I spent a good portion of my weekend (when I wasn't marching up and down the square) thinking about maps. Cartographic love runs deep in many old-time rpgers and I am certainly no exception. In fact the powerful draw of maps preceded my entry into the hobby and maintained itself even for the two decades I was out.
Where does that power come from? What features of a great map make it great?
Let's take it apart.
A great map provides both a cerebral and visceral experience. A great map doesn't just tell your brain the necessary practical facts to help run a game—like how many hexes it is from Nyrond to Rauxes—it hits you in the gut too. It evokes a feeling or mood, the fleeting sensation of a world that might have existed.
There was some back and forth in the comments on Saturday's post about how hand drawn (and hand inked as Scott Pasha added) tend to be more powerful than even beautifully done computer-generated ones. My guess at the why is that a hand-drawn map creates more of an illusion that a map is a product of the world it represents.
A computer-drawn map talks to your head. It's precise, a useful tool to help you effectively run a junket through the wilderness—but it misses that gut pull completely.
Feel the difference in the two following maps of Harn.
Good map (but missing something right?):
A great map tells a story about it's setting. It visually pulls out elements that are critical to that setting and influences what is important to a reader.
Each of those five maps I listed on Saturday immediately told me something about the setting before I even cracked open a related gazetteer.
Church's maps graphically highlight features that seem imbued with myth and mystery—hallmarks of Glorantha. What is that gigantic monolithic block rising three-dimensionally from the page? Why is there a swamp pooled at it's base?
The flowing alien-seeming Tsolyani script and symbolic on-map caricatures of deities instantly transport a viewer to the exotic environs of Tekumel. Skeletal Sarku leers from the City of the Dead. (Sadly this is only of these maps that uses the kinds of depictions of people, monsters, ships, etc. common on medieval and ancient maps to build mood.)
The eye-catching prominence of tracts of wilderness in Darlene's Greyhawk maps jump off the page. Long stretches of dark-green heavy boreal forest and heavy black ice made me instantly want to know what this Blackmoor was. How wouldn't see the jagged bands of thick chocolate-brown mountain peaks surrounding the Valley of the Mage and want to immediately pack up some mules to investigate?
A great map uses color and negative space to contrast elements. Notice in Darlene's map how the wide, green spaces that make up each nation make for a subtle contrast with those wilderness areas I mention above. There are no heavy border lines just beautiful terrain brackets.
Though Church's Prax map is black and white, it's lack of color is almost a virtue because of it's effective use of white space and his shading detail for terrain features.
A great map uses fonts that are appropriately sized and chosen for feel. Map text doesn't dominate any of those five maps. We have all seen those maps where text virtually clutters the whole thing for a busy, busy mess that exhausts you just looking at it.
Contrast this recent Dragon Pass map with Church's to get a sense of the defining differences to both those features above.