There are many ways to play Dungeons & Dragons or similar tabletop roleplaying games. Some people love power gaming. Some people love drama and political intrigue. Most like at least a little of bit of each. I’m not here to judge your game. If you and your fellow grognards love your old school dungeon crawls and have a special affinity for grease pencils and plexiglass, you do you. That being said, I have a particular way I like to run things and there is a reason behind every one of the choices I make, from race relations in my settings to the crunch of the numbers on the character sheet to the physical elements on my table. I present my choices merely for consideration; I am not out to convince anyone else that my style is better than theirs.
Last week I talked about fighting to the death, and the week before on how visual elements are the first tools given to players for understanding the world. Today I will delve into some of the visual elements I use in my tabletop games (which by volume is mostly D&D, though I will be trying my hand at running World of Darkness on November 5, 2016: more details on that closer to the date). One important element of the D&D game is the encounter. This is, loosely defined in the context of a D&D game, an event where players interact with non-player characters in some way that involves dice rolls and success/failure conditions. Some editions are more explicit than others when it comes to exactly what an encounter is, but in all circumstances it is left to the Dungeon Master to make it work.
So, you are in for an encounter. You have tried to defuse the situation with the best Pelorian apologetics and an epic song and dance number courtesy of the party’s bard-in-residence, but the mind flayer and his ogre associates are having absolutely none of it. Your party is going to have to fight at least a few rounds. It’s time for heroic combat in a space that looks like this:
Ouch. Someone has gone to the trouble of finding his box of dungeon tiles, but this visual representation of the room is hardly inspiring. If pitched battles in featureless arenas are your thing, then carry on. But if, like me, you want this encounter to take place in a space that the players can believe in, you’ve got to put more work into fleshing this out. You don’t need commercial dungeon tiles, pre-printed poster maps, detailed drawings on grid paper, or indeed any physical encounter map at all. A lot of DMs excel at creating an interesting room with their words. However, I am a fan of the encounter map for the following reasons:
- Good graphical maps include elements that I might forget to mention or draw. I might draw a rectangle on a piece of grid paper and label it “dining room table” and I might say something like “in the middle of the cold, dimly lit room there is a foul-smelling feast of various offal laid out on a table that once held fine dinners for the king’s family” but neglect to mention the lit candelabra on the table. It might seem rational to assume that is there, along with cutlery, platters, plates, etc. but a little reminder to both the players and DM that there is a live source of fire in the middle of the table.
- It’s good for the wow-factor. Nice maps have people imagining that the rest of the world they are not looking at is similarly detailed. You might even get further with this by detailing a tavern complete with pantry, etc. than you will with a grandiose world map full of nations the players may never visit. What good is it to know that this nation’s main export is wool scarves if the shop you’re in doesn’t have any cues to remind you that there is a wide selection right in front of you?
- Sometimes people zone out when it’s not their turn. Any method of keeping track of player and non-player character positions can help them stay focused. This can be done very simply with dry erase mats or grid paper. I just happen to like the look of printed graphics. Tokens and miniatures help too. They don’t have to be elaborate or cost more than a few cents for a large set. In the picture above, the custom player character tokens were created using a consumer-grade colour printer, some cardboard out of my household recycle bin, and a little bit of 2-sided tape. It is a cheap and easy way to make something unique to each character and, along with the grid map, helps keep players focused on where their characters are in the room.
- I enjoy the process of making maps at both the micro and macro scale. I also like figuring out how to take an existing location and sew it into my larger setting. The chance to be creative is what drives people to DM.
Horizons aren’t always literal horizons, sometimes it’s being absolutely sure there is a pantry behind the kitchen and that there is flour there even if it’s not part of the DM’s notes and descriptions. It’s also semi-mandatory for keeping the DM’s sanity when running 4e encounters. Other editions and rule sets may lend themselves better to the theatre of the mind, but the system I started out with and have by far the most experience running games in makes it hard to run encounters without a grid map. Some people didn’t like this; I didn’t mind. Either way, it’s become a habit for me and I find it difficult to run a game with no maps. The one-night Risus scenarios I ran last year used maps closely resembling floor plans (in fact they were actual floor plans from a few Canadian universities I mixed and matched to create a fictional college), as that rule set is pretty much the opposite of 4e in this regard. However, I still liked having the layout to go from when coming up with the descriptions for each room as I went.
Now you know why I like my grid maps so much. If you like playing without them, keep on doing what you do. However, if you find that players often get inconsistent ideas such as one player assuming “crate in the middle of the room” means a large but portable box and another thinks of it as something that would require a crane or forklift to move then you might want to consider drawing it out. I’m not writing this to tell the DMs out there that they need to change, but I do encourage experimentation with different styles that help bring out the best of your tabletop RPG’s potential.