Maps and Level Design

Maps. Most roleplayers (that I know of) like them. Some (like me) are even fascinated by them. In my opinion they make many situations in games easier to handle and might even inspire the players. Last night while playing Eldritch Sigils the group explored the subway tunnels under Berlin and I happened to draw a map I was exceptionally contended with. This made me think about mapping while playing in general and I decided to share a few of my thoughts.

Some grognards remember fondly the times when they had to draw their own maps according to the GM’s descriptions. I have done this too, but purely as a way to immerse myself with the world. Not because I would have needed those maps to find my way out of a dungeon.

I’m not saying that drawing maps according to the GM’s narration might not be good or interesting but in most cases I find it unnecessary. Maps should be there to help telling a good story and not to give the players a puzzle they must solve.

This is why fantasy literature uses maps – they help the reader to immerse themselves into the world. I mean I’m reading the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander to my son and just hate the lack of the map (at least in Finnish publication). It’s ridiculously hard to understand what happens and where.

Some games need more maps. Games like Dungeons and Dragons Where combat and its mechanics is essential part of the game tend to go smoother with maps to visualize the events. It isn’t a simple task Drawing combat maps during the game might be time consuming but you cannot always have everything done in advance.

My brother Esko drew the maps for a dungeon on separate films that can be laid on the battlemap when revealed.

But with games that do not have premade maps you are facing another problem: how to draw maps out of the blue? As with everything else some people have the skills for it and some just don’t. But it doesn’t mean practice would hurt.

This is the first map I drew during the session of our current campaign:

Horrible. Just horrible.


It is without a doubt one of the worst maps I have ever drawn. But I still keep it in our gaming folder. It drives me to make better maps. Like this I drew yesterday:

Much much better than the previous example.

What has changed (apart from keeping it simpler)? The first map was drawn a month ago and I wasn’t just having a bad drawing day. The first map just doesn’t give you anything. It is just an unnecessary piece of garbage that only misleads the story. The second example instead gives you enough information to narrate your actions and leaves blanks to be filled later.

The main difference in my methods between these two examples was my desire to create more memorable locations. Drawing the first piece made me realize I needed to improve myself. I do not mean my drawing skills (I can make good looking maps) but my understanding about what makes a good map.

Since our story is set in the future Berlin I wanted to have some good ideas about stuff I could use. I browsed through images and maps about Berlin but didn’t feel connection. But when I bought the Wolfenstein: New Order for my Playstation I almost instantly learnt what I had done wrong. I had been thinking about visual cues and “cool stuff” I could use. And had forgotten about the level design.

Wolfenstein: New Order

In past month I have spent more time gaming than in a past few years. And it hasn’t just been for fun. I have been thinking about the decision the game developers have made. And not just in New Order but other games too. As video games are more immersive by nature that photos or drawings I have had a different kind of experience and source material.

Consciously thinking about level design gave me ideas from welded blast doors to other visual cues about upcoming dangers. I still might not be a wizard when it comes to maps drawn during a gaming session but at least I now am aware of this issue and can work to improve myself.


2 thoughts on “Maps and Level Design

  1. The usual OSR references on the subject are:

    1. Melan’s megadungeon mapping: . This is very basic stuff, with the main point being that linear dungeons are boring and having loops in the dungeon is a good sign.

    2. Jaquaying the dungeon by the Alexandrian: . This is more substantial than the first link, and you might find this more interesting.

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