Monday, February 28, 2011

What Makes a Great Fantasy RPG Map Great?

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 gamelike 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.

Great map:

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.

Good map:

Great map:


  1. Another great post! I especially agree with you on the difference between computer-generated maps and hand-drawn maps.

    If I may be slightly self-indulgent, here is my own hand-drawn map of one of my campaign settings:

  2. Thanks, it's easier when you are inspired by a subject.

    And thanks for sharing your efforts, that's a sweet one too. Makes me think I should ready a post about homebrew maps too.

  3. The difference for me can be summed up by how much the map uses iconic versus symbolic representation.

    (crash course in semiotics: iconic = using a picture of the object represented; symbolic = using a stand-in that doesn't look like the object)

    I think you'll find the best maps use iconic elements a lot - the hand-drawn mountains and trees in the Greyhawk and Glorantha maps, for example. Put another way, the Greyhawk map would have come out even cooler if the cities were hex-filling skyline icons a la Divine Right, don't you think?

    Another example of iconic mapping: the wilderness map in Black Plume Mountain.

  4. When I was a kid I used to draw maps all the time. Tolkien was the Master, of course, and I copied his style. Most maps fail in the place names, which are either too obviously stolen from other fantasy works or Lower Germany. When I go to buy a new fantasy novel I always look for a map and I am usually disappointed.

  5. While I don't necessarily agree with any of your points, I don't agree with your judgement of the two Harn maps. The second one has much higher utility, from my perspective, and as a lover of hexcrawl games I appreciate that.

    You've got me thinking about doing a post of my own that may show up in the next few days.

  6. @Roger
    I think you really nailed it, iconic images must be one of the key features. The towns in the Dragon Pass boardgame map, for instance, are little circled-walled structures, the cliffs have a sheer graphic representation. Really evocative.

    Your point suddenly made me remember the section on terrain symbols in the Expert booklet of B/X D&D. On the right hand side you have symbolic representations for large-scale maps: a black dot inside a circle for a city for instance. On the left wonderful iconic ones for the smaller scale map: in the case of the city a silhouette with spires and domes. The latter won hands down even as a kid.

  7. @phf
    I know what you mean, place names seem to have a high wince factor in fantasy novels (which all feel stolen from somebody else). What makes for a good place name? (Fodder for another post perhaps.)

  8. @Evan
    "While I don't necessarily agree with any of your points, I don't agree with your judgement of the two Harn maps."

    Did you mean "disagree"?

    My point wasn't that the second Harn map was a bad map. I am an on-again, off-again hex-crawler myself after all (when I'm not doubling as hand-waving narrativist), you do need enough functionality to be able to run a wilderness adventure with some degree of accuracy.

    But does that second map really evoke something deeper? From that first map I instantly get the feeling that Harn is a forest-choked backwater, something I never got from looking at the hex-drawn, more geographically-accurate maps that came with the setting box.

    Yeah, my head noted the prevalence of mixed-lead deciduous trees marked indefinite light green splotches, but I never got such an overwhelming sense of the place as I did when years later I saw this map.

    At any rate, I look forward to your observations. (And for the record I have liked your own stabs at hex-drawn wilderness campaign maps._

  9. Yes... I did mean disagree. It's been a long day.

  10. Another example is the area map from White Plume Mountain.

  11. Piffle.

    If we are talking art work, true, correct, no argument, on your page. Seeking an emotional, visceral payback from putting the map on your wall? Oh yes, agreed, accepted, certainly.

    Useful complement to an ongoing, complex campaign?


  12. Piffle? Yet no balderdash? I am disappointed that I didn't warrant the full Edwardian treatment.

    I am surprised it took so long for someone to really call me out on this one. (Evan did gingerly.) The maps I draw for the players are the pretty-lipped ones; the ones I use behind the screen are the small-scaled, utterly-utilitarian hex maps.

  13. Positive comments inside the echo chamber. Too fearful of breaking your fragile ego.

    At any rate, I've got to add this blog to my links. I am reading it all the time these days ...

  14. I have never understood why some people actively court the echo chamber effect. I spend enough time in my own head already and I certainly don't need affirmation from a gaming blog.

    Thanks I appreciate that. I read your own regularly and it always without fail makes me think. Probably too much, I typically read a post and have a strong positive or negative reaction, then parse out over a few days and never get back to writing that comment. Something I will have to fix.

  15. In my own case I favor the more artistic over accurate approach to mapping, and to carry this it's next devious step, it has not been unknown for me to give the players maps that were more fanciful and hearsay than accurate!

  16. I always liked the second Harn map better myself (the one with more yellows). I still have mine, and I enjoy looking at it and imagining travelling through the land.