This entry is part 2 in the series Maps Have Three Parts
Map for an adventure by Carnifex courtesy of Cartographers Guild

Map for an adventure by Carnifex courtesy of Cartographers Guild

When mapping, I tend to focus on the corridors, rooms, streets, caverns and buildings. However, every map has more than just these areas; each has three zones in your design control. Next map you build, think of these zones and how you can change things up to be fun and interesting for your gaming.

This post focuses on zone 2, the spaces the PCs adventure in.

Improv the details

The best time to put flavour into maps is at the game table. You can certainly plan details out before game sessions, but they only benefit you. Details provided during sessions benefit players.

A little bit of improv about map details during games saves you a lot of planning time as well, so you can focus on higher priority items.

The best way I have found for improvising details is to visualize first, then tell. When drawing the map before the game, visualize the space you are creating. When drawing the map out for players during games, visualize the space again, and describe what you are visualizing.

This method gives you two mental run-throughs before you need to talk. The double-practice helps me a lot when trying to think up details on the spot.

By visualizing while you draw, you imprint the space better in your mind and associate it with the place you draw. This helps with remembering details, both long-term and while GMing.

The lines create a space

At the time of drawing, think about the spaces you create. What just seem like lines and patterns on a page are actually living, working or travelling areas. The lines close in on each other and create these spaces.

What are these spaces like? What kind of environments did the architects or builders create? Be a bit curious about the spaces on your maps as you craft them.

Picture yourself in each space, walk around a bit and think like an inhabitant.

For example, a 10’x10′ room. In one place it’s a bright reading room with soft carpet, comfortable chair and light beaming in from a high window. In another place it’s a stinking cell, chains hanging from stained walls and a drain on the floor to take away the torturer’s work. In another place it’s a quiet refuge of solitude, incense swirls around tapestries and sconces and stained glass colours the peaceful place with a soft red and blue glow.

Envision the inhabitants first

Another trick is to think of the dwellers and visitors first, then envision the place. Why was the place built and for whom? What amenities, services and storage was needed?

This not only gives you inspiration for furnishings and details, it also guides the map spaces and zones you create.

How tall and wide are the dwellers? How many arms? How did they move? In fantasy and sci-fi settings you can create interesting maps from spaces built for monsters and aliens.

Lighting and lighting effects

My favourite lighting effect in shows and movies from the 90s is the fan. Smoke or no smoke, the strobe and flickering effects of those fans added spooky and dramatic atmosphere to scenes.

Lighting in your mapped places does not need to be tactically reduced to just whether or not low-light or darkvision is required. Think up interesting ways to provide different kinds and levels of light:

  • Reflective ceiling
  • Stained glass
  • Small holes instead of windows, perhaps in patterns (clues)
  • Magic light fading – flickers or sparks
  • Painfully bright
  • Partially lit with dark shadow areas
  • Disco ball

Air quality

Here is a great way to get smell and taste senses into play.

It’s so hard trying to fit the five senses into your descriptions. The smell and taste of the air or atmosphere, though, is a perfect opportunity to trigger player imaginations.

Study your map:

  • Where does the air come from? Follow it to the source.
  • What places are between encounters and air source that could taint the air?
  • What things or nearby encounters could affect air quality and smell?

Ground and floor, ceiling

Something else overlooked on maps is footing and other ground features. As with light, switch up floor and ground types to make encounters and descriptions fresh. Think again about residents. Giant dire rats will make a nice nest in rooms that make footing tricky, slimes will leave behind pitted or slippery floors, guards might make watch marks or games on surfaces.

Same goes for the ceiling. Add chandeliers and stalactites to give flying PCs something to think about. Create nooks and holes for foes to hide – who looks up when assessing threats? Painters might decorate ceilings with delicious clues or world stories you can narrate.

Line of Sight

This is a personal favourite feature when creating my own maps.

Put yourself on the floor, into the map. How far can you see? What can you see?

For combat, line of site is important. Make twisty maps, with corners and offsetting doors and entrances so one can’t see far. Sharp corners also reduce lighting.

For roleplaying, line of site affects observation and spying. Create easy ways for NPCs to spot PCs talking with others to spur intrigue and rumour, and vice versa. Clear line of sight allows sound to travel better and lip reading.

Alternatively, close things up if you want to discourage this. Make it difficult to spot things by creating breakout rooms, corners, curtained areas, and so on.


Your design will impact movement. Charging lanes, bottlenecks and access points are examples of design considerations.

A classic GMing trap is players finding alternate and unexpected ways to access an encounter location. Recently I ran an encounter out of a module where guards and barricades were facing one direction, and the PCs entered through the rear door. That encounter was short and sweet, and if it was by design to reward clever PCs then great, but I got the feeling the designers had intended the PCs to make a frontal assault.

That wraps up the adventuring spaces on maps. Stayed tuned for the final part in this series coming next Monday: negative spaces. Subscribe to our blog via RSS feed or email to get notified when part 3 goes online.

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