How To Fill In The Blanks – Drawing Maps Dungeon World Style
From Phil Nicholls
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #690
Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel builds upon the ground breaking Apocalypse World by Vincent D Baker. Along with bringing a real OSR feel to indie gaming, Dungeon World includes fantastic advice for the GM.
The first Dungeon World principle is to draw maps but leave blank spaces. Maps are a fundamental part of world building, so leaving blanks suggests an unfinished world. However, the idea is to fill them in later. Blank areas on a map allow all manner of cool things to happen in your game. They prevent you from painting yourself into a corner at campaign outset. They let you be flexible and roll with the dice.
Here are some tips on using blanks on a map to increase the fun at your table. The tips are divided up according to the style of map being used:
- Dungeon Blanks
- Urban Blanks
- Rural Blanks
- Global Blanks
- Special Blanks
The first maps in the hobby were dungeon maps. The essence of a dungeon adventure is characters exploring every room on a map. The concept of blanks seems counterintuitive, yet blanks on these small-scale maps can enhance a game.
Let us start small: leave the dungeon furniture in a room blank. Present a broad-strokes description of the room, but skip the details. This enables wuxia-style combat, where the characters make use of the environment to help them in a fight. Watch any Jackie Chan fight sequence for a great example.
You may need to prime the players for this style of fighting, but you will soon have them jumping off chandeliers, dropping portcullises, throwing flour, and leaping over tables. Throw in a minor mechanical benefit, such as a little more damage for the thrown barrel. Or offer a bonus to hit next turn, while the orc wipes the ale from its face. If the players can see a benefit to filling the blanks on a tactical map, they will eagerly join in the fun.
The trick is to always be open to what the players ask for. If you can imagine Jackie Chan doing something similar, then simply agree to the player’s request, assign a small modifier, and roll the dice. If players ask for too much, then adopt a “yes, but…” approach. “Yes, there is a great sword behind the bar, but it is chained to the wall.” “Yes, there is a glowing poker in the fire, but it looks too hot to handle.” Your players will soon learn what you will accept and what is asking for too much.
A second opportunity for blanks in the dungeon is when creating a mega-dungeon. The Mines of Moria is the classic mega-dungeon, but imagine how long it would take to write room descriptions for every mine shaft, roughly-hewn chamber, and workshop.
To quickly build a mega-dungeon, you need some way of assigning a basic function to the many locations needed for a true underground labyrinth. The best way is to create a table to populate the mundane areas of your mega-dungeon.
A simple table for Moria might look like this:
d6 Chamber Contents
- Rough-hewn chamber quarried for stone
- Exhausted seam, tiny traces of metal in the rock, debris on the floor
- Workshop, bench and broken tools
- Storage chamber, debris, empty barrels, and sacks of rock
- Barrack room, beds, and empty chests
- Partially mined seam, mining tools, and sacks of ore
Larger tables offer more variety, but this is enough to illustrate the principle. Roll for each location on the map when the characters reach it and note the result. You can add treasure or monsters to the table, chosen to match the themes and setting.
Blanks on the map apply to urban settings too. Speed the creation of a town or city by assigning themes to streets or even districts. Labels such as Baker’s Street, Tanner’s Row, and the Elven Quarter all set the tone for an area without the need to designate every single shop in advance.
Create a table similar to the one presented above for Moria, noting a few details about the building. Themed entries could include a residence, a struggling business, a thriving business, a supporting business, or even one from a neighbouring theme to add variety.
Another use of blanks is to let players find what they want quickly. Assuming the location is large enough to have the shop the players want, simply pick a location on the map close to current location, and designate this as the desired shop. No checking through a long list of pre-made shops, no convoluted journey around town, just straight down to business.
Finally, having blanks on the map allows for improvisation within the town. This is never more important than when running a chase sequence. By their nature, chases should be fast and frantic. If the buildings along the street are blanks, then the GM is not tempted to narrate every building the characters pass. Describe the shops as a blur of colour, because that is all you need. Furthermore, the GM is free to add in chase tropes, such as a glazier or obligatory fruit stall, as the tempo of the chase demands.
The next scale of map is the country or regional map. Here the blanks serve to entice the characters onwards. Filling in the blanks on a map lies at the heart of the classic hexcrawl campaign, but the blanks can bring more than this to your campaign.
In the modern age, our countries are precisely mapped out. There is no wonder about what lies over the next ridge. But for many game settings, this is exactly what the inhabitants feel. Showing your players a map of the realm with blanks labelled “here be dragons” recreates this sense of wonder. Many players will doubtless then seek to explore these unknown areas.
Enlist the players’ help to populate these blanks, drawing them further into your world. These unknown regions are perfect avenues for collaborative setting creation. Ask the players what their characters have heard about the country beyond the dark forest on their borders. It need not all be true, but fold enough of their ideas into the game to show that you value their input.
Ask two players and you will hear two different answers. Pick the parts you like and blend them together to create an area your players invented, yet retaining the element of surprise when they discover the truth behind the stories. Or just take those elements you like and add a twist of your own. The players will recognise the parts they created and still feel invested in your setting.
All the benefits of blanks in the kingdom map are writ large when applied to your grand map of the entire setting. Players can also provide input into this map. Ensure a sense of wonder for the GM by creating and exploring the distant corners of your setting alongside the players.
There is an even greater benefit to having blanks on the setting map. These unmarked areas ensure there is space for later campaign growth. At the start of a campaign, you may feel sure you know where the story will take you. However, players have their own ideas of what they want from the setting. A cool character concept may require warring city-states of clockwork immortals or an island chain of rowdy pirate kings. Blanks on the campaign map make these easy to add into the setting.
Alternatively, after a couple of years, you may fall victim to the next “shiny thing”. Suddenly you only want to run a game with draconic feudal overlords or elven cloud kingdoms. Blanks on the campaign map leave room for future shifts in interest. It is much better to fold this new concept into an existing campaign, with all the associated benefits of existing player investment and backstory.
This final category of map blanks was suggested by Johnn. These are hidden and secret locations, nested within an existing map. This is something of a hybrid category, as it is the link to the new area that is the unknown, not an empty area on the map.
A special blank could be a pocket dimension, a location within a mirror, an interactive dream-space, or just a secret realm within the neural matrix. For the GM, this means having a handful of small, self-contained maps ready to throw into a story. Hideaways, danger rooms, magical research laboratories, prison labyrinths, or warps in the fabric of space suddenly reveal a hidden site.
These locations can be anywhere and contain anything the plot needs, but these special places cannot be found by reading a map. The characters need to be in the room, searching the mirror or patrolling the right part of space.
On a meta level, these can function to extend a game session if the players have stormed through the planned events, or they can add a sense of wonder by holding the finale in an exotic location. I keep a few such emergency plots that I can pull out at any time in my GM folder, in case the current story flounders and I need a change of focus to keep the players engaged.
Despite their exotic nature, the principle of these special blanks matches the overall concept from Dungeon World. Their presence need not be planned in advance, but thrown into the story according to the GM’s needs. If a player thinks up a clever place to look in a room, then you could reward her by pulling out a hidden location.
Making maps has been one of the GM’s tasks since the dawn of the hobby. Dungeon World urges the GM to leave blanks on the map and to allow the story to grow collaboratively. Such blanks work on any level of map, from the dungeon all the way up to the largest-scale campaign setting map.
As well as facilitating faster prep for the GM, blanks on the map enable improvisation and greater player input into the campaign. So the next time you are practising your cartography skills, why not leave a few areas white and ensure no good idea is wasted?
Brief Word From Johnn
RPT Print Edition Almost Here!
I sent Roleplaying Tips Omnibus #3 to proofing this week. As soon as it’s approved, the first three print book versions of Roleplaying Tips will be available.
If you’re a hold-book-in-hands person like myself, then I hope you will enjoy having a bookshelf brimming with Roleplaying Tips reference materials and fun reading. Each volume is 120-150 pages and contains a collection of past issues plus a bonus article not published in the newsletter before.
All the articles have been re-edited. You will also get a PDF version of the book too, for the best of both worlds.
I will email you when the books are ready along with a friendly subscriber discount coupon.
Culture Building Article Voting Results
A couple of issues ago I announced designer R. James Gauvreau would be writing a short series of articles for us demonstrating how to build a culture.
I left the theme and race of the culture up to you.
Here’s how you voted:
For theme, it was a three-way tie, so I let James take his pick of Desert, Jungle, or Town. He’s mulling over that right now.
And for race, human won.
So you’ll be getting a culture of human desert, jungle, or town dwellers built in future RPT editions. Thanks to everyone who voted!
Have a great week and get some gaming done.
A Cornucopia Of Magic Trinkets
The following magic trinket ideas came from a recent Patron Brainstorm. Thanks to the following RPT Patrons for contributing awesome ideas: Chris Crunch Holliday, Forrest Elam, Mark Bruckard, Mike Ball, Michael Anderson, Chuck Dee, themensch, Jeff Gilbert, Lars Boettger, Shaun Booth, Alessandro Bilosi, Andrew Davey, static, and David Saunders.
Hopefully you find a magic item or two inspiring enough to use in your campaign.
Sand of Vision
This gray sand comes in a violet pouch. Take a handful and throw it against a wall or door or onto a chest or floor. The sand will allow you to see through the object and discern what is behind or in it. The view is one way. The sand is consumed in the process. The pouch contains d4+1 uses.
This special arrow comes with a blunt tip. On impact, the tip activates and melts into the target (d6 fire damage) and now attracts other arrows. The chance to hit the same target is increased by +2, whereas the chance of hitting something else is now reduced by -2. This effect last for 2d6 rounds.
Wampum Beaded Belts
These elaborately beaded enchanted belts are created by pictish shamans. Each bead has a minor magical effect. After all the spell beads have been used the belt is no longer magical, although it is still beautiful and valuable.
Once a Day +1 Sword
The ghost of a mute, low level knight is bound to it. He can be compelled to make the sword +1 for the duration of one combat, but only once a day. He will also get sulky if he is taken for granted.
Decanter of Endless Water
Have a cleric bless the water. Instant geyser of holy water to smite the vampire hordes. The decanter might only work for a limited amount of time or number of times per week.
Light Crossbow Bolts of the Heavy Crossbow
These light crossbow bolts are enchanted so the victim suffers damage as if struck by a bolt made for a heavy crossbow. This damage gains a +1 or +2 magic bonus as well. Each bolt is useable once and then loses its magic. Such bolts are often found in groups of 2 to 8 if +1, or 1 to 6 if +2.
Darts of Magic Missile
Each dart acts as if it were a single magic missile (doing 1d4+1) when thrown. Darts thrown by a wizard automatically hit. If thrown by a character of another class, a successful hit must be rolled, although there is still a +1 bonus on the attack.
Spell Eggs I
Eggs with low level spells cast into them. Throw them at a foe to cast a touch spell. One use each. Be careful how you handle them or you will end up with egg on your face.
Spell Eggs II
When eggs that have been enchanted in this manner are crushed (for self or touch spells), smashed against another creature or object (for touch spells or ranged spells), or hurled towards an appropriate target (not necessarily striking the selected target, for ranged spells), the spell that has been focused within them is released. For example, someone who had a Lightning Bolt Spell Egg would hurl the egg in the direction he wished to cast the spell. When the egg broke, the spell would be released under the control of the hurler as if he were a mage of equivalent level (i.e. a 3rd level fighter would be considered as a 3rd level mage for the purposes of figuring damage and range).
Practically any spell can be focused in a properly prepared egg (at the DM’s option). Most Spell Eggs have their yolks removed prior to being enchanted. The main problem with these items is their fragile nature coupled with the fact that any damage releases the focused spell. So if some character who was carrying a few of these items fell into a pit, the result could be quite spectacular (as well as fatal).
Bones of Scrying
Blackened vertebrae from a sheep or other creature. When cast like dice, they provide a vision answering a single question. The vision is vague and open to interpretation. Bones crumble into ash after use. Create bones via a magical ritual requiring the sacrifice of the bovine. The animal’s bones are blackened by boiling them in its own blood until the blood evaporates and the bones char on the bottom of the empty pot.
Actual one-time use glow stick. A limited number of glow sticks exist in world. Created by a long-dead alchemist who left no instructions for reproduction. Fragile glass ampoule contains the hydrogen peroxide catalyst, and a sturdier glass vial contains the ampoule and the diphenyl oxalate. Shake the vial violently to break the inner ampoule and activate the chemical reaction. Roll 1d20. On a 1, exterior glass vial shatters, dealing 1 point of damage to user and spilling glowing liquid all over user’s hand. Lit glow stick illuminates a 10′ radius with dim light for one hour. Science so advanced, it is perceived as magic.
Fragment of Rune-Etching Chisel
Players can use this fragment to etch a one-use rune onto a weapon. The weapon absorbs the fragment upon use. The fragment was part of a powerful artifact able to etch runes once a day. The artifact shattered centuries ago and its fragments scattered across the world. Runes give a one-time bonus or other one-time property to a weapon.
A rune etched onto any magical arrow or magical thrown weapon. The character must spend time to touch (activate) the rune before firing or throwing it. Once the arrow or weapon has been shot or thrown at a target, whether or not it hits, it instantly teleports back to the hand of the character who wielded it. The rune fades after use.
Ring of Life-Keeping
Upon taking a killing blow, the ring melts into the character’s skin and saves the PC’s life. Leaves a permanent scar.
These are runes written in a long-dead language, though the PCs have found hints of that language. Putting the runes in the correct order fuses them together, and they can then can be activated for a one-time effect.
This one-use, tiny piece of enchanted wood can start a fire under almost any conditions, unless it’s completely submerged.
Badge of Life
An ankh-shaped badge. When affixed to clothing, it provides the wearer a valuable benefit. The first wound that would take the character below 0 HP (or whatever is the lowest value at which the character is still alive) instead takes the character to exactly 0 HP (or, again, whatever happens to be the lowest non-fatal value), and then the badge disintegrates. If there are Save vs. Death type effects in play (rather than HP damage), this item would also force one successful save before disintegrating.
Jade Scarab of Life
This brooch resembles a 2cm (1 inch) long jade scarab. It is very detailed and a bit bulky. It comes without chain or necklace. If you press the scarab to a chest it will awaken and burrow itself into the chest of its bearer. After the wound is healed, the presence of scarab can be felt by touch. If the wearer ever suffers a deadly wound, the scarab absorbs part of that blow, up to the value of a cure spell, and then withers to dust.
Oilstone of the Master Fighter
This grindstone is always of an oily appearance. If used on a non-magical slashing or piercing weapon, the grindstone sharpens the edge to increase the weapon’s critical hit range by 1. This effect lasts until the end of the next combat. The oilstone can be used three times.
A strip of white paper or linen, 30-60cm (1 to 2 feet) long, and about 5cm (2 inch) wide. A priest can write prayers on it and then attach it with a wax seal to the armor of a fighter so it is visible in combat. The strip will give the wearer a bonus to the ability mentioned in the prayer.
“May mother nature protect you from physical harm” (increased damage resistance). “May the gods bless you with strength.” “The virtue of the godfather may be with you” (immune or bonus against fear). Be creative which ability or attribute is affected. The paper will lose its magic abilities after a fight or next morning.
This glass orb of 6 inches (15cm) diameter contains whorls of fire and smoke. Breaking the glass releases the fireball. It can be thrown or rolled, be part of a trap, or just be carried in a backpack.
A series of dragon scales attached to a piece of clothing. When a scale is used, it creates a set of scale mail armor on the wearer.
“Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear”. A small glass mirror that makes a person appear further away than he actually is. The mirror cracks each time it is used till it finally breaks.
A set of five fired clay hands to be carried or worn. In times of trouble, when the wearer could ‘use a hand’ due to a failed roll, one of the hands breaks and grants a +2 bonus on whatever activity he was undertaking.
Cat Gut Strings
A set of musical instrument strings that grants a skill bonus to the musician. Alternatively, it can call one normal house cat to snuggle with. Strings break after use.
The Undertaker’s Hat
This tired-looking old hat sat upon the brow of many a mortician’s head. When worn, it can create a coffin out of any nearby wood, and the wearer is capable of digging a grave in one round. It also stores a suitable shovel within the cap, like a bag of holding.
Small Statues of Reunification
Two small figures (bone, wood, marble), one representing a man and the other his spouse. If the two small figures are separated, whoever wields one and spells the activation word is teleported to the other’s location.
Dust of the Fire God
A small pouch of charcoal that is poured onto a small fire. The first sword poked into the flames will catch fire, becoming a flaming sword that does fire damage for the next 10 rounds.
The Barrel Roll
This bread roll comes in the shape of a tiny barrel. When dipped in any liquid and then dashed to the ground, a small cask will appear with enough food to feed a party of four one meal. The food is always fresh and wholesome, but will have an aftertaste of the liquid used.
A Stitch in Time
This simple thread, when sewn into a garment, grants the wearer a +1 bonus on his next nine saving throws.
Pair of Sneakers
These shoes wear as normal footwear, but if you tear off their tongues, they become shoes of stealth for the next 10 rounds, granting advantage on stealth checks during that time.
This vest is an assortment of one-shot trinkets in the form of six pockets. The pockets can be used as normal, but in a pinch, rip a pocket off the vest and it becomes a trinket:
Pocket Rock-it: When this pocket is removed from the vest it becomes a rock. A handy surprise weapon, last chance sling ammo, or even a distraction device…. Anything a rock is useful for.
Pocket Watch: Tear this off when the whole party is bushed. Sleep securely knowing the Pocket Watch will set off an alarm any time anyone not within 50 yards of the pocket enters the same radius. Lasts for 10 hours.
Pocket Plane: This pocket enlarges to about the size of two surfboards, becoming rigid and capable of holding 1000 pounds for 15 rounds. Toss your party on board and glide down a small cliff or coast across a ravine. Rain won’t hurt it, but don’t try to use it as a boat – it will become waterlogged in 1 round and have the rigidity and buoyancy of a wet rag.
Pocket Knife: You guessed it…a small utility knife, at least for the next hour.
Pocket Book: This pocket turns into a random book:
- Book of Learning, increasing Intelligence or Wisdom by one if read over the next 8 hours
- Book of Training, increasing Strength or Dexterity when read over the next 8 hours
- Book of Fitness, increasing Constitution as above
- Book of Leadership, increasing Charisma as above
- Book of Knowledge which, when studied over the course of one hour, will grant a bonus on next knowledge roll
- Book of cheesy jokes and bad limericks which may or may not help out in future barroom encounters.
Pocket Bag: This is a temporary Bag of Holding. It can hold up to 250 pounds and will revert to a normal sack in 24 hours.
Have fun, create your own pockets, or limit the number of pockets to 2 and roll randomly to see what you get!
Ewer of Outpouring Gold
A shiny ebony ewer covered in golden tracing. Distinctive and fine artwork worth a lot for its looks. When the bearer needs to buy an item, he tips the ewer up and the correct amount of gold will pour out. One use only as the gold fades and the ewer becomes a dirty brown cheap pottery.
Cucumber Sandwich of Etiquette
The person eating the sandwich gains a boost to their diplomacy (or similar) skill.
Mop Bucket of Fortitude
After one use of this item, the wearer is immune to nausea and disorientation for the next encounter.
A small grey cube, one side marked with an orb. Roll the cube and whichever side has the orb is the direction of gravity for one round.
Big Boy Pants
Breeches that, when torn off, enlarge the former wearer for one minute.
Eye in a Jar
Some creature’s eye in brine. Take it out and lick it. For the next hour the taster can see through the eye at any range.
Small toy monkey. Push the button and it grows to a full-sized chimp that clashes its cymbals, deafening those around it.
Tied In Knots
A piece of string. Cut a 5′ length and drop it to the ground. It will snake to the nearest opponent and grapple him. DC 15 to escape.
Share the whole bottle of this whiskey with a friend, and then neither of you can tell a lie until you sleep it off. Thing is, the friend won’t realize what he’s said until waking up.