ack in high school, I was always the person who was asked to draw the map for our Dungeons & Dragons games. Not because I was all that talented at cartography, but simply because I was accurate. For my crew, accuracy was the most important aspect of cartography. They wanted to make sure we could get out of a dungeon when being pursued by a horde of angry orcs, find our way back to immense treasure that we hid, or negotiate a bevy of traps and pitfalls. So it probably comes as no surprise that I tend to favor accurate cartography, huh?
Cartography is one of those mad skills that I really appreciate. A good map is useful. A great map is a useful piece of art! I've had the honor of working with some amazing cartographers through the years. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with John Gallagher, who set aside his concept work for Hollywood for a bit to work on some old-school isometric maps for the Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition. It was great fun talking about different styles of maps and where cartography has gone through the years.
I've been a fan of cartography for many years. When I was quite young, I had the opportunity to visit a naval museum that had a whole mess of antique maritime maps—those extraordinary old "here be dragons" style maps. They were amazingly handcrafted. Each and every one of them was a treasure to behold. Needless to say, they weren't nearly as accurate as our modern-day maps, but our modern-day maps don't seem to capture the imagination or feed the soul the way those maps did. Although a GPS might be wonderfully useful, it certainly doesn't inspire wonder or hint at adventure when you look at the screen. Maybe someone will come up with a version that both talks in pirate and shows your map in an antique maritime fashion. Now there's a GPS I could get in to.
Now, let's tackle cartography as it relates to the D&D Next playtest. Let me start by saying that I don't have a lot of insight into where the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons will go at the moment. As you all know, we are early in the playtest process. There are lots of changes sure to come, and I'm sure those changes might have some impact on how we depict the world. I'm also sure that they might impact the mapping needs for the game. With that in mind, I'm not going to be talking about whether we should use hex-based systems, 1-inch grids, or other such mechanical structures for maps. The game design will drive that type of development. Instead, I'd rather just spend a little time talking about maps and how you use them in D&D.
Personally, I use cartography in a number of ways, both as a player and as a DM.
from TCNJ RPG
I use maps for information.
Big surprise, huh? Ultimately, a map should be useful. It can be the most amazing piece of art out there, but if it isn't useful, it is just a piece of art, not a map. I use these types of maps to tell me as much detail as possible. They tell me about terrain, hazards, conditions, and so on. My favorite maps make my job as a DM a breeze, and as a player, I feel prepared to take on a challenge.
I use maps to inform.
Okay, that might seem like I'm splitting hairs, but bear with me. As much as I love well-done and detailed maps, I'm also a huge fan of "treasure maps." You know the kind: the ones that give you just enough information to get from point A to point B and score the booty. This isn't a Fodor's map to the Underdark. It isn't informative except in this specific purpose. These types of maps inform, but they aren't necessarily informative. Semantics, I know, but it's all about flavor and intent.
by CrazyRed aka Brandon Kruse
I use maps to illustrate
Okay, another odd concept. Maps are generally used for finding your way. They allow you to see how to get from here to there. Sometimes we limit the way-finding to give a sense of space, depth, or scale. Isometric maps sometimes fulfill these requirements. Can they be used for figuring out how to get from one location to another? Sure, but they are limited when compared to the standard top-down style of mapping. There is something wonderful about a good isometric map. It really gives a sense of space. I love this style of maps, and I wish I could find more reasons to show them. They are tough to do well, though, and they're incredibly time-consuming to create. Just ask CrazyRed, Mike Schley, or John Gallagher, all of whom have done a few for D&D.
by Tony van Breugel
I use maps to tell a story.
I mentioned those old maritime maps I saw when I was young—those are maps that tell a story. They didn't just tell where an island was; they told a story about the trip to the island, what it was like, what its features were, and what it took to get there. There were often details written into the "margins" of the map that told more than some lines and color on a piece of paper. This is where the illustrated map comes into its own. The act of mixing storytelling and information design is an art form unto itself. I hunger to find cartographers who mix those two art forms. It isn't nearly as easy as it looks. In the contemporary realm, the maps used for entertainment venues and cities are often great examples of maps that tell a story. There is a melding of information for finding a way to get from one spot to another and storytelling.
Although some folks ask me to weigh in on map styles and say which is better and which is worse, I tend to stay out of that arena on a personal level. As you might be able to tell, I like all different kinds of maps, and I like to see maps used in different manners for different reasons. On a more professional level, a map is only a truly bad map when it isn't a useful map. If you can't use it for its intended purpose, it's a bad map. After passing the useful test, I think it starts to get into the art test. Art is a whole lot harder to judge. Deciding where the art starts to get in the way of the map can be tough. I'm constantly trying to balance between usefulness and presentation in cartography. Sometimes I get the mix just right, and sometimes not so much. I'll keep plugging away though.
How about you? How do you use your D&D maps? How many different types of maps do you utilize, and what is it about a map that is important to you? Are there specific cartographers that you appreciate, and who's your favorite (alive or dead)?
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.