The Map is Not the Territory

Posted: 2 March 2016 in Reflections

“Adventures in this campaign are best viewed as episodes of an action-adventure SF TV series. Don’t expect a grand story arc, too much continuity between episodes, or even a star map! You arrive in a new star system – solve the puzzle or defeat the enemy – and move on, most likely never to return.”

I found that while I was sorting out some files over Christmas; it’s from the player handout for my last Traveller campaign in 2003, so I have obviously been groping my way towards a mapless setting for some time.

Anyway, this one is for kelvingreen, who wanted to know more about the mapless map. I struggled with this concept until I stopped asking myself how I could run games without a map, and started asking myself what the map was for… Note that here I’m talking about the overland, wilderness or star map used for strategic movement, not whatever you use to regulate combat.


  • It’s eye candy; it breaks up the text.
  • It gives a concise overview of the setting, and maybe some plot hooks.
  • If the game is a sandbox, it helps players choose their destination by showing them locations, distances and obstacles.
  • Finally, most RPGs are set in fantasy worlds, and fantasy novels are often travelogues with maps in the endpapers; I suspect that gamers instinctively expect a map because of that.


  • Time constraints. Maybe you don’t have time to draw it, maybe players don’t have time to use it (e.g. a convention game).
  • Space constraints. Maybe carrying the map and setting information around with you is a problem (e.g. you’re on holiday).
  • Plot constraints. Every piece of information on the map rules out options later in the campaign; eventually, there are stories you can’t tell. (That happens anyway in the end, due to ‘series continuity’, but having a map accelerates the process.)
  • Cartographer’s remorse (which I just made up, it’s like buyer’s remorse but it’s about the maps one draws). I’m never happy with my maps for long, and feel continuously compelled to redraw them, wasting time and effort. This is probably just me.


  • The players don’t choose where they go. They obey orders from a patron, or you start the game in media res, after the journey.
  • Each adventure has a defined plotline. The best way to write these is from the villain’s perspective; he has a plan, the characters derail it, and he reacts to bring it back on track. Repeat as necessary.
  • Travel happens in downtime between scenarios; you can skip over it completely, or borrow an idea from Beasts & Barbarians and have the players make skill rolls – once they accumulate enough successes, they arrive at the destination. (The latter allows for random encounters, roll or draw for one after each skill roll.)
  • Travel happens at the speed of plot. The characters arrive either in the nick of time, or just too late, whichever suits the story.
  • You separate what the characters do (spend hours poring over the map) from what the players do (dive straight into the action).

This approach is not for everyone, and maybe I won’t use it forever, but it suits my group’s current situation.

  1. kelvingreen says:

    There’s some deep part of me that twitches at the idea of abandoning the map, even though I can think of few times when it’s ever been relevant in a game I’ve played or run! Even so, there’s a lot of wisdom and common sense in this approach; thanks for going into more detail.

  2. Brass Jester says:

    It’s not just you Andy, I’m never happy with maps I draw (especially star maps). I like the idea in ‘Ashen Stars’. When I ran a few Daring Tales of the Spaceways adventures, I just said the sectors were numbered 1-10 in a line. 1 – 3 were civilised, 4-5 were the frontier zones, 6 was a war zone, 7 – 8 were unexplored and 9-10 were alien territory. To get from one sector to another you travelled through all the intervening ones (until the wormhole was discovered in Sector 4 leading to Sector 9 (sound familiar?))

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