Running the World-Machine: Maps

Sorry for being a day late in returning, hopefully it was worth the wait.  In this week’s edition of Running the World-Machine, we talk about using combat maps in your tabletop RPGs:

Maps in games can be a thorny issue.  Some people love them, some hate them, and you can virtually guarantee that anyone that plays a tactics/crunch-oriented game will have an opinion on them.  I fall into the odd position of being somewhat neutral about them, once you average out my player mentality and my GM mentality.

As a player I find maps a very useful tool.  It helps me know where everyone is, and reassures me that the GM is being fair in his rulings for how people move, how hard it is to get from point A to point B, etc.  (This is especially important in systems with threatened squares and attacks of opportunity, or when navigating complex environments in the middle of a firefight.)  At the same time, maps can slow gameplay to an inexorable crawl as everyone tries to figure out the exact way to move so that they’re playing a tactically perfect game.  I can easily recall a number of times where moves were being planned several players down the initiative order just so that everyone could stand in an ideal spot.

As a GM I have a very love-hate relationship with maps.  I like giving players a visual reference of the battlefield, and maps make it a lot easier for me to track who is where in battle.  It also lets me offload a lot of the thinking onto the table, and I can even give players easier access to data such as the condition of any given enemy (like HP, or if they’re knocked prone) by writing on the map or manipulating the tokens.  I also like that it gives players a clearer idea of what enemy they’re attacking, and where their allies are.  On the flip side of this, pausing to draw out a map leaves a big dead zone in the game, which can be deadly to pacing.  Doubly so if you have players who are easily distracted during lulls in the action.

So what’s a GM to do?

First off, consider whether your game even needs maps.  Several systems, such as The Description System or The Dresden Files RPG, are so abstract in their combat mechanics that maps are unnecessary.  The Dresden Files  does have map “zones” that determine where you are in a fight and who you can attack, but generally fights do not have more than three or four zones, and if needed a simple conceptual map can be drawn.  However, a game such as Runequest or Pathfinder can easily all but require a map, given how tactical players and GMs are likely to get with the combat in those crunch-heavy systems.  And this isn’t to say that even the most crunch-heavy systems absolutely require a map.  You can run a game of Pathfinder or Runequest without one, you just may have to adjust your style of play to account of the players not being able to be perfectly aware of the tactical situation, and play a little looser with rules like threatened squares, engagement ranges, attacks of opportunity, and so on.

Second, be sure that using maps (or not) is okay with the players at your table.  Some players require maps in order to be able to grok the complexities of combat in a game.  Others require them to feel more immersed.  Still other absolutely hate maps, feeling that they slow down game or lower immersion.  I personally think that maps play up the “board game-y” rules-lawyering aspects of many games, trading roleplay immersion for immersion in the math of the game mechanics.  So check with your group and determine the feel they want.  A map can have a lot more affect on the pacing and attitude of your game than most people think at first blush, and it’s important to weigh the pros and cons with your players and how it affects their playstyles before you make a decision.

Last, be honest with yourself and how you feel about maps.  If you don’t like drawing maps, if you as the GM don’t like pausing your game to draw one up, if it lowers your immersion—just don’t do it.  One of the things we tend to forget as GMs is that we need to have fun, too, and dragging against our own needs for something that can often go either way, like maps, is not a good way to ensure our continued interest in the game.  I would encourage every GM to try maps, because everyone should try a new technique once or twice before they write it off, but if maps don’t work for you (or your table) there’s no obligation to use them.  Always do what’s right for you and your group.  That will make your game better than conforming to any arbitrary standard.  (To be fair, some games absolutely require a map and have one built into their game mechanics, but those are few and far between.)

So I think that about wraps it up for maps.  Do you love them?  Hate them?  Feel a weird connection to them like a dying star to its orbiting planets?  Let me know!  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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