it hurts. If their enemy knows their vampires, and has half a brain, he’ll bring fire and stakes. He’ll definitely find out where their haven is and try to dust one in his sleep. And why shouldn’t he? He shouldn’t want them dead any less because a player had a bad day or they’re wounded. Exploit weaknesses that they have and you don’t. Go ahead, try to go Dusk till Dawn 2 on them, shoot them with a bow, and reel them in to the sun. It works, and it’s a bad guy thing to do.

Don’t always let them know what shape they’re in. Tell them, “You’re badly wounded, shot gun to the gut. Vamp or not, it hurts.” Avoid such descriptions as, “you’re down three bashing and two lethal, so you should drink up and heal.”

There’s nothing less successful than roleplaying something and then rolling it. It’s a role playing game, and you’re the story teller, no need to resort to dice. If it scares the player, the character’s scared. If there’s successful diplomacy, don’t spoil it with dice.

If a player has a cool idea, don’t ruin it just because it’s not in the books. If he says, “Yes, old blunderbuss! I’ll just stick a cross in there and he’s toast!” Don’t tell the poor guy blunderbuss isn’t in the book, just give it a number, or better still, describe the monster dying. Heroes should always win when they come up with something like that, unless they’re truly outclassed.

Scare them. If a player goes down, make him leave the room. A guy goes blind, have a blind-fold ready. If you know a really cool scene from a movie with a similar monster, pop it on and tell them that’s what they see.

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Johnn, could you also request some Werewolf: the Forsaken and other WoD game tips? I’m playing in a mixed campaign soon. I would request tips about keeping the horror up and leaving it suspenseful. Also tips on making sure the story is a story and not an action flick.

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Take An Annual Break To Rejuvenate

From Bill Stephens

I am responding to your “Creativity is the Key” section. My biggest advice is to take a break from gaming and during that time; think on the story without time constraints.

I made a deal with my wife on our 1 on 1 game. I will GM continuously with her for 10 months, straight, no excuses, as long as I got a 2 month break during the summer to relax. We have just finished that break period and I am ready to spring my newest ideas and twists upon her.

This next week is going to be one of the longest because I _want_ to GM now. I want to expose some new truths and reveal other mysteries that she had been exposed to before, yet I didn’t really have the time to develop fully.

Sometimes, just going at a breakneck speed can kill a game faster than taking a little time off to work out some of the more interesting aspects the storyline has to offer. Slow down a bit. Take some time off. Your game will thrive because of it.

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Bottom-Up World Building

From Dave

When I first started trying to build a world map of my campaign world, I spent days drawing maps and trying to place things just right, all in failure. Nothing seemed to work and it was much more effort than I wanted to do.

Then, a friend advised me: “You’re trying to start with a complete world. Start small and work up to it.” That’s what I did.

I selected one of those modules (B2: Keep on the Borderlands). I expanded the setting, geographical location, and population. I detailed everything from lairs to farmland. When I had finished I placed it on a “blank map” in the location that best fit the terrain. Then I started with another, and so on. Today, I have a complete world. It’s still growing but complete in scope and details.

I eventually placed all those modules and homebrewed campaigns, one at a time, and it was fun. As time went on, I added in history, religion, resources, seasons, holidays, and politics – local, regional, and global. I didn’t have to do it all at once. It has taken 15 years to complete and fills two 4 drawer filing cabinets.

One thing that has made it all worthwhile is I can track how the PCs have changed their world: exploring new lands, ridding the land of more than one menace, wars, political scandals, etc. In one memorable campaign, a PC was knighted and made a duke with lands and surfs to lord it over.

The geography changed over time as I learned more about it and how it is supposed to work. Example: large, land-bound bodies of water should be salty. (Mine wasn’t until I learned that tidbit.)

You are correct in that functional beats realism anytime. Keep up the good work.