I DMed my first session last week. We are playing the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure from the D&D 5e Starter Set.

My players haven't yet entered the first "dungeon" but will likely do so next session (LMOP spoilers):

They encountered the first goblin ambush and barely won that fight, so they wanted to reach Phandalin as soon as possible to get into a safe place. They noticed when they reached the village that the two dead horses on the road and the fact that Gundren and Sildar never arrived to Phandalin may be a hint that something went wrong, so they plan to come back to the ambush area after a restful night.

While we're all new to D&D mechanics, I'm the only one who knows (mostly thanks to this RPG Stack) that drawing a map is a serious thing and can be very useful in some big dungeons.

I plan to tell them that they may start drawing a map to avoid getting lost, but I don't really know how to introduce this to them.

I'm afraid that if I just say that they should draw a map, they'll just draw a map for every place they go, "just in case", which could lead to a waste of time in game and IRL for less interesting places. I also don't want to let them go without a map when they might need it (specially thinking for the last dungeon of this scenario), but I don't want to have to tell them when they actually need it.

I'd like them to really choose when they want to take time to draw it, but since I forgot to tell it to my players at session 0, I'm afraid that If I tell them now, they will take it to mean: "You should draw a map right now."

How can I introduce a group of new players to the map-drawing system in a way that lets them judge when they need it?

I guess that experience with the system will be a big part of that judgement, but I'd like for them to start from a neutral point of view with map drawing, so they'll not have a bias about it.

Answers have to be backed with experience about introducing map=drawing to players. Bonus points if the explanation lets the player successfully catch the interest of it while understanding that it is useful only sometimes.

To clarify my question:

  • Am I talking about players or characters' player drawing a map?
    I'm talking about players physically drawing a map, not only their characters. For me, it brings out some realistic side and I like it pretty much. (Maybe my players will not like that, but that's not the point here. Understand here that it's not that I don't care if they don't like it, but rather I'm asking this question here without knowing that fact, so just ignore the possibility that the player may not like it, or address both cases in your answers.) If they draw a map, they can navigate into the dungeon without telling which direction they take for each intersection. If they don't, I think it's much more realistic and interesting to test the real memory of the players instead of assuming their characters remember everything they see. It's also a way to give advantages to players who pay attention to description and may make it easier to "punish" distracted players (don't worry for them, I'm not that evil).
  • Why don't I use my own sketches?
    I don't want to use my own sketches; I'd like my players to choose when they want to draw the map. And when they do, I want them to do it themselves. I already read on RPG Stack some interesting question about "counter" map-drawing to try to lose parties in a maze and I may use it later. I don't want to lie to my players by giving them a fake map that doesn't really represent what they see (maybe they can find a fake map during an adventure, but it's another point).
  • Why do I want them to draw a map?
    As I wrote above, I would enjoy having them invest into drawing a map. But it's also for when they will need a map to not get lost in a very big maze or similar - for example, if we play the Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage adventure.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 13:19

11 Answers 11


I recommend not forcing your players to draw maps

From everything I have experienced with players new and old, having players make the maps doesn't work well and I would recommend not doing it at your table without careful consideration and good reason.

When making any change to your game, you should consider and be clear on at least a few things:

  • What is my goal for this change and will the change accomplish that goal?
  • What downsides or issues will be caused by this change and will that outweigh any potential fun from the change?

It's unclear what your goal is with this change and who it is for

As I wrote above, I would enjoy having them invest into drawing a map. But it's also for when they we'll need a map to don't get lost in a very big maze or else, for example if we play Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

As I will mention below, you should be very careful about crossing in-game and out-of-game challenges. But more than that, you don't seem to have expressed a compelling reason to need this beyond the fact that you (and currently only you) want it.

If you don't have a clear reason to make the change you need to be very careful that you aren't introducing issues for no gain.

Do your players want this change or just you?

You say:

For me it bring some realistic side (maybe my players will not like that, but that's not the point here) and I like it pretty much.

Right off the bat, this makes me concerned about the mindset here. You need to take into consideration the wants and needs of the whole table, not just for you, and the sooner you do the better. So whether or not the players will like it is very much relevant.

Talk to the players before going any further and figure out if this is even something they remotely want, because if they don't, then you are wasting your time and everything else is moot.

Forcing players to draw maps can have serious practical issues

To give context to the below list, one of my most extensive experiences with player mapping came from an enormous and complicated dungeon which the DM required the players to sketch out. We sketched each room to exact dimensions to grid level accuracy, which was often useful because there were encounters in many of them.

If you're situation is substantially different from this, the extent of the problems will certainly vary. However, I think these problems will have to be dealt with to one extent or another regardless of the context.

There are may be ways which could reduce some of the impact of the issues, but I haven't tested any and so won't address that in my answer.

Every one of these issues is one that has repeatedly come up at my tables throughout the years.

It takes a lot of time

I'm not joking when I say this, even in a simple dungeon, having the players draw maps can and likely will slow progress to a crawl. This is because it requires the DM to give all the information about the room (dimensions, locations, doorways, location on the map, etc.) while the player is sketching. During this time the DM could instead be describing the room narratively, interacting with the PCs with their actions in the room, looking at encounter information, reading ahead, or literally any other productive task. Instead, they are describing a map which they have drawn out in front of them to someone else who can't see that map. Even if the players hear and translate that information perfectly onto the map, this still takes precious time away from a session that could be used for other things.

At tables I've played at, the time it takes to draw the map out in real time has been a large source of frustration even among people that enjoy making the map.

Mistakes will be made

No matter how obvious you think your description of the room is, the map-drawers will accidentally get it wrong. A lot. They'll do things like accidentally flip width vs height, put the door on the wrong side, attach the room on the wrong wall, etc. And when they do you have to spend even more time to have them erase it and then correct it. This happened once in an error so bad the DM had to take it home and sketch a decent portion of the map again.

And that is if you manage to notice the error. Many times I've had DMs not notice until hours later that a mistake was made on the map and now suddenly this room won't fit! You think this won't happen to you, but it will. DMs are busy and even if you take (even more) time to check over a drawing, you too will miss errors (a common source of DM error: the fact that you are looking at their map "upside down").

Sometimes, you will end up just giving up and (re)drawing things for the players because of misunderstandings in which case you might as well have done that from the beggining.

It's only interesting, at most, for one player at a time

You mentioned worrying about players not paying attention before. Well this is a great way to get them to pay even less attention.

It only takes one person to draw a map and it isn't particularly a thrilling process. Even if the group is theoretically interested in doing this, only one person gets to do the fun part, and the rest of the group is left with nothing to do. Expect phones to come out and people to leave and get snacks or drinks while this occurs. This is the opposite of one of the things you mentioned wanting to do which is to keep their attention. At most, you get one player's attention and lose the rest of them while things are worked out. I have personally experienced it both as the checking out player and observing others doing the same.

New players have enough to keep track of

You mention this is for new players. This is going to be a challenge to them but they likely will already have their hands full trying to learn and manage their characters and new abilities and roleplaying. Having them take time away from that can lead to less-prepared and engaged players.

Using IRL challenges to represent in-game abilities can be problematic

I'm talking about players physically drawing a map, not only their characters.

You say that, but then most of your question is dedicated to introducing how this real-life map will affect the in-game world and the PCs. This is an issue you need to sort out. Unless you have player buy-in, real-world challenges should not affect the abilities or successes of the PCs in-game. Or, at the very least, that line should be clear and made apparent to your players and only implemented with their explicit buy-in.

Players generally play games because they want to do stuff that they are not capable or wanting to do in real life. Making game challenges depend on real-world successes means that players who aren't good at that task get their in-game characters punished unjustly.

So, if this is your main motivation for doing this, please reconsider.

I think it's much realistic and interesting to test the real memory of the players instead of assuming their characters remember everything they see.

You don't have to assume that a character remembers things perfectly, but the game already has mechanics in it to address that. The characters can draw maps just fine without having to have the players do so in real life. You can even simulate this with a survival or some other check (or a series of them).

Think of it this way, what if one of the PCs was a map-drawing master. An explorer by trade with an unerring sense of direction (a Ranger, say). What sense does it make to make that PC's map-making success depend on the result of the players' skills? Will that enhance the fun at your table?


I don't recommend doing this because, in my experience, it is a whole lot of hassle for potentially (if not entirely) no positive gain in fun for the table. Forcing players to draw all the maps has a lot of potential pitfalls and many groups won't find enjoyment in it.

Here's what you should do before considering proceeding with his idea:

  • Reevaluate why you want this to happen. Challenging the players instead of the characters is not a good reason and will likely not resonate with your players and lead to frustration. If you are going to introduce this, you need a good reason, one that is fun for the whole table.
  • Talk to your players. If they aren't interested, this idea is a non-starter regardless of what you personally want. If they are interested, you need to talk to them explicitly and in-detail about how this will work and make sure they agree to it and that it seems fair.
  • Once you've done that you are going to need to tackle the practical issues I mentioned above. Problem is, I've not seen any great solutions. If you don't tackle them, you need to prepare for longer sessions and less engaged players.


In the end, having players draw maps is not going to kill your game or drive your players away (likely). However, if you're going to do it you have to do it for the right reasons, with player buy-in, and with an awareness of the potential issues.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 13:20

It's OK to tell them what is and what is not a dungeon

My guess is that the problem comes from the assumption that you don't want to tell them what is and what is not a dungeon in case it breaks the immersion and the seamless transition between walking into a dungeon from the "overworld" and exploring the dungeon.

For example; in, say, a Bethesda game like Oblivion or Skyrim, there's literally a loading screen between dungeons and overworld sections. In D&D there is not such a loading screen and you can therefore make everywhere seem like one big world rather than an "area" that must be "loaded" into memory or whatever.

However, in my experience, players can still tell what is and what is not a dungeon, at least once they're already in the dungeon, they'll know they're now in a dungeon.

Tell them when to draw a map and when not to draw

Funnily enough, I have recently had new players playing LMoP and the concept of map drawing had to be introduced to them. At first, they had a hard time visualising what I was telling them, but I ended up just drawing the map for them myself, although this was largely because I did such a poor job of explaining area 2 of that first dungeon (from memory, I think it was area 2; just outside the cave where there are two goblins hiding between bushes, and a stream coming from the mouth of the cave that is the dungeon? I've run this adventure twice and both times I completely failed to describe that scene accurately; it's just that one area, I'm fine with the rest of the dungeon and all the other dungeons in the adventure!)

Anyway, the next time we encountered a dungeon (I think it was the Redbrand Hideout), they expected me to draw the map again, but I recommended they do it, partly so they could confirm that they were understanding my descriptions correctly, but I also told them I was just being nice before and that this is actually something they should be doing, not me.

Since they can tell what is and what is not a dungeon, they have now drawn maps when we enter a dungeon and not during any other point.


In other words, I don't think they'll hear

"You should draw a map right now"

if you give them context (i.e. you should draw maps when you're in a dungeon) and I think they'll understand when that applies and when it doesn't.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer, it really adress what I'm thinking. Ho, and you remember well for area 2 of the first dungeon and for Redbrand Hiedout being the second dungeon ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Zoma
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 15:02

While it doesn't directly address your question, I think the top answer to this question might give you some valuable context to the place of mapping in D&D:

What's the point of long, empty hallways in dungeons?

Back in the day, there was this whole logistics minigame attached to light and mapping in dungeons. Since the minigame is long gone, the reasons for detailed mapping have changed.

Many of today's dungeons are actually fairly simple once you untwist the twisty passages (all alike). They mostly consist of a single primary path with a few dead-end side rooms, a few alternative paths, and a handful of points-of-interest. Why would the players need a detailed map in a dungeon with only four major room-complexes in it? Even if there are ten or more points of interest, if they're basically linear, why do you need charts to show you how to get around?

The other thing you see a lot of is what you might call the 'well connected dungeon', where there are so many complex cross-connections that you can pretty much get from anywhere to anywhere else with no difficulty, even if you backtrack a lot to go around unexplored rooms. There still isn't much point to a map, beyond some rough sketched out pointers. In Phandelver, Wave Echo Cave is like that -- there are only a couple of areas in the map that are at all difficult to reach (the eastern complex of rooms has only a couple of connections at each end, for example), and even backtracking all the way around the map to avoid entering unexplored rooms is a matter of only a few hundred to a thousand feet.

If you're putting your players into a labyrinth, and mapping the place is a minigame challenge of its own, that's fine; be upfront that they'll need to make their own map in there because the maze is part of the challenge.

But for your basic Phandelver-style maps? Enforcing player mapping seems boring and punitive, at least to me -- paperwork you're forced to do in order to get to the bit of the game you actually like.

Imagine playing some modern dungeon-crawler video game without an automap, pausing your game every thirty seconds to grab your pencil and graph paper and make a map of your own. There's a reason we stopped making games that way back around 1992.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ "There's a reason we stopped making games that way back around 1992" - I do miss those games wistful sigh \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 6:36
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Etrian Odyssey is a modern series of dungeon crawlers without automap. It works because they're Nintendo DS games and the bottom (touch) screen is dedicated to drawing the map. That is, even the games that retained player map drawing have taken steps to make it easier and less disruptive. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 25, 2019 at 2:53

I played D&D a very long time ago (late 70s early 80s. If you recognize the phrase "Bree-yark!" you might be as old as I am). Back then the issue was nowhere near as socially and politically sensitive as it is today. Drawing maps wasn't just part of the game, it was a crucial part of the game. We used to go buy scrapbook paper and burn the edges and use iron ink with quill pens to add ambiance to the event. (Our gang leader also bought a table we could drive the daggers, swords, axes, and other paraphernalia we collected into so long as we didn't topple the burning candles and incense or spill any soda. Very important... don't spill the soda.)

  • If the characters were thought to have a low cartography skill, players would be handed a blank sheet of paper and a pencil.

  • If the characters were thought to have a good cartography skill, players would be handed graph paper, a ruler, and a pencil.

  • If the characters where thought to have godlike cartography skills (or if we had precious little time and needed to get the lead out), we handed the players a copy of the map with choice details removed (like room names, traps, and placement of guards).

Judging whether or not there was too much or too little mapping was a simple matter of how much time we thought we had to play and whether or not the players felt like it was getting in the way of game play.

Now, having spoken my piece, let's specifically answer your question.

Everyone being new to the game, have a get-together that's an hour or two long just about maps. Talk to each other about it. Have some pre-built (preferably not from a campaign you intend to play) maps to work with. Let the players experiment with the mapping process and how they interact with you, the DM, and with each other.

What you might discover is that some really dig the mapping process and others don't. It'll give you a handle on how to manage your players and them a handle on how you do your job. You'll also learn where they think you're holding back too much or letting too much go, where're your focusing too much on game play mechanics and not enough on story.

You'll also discover that learning the game can (and often is) just as much fun as playing the game. Occasionally (not too often) getting together to test something out is how everybody becomes comfortable with playing with the group and how the game can be crafted to make the most of everybody's time. Honestly, there are some players that want to get into character so much they drive the rest batty — and vice-versa. Learning how to map and how to incorporate it into your group can be a very valuable way to work all those quirks out. (Before somebody comes to play saying, "look what the sharp object I just bought!" They will, if you get as involved as we did.)

Finally, remember to err on the side of enjoying yourselves. You'll have days when you want to play through the campaign you spent 100 hours preparing, but your players after 30 minutes want to talk about the new girl/boy in class. It happens. Mapping has the very same ups and downs. No matter what you decide, always err on the side of having fun!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks a lot for this answer. Your method to to link character/player skills to draw map is pretty interesting. I might use it if my players choose to draw maps. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zoma
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 6:22

I usually just draw the map part by part for them, as far as they discover it. Depending on the paper you have (mainly, is it big and does it have squares), this might even be useful for combat. This means your players won't need to draw anything. Sure, it costs me time to draw it out, but it also helps them understand what kind of area they are in a bit more. (I am also currently running Lost Mines, 2 new players, 1 with some experience and 1 experienced player. Even though I can't really draw that well, they still enjoy that I draw things out for them)

I think this might be more useful, especially since this adventure won't see the players navigate dungeons for entire ingame days, and I believe the dungeon is small enough for characters with a decent memory to just still know where they're going.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer and thank you for including your table experience. Welcome to the stack and please take our tour :) \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 14:32
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for this answer. But as I just edited into my question to add clarifications, I want them to know it's mostly for really big dungeons. In LMOP only the last one can be considered as a start of a big one, but we may play some scenario where the dungeons are really big, like in Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage. However, if my players don't enjoy drawing a map themselves, I guess I'll go with something like your answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zoma
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 14:52
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ This is great for a DM to help a player visualize what is going on but not necessarily for a character to get his/her bearings. I do this as well but the players don't get a copy of it at all, if they want a copy they have to draw one. Places that they leave are obscured on the table or removed so they can't reference it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 14:55

Don't tell them to draw dungeon maps

But not because they shouldn't be drawing them.

Part of the fun of RPG's is the adventure. And a lot of that is learning how to adventure. Many of us old time gamers look back fondly to when we had just started gaming. How everything was new, how we made silly mistakes, and the fun that resulted from them. You're only a newbie once.

So the alternate solution here is don't tell them.

Let them discover on their own that they should make a map of the dungeon.

By all means have some graph paper available. But let them learn from experience first. Then they'll have a story to tell years from now about that time they got lost in a dungeon because they didn't think about making a map. And you'll actually help them feel both a sense of 'growth' as an adventurer, and that they are learning how to think as an adventurer.


In game solutions.

I am always a fan of in-game solutions rather than meta-solutions.

The characters can come across another set of adventurers and they can either speak to them about or overhear them discussing the importance of mapping out underground systems or other areas that are tricky to navigate safely. Since you already bypassed a session 0 or didn't cover this it makes perfect sense to have this as a solution without you hitting them upside the head with the Meta-Game stick.

In my experience, and granted I have not played with inexperienced players for decades, I draw out or have the section of the map they are on visible with important things for me obfuscated obviously. When the characters move out of that area they no longer see nor have access to what I am trying to have them visualize. They don't get a copy of the drawing unless they create it themselves. Characters have to do the mapping as well and that takes time so depending on the detail it could take a few rounds or several minutes. This increases their chances of unexpected encounters.

Again, I play with experienced players and in some cases this allows me to be a bit more gritty with the game, but when I didn't a couple of times having them get lost usually gets the point across as well. At least one player comes up with the idea of mapping on their own at that point.


Dungeon of the Mad Mage specific advice

I'm running my players through Dungeon of the Mad Mage at the moment, and the group I'm in has tried both the approach of players keeping a map, and me drawing a map. We found that me drawing the map works best.

The players tried keeping maps but failed for the following reasons:

  • The levels of the dungeon are large, making player mapping difficult (ie having a map span over multiple A4 sheets)

    the first level map is 1000ft (roughly) North-South and 600ft (roughly) East-West

  • A number of the rooms on the first level alone are hard to describe in their dimensions in sufficient detail for map drawing
  • If the players get the dimensions wrong, that just confuses the players, without adding realism (In reality adventurers would recognise the layout and directions of the dungeon by sight, which would assist with a crude map, but the players don't have a sense of sight beyond your description)
  • If the mapper misses a week then the players don't have a map, which is a serious issue for "realistic" play, whereas if the DM misses a week there isn't a game (but when they play the game they always have the map!).

When I draw the map for them, I use two sheets stuck together from a "Clairefontaine Technik Art Graph Pad, A3, 1, 5, 10 mm, 40 Leaves" Pad. The 5mm squares on this pad, match up quite nicely with the 10ft square mapping the module provides. This means I am effectively using an A2 sheet of grid paper per dungeon level, regardless of the actual size of the dungeon level. This has the advantage that I don't give away much about the absolute size of the level when I map beyond the outer dimensions of the paper.

some of the later levels will require more than 2 x A3 sheets to map due to their scale...but that's a challenge for future me!

Drawing the map in this way solves some additional issues:

  • I can show them the dimensions of the room by mapping it quickly (and copying it directly from the book without them seeing the full map)
  • Drawing the map allows me to focus on narrative descriptions of the room and it's contents, rather than trying to figure out whether or not they have taken the room down correctly
  • The players can point to the map and tell me where they want to go, shortcutting both of us trying to figure out where they are and where they want to get to
  • DMM is designed with the expectation that players will traverse certain levels frequently (to go back up to Waterdeep for supplies), and making them get lost on those levels due to player mapping errors, or misunderstandings of DM descriptions (which are unrelated to their character skills) is unsatisfying.
  • If in the future getting out of the Dungeon in a hurry becomes a priority, I can remove the map and use skill checks to simulate character memory. In the absence of an urgent need to leave (like getting fresh water), I don't need to give the players any additional obstacles to what is already a difficult module.
  • The players can see what they have already explored (and potentially make some good guesses about where to target searching for secrets, which is part of the fun of this type of module)

Spoilers for timing in running the module:

For reference, even with me drawing the map, it took my group 7 sessions to clear the first level, 2 sessions to get ~1/3 of the way through level 2.


Caveats: Due to scheduling and attendance problems caused by being adults, my sessions are almost always three-hours-and-an-ending affairs. In these games, I need to keep the pace up and make sure we get a complete, satisfactory adventure; there's not much time for mapping or massive, complicated dungeons. I heard about Tremaux's Algorithm through one of my friends who runs a mega-dungeon crawl for his wife and kids. For them, it solves the problem of being able to ensure exploration of the whole space and finding their way back out again. What follows below are my pontifications based on this second hand information.

Analysis of the Problem

Your players will be exploring a complicated space and you don't want to just hand-waive navigating it. You want to bring the tension that comes from the possibility of getting lost in an unfamiliar space can bring, but you're concerned that the most obvious solution (drawing maps) might be overapplied and slow-down, detract from, or otherwise interfere with the game.

Alternative Solutions to Maps

If navigation and complete exploration of the space are your primary concerns, consider teaching your players about Tremaux's Algorithm for solving mazes. With nothing more than some chalk lines, they can ensure that each spaces is traversed twice at most. Here's how the algorithm works in theory:

  1. When first entering a junction (this includes the first junction in the dungeon/maze), draw one mark in the hall from which you just exited.
  2. From the hallway choices before you, choose (randomly or not) from among the hallways with the fewest markings on them (you should never have to choose a hallway with 2 markings). After making your choice, mark the entrance of that hallway with 1 mark of chalk and proceed down it.
  3. Loop back to Step 1.

When you want out of the dungeon, just follow the hallways with only 1 mark in them.

With Tremaux's Algorithm, it's guaranteed that you will find your goal in the maze or explore the entire space, even if the space isn't a perfect maze.

Implementation: It will require some paperwork, either on your part (for reasons explained below) or on the part of the players, who can either make a simplified diagram of branches taken and not taken, or just keep a list of rooms and chalk markings make therein.

Disadvantages: As Slagmoth pointed out, any intelligent creatures will see the chalk marks on the walls and know what's up; they'll be able to set ambushes, erase marks, and draw new marks to trap you. There is also a concern in caves with high moisture content that the chalk might not stay. Also, someone is still doing paperwork to keep track of the marks.


Chiefly what a map does for you is show the position of locations relative to each other. Keeping track of the location of a particular chamber is easier with a map than with Tremaux's Algorithm. It also doesn't leave traces in the dungeon and the player's can take it with them when they leave. Mechanically speaking, the only real difference then is that your players are paying a few silvers for parchment, ink, and quills vs a few coppers for chalk.

Bringing It Together

Whatever your players choose to do, they now have a litmus test. Is it worth the mechanical component cost of creating the maps to create a tool to navigate the space.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you used these techniques at your table? If so, how have they worked out? Answers need to be supported so that we just aren't generating ideas. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 14:01
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Not at my table no, but a friend who DM's for his family has them use the Tremaux algorithm for their ongoing mega-dungeon crawl. Due to scheduling and attendance difficulties, most of my games are 3-hours-and-an-ending affairs and I need to keep it moving without any slowdowns for map drawings or marker trackings. However, you said that my Comment could qualify as an answer, so here it is. \$\endgroup\$
    – Renegade
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 14:42

I fully agree with Rubiksmoose's assessment on forcing the players to draw detailed maps. However, I have an alternative that might work as it simplifies the job.

Have the players draw a map in a fashion of a series of nodes, and connections.

Each node is a point of interest, along with an appendix where they list notable features of that area. Each exit is represented by an arrow to another node, either single or double. If you can travel both ways through a connection, you represent it with a double arrow. If you can travel only one way, you point an arrow to the node you can travel to. (e.g. you hop down a short cliff safely)

Now the players have a representation of the dungeon they can use to navigate, without having to spend tons of time recreating every exact detail you put into your map, and it doesn't take long to build. Furthermore, players can give you a route they take if they want to travel to an already mapped area, and you can easily translate that into your own map for encounters.

This method might prove to be a decent compromise for your wanting the players to pay attention, and not requiring them to track every single detail of a dungeon.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 23:43
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Have you already used that system ? However, it's a very nice system and I guess I might suggest this to my player for very big dungeons to let them keep an eye on their approximate location. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zoma
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 7:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Honestly, I haven't played a table top RPG in almost 20 years. Reading your question and the responses though reminded me of the graph theory I had in College recently, and that seemed to fit your needs well. In truth, this is kind of how we as humans think about things at times too, and this is how you copy such an abstract onto paper. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 28, 2019 at 18:56

Draw Part of the Map - Give Them A Starting Point

In your question you state:

I don't want to use my own sketches; I'd like my players to choose when they want to draw the map. And when they do, I want them to do it themselves.

Thats fair enough, personally I wouldn’t give my players a map unless their PC’s obtained a map. I feel a map of an entire dungeon allows players to meta-game in the sense that they can bee-line straight to the end of the dungeon or treasure rooms and ignore “risky” rooms like guard barracks or large “boss fight” rooms. The only maps I would draw for players are a map of the room they are in (but only if they are in a fight) and a map of a town or city (though I generate those maps rather than draw them).

The reasoning being the only time a player needs a grid and to know the room around them is if every space matters, like in combat (also, the PC’s would be able to see the room and pure Theatre of the Mind is a bit clunky in my experience, visual aids help massively. For the towns and cities, I give players a map as they’d have land marks and street names and the PC’s could see the buildings, unlike in a dungeon where you can’t see landmarks in different rooms or and normally can only see one room at a time. (Also, cities are broken into districts and notable buildings or areas, the maps aren’t really meant for picking out individual houses, rather they are meant for highlighting interesting areas). Anyway, I digress.

Rather than expecting players to take the initiative and draw a map from scratch, you could draw a small portion of the map and leave the rest blank.

Firstly, this hints to the players that “hey, you could draw a map, if you wanted to”. Forgive the analogy but:

“its like the difference between asking a child to draw a picture and giving them a blank sheet of paper versus asking them to draw a picture and handing them a colouring book”.

The pictures in the colouring book are not complete images, much like the maps you give to the players aren’t complete. However, this basic framework shows players how they can carry on drawing this map, acting both as an example and a point of reference. However, players may just ignore the map once it is no longer useful to them, at which point you could say to them “hey, rather than throwing that away, you could carry on drawing it if you think a map will be useful to you”. If they start drawing the map, great, if not then you may just have to accept that map drawing might not be for them.

Make Maps Feel Part of the World

Secondly, giving the players partially completed or unfinished or out of date maps can allow for unique roleplaying opportunities and adventuring hooks if nothing else. If you want them to be interested by maps, make your maps interesting.

However, before going into it, will address your concern:

I don't want to lie to my players by giving them a fake map that doesn't really represent what they see

None of these examples are “fake maps” in the sense of being completely bogus (as, from my experience, having a completely bogus or unhelpful map is more frustrating than having no map at all). These examples are simply more “fill in the blanks” maps. They are true maps, just not completed ones. If you are still unsure about the idea, I encourage you to look at the examples below and decide for yourself if you think it would be lying to give the players these maps or not.

There are a number of explanations why a party may have a incomplete map:

  • The map may have been left behind or dropped by someone else. A cartographer who sells dungeon maps to parties; an architect looking for inspiration; a 15 minute workday party who have gone back to the tavern, again; a dungeon delver who was too busy looking down at the map they missed the trap above their head; etc. Any one of these could have dropped their map by mistake or left it behind when running for their lives or thought that someone else picked it up. Or, they could have died, and the map is still on their body. Either way, it gives your players the chance to pick up the map and it gives a plausible reason as to why its not finished, whoever left it was not finished working on it.

  • The map could be blueprints or a plan or someone else’s map of a place or structure that has been damaged or altered. Cave ins or collapses; bridges rotting an falling away; landslides covering the path; floods filling the room; a wall thats been demolished; a feature not part of the original plan. All of these could explain why the map that they see if different from the area they are in. This method works especially well if you’re mapping out ruins or a structure that has had multiple occupants who have added things over time. A map like this also has a unique opportunity of showing secret rooms on the map but, in the structure, there is no visible way to access the room the players and PC’s know is there, the door is Hidden or has been Concealed.

  • It is intentionally or unintentionally lacking information. The person who gave the party the map doesn’t want them to find something; someone may have drawn the map from memory and missed some details; there is a shifting maze which makes it hard to map (think Maze Runner, or Labyrinth); the map may be a lure for adventurers made by an evil wizard who needs test subjects or someone who needs people to test their puzzles or traps (like Grimtooth); the map itself may be a puzzle or a torn off part of a larger map. Whilst these examples are quite situational and story-dependent, they act as adventuring hooks for your players.

I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent with this second point so i’ll just bring it back in. You can introduce maps to your players by giving them a purposes besides mapping a dungeon. Making them into interesting plot hooks or giving them plausible reasons for existing allows you to drop these incomplete maps onto the players without giving that "You should draw a map right now” feeling, i find.

Rather than players going “oh, we’ve been given a map, must mean it’s important to map out this dungeon” you instead get “oh, theres a map here, who left this, and why is it not completed? Is the owner still around, are they coming back for this, or have they died? Theres a body over there, is this their map? What killed them?”.

Giving your maps a backstory and reason for existing beyond telling players what a dungeon looks like integrates them into the world. Its less jarring and it keeps the immersion going, I find players are less suspicious if you integrate maps this way.

However, one thing i’ve noticed is players still might not be interested in continuing the map, only using it as long as its useful and not adding to it. Also, because the maps are more integrated into the world, there is less of a hint to the players to start mapping.

Keep Your Maps Simple - Lines and Rectangles

Finally, if you are going to give maps to your players, don’t make them overly detailed. As a DM, i’ve had problems with trying to make highly detailed maps of dungeons with girds and objects and walls and all that because i thought you needed them in a D&D map. In the books, you only ever see artistic maps with grids and details on them, but they’re just meant for show - much like how theres no reason to have a car that can drive at 200+ miles an hour if the max speed limit is only ever 70 miles an hour, its just meant for the looks.

Here is an article that i found very helpful: An Angry Guide to Practical Cartography. Basically, in the article, it details that you should only map what you need. You only every need a tactical map (the ones with squares and objects) when there is a combat encounter, even then you could get away with drawing it as you play as you only need to draw the room the players are in, not the whole dungeon. For everything else, a basic map of lines and rectangles is enough, all players need to know are which rooms connect to each other, thats it. Its visually similar to a flow chart.

I found using the Lines and Rectangles method, its far easier and quicker to map out a dungeon. So, not only can I make dungeon maps for myself, the DM, within minutes, it only takes a few seconds for players to map out a room. You only need to draw 5 lines at a time, 4 to make a rectangle to represent a room, 1 more to show where that room connects to. They can add notes on them or name the rooms to make the maps more detailed but its not necessary.


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