I am going to start DMing Tomb of Annihilation soon; my question is mostly about the cities of Baldur's Gate, Nyanzaru, and Omu.

I see two options on how I can introduce the city to them:

  1. I could show a city map to the players once their characters visit the city.
  2. I could use a text-only description of the city until the PCs find or buy a map of it.

What are the pros and cons of letting the players see the city map?

I am not sure if it would be OK to just give the city map to players for free. But it would make city navigation much easier for them. What are the positive and negative effects of doing so? Will there be any unintended side effects of this approach?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    May 17, 2019 at 18:09

2 Answers 2


Both approaches are valid, and solve different problems for different groups.

Showing the map

  • Showing the map gives players a menu to choose from. If they're having trouble spontaneously deciding where to go next, this is a really useful tool.
  • A map can really give a wonderful visual sense of the place you're in. It can pin down the idea in the players' minds that they're in a particular city, rather than leave it abstract.
  • The map isn't necessarily a literal map available to the player characters (something which may be unrealistic). It can serve as a non-literal representation of a place which the players could reasonably explore and familiarize themselves with over the course of a few days.
  • The map can be used as a tactical representation of position or movement, such as a chase scene or ambush encounter. It can help answer questions like how far apart two different characters are when a fight breaks out, and how long it will take them to rush to one another's aid.
  • There's a real cool factor in seeing a map of a famous locale, like the Baldur's Gate.
  • It's an opportunity to make a hand-out.

Not showing the map

  • The players may be overwhelmed with all the options. Instead of helping them decide where to go, it may hinder them.
  • Some players will find it unrealistic to be shown a map. Accurate, detailed, up-to-date maps of cities just aren't readily available to most visitors to a fantasy city, and players may feel that being shown a map implies the unlikely existence of such a map in-world, which hinders immersion.
  • The map may constrain player or DM ideas. For example, for plot convenience the DM may want to assert that the only potion shop in the town was destroyed in that last fight, but the map could betray the DM by showing the location of several other potion shops.
  • A map available to all players makes it harder to have them get lost in the city, which hinders the DM if they wish to use this as a plot contrivance.
  • The players might waste time exploring a city instead of following the plot or exploring dungeons.
  • The DM needs to spend time learning the map to be prepared for the players' questions.
  • The players may feel that they know the map better than the DM, such as by owning the book or a previous appearance of that location in another book or game. This may undermine the DM's air of authority when the contradict what the player thinks they know based on their copy of the map. (You can, of course, just insist that their map is outdated.)
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    \$\begingroup\$ For point 2 on the “not” - city maps were not unusual in the late medieval/early renaissance period - if your world has printing (or magic that does the same job) city maps could be if not common than at least not unheard of \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Apr 28, 2019 at 9:13

"...[W]ould [it] be OK to just give city map to players for nothing?"

Yes. If you think that discovering the city slowly through exploration doesn't add to their and/or your fun, then handing them the map or menu is a perfectly valid way to handle towns. I often list places in a town when the party arrives menu style. I don't bother with town maps, unless it becomes important -- i.e. something splits the town in two. The outline/menu make adding places if the party asks for a place to buy something I wasn't expecting more believable, as I don't pretend my spoken "menu" is everything in town, just the highlights. I also keep some store information for common types of shops I can drop into any city, in case they want a forge or a magic shop. Once I place that shop in a city I move the description to the city, so I don't accidently have two identical shops with identical product offerings in two towns.

" Will there be any unintended side effects of this approach?"

There aren't any unintended side effects, all the side effects are the known -- the players know where things are, and don't have to discover them, but they also don't get the "fun" of discovering them either.

"What is the usual approach here?" and "What are the positive and negative effects of doing [each]?"

It is not a Binary Option. There are more than just map and no map options.

  • Like I said above, I typically don't even have town maps. I have a short description and outline of the buildings and places. I read the party the names of the most prominent and relevant places, as potential places they might want to visit. The benifits is that it is more flexible, as you can add places in the town if the need arises. The downside is that you can lose the physicality of location of the buildings (unless you sorta plan it out and add notes about "down the river from..." or "to the east of ...").
  • I've seen streamers use a table size city battle map (1 sq = 10ft. instead of 5ft.) and "fog of war" uncover the map (construction paper and/or PostIts) as the party moves through. It is slightly more work to create the larger maps, and the interruption of removing the "fog" can slow down play -- but the feel of discovery is more organic like it would occur in real life.
  • There is also using a battle map, and unvelling the whole thing when they arrive. This requires a smaller town, and is more work, especailly if your battle maps aren't just paper, but 2.5D or 3D. This can allow for some truly beautiful table top sets, but you limited by the table size (thus have to have fewer places in town) and the preparation requires more time for setup.
  • The core D&D modules typically have a map and text descriptions so you can do either or both. They typically also provide a player map and a DM map (with where encounters and such are) so that you have a map that is safe to hand the player. Handing over a map is nice in that creates that physicality of where things are, and you can better judge "travel time" in the city between locations. The downside is that there are a set number of buildings on the map. While you can turn an unlabeled building into something you need for story or player request, "Sure, that one right there is the bakery." It is more obvious it wasn't planed for (can hurt some player's suspension of beliefs -- I've heard), and if all the buildings on the map are taken up, you're left to hand-wave or build new map at the fringes.
  • When my players got to a town I didn't expect them to reach or want to go to in a session and hadn't planned the details of that city yet, I've lead with a vague description of typical architecture and/or types of people they see on the street. Then I've asked them "What do you want to do?" They were like, "Oh, it's a town. Is there a place to buy..." and "Is there a tavern to ask ask around about..." and it worked out quite well. It meant more on the spot pressure for me to write notes, so I know who is the town if they come back.

Do What Works

So the thing that works best for your game, prep and players to make the game as smooth and fun as possible. If that means exploration and discovery, giving them a town map, or something in between, then do that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Added. Thanks for the suggestion. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 25, 2019 at 16:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ You've got some great info here, but it doesn't answer the question as it's currently asked. Unless this is a frame challenge? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Apr 25, 2019 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Edited to fit the new form of the question. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 25, 2019 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Really nice and complete answer, will help me a lot when I'll start DM, thanks. You may add that showing maps or not can be a point to talk about at session 0? (Even if it can be deducted from your "Do What Works" part) \$\endgroup\$
    – Zoma
    Apr 29, 2019 at 8:13

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