Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Maps and the Adventure Gaming Hobby

Joesph Bloch over at Greyhawk Grognard has observed that there seems to be an almost inevitable form that emerges in the most successful role playing campaign maps. Of course, campaign-oriented fantasy role playing is not the only style of game out there… and there are many of genres of gaming that make quite different demands on the players. This post will explore how map designs adapt depending on the context in which they are applied.


My first thought about those campaign maps is that they so rarely became relevant in the usual sort of D&D game I’d played in. It wasn’t until that grey Forgotten Realms box came out that I really even gave much thought to the whole idea… and that Greyhawk box set my friend had had for so long always seemed so odd to me. What’s it for, really? It would take years before I realized the benefits of having a coherent setting– and of course, most serious Dungeon Masters spend huge amounts of time developing such things. But it was always a bit beyond me.

When I think of the Moldvay Basic Rulebook, my first thought always goes to the legend containing all the map symbols you’d need to make dungeon maps. (The door symbol, secret passage marking, statue, and dais got the most work in my maps.) Due to the fact that the cutaway view is not of Skull Mountain, I never fully appreciated what it was communicating. Today I see it as a powerful cue to think of your dungeons in three dimensional terms and to also try to vary the tone as you change levels.

The palette of hex map symbols from the Cook/Marsh Expert Rulebook are equally as compelling. It offers up detailed large hex symbols for one-mile hexes and more abstract markings for 36 mile hexes on the main campaign map. Whither the six mile hex of gaming yore…? You’ll find those on area adventure maps like the one detailing the Isle of Dread. Most of the large scale maps seem to be in miles in a factor of six, so centrality of the six mile hex for hex-crawling is subtly implied.


While not strictly a part of the original rules, Traveller’s icosahedral world map projections quickly became an essential part of the game’s ouevre. Though it can be argued that the archetypal Traveller referree was far more obsessive over interstellar census data than local geography– never mind the fact that the scout service had pretty well mapped all of known space– it was nevertheless pretty darn cool to be able to describe the look of an unknown world as the players arrived to it the first time.

Given that you’d never want to stay at a particular world for more than a few sessions (the game would cease to be Traveller anymore, after all), there just wasn’t much call to get too much more detailed than this. With the massive number of star systems of the setting and assuming total autonomy on the player’s part, having the luxury of a fully detailed world map should be a fairly rare thing given the all-too-limited prep time. And yet drawing up a world’s map remains largely a tedious exercise derived largely from the world’s hydrographics percentage and number of continents. Water worlds are pretty easy to whip up, though.

Car Wars

While Traveller cartography is largely dedicated to drawing up sector and subsector maps, autoduel-themed gaming is similarly focused on the arenas. These range from wide open areas for brawling free-for-alls, the great big donut-shape of Armadillo, the maze-like approaches seen in many custom layouts, grid-like cityscapes, and in the tail end of autoduelling’s heyday, epic multi-level arenas with way too many ramps.

Switch over to the freeways for some role playing adventure, though, and you get an entirely different sort of map. Note how Convoy’s player map has so many roads cutting between the two main routes. It’s as if Steve Jackson were doing everything he could to keep the adventure from becoming completely linear. (Hint: spend time checking out rumors before you arbitrarily decide to take the shortest path between two points!) Of course, in dungeon layouts that are insufficiently Jacquayed— and in games where the playing time for combats take 10 times as long as those in B/X D&D– you’re adventure structure will actually steer towards this sort of format. New school D&D recapitulates the adventure structure of old school Car Wars.

Text Adventures

In the days when B/X D&D, Classic Traveller, and Car Wars dominated the hobby shops, text adventures were pretty well state of the art when it came to adapting “adventure games” to the home computer. In the same way that ELIZA simulated a Rogerian Psychotherapist, these programs provided a completely impartial dungeon master that was always available when the game group couldn’t get together. While the Zork series perhaps provides a window into aspects of what late seventies D&D sessions at MIT might have been like, these programs tended to deal more with exploration and puzzle solving than killing things and taking their stuff.

What I’d like to draw your attention to is the maps that players tend to make when playing these sorts of games. Each room has a number of exits, usually along the cardinal directions: north, south, east, or west. A player map for these games ends up looking like an insane flow chart. This is very different from the maps made by “map makers” in the typical D&D session where they ask tons of questions in order to make everything fit precisely onto graph paper. (For people that complain about the movement rates being so slow in old school D&D… this is why it’s that way.) And interesting feature of these maps is that often times you cannot go back the way you came: south might take you to a new room, but north will not necessarily take you back where you were. While this is counterintuitive, it actually is realistic when it comes to modeling something like the Colossal Caves. The passages can twist so much that the entrances and exits really don’t line up anymore!

Star Fleet Battles

The most striking thing about the map in SFB is that… it’s empty. The connoisseur of fine gaming maps can really struggle with this. (A lot of people to accuse this franchise of not having any terrain.) Lay down the first couple of scenarios from Introduction and if quickly becomes clear where the map went….

Enemy drones can easily be shot down with your phasers. However, you can kill them with a single shot only if they’re pretty close: the damage potential of a phaser shot degrades quickly. But they’re moving– either directly at you or else at some other more vulnerable target. As you maneuver through this ballet of destruction, lining up targets, shepherding your energy, and sometimes influencing the drones’ movement, all of that jinking and positioning might as well be in response to terrain. And it is…! There’s no terrain marked on the map because the “terrain” is always moving around.

You could always lay down a black hole or an asteroid field, I guess. That doesn’t seem to happen too often, though. The real meat of the game is in how you maneuver against your foe. Are you going to toy with him a while with a battle pass? Or is it time to head for knife fighting range and overrun? Do you fire now and hope to take out a critical torpedo weapon on his ship? Or do you risk the same thing happening to you so that you can close to a range where you can potentially do far more damage? This game succeeds so well at simulating its subject matter that it has been the go-to game for making people feel like Captain Kirk for decades. And it does it… with practically no markings on the map at all.


This game has scads of maps for it. I even saw that they came out with some nifty hex overlays, too. But the thing about this game is… if I’m not playing on someone else’s massive miniatures terrain, I’m almost always using the original map that came with the basic boxed set. The lake in the middle is probably the most fought-over piece of terrain out of all the maps in my game collection.

But that lake isn’t there just for mechs to jump over or for hovercraft to skate across. It’s there because of the game’s anti-asset of heat. Most of the unit designs in the original game were overgunned such that they could not fire all of their weapons every turn. If they did, they would rapidly build up enough heat points to cause an ammo explosion or shutdown. A consequence of this rules dynamic is that enemies jockey for position waiting for the best moment to alpha strike. Then a turn or two is spent desperately trying to cool down. The utility of lakes when it comes to this cool-down process makes them something to fight over. Chess players try to take and hold the center. Jedi try to take the high ground. BattleTech players go for the lake. The fact that the water terrain is tied so closely to the core of the rule system gives it a significance that is seldom seen in other games– and it’s the reason why this particular map hits the table so often.


4 responses to “Maps and the Adventure Gaming Hobby

  1. Robert Eaglestone August 12, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    “Given that you’d never want to stay at a particular world for more than a few sessions (the game would cease to be Traveller anymore, after all), there just wasn’t much call to get too much more detailed than this.”

    No more detailed than a D&D campaign, anyway. And granted, the “conceptual universe” of the game may be the galaxy rather than a single country. But still!

  2. Robert Eaglestone August 12, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    And Traveller has its share of “dungeon maps”, in the form of buildings and deckplans.

  3. Alex J. August 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    I’ve noticed that when you put two, or especially four, battletech maps together, the fighting seems to circle around the relatively clear borders between the maps.

    We did a couple custom maps, and it’s surprisingly hard to make your own with the same feel.

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