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The Dungeon Map is not the Dungeon Territory

Alex Schroeder wrote:

I want to talk about how I like to communicate maps to players.

Into it!

I used to discourage mapping pretty strongly and traces of my hesitancy to mapping still lingers in my group. Here’s the backstory:

When I first started playing D&D as a player, before I started my own group, we were doing Labyrinth Lord (one DM used the AEC, the other didn’t) and he would draw a map for us on grid paper. Ten feet was a five millimeter square (that’s about a fifth of an inch).

At first, I abso-freakin-loved it! We could go “We go here” and point to a place on the map deep in the dungeon and the DM would count up how many encounter checks that would entail, roll them, and be like “OK, as you cross this corner” — pointing to map — you here the sound of bones against stone” etc etc.

After a while, I got so swept up into the “map as territory” thinking. I was starting to think of my character as “down there”. A dungeon for ants!

One thing actually happened that was pretty cool. Our torches went out at one point and the DM snatched the map again and we had to go “left, right, left, left” from our own memory (which unfortunately is super good (among the, I don’t remember how many we were, five of us?) so it wasn’t much of a challenge but it really filled us with dread since we had a carrion crawler chasing us in the dark) and it made the game feel more like we were down there.

As I set about to design my own play style (which, while I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, has had so many deliberate decisions), I wanted to instead convey a “first person” feel. Like Quake or The Dark Spire or Wizardry. I want to describe what you see, from the PoV of your character. Up the steam tunnel factor a bit.

My compromise for mapping now is that if they do map, 1. It has to be diegetic, if their character loses ink and paper, bye bye map, and 2. They can’t show me the map. I get so tempted at correcting them. “Actually that turn should’ve been left, not right”.

To compensate for that, I have to really double down on what Alex writes here:

I’m totally honest about my reporting, though. If players don’t want to map, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll tell them if they’ve seen this place before, whether this passage seems to leads back towards an area they already know, which corridor to take if they want to go back towards the exit, and so on. There’s no trickery involved, here.

This is super key. Additionally, it leads me to emphasize features so they can be like “We go back to the bull statue room” and I’ll be “OK”.

People sometimes say that mapping allows for a part of the game where players look at their map and try to figure out where hidden rooms and secret doors might be. I find that the be a very small payoff. It’s interesting two or three times, but then it gets old. You can have the same experience by carefully uncovering a shared map online, and I find that’s not very exciting, either.

I agree with what you’re saying here. Some dungeon modules do seem predicated on this in order to be fun and to work (especially if you do finchian doorfinding instead of rolling for dwarfchitecture or whatever), but because of my “first person” style, I often shy away from dungeons that rely on that kind of gameplay.

Now on to how to describe. This is something I’ve had to learn in the last two years, since we started playing most of our sessions over video, since before that I relied heavily on the actual room we were in. Before video, I would do a very larpy style, show in the room how things were connected etc, make short or long hand gestures. When things were extra tricky, I’d have them leave their chairs and walk with me in the room. I wanted to convey a sense of space. We were playing in basically a ten by ten room so as far as larps go, it was pretty darn semi (as in, relying on the life changing magic of imagination).

My walls still have marks from accidentally using permanent marker when doing the skull puzzle rooms in Tomb of Annihilation.

You’re in a 20 by 30 foot room, taller along the north–south axis. There’s a door in the middle of the western wall. (Players open the door.) You see a corridor going west for at least 30 feet.

Here is a huge difference.

I never say compass directions (unless they’re explicitly using diegetic means to find them, which they usually do at sea, but not underground). Instead, it’s “tank controls” like Robo Rally or Resident Evil or Grim Fandago.

If I do give room dimensions, which is, I’d say maybe sixty percent of the time, I do breadth first, depth first, and indicating with both hands (outwards motion for breadth, forwards for depth). I’ve sometimes said “thirty by twenty, thirty-wide-twenty-deep”, but most of the time it’s the hand gestures.

Second thing is that dear darkness covers us, darkness is my friend. Patrick Stuart has perfect advice:

Never assume light. Assume dark. A simple way to do this is to imagine the darkness as alive. Instead of being a simple black absence regard it as a kind of active liquid. It does not meekly disappear on the lighting of a candle. It follows the players like as stalking predator.

Works great.

So mine would be:

“It’s pitch dark and you’re likely to be eaten by a grue.”

Characters light a lantern or, if they can afford it, a Frotz spell. On my DM screen I have a list of lamps and their duration and their reach. So let’s say they use a Frotz spell, 20 feet of bright and 20 feet of dim.

“You’re in the corner of a room, the wall to the left of you is in dim, so the room seem to be around thirty by twenty. There’s a door in the middle of the opposite wall.” (And I would point diagonally, if they were standing in the corner.)

Characters open the door.

Now, I like to have more of a dialogue, twenty questions type game play than me giving long descriptions. (My descriptions seem super long when I type ‘em up here, I hope they’re not that long at the table. Stuff like gestures, staccato, pauses, rhythms all modulate ‘em, but above all I want interaction.) So they’d be like “does the door opens towards us or the other way” or they’d be like “I use my Xance spell to open the door.” If they don’t, I’m like, even if the door is totally vanilla and safe, I’m like “So you put your bare right hand directly on the handle?”.

They’re like “What’s behind the door?” And I’m like “There’s a corridor stretching straight ahead. It continues beyond the reach of the dim area of your Frotz spell.”

So the light also helps me know how far they can see; if they take a couple of steps they might see more.

Back to Alex:

After 20 feet there’s a corridor branching off to the south. The corridor seems to continue west.

Here, I’d ideally (and, I mean, I fall short of my own description-ideals all the time so no sweat), I’d hold out my left arm straight ahead to indicate the continuing corridor, and put my right arm over it pointing to the left and say “there’s a corridor going left after twenty feet” (or if I’d use the light cone to indicate distance, that’s fine too), “and the corridor continues”.

Now, since we don’t have as much mapping, I’m often repeating what they see, and since it’s first person “tank controls”, I’m changing the description to match their current direction. I try to be like “The corridor goes straight ahead, back to where you came from” if they’ve made a 180˚.

After 20 feet there’s a T-junction with the corridors going north and south.

Yes, this is good (although, again, I wouldn’t do the “north” and “south” part). Just like Alex, I only say T-junction when the characters are coming up along the stem, not when the corridor branches off to the side and also continues ahead, but, that lesson took me years to realize. I should’ve figured that out way more quickly.

Monsters first! Surprise, initiative, reaction rolls, whatever needs to happen immediately comes first. But then we need to talk to the mapper.

That’s something I’ve change my mind on twice. I went from not monsters first, to monsters first, to again not monsters first.

These days, I’m case-by-casing it. I try to think of what the characters actually would see first.

If monsters literally ambush them, then yeah, monsters first.

Monsters last if the monster is inactive (or hidden), like yesterday they entered a bedroom and the monster, well, NPC rather than monster, was sleeping in the bed. Not hidden, easy to spot once they looked at the bed, but not lunging at them with spears and moxie either.

If the monsters or NPCs are active, but the character would also get a glimpse of the, urm, “milieu”, then I’d be like “There’s someone in here, but let me set the stage. There’s a huge window looking out over the night-time garden to your left. This is a big hall and the edge of your light can’t see a back wall. There are shards of glass everywhere. In the middle of the room you see an abandoned card game as four men, they seem to be dressed in torn al-Hadhar clothes, come at you screaming Bree-Yark! Squa Tront! Kreegah Bundoloh! Jamil, you speak Geeba, right?”

“Yeah, so they’re saying dork alert, surprise, warning I kill, right?”


“Are they all goblins?”

“There’s one goblin and three humans. They’re all speaking in Geeba.”

“I say in Geeba ‘Calm down!’” (Jamil’s player holding up hands in a calming gesture)”

And we’d keep roleplaying from there.

How big is the room? Most of my rooms usually 20×20, 20×30, 30×20, or 30×30 feet. There’s of course the occasional hall that’s bigger, but many rooms are just that, and the only problem is describing it concisely.

I have a lot of 10×10 too, but yeah. Since my apartment is 10×10, anything bigger than 20×20 is definitively a “hall”.

Treasure, statues, columns, altars, wells, pools, curtains, everything else that is of no concern to mapping comes after mapping is done.

The reason why I disagree with this for my own style is that I want them to get a non-spatial vibe of which room this is. Remember, I came up playing IF games rather than Nethack and Diablo. If I can establish that this is “the reading room”, “the well room”, “the room with the moldy curtain”, that’s a huge win for being able to play in this space without relying on maps.

Anyway. I think it’s all about having a structure for how you say things, and a benefit to using the same phrases over and over again.

I definitively agree with that.

Now, you might be thinking:

“OMG the number of pixel hunty hoops to just go one inch on the map” but remember that it’s ten minutes of lantern oil for them. My rule is:


Looking at a bunch of faces is distracting, and it puts some focus on how people look, how they present themselves, what they do, and so on.

A huge amount of my play, I often express myself or my NPCs wordlessly ♥︎
Just to have an NPC sob or smile. Miss super hammy over here ♥︎
Oh! And our fights! This is gonna sound dorky but they’re super larpy! Drawing back bows, swinging swords, somatic components for spells etc.

Yeah, the problem I see there is that it makes communication for the mapper harder.

Here we are again with how words can have a lot of aspects to them.

Communication: What do I wanna communicate? What the character experiences? Then left-right makes that essier than south-north.

Mapper: The word “mapper”, as you know from your own mapper apps, and maybe if you like me have dabbled in some NES dev, in the sense of “accurately and quickly lay out the game board”, then you’re right, south-north is way more efficent. If the “Hero Quest” style game board map is your desired ludeme. Ss a game piece for conveniece, or as an accurate record of the expedition. But, if the ludeme you want instead is the experience of feet on flagstone, sounds and smells of the charnel or gold vault or fey rabbbit hole, the sweaty corsair hands on a piece of parchment with quill in hand, then left-right is so awesome, and up-down and back-forward too.

Harder: Maro once said that if a game designer were to make a lamp, they’d make the lamp difficult to turn on and off. Game design, unlike product design, can sometimes have a challenge aspect. Now, we don’ wanna go overboard with this. If the d20 weighed 20 lb, that would be cumbersome and detract from what we want the experience to be about. I don’t know about other game setups, but I want dice rolls to be unobtrusive, to give us our RNG quickly and get out of the way. So it’s easy to think that a map should fsll into that “keep it easy” category (especially since mapping is already super difficult and error prone and time consuming even when made as easy as humanly possible). But it comes back to what role as a ludeme we want the map to have. To what extent it’s diegetic or symbolic. To what extent it’s the territory—part of our interface to the game reality—or, as in my game: very much not.

I always wanna focus on what do you see, hear, smell, experience right here, right now. Who do you meet, who are you with, how do you feel about them.

Making the dice weigh 20 lb would make something that should be easy difficult. But, before Video Era, we’d have the rule that “you can take calls (because that’s usually an emergency, but you can’t text”. Making phones a li’l bit more difficult. Same, I feel about maps. I’m not saying it’s the case for you but I’ve seen mapper’s focus on mapping detract from the experience. Half listening, half doodling, not looking up.

We have the worlds fiddliest inventory and logistics rules, and I think it’s worth it, because decisions and challenges being brought on by them are moments when you’re facing the same difficulty as your character would. You and your character vulcan mindmeld for a moment. Same goals, same desires, same obstacles, same options. Whereas with north-south description, that completely bypasses the character’s ears and is directed only to the player.

Which is a legit way to play, and I’m not trying to be patronizing about that—again, what you want out of this thing can be so different and all legit—but I’m also saying that my way is legit and effective and deliberate.