Maps in Role-playing Games
Tolkien started it by putting a map in the front of The Lord of the Rings. Since then every fantasy author, and most GMs, have mapped out their world in loving detail. But what about the characters? What sort of maps do they have and how do they know where they are going?
The first known map dates back to 2,300-2,500 B.C in Babylon but it is a small clay tablet barely recognisable as a map, more a symbolic description of the area. By the Roman era, maps were in use but none survive, only a medieval copy gives us any clue as to what they look like. The most striking thing is the distortion of the landscape, such as the Mediterranean appearing as only a thin stretch of water. Roads are clearly marked, as are rest stops and spas, making it ideal for a Roman traveller. By the 14th century mapping was developing well with this 1360 map having a fair level of accuracy. However it wasn’t until the 1600s that the idea accurately surveying the land before map making developed and it was as late as the 1780s before a whole country was surveyed and mapped.
Maps in a Fantasy World
How good the character’s maps are depends on the technological level of the people making them. Proper surveys good enough to give us anything like the modern level of maps is complicated and takes lots of time. Unless your society is undergoing an industrial revolution it is unlikely to produce maps of that level. However road maps are a lot easier to do as only the distance between junctions and towns needs to be measured. The use of milestones to aid travelers dates back to the Roman era so most fantasy societies will have them.
Of course, not all societies have a road network worth mentioning and roads maps are useless when traveling by ship. In these situations the characters have to rely on dead reckoning and rough advice such as “Travel west three days until you see the broken mountain and then turn North until you reach the great river”. The odds of getting lost in these situations are pretty good.
Maps as Adventure Hooks
Players never like to be bothered by the nitty-gritty of travel. Rolling dice to see if you get lost and then rolling more until you find your way again is just dull. What’s more, as a GM, this is wasted time that could be spent getting on with the adventure proper. Alternatively, some early adventures would start with the party automatically getting lost and stumbling into some hidden temple or lost valley. This is a bit heavy handed and a smart GM can build much better adventures around maps and navigation than that.
Any which way you lose
The players are traveling across open terrain, following a good set of directions on a lonely road, when they come to an unexpected fork. Which way do they go? It doesn’t matter, the planned encounter takes place down either track but the GM gets to watch the players argue for 30 minutes trying to decide.
All maps are treasure maps
Maps are valuable. Maps of your enemy’s lands are even more valuable. The characters overhear someone talking about a valuable map. Later that person is dead and the map has fallen into the player’s hands. While people are trying to kill them to get it back, the players have to work out it is not a map to buried treasure but instead shows a little known mountain pass usable by an invading army.
Surveying the terrain
The King has ordered that all his lands should be mapped and a list of the all land owners and their property made (i.e. the Doomsday book). In the wild north, several parties of surveyors has disappeared so the characters are hired as guards. There is plenty of scope for encounters as they escort the map makers criss-crossing the land. Plus the players get to knock on doors and ask whatever lives there “Is this your dark, foreboding castle?”
A World of Adventures
Once a GM starts thinking about what sort of maps the character’s have and what those maps show, or don’t show, then a whole world of adventure possibilities opens up.