Got writer’s block? Draw a map. This is one of the best ways to get focus, organize your thoughts, and get moving again on your campaign preparation.
Sometimes I’ll stare at a blank computer screen with a game session only a couple days away and wonder if I’ll have anything designed in time. What always works for me is to grab graph paper, pencil, and eraser and draw a map.
Best Maps to Draw
- Small maps. Drawing a huge map, such as a continent, to get your planning going again is going to open up too many options and create too much downstream work.Draw a small map instead. They are fast to create and have minimal footprint in the game so you don’t waste time and effort. You can add to the map if your idea takes off. If you are struggling for ideas, however, then you don’t commit to a big map until you’ve got something you’re happy to extend.
- Draw for encounters. I find encounter maps work best. Encounters are the building blocks of sessions. If you get no planning done other than a few encounters you can drop into next session, then you are covered.Encounter maps are small by nature, keeping inline with the tip above. You might even try drawing a five room dungeon.In addition, I find encounters inspiring to build. They are fast, and once I get one or more built, ideas for the rest of the session, world, or campaign start to return again.
- Regions. Small gameplay regions often give exactly what you need to get unblocked and creative again. With a space in the game world defined, you can start adding regional points of interest. Note ideas down at they come to you for each of these points.If the exercise is fruitful, then once you’ve got a few items added to the region, start to flesh out those items. If you get blocked on this, then draw maps for those items.
Example Mapping Session
It’s two days before game night and preparation feels uninspired. You take out a piece of paper and draw a triangular region bordered by a river, mountains, and monstrous territory. Within the region you locate a few villages, lairs, historical sites, and a couple of long-forgotten dungeon and ruin locations.
Next, you pick one village called Styrge, break out a new piece of paper, and map it. You add a few buildings, a road, some paths, and a few points of local interest inside the village and in the nearby area.
You are still not feeling creative yet. So, you crank out another map. You pick one of the stores and draw it out on another sheet of paper. It’s three storeys and has a cellar. You even add a secret room – what would the shopkeep want to hide in there?
Still stumped, you copy the store map and build an encounter in the basement. Subterranean creatures have dug into the basement and set-up a lair there. The PCs might here noise while passing by and investigate, the shopkeep might hire or beg the PCs for help, or kids might be overheard daring each other to go into the “haunted” cellar.
You are still blocked though. It occurs to you that the tunnels from the creatures might have touched upon an interesting location, such as a cavern or small dungeon a couple hundred meters underground. You draw a map for this and place a few hazards and encounters.
Blocked again. Back to the village looking for encounter opportunities. Maybe those kids know about other things going on in the village. If they have a mean streak they’d try to pull a prank on the PCs. Perhaps a boy has fallen into the well and floats unconscious. Just as a PC makes his way down the slippery well wall to the water, the boy opens is eyes and yells gotcha! Surprise might turn to pain as the yelling wakes the creature who calls the well its home….
You are still not feeling the ideas flow, so you turn to mapping out the tavern. Perhaps a tavern brawl might be a fun encounter. Another might be a ghost story told by the oldest living man in the village who sits by the fireplace each evening. Maybe his story is true. Sounds like you need another map.
A couple hours have gone by and you put down your pencil. DM block has won again because you still feel uninspired. Or has it? It seems like you have a region built, and one of its villages is mapped out along with some NPCs, and you have a session’s worth of encounters ready to drop in. Hey, you didn’t be too badly at all.
Many authors advise new writers to write all the time, even when they don’t feel like it. I think that’s why this mapping technique works so well. Even when you don’t feel inspired, you still get the work done, one map at a time. If you do get into the mood after drawing a map or three, then that’s a wonderful – success either way!