The Gassy Gnoll: Maps by Another Name (RPG Blog Carnival – RPG Cartography)

This week the Gassy Gnoll decided he’d talk about maps. But probably not in the way you’re thinking about them.

When Dyson Logos kicked off the April RPG Blog Carnival on his blog, A Character For Every Game, he mentioned his view of cartography. He speaks of the maps that have provided inspiration and dread for gamers since the dawn of Dungeons & Dragons and probably before. These are the maps, whether black & white or color, whether measured in squares of hexes, big or small, permanent or temporary, that have formed one of the boundaries of the shared storytelling that is tabletop roleplaying. And I love those maps.

But there are other maps. Maps of the corridors of the mind, of how plots and campaigns are defined, of the indefinable way we see the connections between PCs and NPCs, events, prophecies, and goals. These are much less codified. There is no compass rose to guide our way. And yet these unique impressions, whether created by gamemasters or players, whether written down or committed to memory, are another way to measure the length and breadth of an imagined world.

Some gamers use Mind Maps to define more concretely how ideas become realized in a world. I’ve not tried this, but I suspect I could draw out a mind map with my most recent character in the center and start mapping connections to NPCs, PCs, places, and events from the start of the campaign to where we stopped. And though there might be similarities, if other players or the GM tried the same exercise they might end up with very different results.

As a writer or GM, when I start a new project or get stuck in one I’m working on I’ll often use mind mapping tools to help me define whatever amorphous idea it is I’m working with. Pick a few words to describe what it is, break those words down into other words or impressions, and keep moving until you find a concrete angle with which to work. Sometimes you’ll end up down dead ends, but more often than not your brain will provide new relationships that you hadn’t considered before.

Basic Mind Mapping Process

  1. Find a blank piece of paper.
  2. In the middle write your main idea – the crux of the problem you’re trying to solve. Circle it.
  3. A little further out from your center circle, write a theme or secondary thought about the main idea. Circle it. Draw a line from the center circle to the new circle. Do this two to five times.
  4. Now take each one of those secondary ideas and repeat step 3, using one of the secondary circles as the center. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Some things to keep in mind during the exercise:

  • Mind map of the mind map guidlines.

    Image via Wikipedia

    Don’t worry if it looks like a huge mess. You’re not going for neatness here, you’re brainstorming for ideas.

  • Turn off the art critic part of your brain. Nobody cares if you’re drawing stick figures.
  • Don’t worry if some of the ideas seem silly or “dumb.” Everything is on the table. When your’re done you can discard anything you think sucks.
  • If you get stuck, focus a single word and brainstorm off that one word, using that as a central idea and spiraling out.
  • If things get too messy and you end up with some good things you want to explore, get out a new piece of paper and repeat the process with a new idea as the central circle.

Don’t stop with your mind map. Take any good ideas you got from it and write them down on another sheet of paper. If you can write more on those, then you’re on your way. If not, repeat the mind map exercise with any other good ideas until you end up with something concrete you can work on.

Simple outlines are another way to map out a concept from general headings to more specific ones. Take that mind map you just threw together and organize it to find a simple hierarchy and do some free writing on each topic. Who knows what might come up if you start writing about frazzled goblins from the underground city of pent?

(Looking for a good free tool for mind mapping on the computer? Check out FreeMind at!)

Final Thoughts

Maps of places are great. But they’re only part of the equation. Make sure you consider the other parts as well. A brilliant dungeon in the middle of nowhere does nobody any good unless your party can get there and has a reason to stay!

That said, I’m looking forward to seeing what folks come up with for actual cartography. I love maps!

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