Maps Are Pretty

20 Apr 2017 - cecil

David McGrogan, over at RPG-babe-headquarters Monsters and Manuals, wrote a post about what a useful map is and what a useful map is not. It’s a good, quick read and you should read it before you read this post because I am going to attempt a cracking, scathing, muckraking takedown of everything he loves and holds dear.

Just kidding, this is a sort of companion post to his. Now, if you have been to this website before then you can probably guess what my angle on this is going to be: I think maps can be useful and pretty at the same time, and I believe strongly that a map should be as good lookin’ as it is useful. I’ve foolishly (I am my own job killer) gone on audio-record as saying that maps at the table do not need to be complicated or pretty. When I was featured on Table Top Babble I mentioned that if you are struggling to make a map for your dungeon then all you need to do is mind map the important things and connect them with lines. I think that’s great. But, I am in the business of putting maps in books so it is in my financial interest to talk about why illustrative cartography has a place in those books, and maybe explain why most maps are not nearly as useful as they are pretty. (This post is sponsored by everyone who ever paid me money in exchange for maps, including David)

Maps Are Art

In his post, David writes ‘Maps must be for things that are difficult to envisage in your head, difficult to explain verbally, and difficult to sketch in 30 seconds on a scrap of paper.’ I think that this is part of the truth, but I think that it is only half the reason we have maps. Maps in games count as art and art is in games because art immerses the reader, opens windows into the setting, and facilitates a connection to the game’s themes with visual cues. Game books are a collection of data our brains need to process to play a game. Pictures help parse that data by offering a break from the chore of reading and give us a visual reminder of what we just read. It gives us visual association.

Novels don’t have pictures because good fiction is enthralling. What is enthralling in games happens after you read the books. This may just be me but a rust monster statblock is nowhere near as interesting a thing to look at as a picture of that rust monster fucking up some dwarf. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “bullshit, Cecil, my game is super enthralling and I don’t need art or maps or whatever the hell this post is about.” Not so fast dude; I don’t care how innovative your dice mechanic is, if I don’t have some pretty pictures to look at then I am not going to care about it. Art is important to games and like I said, maps are art so maps should be pretty or at least evocative. (*)

Maps have double the responsibility that regular game art has. While page art has the job of in someway connecting a specific theme or image to what is being read, a map has to convey theme and the data. Maps have two extremes, illustration and diagram. A super illustrative map is going to fall short as an arrangement of things and a map that is nothing but information is likely to be a piss poor illustration. A good map is going to be somewhere in between the two. Also having two extremes gave me an excuse to draw this scale:

On the right side of our scale we have diagrams; they are rigid pictures or textual arrangements that give us the minimum of what we need to run an adventure. Here we have a map of the Gnoll Hideout outside of town:

We, as GMs, can look this diagram over and see exactly what is in each room and how each room connects. There is nothing else about this map that we can infer other than exactly what we see, or read in the accompanying text. No flavorful dressing. We would probably need to have extensive GM notes to accompany it or we would need to have memorized the adventure or we would need to have the adventure close by. With as much data is presented here we basically don’t need this map if we have the adventure handy. We could load it up with more data but how much text can we smash into the spaces around the diagram before we might as well just be reading from the adventure anyways? This isn’t standard behavior involved with diagram maps though; everyone learns at different rates and how much shit we need at the table to run adventures is going to vary. Everyone has different play styles and everyone is going to have opposing, raging emotions about what needs to be included in text descriptions. Suffice it to say that my main point is that while this map is super useful it is really ugly and doesn’t do the other thing I need art to do: excite me. This kind of map is really rare though. You mostly only see it in spaces where people are talking about game design.

Flowcharts, or diagrams also suffer another problem, for me at least. When I am thumbing through RPG books or PDFs and I see a diagram or chart instead of a map, my brainhole immediately raises a redflag and I am visited by visions of bureaucracy, sterility, meetings, whatever the fuck TPS reports are, business shit, waiting in line, and other things that remove me from the fiction. This is why I like my games artsy as possible; I want to be in the book, I do not want to be studying the book.

I don’t think I need to share an example of a map that is on the far left of the scale, because not having the time to make it is in itself indicative of what is wrong with over-illustrated maps. A map that is pure illustration is useful for the fiction but terrible for pushing that data we love so much. One type of map that I would throw into this pile is maps that are photo-realistic, or accurate on a satellite level. Especially in fantasy games. If your map of the valley where all the halflings live in their daub cottages is generated wit GIS data and shows a level of detail my computer has trouble processing then you might have effectively broken the fiction. They’ may get a pass from me in sci fi games.

To summarize this section: what I learned from reading David’s post (can I call it an article?) is that there are too many maps that veer to the extreme left of our scale. There are too many pretty maps and not enough informative maps. David isn’t wrong, and I am certainly guilty of that. From my desk I can reach over and grab binders full of maps I’ve illustrated that have no grid. (Fuck a grid. There, I said it.)

A Map In The Middle

I don’t think it is easy to make a map that has all of the useful things about a diagram but looks as good as an illustration. We try, I promise, but when it comes down to me painting blood splatters on the floor or tracing a grid onto that map I am going to choose blood every time. I could paint the grid as blood, but it’s hard to make a blood grid: either you have a mess of square blood or you have a red grid. But we’re grown up children, right? We like our games but at the same time we know how to compromise. Our problem is that we need a way to beautifully convey the data needed for a GM to run an adventure location. We need the diagram to make the job easier, and we need the illustration to help us keep our heads in it.

This is my version of David’s Goblin Ambush map and I think this version sits in the middle of our map-o-meter, if not slightly to the left. David wrote that this sort of scenario doesn’t need a map, that most folks would easily envision the scenario in their head. A nefarious coterie of goblins lie waiting for a mark, having dragged a log across the road to block carriages or semi-trucks hauling milk or whatever your game is about. That scenario is pretty easy, and doesn’t require a diagram or an illustration but having one certainly helps. For example, this map shows us a scale and where the goblins are (that’s the diagram part) but it shows us that they have cover behind rocks, it shows a stream and high ground. It shows us a trail leading into the woods and it shows us that the road is heavily trafficked by something with wheels (or something with skis for feet). We’re left with a pretty pleasant scene we could easily describe, and if I had given this the full color treatment there is so much more I could have added to sell the scene, to add to the fiction. Stuff lots of people wouldn’t just imagine, and stuff editors remove to kill that word count.

Everyone Has Needs

A map in the middle is going to be a compromise on some amount of tools players may need to play their game. It may excel or lack in a tool a specific player needs, but it at least meets as many needs as possible by simply being an intersection of art and diagram. If data and art are things that are tools we need to run games then a map is going to be the best way to combine those things. Not everyone is going to be pleased by what is offered; some people will think its too much and some too little, some people won’t buy games if they have no maps and some people won’t buy games if they do have maps. A map in a game book is going to be the publisher’s or writer’s or art director’s (or even just the map illustrator’s) vision on what exactly needs to go in a map to make it as useful as possible to as many people as possible. A map in the middle is a compromise and I think that’s fine.

I think it’s worth saying too, that technology plays a big part in what our maps are doing and the better the technology gets the better our maps get. Looking at module A3, at the maps printed on the inside, these maps are about as useful as they are ugly. We’ve come a long way, but the need and love for maps hasn’t gone away. The perfect map for you is going to be one you make yourself because you alone are the only one who knows exactly what tools you need to make a game fun. (**)

(*): “Non fiction books don’t have pictures and people still read them!” – Sure, some non fiction books don’t have pictures, but if you look at the next closest thing to a game book you get a textbook and there is a reason that textbooks are full of pictures. Non fiction without pictures chooses to bravely assume the reader is interested in or passionate about the subject matter and in which case, the non fiction is as enthralling as fiction.

(**): This includes town maps and I think that they seem especially useless to a lot of people because of how much time we spend in murderholes. Plan a year long campaign set in a city and see how long you can make it without a map. Here are some times town maps have been useful for me: counting all those little squares let me guess a population to let my Sword & Backpack players know how many people they saved from a massive fire. The shape of the city was the answer to a puzzle. The distance between the baker’s house and the market was important in planning to straight up ice that guy. Counting all those boxes to approximate a raised militia. Town maps are useful too.