This is RPG-ology #67: Map, for June 2023.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Map, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
Thanks also to Evan Young and friends, who located a copy of the old student handbook and so provided the picture of the map.
It was freshman orientation for our third son, and parents were encouraged to come with students to the high school to find out what was happening. We had moved to the county in the middle of the previous school year, and in the half dozen times we had been inside the building since then we were never more than thirty yards from the entrance. So it was with some interest that we made our way to the gymnasium where everything would begin. We had one of his elder brothers with us, who had been in the school part of the previous year, to assist us.
Leaving the gym, we adults played Follow the Leader in a long line behind an unseen teacher through winding corridors to an auditorium while our children were piped away on something of a tour of the major facilities and introduced to high school expectations. Thereafter, we were told where to find them in rather vague terms, and wandered back into the unfamiliar tunnels which connected sprawling areas of this county-wide regional educational facility.
Reunited with Tristan (remember him? the one his brothers call BJ?), our next assignment was to attempt to follow his schedule and locate each classroom in which he would be taught two days hence. Even with our guide, this was an interesting challenge. Rooms were lettered for the section of the building in which they were found, and numbered for what room they were. Sometimes a section had rooms on two floors, in which case they would be numbered as 100 and 200 level rooms; but other times one section would be above another presenting 100-level rooms upstairs. It also seemed that there were four separate small cafeterias scattered around, two of them up a few steps from the lower level and two of them off the middle level. There were two main sets of ramps connecting the lower level to the middle and then to the upper. Even our guide, who had been a student at the school for half a year, had to stop and ask where one section was, and had trouble determining how the room numbers ran. In the end we managed to find all the rooms, and then run through the sequence required by the schedule again to be certain that Tristan (who does not share Evan’s remarkable sense of direction) knew how to get from each class to the next.
And two days later my wife handed me his student handbook. On the back of it was a map of the entire high school. Her question to me was, did I have any idea at all that it looked like that?
Well, I have a pretty good sense of direction; and it was fairly easy for me to trace on the map where we had gone as we moved from classroom to classroom. But I could see her point. I had wondered that the school system maintained four sets of cafeteria staff, but in fact they only needed two–the dining rooms were paired, sitting next to each other with a kitchen between. The relationship between the gymnasium and the auditorium was a lot less convoluted than it had seemed when we were moving through corridors to get there. And the logic of the strange lettering system began to come together as it appeared some of the letters actually stood for something (section G surrounded the gymnasium; section M was mostly maintenance). There were many things that were quite clear on the map which were not at all clear to the rats in the maze.
At the same time, the map failed to convey some of what we as rats had experienced. The relative positions of the gym and the auditorium occluded the fact that the location of the doors and halls required traveling around and between them to get from one to the other. The ramps on the map were most easily distinguished by where they were, while those in the building were distinguished because one went clockwise and the other counterclockwise. The obvious relationship of adjacent cafeterias on the map hid the distance a student had to travel to get from one to the other, since they were exited in opposite directions and on different levels of the building. And the map showed many shortcuts through administrative halls which were off limits to students during class changes.
I’m good with maps. I was a scout and a scout leader, and inside of about ten minutes I can teach any twelve year old of normal intelligence how to make a fairly accurate map. But I’m struck by the difference between reality and the representation of reality on paper. As I hiked in to my very first boy scout summer camp decades ago, the distance of about five miles was announced, and a fellow scout asked if it was a long five miles or a short five miles. It was, of course, a long five miles. Even contour maps fail to account for the rise and fall of terrain, and what to the crow is only a mile can go up and down quite a bit on the ground even if it appears straight on the page.
I drew mazes years ago; I even created a new sort of maze. Then I created a board game (slated to be published, eventually) in which players were in a maze. I played some video games after that, some of which presented mazes to solve and others simulated being in a maze. And I realize that looking down on a maze and being in one are two entirely different problems.
What I’m trying to get at here is, how can we move further from the fact that our worlds are maps on paper, and better experience them as three-dimensional places with all the convolutions and uncertainty that real space creates?
I have read a number of tips for miniatures players which suggest ways to reveal sections of the map (on the table) as they are discovered by the characters. I would like to suggest that you take this further, and remove sections of the map from the table which are out of sight behind them. One way to do this is to build the map of smaller pieces of paper, and place them on the table as they are entered, removing them as they are left. In similar vein, if you are not playing with miniatures, be strict about maps and mapping. For example, if the players are traveling in darkness, they are not permitted to make a map or to look at one as long as it is dark. Further, if the players are making a map, one of the characters must be making it as part of the actions in the game–and that player is the only one who is permitted to look at the map unless one of the other characters does so in the game. Cutting players off from the map that their characters don’t have will go a long way toward divorcing them from that god-like “view from above” that makes book mazes so much easier than hedgerow mazes.
Think three-dimensionally. I know we talked about that before, but it bears another look. If you’re designing something multi-storied (buildings, dungeons, spaceships), think about where things are from level to level–that is, if you cut a hole in the floor right here, where would you come out? Remember that in many cases things don’t have to be perfectly lined up. One of the reasons the high school was so confusing was that it was a split level design–the upper level was immediately above the lower level, with the middle level overlapping beside and between them. This meant that a few steps up from the bottom or down from the middle put you on the same level (which is why those cafeterias seemed so far from each other and yet were so close). A step down here, a short ramp there, a sloping auditorium, an entrance to the dais, a stage door, a sunken room that’s three steps down on this side but only two steps up on the other, and before you know it the characters doubling back are below an area they’ve already explored above. A section of a level that is accessed from above or below can be unexpectedly disorienting to players, who may not realize that they are standing on the other side of a wall they examined last time they were here.
Variations on the split level theme can be particularly useful in three-dimensional design. A crawlspace under a stairway, a maintenance space between floors, a room that spans several stories, a balcony or a pit–all can challenge the dimensional thinking of your players. What’s under that sloping floor in the auditorium? How do they change the lights in the ceiling? Put bits of the complex in the strange spaces created by others. What’s under the stage? What’s above it?
Be mindful of environmental limitations on perception. The interior of a dark cave is difficult to see even with lights. In a large cavern, a torch or oil lamp or even a Coleman™ lantern probably won’t illuminate the far wall, maybe not the ceiling; and if it’s in your hands here, it won’t illuminate the floor beyond the ledge ten feet in front of you. A flashlight pointing ahead in the same place will probably show a bit of the floor and maybe some dust in the air before vanishing to nothing–like trying to shine it at the moon. I’m reliably told that when you stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Colorado, it looks like the postcard–it looks so exactly like the postcard, because it is so vast you lose your ability to comprehend the depth, and so it all looks flat, as if painted out in front of you beyond reach. Don’t make the mistake of believing that because the characters are in the huge room they know it’s a quarter of a mile to the other side. They know it’s more than a hundred yards, maybe a lot more; but if they want dimensions, make them measure them. Otherwise, vastness is what they know.
Perhaps this time I have tackled a question for which my answers are not entirely adquate. That’s all right. I’ll look for your solutions to this on the forums, and then I’ll have something to try in my games.
Next week, something different.