Mapping—or not-fun things that Dungeons & Dragons players learned to skip, part 1

In 1978, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons basic set, I noticed that the dwarf description included 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 keep the chore of mapping from becoming maddening.

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. Map-keeping dominated play as much as combat. In the original example of play, the referee—dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the game reciting dimensions.

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 the same example, 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?)

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax relished any chance to frustrate mappers. The original rules’ half page of “Tricks and Traps” lists nothing but slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to waste graph paper. In this game, the dwarf’s slant-and-shift sense became essential. If you wanted to survive, someone played a cleric; if you wanted your game to not suck, someone played a dwarf.

The text described dungeons as “mazy.” Gary wasn’t kidding.

Original D&D described dungeons as “mazy.” Gary wasn’t kidding.

The original example of play should have included this addition:

Mapper: I cannot believe the referee teleported us into another goddamn Maze.

Caller: I suppose a mountain of fun games will be invented in the next 40 years, but for now the only alternative is Monopoly.

Mapper: Sigh. I search for secret doors.

To be fair, the sloping floors and trick staircases made more than a nuisance. In the megadungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured PCs deeper threatened their lives. Traps that blocked a mapped escape from the dungeon prevented players from resting and re-equipping.

Deathmaze 5000 offered a true test of map keeping

Deathmaze 5000’s revolutionary first-person view offered  mappers a true test

Perhaps Gary also thought map-keeping let players practice the skills of imaginary dungeon explorers. But explorers would see the place they mapped. From a first-person view, mapping is entirely different than translating spoken descriptions. I learned this playing Deathmaze 5000 long before computer programmers went soft and made dungeon games with automatic mapping, or saved games, or that players enjoyed.

By 1976, Palace of the Vampire Queen included player’s maps to spare players the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had turned from mapping challenges to skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

For years, mapping formed a part of D&D that players tolerated, but that few questioned. Then, this revolutionary game seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love, just a lot less than the game’s actual fun parts.

17 thoughts on “Mapping—or not-fun things that Dungeons & Dragons players learned to skip, part 1

  1. Geoffrey Greer

    Enjoyed this reflection, David. I’ve always thought that mapping was stupid. We used to do it all the time with 2nd edition, but then it seemed ridiculous and unrealistic. I mean, if we accept that the player-characters have the time and luxury to make a reliable map (and often times the DM would assist to make sure they were correct!), then why bother? Just let the DM answer all the questions you might have and direct you accordingly? And if the DM *wasn’t* clear with directions/descriptions, then there’d be an argument when discrepancies emerged.

    Of course, with the advent of erasable, gridded mats, or even model dungeon-construction toys, mapping became unnecessary, and the “fog of war” was all you had to worry about.

    I dislike mapping so much because of the immense time-suck, that I even look for ways to not have to make maps in the first place–AS A DM. lol During the 2E days, I had a copy of Ruins of Undermountain, but we never played that for what it was. I just looked for small sections of the map that had the kinds of tunnels and rooms I wanted, photocopied the area, then used a marker to black-out the sections I didn’t need so the map would be self-contained. A few notes in the margin, and then ta-da! A dungeon map. I have long sought a good system for random dungeon generation, since nobody really cares about the *shape* of the dungeon as much as the *adventure* inside it.

  2. Timothy Park

    I grew up on the old style of mapping and part of the custom of our tables back when was that the DM never assisted. It was a rare and treasured thing to find a map in an adventure which meant that the DM would hand over a map of varying quality and reliability that we could work with.

    However, we also were fairly clever in how we mapped to minimize time loss.

    First, there was the ritual “map speak” which is all but a foreign language to most players these days, but the truth was that in constructed structures (not naturally occurring or for some reason grossly irregular) one could quickly master the form and produce pretty good maps. This broke down some in caverns and such, but was still pretty good and let us focus on the odder bits we’d run into.

    Second, there were descriptive maps. These were for the occasionally illiterate party, or for parties traveling without a light source. If you could justify that your character or a character in the party had command of good memory or other mnemonic skills a DM would allow you to write out directions to the best of your ability. “Walked 50 paces, found a T, turned right. Walked 40 paces, door.” for example.

    Third: Enough of us had done enough programing that flowchart templates were ubiquitous about the tables. We rapidly hit on the fact that often you didn’t need a detailed grid map but that boxes and ovals and such could represent spaces and lines with appropriate notes for distances/travel times and conditions were sufficient for tunnels and corridors and the like. Quick, fairly easy, and a decent way to represent a party moving fairly quickly through a delve assuming good observations skills and decent memories.

    Fourth: Usually supplementing the flowchart maps were more detailed graph paper maps of particular areas where we thought we might need detail. We kept better track of time passing back then, and in exchange for spending game time making a more careful survey we might get anything ranging from a detailed description of an area and a number of questions as to features to the DM occasionally drawing it out for us. This represented extra time taken in game to pace off, measure, examine and carefully explore. It also came at the cost of that many more random encounter rolls and potential encounters.

    I frustrate players when I DM because I am fairly tight fisted with maps. I do sketch battlemaps and the like, of course, but between areas, they are on their own. So far we manage. When I took a turn in a player’s seat, recently, I kept fairly good maps and on a couple of occasions insisted on closer examination of certain areas when things didn’t quite match up. The result — to the great surprise of a reluctant party — was locating two hidden treasure rooms which pretty much made the adventure worthwhile from a financial standpoint.

    I think some of the trade-off anymore is a mix of the nature of what the game has become and the rewards it generates. Players are more after racking up experience points and leveling. Back when it was longer hauls between levels and we looked more for the items, wealth and other things that would provide both means to continue adventuring and “the edge” that would help us survive the long haul between levels. There were frequent trips “back to town” or to a base where we had to spend time and money to level. Now, the effects of leveling are usually allowed to be immediate and cost nothing, and it happens regularly enough that there isn’t much need to return to base. Further, most of the published adventures don’t really provide for the breaks that were once needed to regroup and heal up.

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Timothy,
      I enjoyed your account of how you turned mapping into a fun component of your game. Thanks for adding a different perspective!


    2. Eric S

      I also loved making maps of our adventures and usually designated myself the cartographer. I also took somewhat decent notes of what was going on and who said what in a journal, which added to the fun and reminiscing.

      Rarely was I able to find a hidden passageway via my maps, but they did help now and then.

  3. Cory Cardwell

    Fun post.
    My group just started another portion of their campaign this past session where they were delving into a more traditional dungeon crawl scenario. Remembering back to my childhood and all the mapping that we did then, I thought that was going to be creative and make the party map out their quest just as in the old days. I pulled out the graph paper and even had plans for a few teleportation rooms to add to their confusion. I thought surely this would give people that feel of gaming when we were younger.
    That plan lasted all of 10 minutes and I went right back to the erasable grid map. Someone said it well above, ‘nobody really cares about the *shape* of the dungeon as much as the *adventure* inside it.’
    In the end, it was all nostalgia for the days gone by. I learned my lesson that the game evolved for a reason.
    Perhaps next week, I will type my game notes out on my electric type writer.

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Thanks! Your story makes my point in about a quarter of the words. I love it.


  4. Leon

    I hadn’t thought about this before. Back in the day I don’t think we did much mapping, but then I stopped playing for a very long time. Now that my kids are old enough I’m introducing them to the game (1e AD&D ftw!). Generally speaking the older one tries to map (on plain scratch paper, no graph paper) and I offer help. I’ll even crudely draw portions for them myself–freehand, leaning over the table and sometimes with my off hand. As I see it, the point of mapping isn’t so much to give them a challenge as helping give the players a visual for this place they’re exploring, and a rough idea of what they’ve already explored and what paths they haven’t taken yet.

  5. Darrin

    For me, fun trumps all else. If your players enjoy putting in effort mapping every square inch, then make ’em do it.

    If it is a chore, then don’t.

    There are a lot of sacred cows (baggage) that come with this cherished and evolving game. Many need to be gutted and tossed on the pyre. Which ones depends entirely on your group.

  6. The Maze Master

    Mapping is an irreplaceable component of the classic gaming experience. A trained game master and mapper are quick and accurate with creating maps – and yes! It is a gaming skill that must be learned. The goblin. The orc. The green slime. These are not your ultimate enemy. Your enemy is the maze itself. If you do not map, you never find your way out. You die. The time it takes to map heightens the suspense. Played correctly, the mapper will soon have many eyes looking over his shoulder, hoping beyond hope that there is no mistake.

    It is possible to gloss over the map and just assume that the characters are doing it. Yes, that is always an option, and with groups pressed for time, sure, they may want to “cut to the chase.” However, doing so allows a group to assume they will be safe or at best reduce the tension of the endless maze to a simple die roll or two. Mapping creates tension over the whole session.

    Map details can even radically change a fight. Knowledge of the map gives thieves places to hide and ambush enemies with the famous backstab attack. Knowledge of the map reveals new strategies and tactics against foes. The distance between rooms becomes very important when laden with treasure. How much time is needed to reach the exit? Check the map. How far away?

    In movies, we often “fast forward” to the good parts. But in the game world, especially one in which we value immersion, leaving the mapping out takes something away from this experience. I am not saying that such a game cannot be fun. But there is something decidedly unique about the experience of exploration where all the secrets are not just handed to you as a part of a straight line narrative, but must be wrestled for, uncovered, and sometimes, paid for with the very lives of the adventurers in the dark.

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  9. Ruprecht

    I think the secret to not having mapping suck the life out of the game is for the GM to consider how they are going to explain something before they put the strange shaped room on their map in the first place. Pre-drawing the room ahead of time on an index card perhaps? Scribbling it out right then and there, probably. Trying to verbally explain it, time for everyone to take a Mountain Dew break.

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  11. Ilbranteloth

    Many, many years ago we figured out that the “standard” style of player mapping was unnecessary. A simple line map is fine, and in many cases my players simply make line drawings of intersections with a note on which way they went.

    The “aha!” moment was understanding that the primary purpose of the map was to be able to get back out.

    It’s still an important part of our game, and is very important because the often find themselves in some very large dungeons. I’ve used maps of the Paris and Rome catacombs in the game, and in some cases they spent several months of game time in the dungeon.

  12. ericscheid

    There’s also a shift in the shape of dungeons over the years. The early dungeon maps was a jumble of corridors and loops and switches and hidden rooms, while often the more modern maps are very linear. When you have a linear dungeon, there’s very little point in mapping.

  13. Connor

    It’s interesting reading all these perspectives as a somewhat “modern” D&D player gearing up to take on the challenge of running an AD&D session as close to the intended way as my players and I can stomach. I really admire and want to capture that experience of the map itself being a challenge in the exploration. However, as I’ve read the rulebooks I’ve realized that the game as written had a very different perspective on level design than I’ve developed over the course of my Dungeon Mastering and Game Development hobbies.

    The time and distance scales given in the Player’s Handbook make a lot more sense in context to the compact, literal-maze-type maps pictured in the post above, but I for the life of me just can’t imagine designing a dungeon that looks like that. Even as one who has regularly enjoyed games with those kinds of classic dungeons, I’m held back by my constant need to answer, “Who built this dungeon and what for?” Which then leads me to inevitably un-maze the dungeon to an extent.

    Perhaps if this new campaign lasts long enough to get into higher levels, I can throw a real “mad wizard” type dungeon at the players where such arbitrary dangers and design are self-justifying.

    In any case, if you’re still checking these comments all these years later, thanks for the post!


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