Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Going Mapless

I have been thinking about this for a long time, and recently the excellent judge's advice in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has inspired me finally to give it a try. Amongst the excellent essays in that manuscript is a treatment on campaign geography, which suggests, in part, to "think locally" in terms of player knowledge. In particular, the section on "The Known World" argues to "make your world mysterious by making it small–very small. What lies past the next valley? None can be sure. When a five-mile journey becomes an adventure, you'll have succeeded in bringing life to your world."

This idea has been consonent with my own thinking for a while now, although I have come at the problem from a different direction. A while back, I was having trouble gearing up for the next campaign. I would sketch out an exciting story, only to fail to see the magic in it the next day. I would draw up a great world map, and find it unremarkable afterwards. I realized that painting with these broad strokes and planning an itinery for the players was actually incredibly constraining, not inspiring, to my thinking. By setting my creativity to paper, and clearly defining it, it had lost that spark of imagination, and therefore my interest. I was experiencing referee burnout before the campaign even began.

Frustrated, I turned to some alternate forms of inspiration for a while and left roleplaying behind. I found myself playing old video games again and Zork, in particular. I had grown up on these (and grown out of them, I had thought), but games like the excellent Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom pulled me back in for a while. I rediscovered that these old text-based adventures were actually immensely satisfying and inspiring. Confined to individual "rooms," exploring the locales of the Great Underground Empire or the Slaver's Kingdom turned reflectively inward, becoming more detailed, immediate, graspable and relevant to the player. If there was a "greater" world that was, by definition, beyond the player, it was well out of sight.

This changed my view of tabletop roleplaying as well, and I returned to my next campaign with a new attitude towards refereeing. I redrew maps as information webs, horizontal cut-aways, brainstormed flowcharts and in many other previously unrecognizable forms. I avoided top-down maps and left distance scales out entirely. The result was an enormously fun and successful Castle Zagyg campaign.

While DCC does not suggest dropping maps entirely, my thinking lately has been pushing more and more towards this end. Increasingly, I am writing down the scenes for my next campaign in list form, or as quickly-jotted notes randomly arrayed on unlined paper. Sometimes I draw lines between them to connect thoughts, but for the most part I leave this decision making until I am actually running the session. Importantly, I no longer feel compelled to explain any coherent logic in the storyline, as my players do a fantastic job trying to make sense of it with me. It requires a little give and take, and the players may or may not be consciously aware that they are shaping this story with me.

The play is more local, and relevant to the players, but the events of the world around them are not completely under their control. I throw the scenes at them which I had dreamed up earlier, and some stick more than others. Players pursue unexpected avenues (which they are wont to do) and play evolves in a living way. This keeps me interested each week, allows me to update the feel of the game according my current inspirations, and avoids the double pitfalls of storytelling that is too much or too little in the hands of the players. So far, I cannot recommend this approach enough.

Appendix S: Extra Scenes

Fight the minotaur prison warden of the black oubliette!

Chase the thief over the red-tiled rooves of Bloodhaven!

Fight extradimensional analogues in the crystal mirror room!

Scale the barren, sheer mountain face to the ominous stone mouth-door (the doorbell/handle is just a black hand-sized hole in the door...)

Query the three hags of the sump (for every question you ask, they ask another in return, but be warned: any topics you reveal will turn out disastrously later!)

That's no golden idol, it's a golden battle-bot! (any damage you do will descrease its value as treasure!)

What did you come up with?


  1. There's a game called Extreme Vengence (that you've probably never heard of) which was an RPG of 80's action movies. In that game, they recommend that instead of mapping, you create an index card with information for each "area" and note what it connects to. So the "Airport Bar" connects to the "Terminal" which connects to the "Bag Room" etc.

    I was thinking of doing this for dungeons, working out one room (or group of rooms) on cards and just put them together as the players march through the dungeon.

  2. I'm having the exactly same experience: moved by "experiencing referee burnout before the campaign even began", I'm making the world small (very much inspired by dungeons and megadungeons of earlier ages of the hobby) and mapless!



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