Campaign maps that do their job
If, when you think “I need a setting for my new campaign”, the word “demographics” floats up in your over-developed frontal lobe, you are evidentlynot a kobold, and you and I are just built differently. I am a lazy, lazy game master. My players will never know how little I prepare. I will never tell. But trust me: it’s little. And when it comes to worldbuilding, it’s less.
As GMs, we anyway organically spring facts, places, creatures and lore into existence as they become relevant to the story: we might as well embrace that process and make it the official mode of operations.
Did I plan for the old mercenary you are traveling with to be the long-lost father of the small-time smuggler that you oh so hate? No. But is he? Huh, you know what, yes, yes he is.
Then again, a campaign does need a setting, and a map speaks more than a thousand Worgs.
What a little map can do
As I see it, a campaign map’s job is to:
- establish the setting and its tone
- fuel the imagination of players and GM
- call the player characters to adventure
Its purpose is most emphatically not to provide all answers about the finer details of the geopolitics or economic balanceof the setting. That’s not why we need them because we don’t need to know that stuff when we start playing.
In short, campaign maps are, at their core, one more tool GMs have to create immersion and engagement.
Over the years, I discovered three ways to make maps that do their job, as well as several ways to make maps that don’t. Let’s start with the “dos”, or skip to the bottom for the “don’ts”.
This is a follow-along worldbuilding workout: look at your own map and check which boxes it ticks!
1. Fantastic locations that smell of adventure, with large blanks
Vibrass is a wild-west-meets-Aladdin desert town that thrives on the gold of adventurers, who use it as center of operations when delving into the depths of the abandoned seven cities of Tartarus. Oh, all this blank space between Vibrass and Tartarus? Looks like you’ll have to go there to find out!
Let players have a taste of the adventure just by looking at the map, but don’t give everything away. Remind players that magic is very real in the world, but leave room for coming up with even crazier stuff later.
Leaving huge blanks is incredibly important. So much so that it is literally one of Dungeon World’s game mastering principles. Blanks on maps are your friends. They are your ammunition to insert appropriate locations into your campaign whenever you need to, not too far from where the story is playing out. You never know when you will need a smuggler’s hideout at the end of a canyon, a wizard’s tower hiding in the woods or a lost dwarven mine in the heart of a mountain.
How does this help the map do its job?
- It will serve as a reminder of the tone the setting throughout the campaign
- Helps calling players to adventure
- Blanks stimulates the DM’s creativity and prompt players to go out and explore them
2. Built-in variety in travel routes
You can march south, crossing the mountain pass into Orc Ground and then RUN FOR A WEEK, hoping the Horde doesn’t feel like doing sports. Or you can take a boat, but it will cost you and it will take longer.
It’s always challenging to make travel interesting. Mostly because RPG systems like D&D do absolutely nothing to make travel interesting. A good map can help a bit by providing built-in interesting choices for travel routes.
A simple trick is to build routes so that they pose the evergreen dilemma of picking between a safe but slow route and a dangerous but faster one. Adventurers in Mor often have to pick between a relatively safer boat trip or crossing natural obstacles or dangerous regions traveling overland.
How does this help the map do its job?
- It’s one way to let players make meaningful choices, which is good for engagement
- It’s also something that is hard to include later during play, so it’s good to keep in mind when the map is first created
3. Built-in level progression
Spread on the map the full range of danger level your campaign will offer. From friendly little hamlet to toxic wastelands where wild magic runs…well, wild. From the woods south of the village, where the occasional giant spider might lurk, to the deep caves of Shan’tya protected by my ruthless cousins, Tucker’s Kobolds.
A good map can transmit at a glance the sensation that the world is vast and diverse. Paradoxically, the fact that Orc Ground is so deadly that it is effectively a no-go zone for low-level characters does not feel limiting, but rather increases the sense of agency of the players. Human brains are weird like that.
How does this help the map do its job?
- It helps GMs and players keep in mind the range of danger levels that exist in the world
- It removes the impression that the level of threats in the world scales with the level of the protagonists, increasing immersion
Bonus: make weather count
This is not directly related to the map itself, but certainly with the map-making process.
Have locations that become less or more accessible depending on current weather or the cycle of the seasons: the Tar desert is unlivable during the day; the mountain range that protect Thin’thras, the Silver City of the northern dwarves, is impassable in winter.
“Weather” here could also be something more fantastic like the perpetual sandstorm at the center of the Tar desert, which legend says it is caused by an enraged Djinn, which reinforces point 1. (“fantastic locations that smell of adventure”).
Making weather count also plays nicely with points 2. and 3.: travel routes may vary depending on the seasons; low-level characters might have more limited options, while at high-level they can cope with harsher conditions.
Giving weather a role in the story also goes a long way towards providing a sense of verisimilitude to the world, which in turn helps immersion.
Things I wish I had thought of when creating my fantasy world map
They say a kobold’s wisdom is measured in scars. So here are some of mine.
The current map of Mor is not perfect, but it’s enough to run a good game. Now the first version of that map was much worse. It was the first world map I created and, never having left my cave at Cape Kobold, I had only a very rough understanding of how maps work. I certainly did not know what a campaign map’s job really is.
Here are the three mistakes that caused me the most problems.
I forgot maps need a scale
You want to travel from Pokhrob to Tanthrob, you say? Sure, I guess that’s…uh…three days on foot?
I know. You read all this text just to find out now that I’m an idiot.
The first version of the map of Mor, that you can see here in this section, did not include a reasonable scale. Worse still: I didn’t know what the scale was. The new version of the map of Mor, the one at the top of the page, includes a rough scale and that’s enough to make all the difference.
Blanks that had nothing to do with the campaign setting
You see all that blank space in the north? I did not put it there because I knew how important it is to leave blanks in campaign maps. I left that part blank because we were not playing in that region anyways (did I mention I am lazy?).
That blank was completely useless as all of the campaign took place in the southern half of Mor: it did nothing for me. To make matters worse, in the region where the story took place I had no large-enough blank spaces to introduce fantastic locations when the story called for it. I felt constrained, as a Black Pudding in a barrel (yes, I know a Black Pudding would dissolve the barrel, it’s just an expression, jeez).
The problem was so bad that I considered just changing the setting and starting from scratch, but in the meanwhile my players and I grew attached to some of the locations. They even founded a small adventurer’s guild in Pokhrob.
So, instead, I made myself more blank space: I added the Tar continent to the south, an arctic region to the north, and more islands around Mor.
No map features obviously affected by or related to magic
Oh, this little town here? This is a city in which daily life is built around the Breach, an eye-shaped multi-planar portal that sits a few hundred meters above ground. Weather-mages try to predict its whims and vagaries with varying degrees of success. Brave enough or desperate enough adventurers become Divers: explorers devoted to the risky recovery of extra-planar riches from the Breach.
This one is still very much a work in progress even in the latest version of the map.
I added areas and map features that are supernatural in nature, like the Shattered Forest in the north; Smeralda has a multi-planar breach on top of it that randomly opens on alien places and that affects its climate and its economy (and yes, its demographics, *shudder*); but this background is not visible from the map, so players do not get that immediate impression of how fantastic the world is. I have to explain it to them.
Something to address in the next revision!
That’s all for this article. Next I’ll show you that you don’t even need to come up with a map, you can just use…Iceland. Yes, the country. You know, the one who fought in the Cod Wars.
Special thanks to Nicola and Niko for their feedback on earlier revisions of this article!
Do you have other tips to make campaign maps do their job? Let me know at email@example.com!