Map Notations to for Thematic and Flavor Elements


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A recent Rob Kuntz article post in these forums got me to thinking about how to build more thematic elements into my game. As I DM, I try to create tension through description but with everything you need to keep track of it can be easy to fall into "game mode." Therefore, I've found it helpful to build in elements like this that are triggered by entering certain areas.

One thing that I've been thinking of doing is doing this for non-magical triggers. I've been thinking of coming up with map symbols to represent smells, sounds, etc. That way, just my looking at the DM map I can be reminded to provide bits of flavor that help built tension or otherwise set the theme and feel of an area.

Currently, I'm run Rappan Athuk. Bill Web and team have done a great job providing notes on the smells, sounds, and other thematic elements of various areas, but you need to read the beginning notes for that area and keep it in your head or keep flipping back to remind you. It think it would be better to have a way to provide some short notes on the map itself.

For example here is the "General Features" section for one area in Rappan Athuk:

Atmosphere: Strong evil emanates from Areas 0E2-9, and -25 to -27.
High levels of magic emanate from Areas 0E2-11 and -17.
Ceiling Height: Worked stone areas are 12 feet high. Natural caverns
are 10–60 feet high.
Doors: Iron-reinforced wood. Require a successful DC 8 Strength
check to open.
Locked Doors: Require a successful DC 20 Dexterity check with
thieves’ tools or DC 20 Strength check to open.
Secret Doors: Stone. Require a successful DC 16 Wisdom (Perception)
check to find. Also require a successful DC 16 Intelligence (Investigation)
check or DC 25 Strength check to open.
Shields and Wards: No detection spells work in Area 0E2-35, or they
give false results (your choice).
Surfaces: All non-cave areas have cut stone walls and ceilings and stone
floors. The floors and ceilings of cave areas are covered with stalagmites
and stalactites. Walls, columns and other features on this level are dry.
• Cave areas are fungus-filled. 20% of the fungus is edible while 10%
is poisonous. Determining which is which requires a successful DC 15
Intelligence (Nature) check. A character who eats a poisonous mushroom
must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or take 7
(2d6) poison damage.

If I were designing a map from scratch there are all manner of ways I could design the map, such as using colors, textures, and icons to indicate atmosphere and environment. But I'm working with existing maps, so I'm basically marking up an existing image. Also, Rappan Athuk has a LOT of maps, so I want something that doesn't take more than a few minutes per map.

Looking at the description for the level above, some ideas I have for marking up the DMs map are:

Areas emanating strong magic: highlight yellow, those emanating a strong sense of evil, but a light gray highlight over.
Then in the margin I would have some general notes, such as:

Dry cut stone; Nat'l: stalac(t/m)ites & fungus
Fungus 10% poison, DC15 Nat. / DC15 Con (7 dmg)
Height=12'; Nat'l-10-60'
Doors: IRW, DC8;
Locked: DC 20/20
Secret: DC 16/16/20

For the section where detection doesn't work, I would just put a line around it and have a call out stating this.

I'm wondering if other have done something like this and any tips or methods you've found helpful.


I do not do nearly that much work. I have a general description for everything in the dungeon, but do not generally add much from there. I wonder if a chart to roll something if you want more flavor. Also see how much your players want more compared to just the general description.


The World's Largest Dungeon had a similar thing.

It's one of the reasons I don't like the Dyson Logos style maps - there's not enough information on the map. Where are the tables, what does it look like, what is the light conditions, etc. You can cram a LOT of information on a map that makes it a lot easier to run as a DM. All those conditions of rooms and hallways should be right there on the map, particularly a dungeon map.