GM Tips Our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week we tackled transitioning from Tabletop into LARPs, and this week I’ve got some pointers on the fine art of cartography
Some RPG’s are more map-intensive than most and Dungeons and Dragons has set the standard of maps and mini’s for some time. While running a game in “The theater of the mind” is common, it’s hard to argue against the default that is a tabletop battle map with a dry erase marker. Since this is an important part of many tables, I felt it would be wise to cover some cartographer tips to enhance everyone’s table.
Storytelling Thru Maps
Before we get into map generation, take a step back and think of narrative video games and how the map grew as the story unfolded. A quest begins in a small town and eventually opens up to a world map filled with opportunities. Often, after a tragic event, entire sections of the map will change visually into a blasted landscape. As singular storytellers without a graphics team behind us, feats like Last Epoch’s timeline progression feel far beyond our abilities. But you can create narrative maps.
When sitting down to draw out your map, even if it’s a squiggly line on a battle map, take five minutes and add in some story elements. Draw the stick figures of shattered bodies on the ground, or make the entire layout based off an arcane symbol. Often times, I build dungeons based on constellations and tie this into the story. Drawing up a handmade map as a quest guide—and then give it to the characters in the game is also a great way to marry the imaginary with the flesh of life.
Making Maps By Hand
You don’t need to be an amazing artist to create some compelling handmade maps. Find your nearest construction company, give them a call, and ask if they have any 36” blueprint reels lying around. You’ll have all the map construction paper you need for every campaign, ever. Next, take your paper, and dip it into a baking pan filled with water and black-tea bags to brown the paper and give it texture. Bake it in the oven and singe the edges with a lighter. When it’s done, you’ll have parchment that looks like it’s been out to sea and back and is perfect for you to draw on without seeming so bland. This also works for any documents, spell scrolls, or other props you may want to use in your game for extra effect.
Another quick trick is to find a photo of something you like as a background (downtown Chicago, industrial oil parks, pretty woodland areas) and snap a shot on your phone. They all come with built-in, easy-to-use filters so just mess around with enough distortion to create a base, then print them on 11×17 paper. Lay them out on a larger piece of cardboard, and use construction chalk lines in 1” increments to quickly draw your battle lines before tracing over them in a color of your choice.
Lastly, for those of us who just want to throw everything on a big TV screen (myself included), there are a ton of websites out there that help with map generation these days. I’m a particular fan of DonJon’s random 5E dungeon generator. It may not have the character, or the story elements as those above, but it gets the job done in a pinch, plus it adds mechanics and treasure in for you. RPG Maker, not only allows you to make RPGs, but also maps.
Campaign Cartographer is a paid program, but for its cost, GMs have sworn by its weight in gold and flavor. Iron Kingdoms RPG has more maps, and Privateer Press even helps out further with map tiles. Lastly, Dungeon Painter studio and Inkarnate are also creative ways to make world maps tailored to your games need. Once you get the file, go back to my second tip and find someone who works in a construction office and have them plot you a map off their plotter.
Every game master has some maps lying around, and even if they are the horrible drawings in our notepads, let’s go ahead and share! Toss your mapmaking tips or share your scribbles in the comments below!
Looking for More Useful GM Tips?
- How to make a game: Four great online resources for aspiring designers.
- Is your mini hot or not? A brief history of CMON Games
- Shop the Geek & Sundry store for DM gear, like a “How Do You Want to Do This” hoodie!
Featured Image by: Gil Ramirez
Image Credit: The Last Epoch, Rick Heinz, RPG Maker
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.