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What makes a good map good?

Theo R Cwithin

I cast "Baconstorm!"
What makes a good dungeon map good? I'm referring to the design of the map itself, not how it's presented (eg, Logos v Schley or whatever) or what inhabits it. I'm curious to hear specific pointers, abstract "theory", links to articles, whatever. Sample maps to illustrate are also helpful. (Heck, even "bad" maps can be helpful, too.)

I'm writing up an adventure as I learn 5e, and realize I haven't actually sat down and drawn a map myself in probably 15 years! I could just use existing maps, of course, but I'd like to do my own this time around for the practice. So I'm interested in hearing DMs' thoughts on the elements of good map design.

tl,dr:
What makes a good dungeon map good?
 

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Mercador

Explorer
I always loved to draw maps as a kid. Nowadays, I don't do it anymore but I purchased that book about it, it's really good if you want to give you a gift

As what makes a good dungeon (or other) map good, I think it has to sparke your imagination.
 

3catcircus

Adventurer
Utility and cleanliness. The indoor mapping style in Harnworld products is the golden standard by which all others should be compared. Clean black and white. Clear symbology that allows you to glance at any detail and understand what info it is conveying. Need to know how tall the ceiling is (and ceiling shape)? There's a symbol for that? Material the walls and doors are made of? Symbol for each type. What the local grade and elevation is? Symbols for that...
 

pming

Adventurer
Hiya!

I agree with @3catcircus about the "clean black and white"...although a "clean coloured version" can be almost as easy to read....but those are almost non-existent, as most/many people think that making everything "blurry and blended, with lots of dots around the edges" is a good thing.

Harn has some amazingly clean maps; both their indoor b/w ones, and their outdoor colour ones. Simple colour scheme, mostly 'flat' colours, no shading, and simple symbolism (re: squiggly lines for farm/garden furrows, for example). I'm also partial to the maps from Warhammer (1st edition) in the main rule book. Black and white, with more of a 'hand drawn' vibe to them than the Harn ones (Powers & Perils also has this sort of map style).

Anyway....designing a dungeon is easiest if you first know why it is actually there. The person(s) who created it is the second most important thing. After that, Who and Why....you can fill in the What, Where and How. A dungeon carved in the side of a dormant volcano will be different from one carved out of the side of a cliff made of clay and shale, which will be different from one dug out of dirt and loose gravel. Each would have different "safety" features (supports, drainage, bricks/flagstone/cobblestone, etc).

To this day, I still find the 1e AD&D "Dungeoneers Survival Guide" to be great for ideas and suggestions. You can grab a PDF off of RPGNow for $11 bucks or something (Dungeoneer's Survival Guide (1e) - Wizards of the Coast | AD&D 1st Ed. | Rules | DriveThruRPG.com).

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

I prefer Schley over Logos myself. But since you didn't want us to comment on style :)

To me, a dungeon need to have a logical/feasible reason for being laid out the way it is. Such an explanation can include "magic", but something like old school dungeon maps designed to have the most number of rooms per sheet of graph paper is not a valid explanation. Such as;

For playability, such dungeons should also not be linear. Which, imo, also fits functional design. i.e. very few real world places only have one-way in and out. It also allows for more reasonable ecologies. With multiple ways in and out, different creatures can make their way in/out and to critical resources such as water and maybe food/farms.

An example of this is one I'm sure you will recognize; https://www.blackgate.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/kotb_coc.gif
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
For good examples of how not to do maps, check out pretty much any module for DCCRPG.

Simplicity is key. Any element that doesn't have to be there, don't put it in. Any element that does have to be there, make damn sure it's giving all the information it's supposed to be giving. Function over style - it doesn't have to be pretty but it does have to do the job.

I can't count the number of dungeon maps I've seen where there's no way of telling whether the stairs shown on the map go up or down from the floor being mapped, or whether the stairs into a side room put that room above or below the rest of the level; never mind that some who do put that info in don't proofread the map and thus get it backwards.

Failing that, use elevation markers e.g. 0', +10', -15' at the top and bottom of each stair.

Colours are your friend. If your map can possibly be in colour, make it so. Then use that colour to highlight elements e.g. shade normal doors one colour, locked doors another colour, trapped doors a third colour, and locked+trapped doors a fourth.

And show which way the bloody doors swing! :)

Proofreading is your friend. If the written description says the room is 20x30 and the map shows it as 30x30 you've got a problem.... :)
 


Aldarc

Legend
I'm not quite sure if this what you are looking for in advice, but I would say multiple entrances/exits and paths for the dungeon. It's so easy to make dungeons into railroad adventures based upon how one designs the dungeon, so on one level, I would personally prefer dungeon designs that don't fall into this "trap."
 

jasper

Rotten DM
For good examples of how not to do maps, check out pretty much any module for DCCRPG.

Simplicity is key. Any element that doesn't have to be there, don't put it in. Any element that does have to be there, make damn sure it's giving all the information it's supposed to be giving. Function over style - it doesn't have to be pretty but it does have to do the job.

I can't count the number of dungeon maps I've seen where there's no way of telling whether the stairs shown on the map go up or down from the floor being mapped, or whether the stairs into a side room put that room above or below the rest of the level; never mind that some who do put that info in don't proofread the map and thus get it backwards.

Failing that, use elevation markers e.g. 0', +10', -15' at the top and bottom of each stair.

Colours are your friend. If your map can possibly be in colour, make it so. Then use that colour to highlight elements e.g. shade normal doors one colour, locked doors another colour, trapped doors a third colour, and locked+trapped doors a fourth.

And show which way the bloody doors swing! :)

Proofreading is your friend. If the written description says the room is 20x30 and the map shows it as 30x30 you've got a problem.... :)
True that on the simple comment. Hurrah on the elevation. But if you use colours please use different colours not shades of the same color.
Hey the Office of Safe Dungeon Hazards say the doors must swing outward from the main room. The main room being the biggest or most deadly is same size. However The Better Dungeon Bureau say the doors must swing inward to the main room. And Rotten Jasper Discount doors says the doors swing each way. Oh my!
 

aco175

Hero
I like black and white since I need to print them off and do not like spending on color. Typically the DM is the only one who sees the map in most cases. It needs to be easy to read and laid out clearly. Some sort of symbols that are standard across the maps and a scale and north arrow.

Player maps can be color and more fancy along with town maps that the players will see.
 

Hiya!

I agree with @3catcircus about the "clean black and white"...although a "clean coloured version" can be almost as easy to read....but those are almost non-existent, as most/many people think that making everything "blurry and blended, with lots of dots around the edges" is a good thing.

Harn has some amazingly clean maps; both their indoor b/w ones, and their outdoor colour ones. Simple colour scheme, mostly 'flat' colours, no shading, and simple symbolism (re: squiggly lines for farm/garden furrows, for example). I'm also partial to the maps from Warhammer (1st edition) in the main rule book. Black and white, with more of a 'hand drawn' vibe to them than the Harn ones (Powers & Perils also has this sort of map style).
Another issue with color is color blindness. Not just the common red/green. My son has blue/yellow color blindness and can't see blue on white. At all.
 

Theo R Cwithin

I cast "Baconstorm!"
Lots of good advice and resources, thanks!
Especially interesting are the concerns with color. I had always assumed color is superior, but it seems b/w with concise symbology may be the best way to go.
 

Theo R Cwithin

I cast "Baconstorm!"
One thing in particular has also tripped me up me recently: multi-level rooms. I suppose isometric views sort of accomplish this. Is that sufficient?

For example, in one dungeon there's high aviarium spanning four levels. In principle, an encounter here could take up the whole space, which includes interior/exterior windows and balconies up high, some tall trees, a suspended "watermote" serving as a sort of upside-down fountain, plus whatever lurks on the ground. Not to mention the room for flying.

It's straightforward enough to represent all that in classic "blue-print" style, with the aviary shown in cross-section as a big empty hole on each level; plus a sideview.

But for the purposes of an encounter, how does one effectively convey that, either for players over a VTT or for another GM reading it? Any decent examples out there representing verticality, especially in tactically interesting or moderately complex spaces?
 

One thing in particular has also tripped me up me recently: multi-level rooms. I suppose isometric views sort of accomplish this. Is that sufficient?

For example, in one dungeon there's high aviarium spanning four levels. In principle, an encounter here could take up the whole space, which includes interior/exterior windows and balconies up high, some tall trees, a suspended "watermote" serving as a sort of upside-down fountain, plus whatever lurks on the ground. Not to mention the room for flying.

It's straightforward enough to represent all that in classic "blue-print" style, with the aviary shown in cross-section as a big empty hole on each level; plus a sideview.

But for the purposes of an encounter, how does one effectively convey that, either for players over a VTT or for another GM reading it? Any decent examples out there representing verticality, especially in tactically interesting or moderately complex spaces?
Good question. I've been wondering the same thing since the last couple of encounters we have done have included flying beasties.
 


Theo R Cwithin

I cast "Baconstorm!"
Again, the Harnworld mapping style has got you covered... They have specific symbols to overlay to show am outline where other levels are, including a level just for the roof.
I've downloaded a doc called "Harn Map Keys", I'll definitely take a look at this and maps that use it. Thanks for the recommendation.

For anyone else interested, there's a Harn World Bundle available for free at dtrpg that contains that Map Keys doc, a few maps, and other goodies.
 


reltastic

Villager
The most recent dungeon I designed is a very simple one. It's part of a series of vaults, designed by your typical mad wizard and full of crazy magic puzzles to solve. All of that is fine, but the main thing for me, which has already been mentioned above, is the non linear nature of it.

It's one long hallway with a door at the end, and two doors on either side. The hallway itself has a puzzle to figure out, and then the four doors each have one behind them, which can be done in any order. Or not at all.

But behind the door at the end is another room, with four big threats (in this case fire elementals) that are each powerful in their own right. Fighting all four would be a deadly encounter. But for each puzzle they solve on the way they get to remove an elemental from the final room. Meaning it could be anything from a near-certain tpk to literally no challenge at all, save jumping over a small (5 ft) chasm.

I want it to be fun, simple, easy to run, and easy for the players to keep track of everything. It can all fit on a single chessex megamat, so they can see everything at once, and the layout has a sort of weird sense to it, even if the puzzles themselves don't.
 

Bilharzia

Explorer
For good examples of how not to do maps, check out pretty much any module for DCCRPG.
Make your maps as bland as possible to cater to an audience that wants uniform and drearily functional art in their rpgs.
There's nothing wrong with DCC maps, they are perfectly readable and convey more than a typical rpg map does with a lot of character and atmosphere.

 

I see no reason why a modern map can not be full color, be detailed, and be clear. Sure, it might depend upon a room description to add comprehension to somethings, but for the most part it stands alone while still being interesting and useful.

Take this map for an example;
Quag Waren.jpg
It's not monochrome. It's clear where the walls are, which way the doors open and even what most of the 'stuff' is. The only thing that comes to me as needing a room description are the hanging curtains. But once you understand this map shows shadows it seems pretty clear.

Thoughts?
 

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