Ditch the wilderness maps!

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.
For example:
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)

9 thoughts on “Ditch the wilderness maps!

  1. I think my favorite part about this is how obvious it is coupled with the fact that it never dawned on me. If directions are always given by a number of points of interest, you can:

    * Scale difficulty of getting there up or down with the number of difficult or unknown points they need
    * Give them informed choices if they know a list of POIs already – do they go the long way through the Smog Fen and three other points or cross the Grublin Mountains and get there right away

  2. I like your examples of spoken directions. Some sources would, of course, think in these terms. But others would draw a map, even if in the dirt. Just like some people are aural learners, others visual. And even if you like getting verbal descriptions from NPC’s, you can still plop a map on the table. I find that mixing media is just as effective in gaming as it is in teaching.

  3. What you’re describing is pretty much how point-crawling works. You don’t HAVE to have a make a map, but if you did, the map itself would encode the information about what each point and each path that you were describing in text.

  4. It’s a good idea, and I could see it work in a setting where directions (and friendly encounters to give them) are available. But would you also forbid the players from drawing a map when they’re exploring a hostile wilderness?

    1. Not at all! I’d love them to draw their own, then any inaccuracies are their fault! Ideally, by the end of the campaign the various routes they have found will be a sort of point crawl overlay on top of their map.

  5. I think we’re on the same page then. TBH, I’ve rarely ever seen maps on the table that weren’t drawn by the players.

  6. That’s how I have always played: I, sempiternal referee, draw, borrow or design a map. I mark and make notes of a few places of interest. The players know of these when,

    a) some NPCs tells them about them, or,
    b) they ask for directions after hearing rumours on the tavern.

    I don’t know how to use a map other that this, as a reference for me. A map with or without a grid (squares or hexes) works exactly the same way. Maps are handed to the players only when they convince some NPC to draw a map for them, and it’s a rush, inaccurate one, not more than a sketch.

    Hexcrawling? That’s beyond my grasp and, apparently, beyond anyone’s. I have asked how a hex map is used and all answers are, “read The Alexandrian long series of articles with very complex rules”. The thing is, I have read his articles, but they don’t say how to run a hexcrawl, they give a lot of tools, so if you know how to run a hexcrawl, you will become better, but if you don’t know how to, you won’t learn there.

    My guess is, nobody knows, everyone pretends is all. Sure, you go from hex 1513 to hex 1613 travelling 4 hours (or 8, or whatever). But actually yo go from the temple in hex 1513 to the tomb in hex 1613. It’s the same, even more logical, to go from the temple of Cthulhu to the tomb of Dagon travelling south for 4 hours.

    Delete hexes, draw circles, and the map is the same. You go from point A to point B, you need some time to get there, and you can have an encounter or in more between. The hex map is a fetish, not a tool.

  7. I am terrible at receiving aural information. I’d need you to slowly go through that while I write it all down (hopefully you’ve written it down yourself so you can repeat it correctly). And then I’m going to need to create a map to understand it. Frankly it would be easier just to use a map.

    I’d be happy with this as comments to enhance an existing map, but if I only received aural directions, I’d just end up frustrated and lost.

    Even for minor encounters, without a map it might as well be us standing on opposite sides of a room taking pot shots at each other like in a Final Fantasy game.

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