Wednesday, June 20, 2012

City Maps, Part 1

I tend to both love and hate the city maps that are produced for RPGs. Almost universally they're pretty to look at but largely useless, unless your idea of being useful is hanging on the wall between posters of a Lamborghini Murcielago and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. I stare at those posters as much as the next guy, but I want my maps to be useful as maps and as gaming tools. Which begs the question, what makes a map useful gaming tool?

In real life, we use maps to find our way around unfamiliar terrain. In games, we tend to let dice rolls and narrative necessity fill that role.

Let’s start with a bad example. The first map of Waterdeep is a good illustration of a map that stirs the imagination but conveys little useful information. I barely consider it a map at all; it’s a wall hanging, pure and simple. The second map is only slightly better. It looks like a real map, but beyond providing the names of a few places, it still doesn’t tell me much.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve collected a few samples of city maps that scratch a different itch from posters like the ones above.

Old Artistic Maps

A map can look good on the wall and still provide plenty of useful information. Victorian cartographers seemed to be especially good at creating such maps. These two samples are clear and attractive guides to the monuments of Paris. I could use either of them in D&D to great effect.

Tourist Maps

If you’re a traveler spending a few days in town to rest, resupply, and possibly have a short adventure -- you’re essentially a tourist. You want to know the city’s highlights, and tourist maps are about the clearest, most useful guides you’ll find. They show landmarks and major streets, which are what the casual tourist cares about. The two previous maps were basically tourist maps done in a flowery style. Modern tourist maps aim for simplicity, which means they’re easier for amateur cartographers such as DMs to imitate.

Zone Maps

One thing that city maps tend to be especially bad at is regulating movement. How long does it take to get from the Wyck River Gate to the Old Bailey? Assuming the map has a scale at all, the DM would need to get out a compass or a ruler to measure the distance, divide it by the characters’ speed, and then add some fudge factor to account for congestion on the streets. Admittedly, this sort of information is often unnecessary, but an element of time pressure can make a city adventure especially exciting.

The simplest way to manage travel time is to divide the city into zones. Each zone takes the same amount of time to cross. Where the streets are narrow, twisty, and crowded, the zones are small. Where the streets are broad and traffic moves smoothly, the zones are large.

These sample maps aren’t drawn with speed of movement in mind, but they show what such a map could look like. In essence, it’s a game board.

Tomorrow, I'll show off some unusual approaches to city maps taken by games.


  1. Very nice- and I agree completely. I love Harn, old WHFRP, and Rolemaster classic city maps, but most aren't helpful when I actually go to run.

  2. My favorite city map has always been the City-State of the Invincible Overlord from Judges Guild. I think it qualifies as useful and a fine wall hanging. In fact its over my desk now. Great post.