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RPT Newsletter #001 | Mapping Dilemma – How To Stop Your Players From Yawning

Stephan Hornick

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Mapping Dilemma - How To Stop Your Players From Yawning
From JohnnFour | updated December 10, 2020

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #001

Introduction:
I hate to admit it, but I game mastered a “yawner” last night. My number one goal for each and every session is to entertain and players yawning is a sure sign I’ve missed my mark. While every game master has their off session now and then, I can pinpoint several issues which would have made my game session an exciting success. I’ll share these with you in upcoming editions so that you can learn from my mistakes, but today I’m going to focus on the biggest cause of last night’s downfall: mapping.
If you’re playing a story that involves mapping, here are three tips to ensure that your players don’t start to yawn by the end of the first corridor.

Put your own expectations and wants aside and walk a hundred miles in your players' shoes:
I thought it would be very exciting to have the players map their own way, possibly become lost and then desperately rifle through their self-made maps to find the solution. Some good old puzzle solving.
The reality was, one player struggled to make a map based on my verbal directions while the rest of the party sat there and grew bored. That was not fair to the other players and it wasn’t fair to the player who had the responsibility of mapping.
Next session I’m going to draw the map for the party. Sure, I feel there’s some potential excitement lost in my accurate rendering of the exploration map, but it sure beats tired yawns!

Establish a decision maker so that the “between time” between encounters passes as quickly as possible.
Last night, the party would approach an intersection and I would address all the players with the question “left or right?” This caused delays and confusion while they considered the decision.
Next session, I’m going to have the party decide on one person to give directions. If the party feels like going in a different direction, I’ll let them interrupt. This will greatly speed up play so we can focus on the meaty stuff.

If the decision of left or right becomes important to the story, give extra information so that the party has something on which to deliberate.
Because I did not provide any information, every decision of “left or right” became an irritating stoppage in play and every intersection became a bland choice.
Next time, I’m going to look ahead and see if I can provide some juicy information so that the choice is made more important and the play becomes more enjoyable for all.

For example,
“to the left is pitch black silence that goes beyond the light of your lantern–although you feel a slight breeze that carries a scent of rot. To the right you can hear a dull clanging sound from far, far away.”

Now, at least, there’s something worthwhile deliberating– especially if there’s a clue in there (i.e. the party is looking for a magic hammer).
The big lesson you can learn from my mistake here is to put aside your own feelings, take a pulse check during the game, and don’t be afraid to change things so that the players can have more fun.
 
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Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
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I can completely relate, Johnn! Although I would like the idea of a player (and his PC) drawing a map of the dungeon while they traverse it, it is almost always a 1-player fun. This one player (normally me, if I play once in a while) has much fun to cartograph the route, but the others don't seem very interested. Also, this one player becomes occupied with drawing instead of roleplaying.

This is again a great example of "a game within a game". If you were to make it a team effort, it would work. It directly follows the train of thought of
Paul Camp, a game designer who is specialized on puzzles and riddles in roleplaying games: Dungeonvault

For example, I once had my players investigate a cave system where pirates were believed to hide and attack ships nearby. Not one player had to draw a map, but all players received an actual puzzle part of the area they have just came to. They jointly glued it in the right position to a big cardboard sheet and deliberated on what way to follow and what might still be there and even whether a wall "seemed akwardly thin" and might have a secret area behind it. You see, it became a very different kind of game within the game, but the players had a lot of fun.
... and they only later noticed that a cave system is not 2-dimensional but 3-dimensional and some areas are above or below others.
For more details see here under Version 3, a cave map puzzle.


One additional tip from me: Don't ever let your players tell you "I continue walking". Just jump to the interesting areas and make storywise clear why they are interesting or important and what choice the PCs have.

A bad example from my experience was an aztec (Achaz) temple I created with much love, hours and hours in preparation of different areas and how they connect and how the doors are activated and what scenery to describe, what music to include, and I even drew everything myself in 2D and 3D... and what for? The players didn't even realize what I had in mind there, they entered, found a room, found another room, then another, and finally got bored. They were not engaged. They a) need to have a clear goal, b) a clear obstacle to overcome, c) clear ground rules that apply, (all three items from game theory) and d) summarize similar areas to make the whole exploration not too complex.


In addition, I always ask "Who goes first?" and then, this PC is the leader of the group and decides where to go. Of course, you absolutely need ways to decide and hints to what there is to find. Only then can the players make meaningful decisions. Two identical doors are confusing, to say the least.
 

JohnnFour

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Wow. Issue #1 from November 1999. Sent out to three people:
  • Myself
  • My backup address
  • A friend
I no longer have players draw maps. That game isn't fun to me.

VTT GMs don't have this problem, unless they're not using the mapping feature.

And Theatre of the Mind GMs also don't have this problem so much.

One really cool solution I was using pre-covid was tiles. I have a ton of them. I'd build my dungeon ahead of the game, take a photo, put them in a bag, and then lay the tiles down as the party explored. Worked great.
 

Outrider11us

New member
I use the dungeon tiles and the stuff that piazo puts out. I lay out whats going to used in the game, cover that with a clear acrylic sheet and a vinyl matt above till it comes to the reveal
 

JohnnFour

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Oh nice! You mean you have the map assembled near you and you pick off the tiles as needed? Smart.
 

JohnnFour

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Staples used to sell large pads with 1 inch squares, took some work before hand but had reusable areas
I have those too. A new player told me in the Before-Times that I was a decent map improv GM.

I thought about that comment for a while after the game. Nice complement, but I had to agree - I did hand draw all my battlemaps onto 1" square paper.

I have the Gamer Paper rolls. I like those better, because you can roll things up or as an Infinite Scroll to record a whole campaign's maps in one roll. That's really cool.

So the comment made me realize I improv all my maps by drawing them live during games. And I was missing an opportunity to "think" my maps in advance.

I'll be covering this concept in the Wizard of Combat program.

But I agree, drawing on 1" squares for minis use is excellent because it has player Fog of War built-in. It's fast as a GM to do. And it's great to pacing purposes.

You can also mess with the meta gamers a bit by drawing upcoming things partially, then revealing the twist details when they've committed.
 

Stephan Hornick

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@Outrider11us , @JohnnFour , could you please post examples of how that looks? I'm very interested, but of course, in Germany there is no Staples, so I'm not quite sure I understand completely.
 

Stephan Hornick

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Thank you very much. But didn't you say, you had some kind of vinyl matt tiles to represent fog of war?
 

Outrider11us

New member
My fog tends to be bad guys are other player character types, not basic monsters, players usually have monsters memorized. Hard to do with pc classes
 

JohnnFour

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@Outrider11us , @JohnnFour , could you please post examples of how that looks? I'm very interested, but of course, in Germany there is no Staples, so I'm not quite sure I understand completely.
Here's a pic of my tube of Gamer Paper and my pad of 1" graph paper from Staples.
 

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Gedece

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We usually GM theater of the mind, but the pandemic made us use more internet resources, such as pictures. We also sometimes use a hand drawn map on the spot to clarify if needed. And with the abundance of free online maps, sometimes one of us uses one for a while.
 
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