Maps as a game mechanic

edited May 2008 in Story Games
I was browsing through a book shop the other day and found a map of Oxford, as it was in 1899, which was interesting but I couldn't think of a justification to buy it. It got me thinking, could you use a map as the main mechanic for a roleplay game?

I'm not talking about battlemaps here, but something more unusual.

My initial thought was for something like Geomancy / playing with leylines, which I may develop further at some point, but I was wondering if anyone else could think of a good use for a 'map as a mechanic'?


P.S. I'm not thinking map creation during play, like Black Fire or some other games (including my entry for GC), but using a pre-bought map.
P.P.S. If this isn't a new idea I'd be interested in what other people have done too.


  • I like maps a lot. I don't know how to use them in games besides the obvious ways ("you're in Oxford in 1899, and you're *here* and there's something happening *there*"), but I agree that it's a really neat idea.
  • I have the same dilemma. When I see a cool map, I want to grab it. But I can't always come up with a use for it. I have to discipline myself pretty seriously.

    Actually, that's a lie. I don't discipline myself at all.

    Here are some ways I use or have used maps:

    - As in Trollbabe, where each player gets to point at the map and say "I am here". You could probably do this with almost any kind of information graphic, like a relationship map or a timeline.

    - As a visual aid to put on the table as a way of establishing mood and focus. Maybe once in a while someone points at it to establish location, maybe not. This is awesome with historical maps. We did it with Renaissance Venice, and although the map wasn't really required for any utility, it did help keep the setting crisp in our minds. Something as simple as "oh yeah, there are canals here" can really help.

    - As a context for your campaign, like the map inside the front cover of a good fantasy novel, it's something to measure your campaign against. Maybe your game starts in the slums of Oxford, but ends up on a noble estate. Here's a neat gimmick: point to the map and ask the players to tell you where their characters live, just as a way of establishing characters.

    - To provide fodder for conflict. As Kynn says, you're here and you need to get there. Unfortunately, the shortest route is through a crime-ridden slum/ across a river/ through a noble's private preserve/ in an uncharted nebula.
  • My survival horror game Geiger Counter has drawing a map of the setting as a central mechanic. Locations have mechanical functions too. All scenes take place in fixed locations. Characters can be "trapped" in a single location as a result of losing a conflict. In the "Black & Gaunt" scenario, the zombies actually gradually occupy all the space on the board, herding the PCs into a smaller and smaller "safe" area (those rules came out of the last playtest, though, and haven't been written up yet). That's kind of a variation on the old battlemap theme, though, since it's spatially based.

    There's also a ton of thematic stuff you can do with diagrams, but I think you should talk more about your ley line idea, where you could map surges of magic energy through the local "curcuit."
  • I wanted to avoid talking about lewy lines, lest I steer the conversation that way an miss something interesting someone else may think up. I guess it's hard to avoid 'battlemap' or 'setting flavour' when it comes to maps. The thought occures that using a bit of red thread (representing the line between safe and infested) then tightening it like a noose around the player's position might be interesting for a zombie type game.

    That said, here's some of the ideas I had about ley-lines...

    Players are magicians/geomancer and have a sanctum marked on the map. Ley-lines are drawn on in pencil and must be moved by in-game actions to form magical symbols. The cross sections of ley-lines (nexus points / dragon nests) give a particular 'flavour' to the magic, i.e. if a nexus was on a quarry it would be good at fueling earth magic.

    Each spell would require a particular pattern of nodes to work, based on nodes and how they are connected, not the lengths of the lines (too fiddly).

    The game would probably be quite political, about who controls what nexus points, especialy since magic would be the slow ritual kind, nothing you cast on the fly (although maybe you could empower charms to let you sometimes). You could also add some Cthulhu-style evil cultists as antagonists.

  • I hear the upcoming Giants RPG uses maps in its system. Looks nice!
  • Damnation City, a Vampire: The Requiem supplement, has lots of different ways to use maps as modifiers in chases, hunts, influence battles, prestige, and so on. You might have to wear a helmet when you read it to avoid brain damage, but it's a great book.
  • I'm writing a game that uses the London Tube map as part of the resolution system. The map in this case is pretty abstracted.

    Reve de Dragon did something similar, High Dreamers, when they cast magic assend to another plane and move around to find a propitious spot for casting.

    Mutant City Blues, the forthcoming GUMSHOE product, uses a map of the relationship between various superpowers for character generation and as an in-game artifact for solving crime.
  • Steve's game in development, Koenig Hospital, has a map of the hospital. You move from room to room. There are patients in each room, each with different stories. And there is a secret ward in the hospital.

  • You can use maps to show how something has changed. I used to play The Morrow Project, and campaign play began by simulating a nuclear attack on the United States. By the time we'd figured out which SS-18's had hit what, which had gone off course, which had biological agent warheads, and which MIRVs were duds, we had a road atlas full of situation.

    I'm toying with a similarly post-apocalypse project where you toss coins onto a state road map and then trace the radius of each coin. These are zones controlled by local gangs, militias, mutants, or raging pockets of infection. Toss enough coins and travel becomes an adventure.
  • Jonathan didn't mention his other game that involves making a map as part of play: Transantiago.
  • edited May 2008
    Ha, that's because it's been ripped into tatters but not reassembled. But, yeah, you end up with subway maps like this:


    I also have a bunch of other smaller games that use diagrams, which aren't really maps, but do a lot of similar things. The one I'm most proud of is Mwaantaangaand, in which the monsters have an impact by changing what certain spaces on the board mean (the monsters are explicitly non-mechanical, they just affect how the imagery of the game is described, which I find really delicious). Here's an example:
    Kumayuwa / Jinga / Nyambango is a plague spirit associated with menstruation, “derived from a female relative who died a violent death especially involving the spilling of her blood.” Now corrupted, the ancestral spirit has possessed all who once lived in the place wherein she was loosed, making them spill the blood of all those around them, making the ground heavy and wet. She embeds Kala and Kala Rising (”birth”) with the meaning “Gore” at strength 5 (this potency is shared by those two spaces) and any characters currently in the Mpemba part of the diagram must deal with her arrival as if they were in an affected space.
    You could easily do something like that with a map as well, projecting certain effects onto parts of the terrain or characters currently in it, as if a witch was cursing an entire swath of territory or something. Or, like Jason said, bombing the hell out of something and dealing with the radiation effects afterwards.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarI'm toying with a similarly post-apocalypse project where you toss coins onto a state road map and then trace the radius of each coin. These are zones controlled by local gangs, militias, mutants, or raging pockets of infection. Toss enough coins and travel becomes an adventure.
    Yeah, I have something kind of similar to this in "How to Host a Dungeon". It's a game where you build a dungone by rolling dice onto a map and following the evolution of the monster ecology as it expands the dungeon.
  • ...following the evolution of the monster ecology as it expands the dungeon.
    This is brilliant. Having an ecology or a set of human cultures emerge through interaction with bits of the landscape is pure gold. I mean, don't get me wrong, watching the gelatinous cubes be fruitful and multiple is awesome, but there could be other applications of this as well.
  • Off the top of my head, what if your rolling, flipping, or what ever actually created the map? The 'landing spots' would be terrain features and different tossed tokens would represent different terrain. Similar to Jason's idea but back it up some more. A random map generator that the players could make themselves based on what they wanted to adventure into that day. Coins give you 4-5 different terrain types by themselves. Add dice and you get 5 or 6 more. Pencils as roads? Blocks as buildings. Toss them on the page and trace around them and you have your urban setting or dungeon. It is like the number generated map that was talked about a couple of months ago but more tactile.
    The ecology idea is really sweet. Environment shapes society.
  • I saw a couple draw-the-map-as-you-go games during the last Game Chef, but I haven't seen too many that use an actual, pre-published map as anything but a game board. That's an intriguing idea. I like maps, too.

    You could always include a mechanic where players all take a look at the map and write down a place on it (or some coordinates) on a 3x5 or scratch paper, then list something special about that area, something that's triggered when you move into it. Then you could have a set amount of events that you distribute and have those triggered by the movement of characters into different areas of the map. If you wanted to make it more sophisticated, you could split play into several timed stages and have each player list a different event for each stage (or even allow them to purposely skip a few stages here and there. There's no event at Fifth and Vine in the Crisis Stage.)

    You could have each player carry a map and use those maps as movement or who-gets-the-next-scene resolution by this method: each player picks a spot on their map and compares it with the spot the other players have picked (all players should reveal the spots they picked at once.) Depending on how close to the current target number or chart of map key symbols or secret word of the moment each player got, they'd have some control over the next phase of the game.
Sign In or Register to comment.