I love maps, I really do. I wish I could cover my walls in all sorts of different maps. I could happily cover my sitting room walls in different maps of the world, my bedroom in all the fantasy maps full of endless forests, and my toilet with favourite dungeons. The thing is though, I don’t much like using maps when I’m running D&D.
As soon as the map his the table I feel like we’ve all taken a step out of the RPG and are instead playing a tactical travel game. That leaves me having to work twice as hard to describe the journey because in the player’s heads they are moving 2cm along a piece of paper. Or worse, from hex 0305 (forest) to hex 0404 (hills).
There is an alternative. Lets call them spoken maps. In the real world we call them “directions” but that might be the most boring word ever.
Your players are trying to reach the Deep Smoke, an ancient and deserted Dwarven city. They have been told it’s gates are hidden in the Read Heather Valley in the North of Brinstad Duchy. They land at the Duchy’s one good port Malthaven, no guide is available for such a journey but an old trader tells them the way to the village of Morteth at the mouth of the valley.
“Follow the coast road West to the ruin at the crossroads. We never did find out why it burned down, everyone died.
You then want to take the road to the north and follow it for a day and a half. It’ll pass through three hills covered in Birch and Willow. Don’t stop there, the forest is full of Kobolds.
That should get you to Colmsit. It’s a funny wee town but they’ll put you up if you pay. The Innkeep Del loves odd spices if you have any. That’ll get him on your good side.
The East road out of Colmsit will get you to Morteth in the foothills in less than a day if the weather holds. I’m sure someone there can guide you to your Dwarf gate.
“Of course that’s the same directions I gave to those weird elves who passed through yesterday. I’ve never known anything to use Orcs instead of pack mules.
If you lot want to get there first, you could ditch your cart and hike straight North over the marsh. That routes another two silver though… Lovely.
Head straight north, or as much as the marsh allows, you’ll be back on solid ground in a few hours and then it’s a up trough the forest towards the summit of The Ord.
From it’s cairn you see the steeple of the chapel in Morteth on the horizon to the East and you’ll see where you are headed.”
This works because the information about the world is given in-game, as the characters would likely receive it and it provided as a sting of views and experiences the characters will have. The players know what their options are, they can choose a route and prep as they like.
If you wanted to use this in a sandbox game it would work even better, with spoken maps being something they can collect and a reason to interact with the people they meet on their travels. As their knowledge grows their maps will build a web of connections which is essentially a point crawl that your players have pieced together. Where two different spoken maps cross paths, further options are opened up for the PCs. After a bit of time in a location the PCs, and the players, should have a better understanding of the practical layout of the land than any of it’s locals, which seems appropriate to me.
(image by Nintendo)