The key to a good map (pun intended)

RPG Superstar™ General Discussion

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Star Voter Season 9

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Adam Daigle wrote:

There's a few books by David Macaulay that are awesome in regard to how different structures are built. I used the one about Pyramids to great extent during Mummy's Mask. Patrick has the one about Castles and it's pretty amazing too.

I haven't seen many of the other ones, but I hear they're good. Might be worth checking out.

"Unbuilding" is pretty good. Its about the dismantling of the Empire State Building. There is also one about how a Mediterranean city changes through history that I really liked.

But by far my favorite MacCulay work is "Motel of the Mysteries" . Its a must read!

Sovereign Court Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9

Anthony Adam wrote:
I want the number and size of player characters and foes encountered to be sensible for the area being portrayed (no dragons in the 5' x 5' loo :P)

Curses! Foiled again!!!

Star Voter Season 8 aka TealDeer

Dyson Logos wrote:

I'm kind of known for my old school cartography and my style of mapping, but honestly, that's not where the impact comes from - The REAL trick for a map isn't the style and good looks.

The real trick is making something awesome that will feel exciting to explore or have the action in. Think of a set piece, and build the map up around that set piece. The rest is just dressing.

Remember to work in three dimensions - give them levels to move on instead of just running around on a flat surface. Steps, platforms, ledges, gaps, crevasses, and so on. Make it fun, make it something you can portray on a map fairly easily, and run with it!

Regarding sharing practice maps and sharing IP - you can probably guess my response here as I've been sharing my maps publicly (400+ maps now?) for 6 years now. The more you put your work out there, the more feedback you get. Also, it motivated me to get better at my craft and to be able to see the differences as the years went by.

It's been my opinion that the best way to differentiate yourself is to show your skills.

Hey Dyson, it's Jensen actually, from G+ :) Though you may have guessed that.

In any case hey everybody Dyson is giving really good advice. I know that I, for one, need to work on including more vertical space in my maps... my two latest practice maps are experiments in this, as well as in using more organic shapes and circles.

*e* Motel of the Mysteries isn't just hysterical, btw, I think it's a GREAT way to get your brain into the mood for dungeon design! The whole book is a great big joke about how when an archaeologist doesn't know what a thing is, they just kinda go "idk ritual object???" As a kid I used to take mundane objects and make crazy buildings / adventures out of them ALL THE TIME, so getting your mind back in that mood to try to go "okay, how can I weird this up" is a great idea. Motel of the Mysteries is fantastic for that :)

Star Voter Season 9

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Agreed, TealDeer "Motel" was a great book to read growing up. I also have another secret weapon - a nine-year-old! Want to throw some randomness into an adventure? Ask a nine-year-old. Lol.

I have a sketchbook where I tell him to give me a theme or an idea for a drawing. He can make it as specific or as general as he'd like. Then he watches me doodle something out and offers additional suggestions. Sometimes, if I have a really good idea, I'll veto a suggestion or two, but usually its me trying to make sense out of a child's imagination.

Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

hewhocaves wrote:

Agreed, TealDeer "Motel" was a great book to read growing up. I also have another secret weapon - a nine-year-old! Want to throw some randomness into an adventure? Ask a nine-year-old. Lol.

I have a sketchbook where I tell him to give me a theme or an idea for a drawing. He can make it as specific or as general as he'd like. Then he watches me doodle something out and offers additional suggestions. Sometimes, if I have a really good idea, I'll veto a suggestion or two, but usually its me trying to make sense out of a child's imagination.

Absolutely! I have a 5 and 11 year old boys. They pretty much cover the gambit on "random" and served as my pit crew. They're great for those "what should daddy write about now?" times.

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 8 aka Angry Wiggles

I maintain quite passionately that I have no idea how to make a map superstar. I feel like I know what the map needs, but not how to put it there. It's quite nervewracking, actually. I'm very worried about the second round, were I to make it in at all. In order to properly picture an area, I have to be able to picture the full area in three dimensions, and with multiple senses. If I can't figure out how to get those onto the page, then the map feels horribly incomplete.

However, this has led to me trying some interesting tricks to try and get my maps to show what I needed them to. I've been practicing implying openness and relative confinement with curves and angles of walls. Modern architecture seems to use these techniques a lot, but I don't seem to have the hang of it yet. It does seem to make for some tactically interesting maps, though. I'm also working on trying to imply mood and/or tone. Some maps are better at this than others, but I've seen maps that would make my players more suspicious than the people sitting in them.

I'm curious what everyone else thinks about implying other senses using the basic map drawing. A lot of that obviously relies on the written accompaniment to the map, but I believe that some of it can come from the map itself. I'm having some difficulty with the specifics of how to do it, but I'm sure it can be done.

Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

We may not have much of a written accompaniment this time around. The need for evocative language is all the more important due to the scarcity of text.

RPG Superstar 2009, Contributor

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It's not the drawing of the map which matters as much...though, admittedly, if you completely botch it and make something which is woefully difficult to understand (both for your developer and your cartographer), you'll have obviously missed the boat. And, I also know there are plenty of voters who can get swayed by a pretty, pretty map and hold it in higher regard than a just-as-functional map which a skilled cartographer could still turn into a work of art. As a competitor, you should be aware of that and strive to satisfy both audiences, if you can, as it'll help you stand out from the other contestants.

However, what really matters...and what the voters should be what the choices in crafting your map tells them about your potential as a designer. Not a cartographer, mind you. Rather, a designer should be approaching map design with an eye towards how they can use it to make for a compelling encounter. In addition, it should give further insight into the characterization of the creatures which live there. It needs to "make sense" and it needs to present an entertaining adventuring environment for the gaming table.

In my opinion, maps viewed through the designer's lens (as opposed to a cartographer's) need to be about a whole lot more than just the drawing part. An RPG Superstar instinctively recognizes this and looks for ways to showcase their design skills with the choices they make in selecting and designing a map. And, then, they need to depict it well enough for a cartographer and developer to understand and refine it.

But that's just my two cents,

Star Voter Season 9

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Although its probably too late for this year, a good habit to get into is to practice on real-world areas. Google maps (especially terrain and sattelite view) can help for places you cannot visit in person.

Should I advance, this is the one round I'm actually looking forward to enjoying - mostly cause I've been drawing maps since grade school in the 70s. Remember those WWII movies with the maps of the pacific ocean that were the sizes of rooms? I did one of those - to scale - when I was around 10. :D The ships were made from foam cut outs. My biggest disappointment was that I didn't have enough floorspace to display the whole thing at once. Its a disappointment that has shown up time and again lol.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 , Dedicated Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9 aka Tothric

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I see lots of good points on how to make maps. This is good. This is helpful.

I don't see any real points to help people make a compelling maps to play on. Or maybe I'm reading the advice wrong, I don't know. I want to help. While I'm not an expert, and as Faros said, Clear consise maps are key. What truely makes a map Superstar, I think I have some information on how to make that more possible.

I've read alot about compelling level design, and I think to help make the competition better, I'll offer up what I learned. If it helps you, I'm very glad. If it feels like it's obvious advice, I do apologize, I am a student among masters. I feel it's always good to review basics.

Every truely memerable Map I have ever met has a few of the following traits:

The most memorable map I have ever seen has a bathroom in it. It’s actually near the start of the map, and near all the exits. In fact, it’s like the whole map revolves around it. Now look at any building you are ever in. Every map has a “Bathroom”. Every building, ever, period.
Every structure has integral components to it. Where are yours? Do you have an idea where to place it? Is placing it in a believable location? Now, how do you build the structure AROUND those key locations?
Are your cities built around key resources? Counties built around key-geological features?

I’ll go back to my bathroom example. How many different ways can you get at your bathroom at your local eatery, house or your place of employment? Chances are, a lot. I mean a whole lot. There is possibly five or six different ways at getting to the entrance to that bathroom. Only one entrance to the bathroom, but it can be approached by many angles and is easy to access.
Now think about a Cafeteria, a Bank Vault, and the desk of your manager. Chances are the Cafeteria is in the center of the building or is large enough to encompasses about half the people in your location, has many entry points and is built around it’s storage and delivery system for the food. The Bank Vault has but ONE possible entry, and it is placed in such a way that you probably have to walk by EVERY employee level to get to it, and even then, RARELY is it in view of the public. Now the manager’s office. It can only be approached normally, by people who work under him. Very close, but, at the same part, different. Like the employees are buffers.
Why am I bringing this up. Well, as you build your map, IF you keep in mind the locals that the people who inhabit your area will communally use, it will be centrally or more realistically located. If you think about where valuables will be stored, it’s not out in the open. If you think about traps… they will have ways of being bypassed. Believability is good.

Possibly more important that believability, is exploitability, or how your players can USE your map. Look at a map of a town for this. Where can your players go? What can they do? How can they USE the town? Now think about that on a smaller level. How do your players use a room? How can they interact with the room? You will find that every Pillar you place is possible cover; every log you place could be a balancing act. Even a Table could be mounted for a height advantage. Got a Chandelier, can you jump onto it? Does your countryside have a place for people to hide? Does it have walls to guide a road?
Look at terrain elements and ask yourself WHY they are there? Now, you know the answer is to make it interesting. What makes them interesting? It’s how they are USED that makes them interesting. That’s the key. Another way of building your map is like your placing exploitable resources for the players. By players I’m not excluding the GM. He or she is not only going to be drawing the map, but this person is going to run the encounter there. Creating a scene for a talking encounter? Well, even map placement is important here. Is there a desk? A door? Paintings? Maps? Is it a dinner engagement? Is there food? How can the players use these things to move the story along? All of these things create a sense of importance, a sense of hospitality or importance or office for the character the players are meeting. A map isn’t just used for fights, it could be used as a guide to help assist with setting a scene. Perhaps you are a building a grand ball and dance. A map for this situation might include the dance floor, obstacles for the dancers, where the food is, people of importance. Maybe a place to stand would be uncouth, simply because it’s a known spot to eaves drop? Is there a place to retreat from the gala for a reprieve of the rigors of courtship? A place to be alone?
How can the players use this?
Think of map building like toy building. It has to have buttons to press, and things to tinker with, or else… it’s just another flat piece of land.


This is the idea, that you give the players the OPTION to use the environment. This sounds alike like exploitability, BUT it is not. It’s a very different beast all together. Opportunity is creating the opportunity for the players to use the powers, skills and resources that the character has acquired to feel awesome.
This may come in the idea of leading the player to good ideas, using skills, applying combat tactics, or some other use. Creating a trap that the GM could offset the player’s plans, but also creating a bypass for the trap that a clever player could use. Perhaps this is as simple as a river crossing. There is a raft there, but if the players are sneaking up, they may choose to swim, or fly over the river. Leaving the raft as is to throw off the people on the other side the players wish to take by surprise.
Perhaps the map has a riddle that clever players could figure out, or a weak wall that a strong player can push over. Again these “opportunity” assets are about making the player feel special or particularly good about using. Perhaps you have a cliff side, and since your player is particularly good at climbing, they can circumvent a problematic plant?
The idea here is unlike an exploitable asset that you are giving the player to use, you are considering the player’s abilities at this point, and giving the player cause use them on your setting to enhance his experience.

This perhaps sounds redundant, but I will explain why it is not. There are all kinds of map features you can use. Maps can have locked doors, chests, mines, forests, chairs, cities, etc. All levels of a maps have all kinds of features. However, why does the player care? If there is a door the players cannot go through, why not use a wall instead. Doors are only good if you pass through them, and a hidden cache is only fun to find if it has something in it. A truly great map doesn’t have unreachable locations that you YERN to explore. It is RARE that an excellent map has sections that a player cannot access. And it is even Rarer that a Gm doesn’t know what’s behind a door.

Should getting into a vault be hard, yes, but more importantly it’s possible. Does a trap have a way of being activated? Then it definitely should have a way of being de-activated.
A floating island is cool, but how do you get there? How do you explore it? When you create your map, A clear way to get to the location should be in mind, and SO should a clear way it fits together.
A city map’s interactivity comes from the fact that there are large public places, but, the players can choose to break into private homes, banks, and shops. The key to this quality is if there is a door on your map, make sure what’s on the OTHER-SIDE is noted, and described.

Star Voter Season 8

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Thanks for the tips, guys & gals. I can't add much to the discussion as I've never developed maps outside of a few for my homebrew 1st edition games back in the day.

What I will offer is a bit of creative advice that I always follow and that is to be fearless with your creativity. Don't take the safe route. Push your imagination as far as you can to the point where you feel as though you've gone too far. And then push it further.

That is when you will create something truly unique and awe inspiring.

Star Voter Season 8 aka TealDeer

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Another friend just posted a bunch more links about map and dungeon design, so I'mma link his links! This is all more about area design and stocking and less about drawing, stuff like why do you make rooms the way you do and what do you put in them?

Stocking a Dungeon

This is all about dungeon design, not about map design in general, so it won't help if we have to do, say, a town, city, or region. But it still has a lot of good advice about design -- like how while a lot of real-world buildings might be functional, they're also kinda boring, long series of identical rooms and whatnot.

I also found this while browsing around today:

The Nine Forms of the Five Room Dungeon

This is GREAT. It gives you nine ways to arrange five rooms... and then ideas for more. The thing doesn't have to be a dungeon, it can be literally anything with five rooms, and the five rooms can be any shape... it's suggestions for how you CONNECT those rooms, and why you'd connect those rooms in that particular way. This is invaluable! I especially love the example at the end, which shows just how unique you really CAN make a 5 room dungeon with a little tweaking.

From my own perspective, I think that looking at theme park design is a great way to think about dungeon and area design -- even town design in games. A theme park is designed to move guests to the Cool S!## in ways that entertain and entice them. Add a bit of playground design to that too: what's fun to climb on? What creates interesting interactive spaces? What gives guests neat ways to interact with the park, with the staff? And then... utilities and usefulness. Where's the food? the toilets? Is there a backstage? What's back there? What areas will have multiple ways to get there (thing that annoys me to death in modern dungeon design: completely linear structures where there's only ONE WAY to get to places like THE KITCHEN or THE DINING ROOM) and what areas will have only ONE WAY in (and then the inverse, bank vaults or treasure rooms with multiple, non-secret entrances).

And then beyond all that, beyond practicality and funneling, think: what's fun for PLAYERS? and, what's CHALLENGING for players? It doesn't even have to be fancy: maybe you've designed a nice ornamental garden and you put in a cool arch bridge over a pond, with stepping stones across the pond.

picture: the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco

This gives you a body of water, stepping stones, and a high place for ranged characters to snipe people (or for ranged NPCs to do the same!) all of which opens up neat tactical possibilities.

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