Billy No-Maps

Posted: 25 January 2013 in Reflections

I’ve heard it said that you can’t do anything in a game without a map, but I respectfully disagree. Let’s start with a couple of questions and my answers.


Not really. You can tell a story without a map; books and movies do it all the time. You can have a dungeon without a map; take a look at the Beasts & Barbarians free adventure The Carnival of Nal Sagath.


First and foremost, a map exists to offer the players a clear view of their choices. Should they go through the swamps where the Rodents Of Unusual Size are said to live? Where should their lone scoutship make its stand against the oncoming fleet? But you don’t absolutely have to offer them a choice; a lot of adventures are linear, and how many scenarios do you actually have worked out for tomorrow night’s game, anyway? If you do offer them a choice, you can easily do so without a map; remember, just because the characters know where things are doesn’t mean the players do. It helps if the number of choices is limited, as without a map the players have to hold the salient features in their mind’s eye, and so do you as the GM.

Second, a map is a handy visual hook for the game, which draws the players in and helps invest them in the setting. The style of the map conveys subliminally the kind of world it represents.

Third, it assists the GM in maintaining a consistent, persistent world. ("Wait a minute, last time you said that tower was three days travel east? Has it moved?") It’s not the only way to do that, though; narrative speech works just fine, especially if you’re vague about distance and travel time. (β€œLast time, you were travelling upriver towards Stonebridge. You now arrive at the gates of that town.”)


As ever, the key question is: What are you trying to achieve?

If you want an instant overview of a setting, a good map is useful. (Ones with little pictures of what you might find in each area are good.) If the characters are in a small and restricted environment, a map isn’t necessary. If the setting is one where all locations are effectively equidistant from all other locations (like the planets in Stargate: SG-1), you don’t need a map.

If you want the players to have a wide range of choices without tying the session in knots describing them, a good map is useful; in fact, when I’ve done this without a map, the players instinctively try to draw one. If the plot is linear, you don’t need a map.

  1. Umberto Pignatelli says:

    If I can add my two cents, RPGs are about exploring uncharted areas. Old school rpgs suggest (require) you to draw a precise map of dungeons to avoid being lost.
    In my personal vision, when you precisely draw an area, you rationalize it. Sketching a map of the ancient temple full of shadows and old memories you remove the halo of wonder and suggestion, transforming it in a 6 yards by 6 yards square of solid, mundane and boring, brick and mortar, ready for the real estate agency.
    Maps, sometimes, kill the fantasy, and this is the main reason for which you’ll not find many in B&B and my other published products.

  2. wargamingresources says:

    Hi Andy,

    A couple of other factors that might make a difference to how a map-free game goes…

    People learn through the senses, and whilst around 55% of primarily visual, the others tend to learn through listening or feeling (both touch and emotionally), and of course we all use these senses in combination, and so a great game will combine all these ways of interacting.

    So for me, as a primary visual, I get lost without a map or if I’m in a dungeon I like to see the room drawn and the monsters on it, either as figures or at least as dry wipe markings.

    When I used to write and run D&D sessions, I love telling the story and setting the scene (audio with maybe some visual effects such as a picture), but my players could only take a little amount before wanting to get on with the action (feeling orientated).

    With my players, they hated being railroaded down a linear dungeon, even though we all knew they would get an intro of some sort and at the end there would be a huge fight (the Big Bad), but if there was only a single route from start to finish, the enjoyment was much less than if they could choose how they would get there, even if that just meant having choices about which routes to follow in a dungeon and what order to tackle the encounters.

    Your Stargate example is a good one; my equivalent would be to ignore all the campaign travel and wander monsters/events and just plonk the party at the front door to the dungeon – hey presto, no map needed!

    I really enjoy your postings and look forward to reading many more,

    Thanks, Iain

  3. Umberto Pignatelli says:

    What an insteresting discussion πŸ™‚
    I must clarify my position: I love maps, especially combat maps. I think that a good combat map (full of props and other tactical elements) can give a lot to fights!

  4. raikenclw says:

    I have found that – when it comes to actually running adventures – providing the *illusion* of player options is much more important than providing actual ones. A good map can help support such an illusion.

    Let’s say that the map showing the trail to the dungeon features a spot that looks great for an ambush. The players decide to avoid that spot (even though this seriously lengthens their journey). They should be rewarded by avoiding the ambush you actually had planned for that spot.

    Instead, the party “just happens” to enter the dungeon a couple of minutes ahead of your disappointed ambushing party, which is returning from it’s unproductive “stakeout” of the ambush spot, grousing loudly in Goblin about how those boastful humans from the inn must have decided to wait until tomorrow. Now, they’ve got enemies both ahead and behind. πŸ™‚

  5. andyslack says:

    Good stuff guys, thanks!

    To clarify: I’m talking here about campaign maps rather than tactical battlemats. Most often, in the groups I play with, the GM has a campaign map, but the players don’t use it much, if at all.

    When we get into combat, usually we put figures on the table, and use whatever is lying around as terrain, which might be a pretty battlemat, but just as often is a pile of books, pens, dice boxes and so on, with the players using pens or pencils as measuring sticks – they’re about the length of a PC’s Pace in Savage Worlds. If there isn’t enough room for that, we sketch things out on rough paper and draw movement on it.

    • Iain says:

      Ah, we’re at different ends of the spectrum. This link ( shows the terrain one of my guys made for an adventure – it usually takes him around 6 months to prepare a dungeon!

      I’ve certainly run dungeons with just a battlemap and drywipe pens, although we do tend to use figures rather than marks on the table – for my group the aesthetic is part of the pleasure…

      As for campaign maps, we’re now at the stage where we create a world map with key locations (cities, geographical features) then let the DMs loose in the land. Whoever is DM (we take it in turns) can choose where to locate his adventure, so we know where we are to within 20 miles, the size of 1 hex.

      And in no way am I saying that one way is better than another… πŸ˜‰

      • andyslack says:

        Wow, that is impressive! I would love to be able to do something like that, or play with a group that did.

        I’ve done campaigns with multiple DMs, and they worked very well. However, over the years, we’ve diverged from the original shared world, split up, and in some cases stopped playing, so each of us is running a different game in a different setting now; and that works well too.

        There’s no universal best way; there are different ways, and some are better for a given group of players than others – as long as everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right. In my case, I have very little space to store things between games, and most of my current players are not that interested in what the campaign setting is like, they just want to get on with the adventures. Consequently, maps aren’t currently a priority for me; that could change later on. In this post and its comments, I’m just exploring how far you can go without them, and the answer is, further than I thought.

  6. Iain says:

    I would also love to have the time and patience that my mate has – and the space to store it all in afterwards. He’s done about 4 big set ups like this over the years.

    Our group has stayed together for over 30 years – even with 2 guys living overseas they play when they can get back. We only play 4 times a year, so having a consistent campaign background helps with the continuity & context – that plus one guy with a really good memory for details!

    Having said that, sometimes we also do the “Here you are at the front door to the dungeon, now get cracking!” which works when we want to really crank the excitement/tension up. Its also great for limited time games – say 2 hours or so. When we play we have 3 days, and often 1 game will be designed to last 2 whole days – a minimum of 24 hours of concentrated gaming πŸ˜‰

    I’m really impressed with what you have done with Hex Map Pro, which I’m still trying to get to grips with (lack of time). As a convert to the THW system I have really enjoyed the AARs you have created, and the maps have been part of being able to follow the stories.

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