Thursday, December 31, 2020

Maps, Conceptual VS. Technical

When I was a kid first learning to play Dungeons & Dragons out of the Mentzer boxed set, I didn't have much access to supporting materials. I lived out in the boondocks with the nearest city an hour's drive away. Going out to get magazines, let alone modules was pretty much out of the question. And I was the only kid in my school that wanted to play. (I learned from a friend in another town on the other side of the county that I saw three or four times a year.) 

My first exposure to D&D was this the two adventures out of the Red Box Player's handbook, which I played over and over dozens of times. I ran other interested kids through the second sample dungeon to learn the game as well.  And here's the thing about these adventures : the map is nonexistent for one and totally optional for another. There was no tactical play or positioning in either. Combat is totally abstract and Theater of the Mind. 

In effect my early experience of D&D played more like a Fighting Fantasy or Choose Your Own Adventure book... Which were my favorite pass times in those days. And that is how I ended up playing them with my would-be players (I ran numerous other kids through those adventures. The maps were next to useless) . 

The Dungeon Master's Rulebook included a sample group adventure... A follow up dungeon with a map and a pre-stocked 1st floor, but it relied on the new DM to stock the lower floor and plan the floors below it. Now, I mapped out a bunch of dungeons using the cool mapping tools they suggested... But as my play was totally Theater of the Mind, I found the precise details pretty unhelpful. 

The lackluster presentation of that adventure, and the randomness of the stocking method suggested (these days called the "Barrowmaze method" ) also suggested to me that pre-written adventures wouldn't have much to offer other than a map. Not being able to get them anyway, I just decided I would home-brew my own material and be done with it. 

The mix of TotM play, only having the Basic Set to work with, and total isolation from the rest of D&D culture meant that my formative years of play went swiftly towards a theatrical, low-prep, and rules-loose style of game. By the time I got a stable group together that wanted to play regularly, I found that a dungeon map could easily be replaced by a flowchart for 90% of my play needs. 

While my style of play became more technical as I graduated into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, my use of maps was pretty scattershot at best.  What I needed was just a guide to the way the locations and encounters interconnect. And by the time I had moved into Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, I was working with players who actively disliked crawling through dungeons in favour of sweeping sea battles, adventures outdoors, and courtly intrigue. I stopped using maps altogether.

(During this time I was playing more RIFTS and Shadowrun than D&D, in general. ) 

So yeah... I basically play a game that could be called "... & Dragons" 

Fast forward two decades. I have found in the last few years as I have had children that I have less time for RPGs... And more need to play them. D&D is a touchstone of my marriage and the lynchpin of my social life. I have found it imperative to make sure that when I do get to play a TTRPG that I get a lot of "game" crammed in there. That means I need a faster, easier-playing game. Which is how I have landed in the OSR circle. OSR and other DIY indie games let you get a lot more progress in over a three hour session than any WoTC-era edition of D&D ever could. Not only that, they are really condusive to my style of play, as they do their best to strip games down of excess mechanics. 

At the same time, I have learned to appreciate modules, especially ones that try to add something unusual to the game. The modules Goodman Games publishes for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG in particular are far more than a pre-stocked map. 

It is my enjoyment of the kind of weird adventures we see for DCC RPG and Lamentations of the Flame Princess that also inspired me to start writing and sharing my own adventures online.  (Well... That and because there is so much cool stuff in the OSR that I wish I could buy, but can't afford.)

Much of the material written for OSR games does not use terrain and set piece encounters nearly as well as more modern games do. There is an assumption that the group will be using Theater of the Mind, or at least the understanfing that you want to make it possible to play it TotM for us grognards  that still do so, while modern Dungeons and Dragons assumes that minis, a VTT or at least some representation of the PCs will be used, and TotM is considered a fringe play-style that is best discussed as part of an optional rules toolkit.

I have discovered, however that my reliance on Theater of the Mind has left me with a major weakness as a game developer: I don't design with a map in mind.

This became painfully obvious to me when I started working on my Holiday-themed level-0 Funnel for DCC RPG, "Red Tidings at Yule." In it, the PCs move from their village into tunnels that are hollowed out of the World Tree, then to a village of Kallikantzaroi (Christmas Goblins from Greek folklore), then to a fiendish temple where the Dutch Santa's helper Belsnickel is literally torturing the Spirit of Christmas.

The tunnels and the Cathedral have enough sub-locations and non-linear paths that they need some way of expressing to the GM how all the rooms interconnect. So, I need a map.

Now, asthis is a level-0 Funnel, it has a lot of characters and a lot of moving parts without much attention paid to complex tactics and set environments. It will most likely be played 80% Theater of the Mind. And where tactics become important a GM can, and probably should, wing it. On that basis I initially saw my map as being nothing more than a guide to the layout of the dungeon. My map if the tunnels looks like this:

It's rough, but combined with the descriptions already in the book, it is as much as you need for a Theater of the Mind game. Although it needs entrances and exits indicated and better numbering. I think it does what it needs to do, and with some more work it could be quite effective.

I will assert that for my style of play, which I share with many GMs, this is all that I need. 

But the moment I shared it, I ran into a lot of people who found it perplexing. Which is when I realized that sure, they might get a better idea of the dungeon if they also read the text... But they might not. It might remain confusing as hell. And that there is more value in a precise map even if you play Theater of the Mind... and even if the adventure should be played Theater of the Mind... Because a precise map makes is extremely valuable for communication. It let's other Dzms see you ideas at a very high resolution. 

So here is my revised map, made with Dungeon Scrawl:

Again, this is a work in progress, but it does things that the first map cannot: It can clearly communicate how things interrelate, how the Pit trap works, and just how much space the battle with the Kallikantzaroi in area 1-6 has... Which let's the GM decide how to handle things like skirmish lines and Archery in this confrontation. 

I may not like this map as much, but it let's me communicate my ideas, lets GMs draw their own conclusions, and it facilitates other people's playstyles far more readily. But I would love to hear you opinions on both maps,

As for the module, scheduling playtest has been a nightmare, and I still need more art. It probably will not see release until next silly season.

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