The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role

In 1977, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, I noticed that the dwarf description included a lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players draw the accurate maps needed to keep characters alive. Sloping floors and shifting walls made more than a nuisance. In the mega-dungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured characters too deep threatened their lives. Lost explorers deep in a sprawling multi-level dungeon could run out of resources before they got out. Originally, the spell find the path found an escape path.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. The original rules present mapping as half of the game. In the example of play, the referee—the title of dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the dialog reciting dimensions. The rules’ example of “Tricks and Traps” only lists slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to vex mappers. The text’s author, Gary Gygax, suggests freshening explored parts of the dungeon by adding monsters, but also through map “alterations with eraser and pencil, blocking passages, making new ones, dividing rooms, and filling in others.”

Despite the emphasis, many gamers found mapping less compelling. By 1976, the first D&D module Palace of the Vampire Queen included players’ maps to spare explorers the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had changed from mapping challenges into skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

Today, only players who play D&D in an older style draw their own maps as they explore a dungeon.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In that original example of play, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?

Blackmoor scholar Daniel H. Boggs describes mapping’s appeal. “If the DM is running the game with a proper amount of mystery, then mapping is one of the joys of dungeon exploring. In my experience, there is usually at least one person in the group who is good at it, and it is lots of fun to see your friends pouring over maps trying to figure out where to go or where some secret might be.”

In 1974, D&D seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love—just less love than the game’s best parts. Then, exploring a hidden version of the game board seemed revolutionary. Even the wargames that relied on umpires to hide enemies from opposing players let everyone see the terrain—and only a tiny community of enthusiasts played such games. In 1975, when Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre attempted to explain dungeoneering to potential players, he could only reach for a slight match. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon. He tells the players what they see and observe around them.”

As fans of competitive games, D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax relished tests of player skill more than many D&D players do now. To the explorers of the mega-dungeons under Blackmoor and Greyhawk, map making became proof of dungeoneering mastery. In the game’s infancy, different groups of players mounted expeditions as often as Dave and Gary could spare them time. Separate groups might compile maps and keep them from rivals.

While recommending slanting passages and sinking rooms, Gary seemed to relish any chance to frustrate mappers. Describing a one-way teleporter, he crows that “the poor dupes” will never notice the relocation. “This is sure-fire fits for map makers.”

Dave favored fewer tricks. Daniel Boggs writes, “Arneson would actually help map for the players by drawing sketches of what players could see in difficult to describe rooms.” In early 1973, Dave Megarry, a player in the Blackmoor campaign and designer of the Dungeon! board game, mapped much of Blackmoor dungeon during play. Megarry’s maps proved more accurate than the versions published in The First Fantasy Campaign (1980), a snapshot of Arneson’s Blackmoor game.

Still, Dave Arneson expected players to show mapping skill and deal with setbacks. In a 2009 post on the ODD74 forum, he wrote, “A referee ‘happy moment’ was when the mapper was killed and the map lost. ‘OK guys now where are you going?’ What followed was 15 minutes of hilarious, to me, fun. A non-player character gave them a general direction. Another was when the mapper died and the players couldn’t figure out how to read the map. Again an NPC saved them.”

“In terms of tricks, Arneson primarily relied on complexity,” Boggs writes. Despite ranking as the first dungeon ever, Blackmoor includes rare vertical twists. “The combination of connecting shafts, pits, elevators, and literally hundreds of stairs across levels is just astounding. There is also the fact that the dungeon is segmented, so portions of certain levels could only be accessed by stairs on other levels or via secret doors. Secret doors abound in Blackmoor dungeon and most of Arneson’s dungeons.”

Nowadays, the task of transcribing explored rooms and halls to graph paper lacks its original novelty, but turning unexplored space into a map brings as much satisfaction as ever. Sometimes as my players explore, I draw the map for them on a grid. For some sessions, I bring a dungeon map hidden by scraps of paper fastened with removable tape. Players can become so eager to reveal rooms that they vie for the privilege of peeling away the concealment. While running Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I loaded the maps on a tablet and concealed them under an erasable layer. All these techniques eliminated the chore of mapping for the pure fun of discovery.

6 thoughts on “The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role

  1. Luke Holbrook

    Interest8ng stuff as always. This inspired a thought. I’ve had a thesis that D&D and classic video games represented two competing models of gaming, one about player skill and the other about in-game character progression. Your success playing Asteroids was because you, the player, got better at it; your little digital ship didn’t get better as the game got harder. In D&D, your success was significantly determined by the fact that your character improved over time by leveling. While video games greatly exceeded RPGs in commercial success over time, the D&D model eventually became an integral part of video games; even in Super Mario your progression is dependent on accumulating more powerful resources.

    One thing this article made me notice is that, at its outset, D&D still retained a lot of the video game model: the game was about player skill, not character power. Mapping, careful investigation, and creative use of the imaginary environment were more valuable than having a high ability score or a class feature, at least initially. If your character had Intelligence 6, you didn’t say, “Well, I could figure out this puzzle, but my character is not smart enough to do so.” Your character’s life depended on you, the player, figuring out the puzzle, regardless of your character’s abilities. In this sense, playing D&D was playing Asteroids. Today, all of the functions described above can be subsumed by rolls, and therefore can be “solved” through character building.

  2. Ilbranteloth

    Although it probably has something to do with the fact that I have been DMing for over 40 years, players drawing out maps continues in our game. I often have a lot of new players, but it’s something that they all seem to enjoy.

    It’s not something that occurs all the time, and is almost always something the players spontaneously choose to do themselves, probably because we still play almost entirely theaters of the mind. Depending on the circumstances, I will often sketch out something to help, other times I may have a map prepared if there are a lot of details.

    It’s really through the course of play that the ‘PCs decide’ they need a map to ensure they don’t get lost. Once a group decides that a map is helpful, I provide some guidance if none of the players have made a map in D&D before.

    That’s where I think we differ the most, and why they continue to make them frequently once I explain how I map when I’m a player (which hasn’t happened in over 30 years at this point…). We did have a period where I had cardboard squares and could lay it out, then the Dwarven Forge pieces, but we didn’t always use them (both took up a lot of space).

    I remember early on making maps ‘the D&D way’ with the DM providing dimensions and trying to get orientation of rooms correct, etc. While I disagree that is was ‘half of the game,’ it was time consuming. Particularly when the mapper and DM would have to ensure that the mapper was getting something correct they could clearly see.

    But it dawned on me early on, that if I were a PC actually making a map, it would be very different. To start, graph paper didn’t exist. But ultimately, as an explorer, I would only create a map in certain circumstances, and the primary purpose is to avoid getting lost, or to be able to backtrack and get out.

    As soon as I/we realized that, and focused on map-making as something a PC is doing, and not a player, the maps got much simpler. It doesn’t matter if this room is 30’ long or 40’ long, rectangular or L-shaped, etc. The most important information is to map the intersections and choices. Sometimes we made a line drawing, sometimes a drawing with small rooms but not to scale, other times it’s just a list of intersections and the choices we made. We noted interesting locations, or rangers such as traps, monsters we avoided or what looked like lairs, etc.

    Once Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out, this quickly evolved into one of many things players started noting in Adventure Journals, which enhanced immersion even more, and also meant that the players now had multiple maps, as they would draw a map in their journal between sessions from notes taken during the session, just as their PCs did when camped for the night.

    Another factor did influence this. In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, the focus of many gamers, including us, was more ‘realism.’ This covered a lot of things, from a world that had poetry, song, and recipes, to thought given to ecology, demographics, economics, and things like that in building your setting. A part of that for us was getting away from the ‘graph paper dungeon’ where we designed dungeons to fit a piece of graph paper. I had been spelunking, for example, so I wanted to put the players through something more like a real cave. So trying to match my maps was relatively pointless. But it also meant I wasn’t designing maps in the competitive D&D mold, or actively trying to foil the mappers. Yes, in a world with magic there are still some things that crop up, but they also make sense in their placement.

    I mentioned we had used the cardboard squares and Dwarven Forge pieces. Those didn’t last long (neither did battle maps), because they all did the opposite for us. They drew our attention to the game and the mechanics in this world, rather than immersing them in their characters living within this world.

  3. Beoric

    I think for Gygax, in keeping with his wargamer origins, part of the challenge of the game was the management of logistics. So he turns PC health into a resource management problem by the use of hit points, and magic use becomes a resource management problem by use of Vancian magic, and treasure extraction becomes a logistical problem by creating a standard of unrealistically heavy coinage.

    And so accurate mapping, and the consequences of failing to map accurately (mostly getting lost), are both a navigation challenge (both in terms of finding your way around and in terms of revealing the likely existence of hidden areas) and a resource management problem (if you get lost or wind up too deep in the dungeon, you need more resources to escape). And if that kind of challenge is the reason you are playing the game, then the time it takes is part of the fun.

    It really needs to be approached differently if you game in a different playstyle. I still use PC mapping as part of my game, but I use it as a way of presenting interesting choices. For example in my game, mapping in detail seriously slows down movement, which results in wandering monster checks. Moving at walking speed you can generally traverse a whole dungeon in a few minutes, thereby avoiding such checks; but mapping slows exploration to a crawl. So the price of having a map is risking encounters with wanderers; and the price of avoiding that risk is not having a map, and likely getting lost.

    Since I usually play with a VTT, if they are mapping then the fog of war is removed as they travel, and if they are not mapping it does not. I avoid a lot of Gygaxian tricks to confound mapping because they are difficult to express on a VTT. For instance, passages that pass under or over other passages, or teleportation rooms that transport you to a different room facing a different direction (properly using the teleportation rooms in In Search of the Unknown required me to prepare four different VTT maps in different orientations, which is not ideal). Using the fog of war in a VTT removes a lot of the tedium from mapping, although even before VTTs the practice in my group was for the DM to trace maps for the players as the PCs explored (which takes up a lot less table space than laying out the full map on the table).

    Mapping procedures also have utility in an exploration focused game where hidden areas are missable (secret doors are in non-obvious places, or DCs are high enough that missing them is a real possibility). There is a certain pleasure involved in recognizing that there is a big blank spot in the map that contains an area you would have missed otherwise.

    But it has a lot less utility in gaming styles that are less challenge based, or have more structured challenges.

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