The Death of the Mapper

I love maps, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. They are one of the things that drew me to the hobby in the first place. Frankly, I need a book to have a map in the front of it in order to take it seriously.

In the early days of the hobby one of the extra responsibilities you could take on as a player was to be party mapper. That was a job I usually leaped at. (To be fair, I usually took  on all the extra stuff, journals, treasure records, drawings, you name it).  It was a great job. You didn’t have to be a great artist, all you had to do was draw straight lines on graph paper to instruction. Actually, depending on the dungeon we were exploring, it wasn’t always that straightforward. The bane of my life was  caverns and caves, how was I supposed to be able to translate the DMs descriptions of wiggly lines? But I did love 10′ corridors and 30′ rooms. I also loved annotating them and using all the cool little symbols, my faves being statutes and altars. It was also where I first encountered the word dais.

These days, things are different (of course). Readers of this ‘blog will know that our weekly game is going through the H series for 4e. We’re having a bunch of fun, despite some of the odd decisions WotC have made with these modules. One of the areas that still causes a disconnect for me is the gear change from exploration/discussion to combat encounter. Some of this disconnect, I suspect, comes from the lack of a proper mapping role for the players. The dungeon in front of me looks pretty trad (Pyramid of Shadows level 1 if you need to know), it’s all about rooms and corridors, just like D&D has been doing for 30+ years. My narration of what the party sees as they step forward is also pretty trad. Then there’s a set of double doors, which are surveyed briefly before opening into a combat encounter. We then wait for a few minutes while I assemble a playing area out of battle mats, pens, counters and tiles, maybe a picture, some minis, basically all the kit and kaboodle. Initiative is rolled and fun ensues for the next hour. It’s all cool. When the battle is over, there’s a short rest and then onwards. You can almost hear the gears crunch as the dynamic round the table changes. Mark usually takes on the mapping duties, and luckily for all of us he’s not too fussed about accuracy, it’s more about being useful, like the tube map of London, topographical.

The difficulty is for the players who aren’t making notes and maps as they go. They are often left a little ‘blind’ when it comes to making decisions about where to venture next. It’s hard to hold all the connections together. Were the arboreans to the south? or the east? Have we gone all the way round the ettin pit? or have we gone under it? I suppose you could see this as a good simulation of what it might be like to be wandering around in an underground maze, the hours punctuated with terrifying monster attacks and long dark nights trying to sleep on bare stone. So Mark will pull out his notes and the party will gather round. I like this. I can see the characters gathering round the warlord who holds a sheet of parchment up to the dim light from a dying sunrod.

Mark didn’t always take notes and the game struggled because of it. Given that there’s a week of real time between games and that we play two or three discrete encounters each time, it’s not easy to remember where we were or what direction we were taking. And then there’s the internal architecture of 4e D&D which doesn’t really help with the exploration part of the game. It’s the encounters. They are written for ease of play, especially for the  DM. All on a two page spread, that contains everything you need, including the tactical map (actually I have serious issues with this ‘delve’ format, but that’s another post). It’s great for once the initiative is rolled and the encounter is in full swing, but it’s not great for when you want to move on to the next chapter. Sometimes the tactical maps are rotated to fit the format, so what was oriented north south on the full map, is now east west at the tactical level. So when I scribble it out on the battle map, the players have no idea about direction and links. The main map is in another book too. At least that means you can keep both open at the same time I suppose.

And then theres the corridors. They twist, turn and dog-leg for the seemingly sole reason to annoy me and make the mappers life hellish. Even the rooms have all kinds of bizarro alcoves and ante chambers. I know 4e assumes lots of movement in combat, but I rarely see these odd shaped rooms add anything to the session. i’ve taken to being a little more liberal with my battle mat sketches, they rarely line up exactly with the writtwen adventure any more. It’s no wonder theres sometimes a sense of ‘skip to the next encounter’, because thats where the adventure comes back into focus.

Well, if I were a player, I’d still want to take up the graph paper and the pencil. I don’t think 4e makes it easy to be the mapper anymore, but that’s just a challenge to me.

Ramble off.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Death of the Mapper

  1. newbiedm

    I print out my maps as posters, scaling them in photoshop, and it leads to exploration, not just the encounter, but the whole section, try it and see what happens…

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