Making Maps Sucks

On Saturday, as prep for my game last night, I spent around 3 hours or so making a digital version of my interior maps of Moonspike Tower for use on Roll20. I don’t enjoy making digital maps for VTTs so this is the first time I have done it in well over a year. Last night, we totally failed to use the maps. They were unnecessary to the session. The players took their characters in a different direction.

An example depicting part of Stone Hell I created in 2018

This event reminded me of a couple of quotations from Brian Jamison’s “Gamemastering”. Here’s the first excerpt:

In my view, making maps is one of the biggest wastes of time in gamemastering. I used to spend hours making maps the players never viewed. Now I never make maps. Ever.

Jamison, Gamemastering” (2011), page 132

When I first read this, I was stunned. He goes on to mention using a few tables, online searches, and good books. Later in the book, Jamison makes a distinction between “maps” and “floorplans”, making the recommendation that generic floorplans of buildings can be helpful.

But then the other excerpt is this:

When GMs spend a lot of time making and keying maps, they tend to stick rigidly to them. This encourages gamemastering on rails instead of the spontaneous action and flexibility that roleplaying demands.

Jamison, Gamemastering” (2011), page 133

This one resonated with me last night: I was sorely tempted to push the party into Moonspike Tower because I had invested time in making those damn maps! I am pleased to report that I passed my Resistance Roll and refused that urge. Perhaps the party will never return there (because they recognise that they appear to be outmatched, plus it’s a creepy place) but that is ok. Except, of course, there’s a “sunk cost” of time and effort hanging out there. Oh, well.

I am coming around to the idea that Jamison might be wiser than I initially thought. The time investment of maps – especially for someone like me who doesn’t enjoy digitally rendering them – might not be as valuable as I believed.

I enjoyed making the Northern Isles regional maps by hand. It was good to render my ideas on to the page… but I haven’t used them (yet). The map of North Point was actually quite constrictive in play in the first session – and I worry about whether I have the distances right, the correct content and layout, and whether I am getting things “right” as I describe them. I tell myself the map helps me to be consistent, but I am not convinced this is true.

I have a sense of the places I am familiar with. When I look at a map, I have to remind myself that the map is not the territory. It’s a representation of the space and the relationships between things. In reality, it’s as meaningful for me to sketch locations in relation to each other using bubbles or circles with vague labels as it is to make an accurate map. In my head, I know what’s in each part of town and it’s not terribly important exactly how many yards lie between one point and another.

So here I am, rethinking spending time making maps. I realise that I hate making maps for the VTT. I am not interested in detailed battle maps in a digital space, nor even really at the tabletop face-to-face. What I want to do is invoke a sense of place. You don’t need a map to achieve that.

Game on!


  1. I’ve already posted my opinion on “theater of the mind” versus using maps, so I’ll just refer you there:

    But there’s a factor that I think is overlooked in your post. An RPG is a group of friends sitting down to play a game and have fun. One of those players has invested hours of their own time preparing adventures for the other players to experience. If there are aspects of prep that they don’t enjoy then work-arounds are fine so long as they don’t impact any of the other players’ enjoyment of the game. But if the DM has spoken with the players and they’re interested in playing dungeon crawls, and then when presented with a dungeon painstakingly created by said DM they blow it off, then a bit of OOC discussion needs to happen. “This is the dungeon. I spent all of my spare time for the past three weeks working on it. Don’t be jerks, let’s play.”

    Now wasn’t that easy?


  2. I can see both sides of the argument here.

    For combat, spatial relationships are far better described for player minds with a map.
    This can just be a few lines (preferably to scale) so that players can ‘see’ in their minds where they are in relation to each other and NPCs.
    In systems where tactical positioning is important, this is really useful, but doesn’t need the detail of the kind of maps VTTs are designed to host.

    If it takes ages to build a map and you hate doing it… don’t do it. Explain to ur players why and they’ll get it, or they’re not the players that u want ‘at ur table’.

    The thing I will say about maps, is that once they’re built, you can save them and re-use them.
    A few minor adaptations on a existing map, can be a simple way to create a whole new space… but that does require u building up a catalogue of previous maps over time.
    And over time it can be assumed that a GM that’s built a few maps will find it becomes easier and quicker.
    Again, these maps can be anything from simple line drawings, drawings over a grid .. all the way up to highly detailed and coloured VVT dungeon/town builds.

    I don’t think building the map for Moonspike Tower was a wasted effort … save it, use it again.. or parts of it.
    Having said that, the tower as presented, with the perceived threats and challenges and the party’s limitations, meant that we were highly unlikely to get in there. … that might have been more evident if u knew exactly who would be available, but even with a full party, it seemed ridiculous to try the front door, and we couldn’t get to the roof without a great deal of risk and difficulty, to still face what sounded like a greater force and nowhere to run if we became overwhelmed.
    Then with the creepy voices and compulsions from contact… even scaling the walls/being on them became so much more hazardous.. with less player control over their characters and less enticing for the PCs to mess with that stuff.

    After a word with the Chamberlain / return of other party members … who knows what we could decide.
    I/Sigurd certainly feel like we’re not strong enough to clear out the Tower’s residents and it’s damned creepy. If it didn’t seem so impregnable to harm, it’d be tempting to try n destroy the whole edifice.
    We don’t seem to have access to an army to lay siege either……. but that’s just me and Sigurd. The party can be manipulated, as ever by the GM and it doesn’t have to be overt or a bad thing.
    I have no idea what I’d choose to do next…. maybe patrol the causeway / lake shore for threats.

    I’m assuming any Orc etc in the Tower will now increase their defences, so wandering up thru the marshes / assault from the jetty etc won’t be as simple…. meaning the front gate is even less likely an option.
    This iteration of Moonspike Tower feels like something for higher ranks / different skill set … or maybe just more luck and a different perspective. Mine does tend toward the pessimistic naturally.


  3. As long as the combat rules aren’t so intricate as to require 5-foot step measurements I find I get more out of pictures/index cards on an atmospheric backdrop than a detailed map. In the past I’ve also made one dungeon map and reused it over and over in a campaign, dropping players into different corners or reorienting it. This worked because the dungeon was always a place being moved through and not the point of the game. That said, I’ve also been the shit-heel player who undermines all the GM’s prep by convincing the other players to go in some completely different direction that avoids the dungeon or whatever.

    Liked by 1 person

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