Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Using city maps in gaming

I just read this post over at A character for every game, and it got me thinking. I used to love fantasy cities, but after trying to use some of them in my games I started to wonder how I should use them. My main problem was the city maps. I've read so often how people have gushed over gorgeous maps and how they see their campaigns unfold just by looking at that map. I think I'm missing something.

Say you just purchased, or made your own, fantasy city. It will probably be a list of factions and powerful individuals to interact with, a list of shops, temples and other establishments of the city. The latter list might be so detailed that it contains hundreds of entries and their location, proprietor and kind of business they do. Also, you probably have a map.

I have a hard time using this map. If you have a big colourful map with a lot of houses on, neatly marked where different establishments are located, how do you use it in play? Do you lay it out on the table and the players point where they go, and you read of what they see from the listing of businesses I mentioned above? Do you keep the map and just give rough descriptions of the neighbourhoods based on the businesses listed there? Frankly, most of these ways of using a city map seem kind of cumbersome to me. I'd love to hear how people who have managed big city campaign does it!

The first time I wondered about things like this was when I managed to get hold of the first Lankhmar supplement to AD&D. The map was really good looking, and it also had these small city block pieces you were supposed to slot into the blank spaces in the city quarters. While I liked the idea of an ever changing labyrinth of a city, I never figured out how to use them. When would I show the players a map? When was it time to start describing alley by alley? As you maybe can tell, I've been playing mostly in different locales where I know how to run things. Running character based games is hard work, but I can do it. Running dungeon based games (in the broadest possibly sense), I can do that. But I feel I need to up my ante, and also dive into my love of city based fantasy like the one written by Fritz Leiber. So, please chime in and tell me how you use city maps in your games!


  1. I use city maps as a prop, like a treasure map or a letter. You can replace the actual treasure map with "you follow the directions of the map and arrive at …" and you can replace the letter with "the letter says that …" – having a physical object is just nice to have for some people at the table. I'll unfold the map on the table and my players will study it, asking: Where's this? Where's that? And they'll say things like "oh, the temple of Pelor is down here?" In actual play we'll move to the temple of St. Cuthbert after looking at the map and I'll just say "you move around lake Cauldron, enjoying the morning stroll and arrive just as Lady Urikas is about to open the temple doors…

    It's just a prop like so many other things.

  2. So in your game a detailed map is just pretty. Hmmm. I guess there must be more than one way to do it, out there.

    Thanks Alex!

  3. If you are using time and neighborhood based encounter tables (such as presented in Chaosium's Thieves' World), you pretty much have to physically track the PCs through the city. An attractive map for the player's on the wall, a reduced scale b&w version for each player to annotate, and then a behind-the-screen flowchart for me.

    It's well worth it if you are using a major urban center as your tent-pole.

  4. Your city map should be a full-color, lovely little piece of art that has street names labeled but nothing else. The PCs can see this map anytime, and if you have a play surface for miniatures in a fight, just put your city map down on that.

    Yes, they say where they want to go and point.

    Even if it's a small town or a village, the map is great. You can even run short fights spanning the whole town but it might be a pain remembering exactly where people are. You tend to not worry so much about exact 5' squares and more like "I'm on the roof of the inn" or something.

    But in your DM map, you should have the city broken up into sections, one page per section. Small towns and villages can just be one page. Lankhmar would be some 9-12 pages just for the maps, with a main map page with the sections outlined and the street names that separate them given - those are the only details on the main DM map. It's there to help you orient to a map section page if you have a problem.

    Then in a separate book you have the shops and residences and such according to the section and key. Name your city sections with unique starting letters. The Undercity would be Section U, the Docks are Section D. So building 32 in the Docks is keyed in your DM book as D32.

    This way you look at the player map out on the table, they point to the building on the corner of Cheap and Cash streets. You look at your section map and see that building is M55. You open your DM book and see that M55 is Chester Copperpot, Architect. You describe it a little. Your notes don't have much information, you make a lot up as you go. They move down Cash street and ask about the house 3 doors down from the intersection. Your map is still open to the Market map, you see it's M59: House of the Rising Sun, Brothel.

    Eventually they remember where things are. Hopefully in a big city they note the street and intersection for things they want to come back to.

    A nice way of doing it is to have your buildings be color-coded, both on the player map and the DM map booklet. For players it helps navigate and remember, for the DM it's a nice check to make sure you have the right building description.

    All the inns are red, shops are green, temples are blue, restaurants and taverns where you can't get a room are yellow, private houses and apartments are brown. Fading on an old map might be an issue. But my old tattered Lankhmar map still works.

  5. Great to hear how you all handle things! Thanks!

    I hadn't thought about the fact that you probably want encounters based on city quarters if you have a detailed city campaign. Kind of makes it necessary to keep track of things, I guess.

  6. Well, my longest running campaign, set entirely in "The City" had no map at all, other than my mental images of various areas and neighborhoods and the descriptions that went with them.

    I had a (literally) napkin sketch of how the important areas were loosely related and we worked from there. In some respects it was an archtypes game, so we had "the docks" and "Downtown", etc.

    Worked much better than I thought it would originally.

  7. I already figured I would get different views of this. but, not to this extent! Thanks Derek! Sounds like it must have worked fine enough if it ran that long.

  8. Also, I want to point out that it's okay to show your players a map with keyed locations on it that have numbers. It does steal some of the verisimilitude, but it is easier for them to remember to go to Building M55 rather than ... oh heck ... where is that one building again?

    The other problem I see with letting players see keyed maps is that they know what places are important, because unmarked locations are unlikely to carry fun stuff. You can fix that right up by creating tables of random contents for buildings that are unmarked, like you would for empty spaces in your big dungeon. They quickly realize that even unmarked places can be fun, profitable, and dangerous. Then again some really are just boring! :P


Copyright 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 Andreas Davour. All Rights Reserved. Powered by Blogger.