This is a look at overland/campaign maps from my games, not tactical ones. I’ll note a few worldbuilding/prep lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Worldbuilding is highly connected to mapmaking. You can do one without the other, but I’ve never made a map without building the world with it.
Caerune was the second rpg I ever ran. I spent ages on this map and prepping the game every week. There are cults and lairs and dark, dangerous forests. It has theocracies, elected monarchies, tribal peoples, all of which are shown differently on the banners. The banners even tell you if the lord who resides there is a King or Duke or Count or Mayor. It also tells you which Duchy its in. I’m actually really proud of the density of political information on display in the banners.
But I always had to explain what the banners meant to the players so it can’t have been that good.
Lesson: Make player knowledge approximate character knowledge as early as possible
A lot of the time I spent on world building went nowhere, and on places that went unvisited. I don’t think it was wasted, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.
Below is an edit with a red line showing where the players actually went during our year long campaign.
Lesson: Don’t spend too much effort on distant places
Since they spent so long in Barrasin, I also made a city map.
I think the map is fine, but it didn’t see much use. when the city was about to be besieged the players got on a fishing boat and sailed far away. This was not what I had hoped for, but I learnt a valuable lesson about game prep.
Lesson: Don’t make a city map when it’s not necessary
This was an archipelago/sailing themed game. I had learnt my lessons and didn’t spend ages on deep lore, I placed some adventures I read on the map and decided some other simple things like ‘there is a medusa on this island’ or ‘this one has loads of dinosaurs on it’. The effort level was exactly as it should have been.
It’s too big. Players visited hardly any of it, but at least this time lots of energy and effort wasn’t wasted. It was unclear where the focus was meant to be.
Lesson: Don’t make you maps too big
At the same time I was running a game on the fabled Isle of Dragons. I’d learnt my lessons though. The pc’s mostly came from distant lands so the character knowledge matched game knowledge. I’d read some adventures/dungeons and crafted them together onto a map, without spending too much effort on the specifics of different places. The lore came out when relevant, aided by a festival in which there was a storytelling competition. I had obvious allies, obvious threats and dubious groups who could go either way.
I really struggle to find anything wrong about the way I set the game up. I think the only real problem was that I had 3 campaign ending threats on the board. It should have been 1 or 2. I remember the players resolving to travel to a location I didn’t really want them to go to, which was my fault as I had had NPCs present it as an option to be dismissed. They were half way stuck between being heroes and being adventurers.
Lesson: Focus the intent of the player characters precisely
Mini campaign: Thaarbi island
This game was meant to run for about 3 sessions for 2 players and ended up running for about 6 sessions. It was a character funnel using ‘level 0’ 5e characters. The premise was that an evil cleric had landed on this backwater island and summoned a shadow, which can drain the strength of its targets to make new shadows.
This was the exact correct amount of detail and it had laser focused characters, with a clear intent – survive.
The map didn’t take too long and it did its job. The lesson here is more of a ‘what went right’ lesson than learning from your mistakes.
Lesson: Maps are tools, focus on making them useable
March of Kite
This is my ongoing Old School Essentials game. The locations are all either plucked from modules and adventures or they’re reskins of places I designed previously. The player characters are adventurers seeking to maximise their treasure, and have been employed by the local baronet, Sir Jack of Kite, to help him rid his lands of various problems.
From Kite to Brighton is about a full day’s walk, with rests etc.
This is the ugliest map of the lot. By far.
It is the most functional map of the lot.
Player knowledge equaled character knowledge very quickly because Sir Jack took the players up the nearby hill and pointed out the major locations of the valley to them.
There is no wasted prep here.
This is all probably a function of having a full time job, a baby and learning where to focus my efforts.
I’ve probably put too many adventures down on the map. There are 6 or so adventures/dungeons/modules at play here. Which leads me to a lesson that I still don’t seem to have learnt.
Lesson: However long you estimate how long it will take for players to make their way through any content, double the estimation
All the lessons in one place
- Make player knowledge approximate character knowledge as early as possible
- Don’t spend too much effort on distant places
- Don’t make a city map when it’s not necessary
- Don’t make you maps too big
- Focus the intent of the player characters precisely
- Maps are tools, focus on making them useable
- However long you estimate how long it will take for players to make their way through any content, double the estimation
- BONUS LESSON: You don’t always need a map