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I am going to start an online Westmarches-style campaign, using a slightly patched version of Pathfinder 2.

I expect the whole adventure to happen on one big island (where the PCs arrive in session 0), and I cartographied it on an hexagonal grid, with different colors for the different biomes, symbols for where the main points of interest are, etc.

I would like the players to have their own map that they can expand session after session. I don't want them to feel completely overwhelmed by the task, but I want it to matter. I want the players to think about how they explore the land, to try new paths and maybe find shortcuts, to sometimes get lost if they are not careful.

I hesitate between the following possibilities (not a definitive list):

  1. Describe vaguely the shape of the island. Tell them they are on the south coast and the directions toward the most visible things (mountains, a lighthouse...). When they travel, never refer to the notion of "hex": say "after walking ten kilometers to the north, you cross a river". I played a Westmarches (as a player, not as a DM) and this seemed OK to me, but both the other players and the DMs seemed to agree that it made things too hard. As some of those people are going to play my campaign I would rather find something easier.
  2. Tell them the size of the grid I use, its orientation, and explicitly tell them when they move from one hexagon to the next. I would say things like: "you walk ten kilometers to the north, that's one hex to the north-east and one to the north-west, and don't notice anything special until you come across a river".
  3. Give them the hex-map of the island, but with only the coast and the position of their main hub drawn on it. I fear this might make things too easy.

What would be the best way to make this cartography fun for my players?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are the characters culture totally ignorant of this island? Could they pay a local guide? Are they able to see? They could go to a high point and look \$\endgroup\$
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 19:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ The island is big: the culture knows about its existence, the fact that there is a huge mountain in the middle of it (it is tall enough that it is hard to miss it), and its approximate size (~350km long, 175km wide). Other than that information is not reliable. Maybe they will find a local guide, but really that's up to them. They surely could get advantage of a point of view to see what some terrain they haven't explored yet is like. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 20:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe give them a partial map: the coastline, the port, and things they can see. Me, I'd just give the players a map without hidden things (dungeons and the like). As GM, I find that giving the descriptions needed for mapping bores me to tears. YMMV. \$\endgroup\$
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 21:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ 4. Let them find crude pirate maps with a few key details on it for them to use as they want to. worst case, you can always let them find a map with a key detail on it that they need to know if they haven't worked it out for them selves. \$\endgroup\$
    – Paul Smith
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 21:44

6 Answers 6

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This is up to you but I recommend option 3

What I can tell you is that your concern about the third approach making things too easy on the players is misplaced. There are many beloved and successful modules in the history of the games of D&D lineage that Pathfinder belongs to, that have used such maps (see below for two examples).

So you certainly can do that. So should you do that or should you use option one or two, which share less information?

In my experience, and supported by the evolution of the game, mapping tends not to be the most fun or exciting part of adventuring. Consequently the game has moved from early dungeons that try to confuse players with mapping challenges like Greyhawk Castle, to adventures that are more driven by plot, characters and evolving story.

When I try to play old-school adventures with my players, pampered as they are from virtual desktop apps with map reveal, they constantly ask not have to draw maps themselves but have me draw them for them. Unless your players are very different, if you are looking for fun, stay away from making mapping as an activity a thing.

With this in mind, if the goal really is for the players to produce an accurate map of the area, I would endeavor to make mapping easy for the players, save myself lengthy inquires about the relative locations of things, and provide the outline map.

If however the adventure were not about mapping and you just wanted them to have rough bearings, option one would be sufficient, and I would avoid asking them to create such a highly detailed map to begin with.

Here is one From Tomb of Annihilation (D&D 5e): enter image description here

Here is one from X1 - The Isle of Dread (D&D Expert Set, 1981) enter image description here

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    \$\begingroup\$ I concur with regard to the lack of excitement with drawing maps at least on the local scale, and I think that part of it is the discrepancy between player knowledge and character knowledge. My character can see its surroundings: the river on the plains, the hills then mountains in the distance, the forest off the side, ... this is not "hidden" information, it's only hidden to me as a player relying on the DM to explain what my character can see. Don't make me work for what my character can see readily; it's just a bore. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 7:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I concur about the lengthy inquiries regarding the location of things. I can't count the number of times I've tried to theater of the mind a simple encounter, only to have constant questions about spacing from the squishy who wants to stay out of melee range, the ranger who wants to ensure they are in half range, the barbarian who thinks they can overrun into another melee after they kill the first goblin, etc. While in those instances my answer is generally 'whatever you want, you're in range', if that's your answer to questions about the world map, why are you hiding it in the first place? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 18:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NateAnderson I think you do not run as much into those exact problems with the world map, its more "you marching north for half a day, that next hex is also jungle, which direction to you want to go now?" But I know very well what you are experiencing... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 20:17
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As a bit of context, I love maps and mapping in my games. I've been a GM for over 25 years, with more than that many different systems and different groups under my belt. With that said, I hope that this comes with the gravitas appropriate to that background:

Ask Your Players, but Probably Option 3

Here's three reasons why:

Players are Worse at Mapping than their Characters Would Be

I can say with reasonable certainty that players are never as good at mapping a thing as you think they will be (or as their characters would be!) This leads to a lot more of the game being spent with you describing and re-describing things that the players' characters could just see with their eyes; relative positions of landmarks and things in the distance, especially. Things that they wouldn't have trouble mapping if they weren't relying on you to accurately describe them with words. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words, but being there is worth at least 1000 times that many.

Matthieu M. described this in a comment, above, and I think they did so well-enough that I'm going to quote the relevant bit:

...I think that part of it is the discrepancy between player knowledge and character knowledge. My character can see its surroundings: the river on the plains, the hills then mountains in the distance, the forest off the side, ... this is not "hidden" information, it's only hidden to me as a player relying on the DM to explain what my character can see. Don't make me work for what my character can see readily...

This whole "mapping takes forever" thing might be annoying, but it has another major drawback...

Pacing is Key

There's a good reason that, in films where this kind of adventure and discovery is important—like the Indiana Jones franchise—they still only spend a moment here and there showing/updating the route traveled on the map. It's because stopping to update the map kills any pacing or tension that could exist in a moment. This goes double when you have to do it by hand and from vague descriptions.

Indiana Jones Map

Furthermore, if the entire group isn't onboard with the mapping aspect, this is where the players who aren't as interested in that are going to whip out their phones, and it'll be harder to get their attention back. And that isn't a failing on their part, it's a failing on your part. Because, as the GM, you should know...

What's Fun For Your Group?

In your question, you keep mentioning what you want: "I would like the players to have their own map..." "...I want it to matter." "I want the players to think..." but what about what your players want?

Tabletop gaming is supposed to be fun, not a chore. Give (at least) the three options you've laid out here directly to your players at the table, and ask them what they would like to do. If one person thinks mapping is fun and wants to do it, they can take on the mapping duties. If they don't, you shouldn't be making mapping a major feature of the game.

And I say "at least" these three options, because if everyone in the group makes a face when you mention mapping, you should drop the mapping requirement. Likewise, if someone has a good alternate idea that the rest of the table likes more, you should probably go with it.

Remember, above all else, you're all there to have fun. Only do it if it's fun for your group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice first answer, and welcome! "one person takes the mapping duty" wouldn't work here because of the Westmarches aspect of the game (so, what if this character is not in the group?), but the rest looks interesting. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 15:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ If one person thinks mapping is fun and wants to do it, - It's still going to take them time. As you pointed out earlier, that's where other players may get bored if they're so disinterested in mapping that they don't want to watch another player do it. Especially if they can't fill the time with planning their spells for the next day or something, or some RP conversation. (But having other players talking to each other while the DM is focused on something else isn't ideal, not to mention the simple cross-talk depending on where people are sitting.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 22:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes: this is online, so cross-talk is even worse. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 23:27
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Option 2.5

I'd recommend using something like option 2 but with the starting location provided: simply give your players their location on a blank hex grid (making sure it matches the exact bounds yours has).

Why?

  • This keeps the size of the island more of a mystery. Discovering a coastline will be exciting, in addition to anything else on the island.
  • This is still a really lightweight solution - they can simply note "C" in coastal hexes, "M" for a mountain biome, etc. It shouldn't slow down play, and your group seems to want something like that.

I essentially used this option for the hexploration in the Adventure Path for PF2e, and it worked well! It didn't take up much of the session time, but still gave the discovery and map-keeping feeling.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Discovering a coastline will be exciting" — [citation needed] \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 5:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot I, uh, guess that's a matter of taste. I would be excited to discover the edge of the island 😅. \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 16:06
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They might be able to buy a map from a cartographer. Of course, it won't be terribly detailed, might be incomplete - might even be inaccurate or out of date.

My campaign, I loaded the map into Gimp, blurred it, laid a hex grid over it, and had it printed out and laminated so we could use whiteboard markers on it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. \$\endgroup\$
    – Community Bot
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 6:15
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I would recommend giving them incomplete maps (or finding them as part of a treasure or random search result) that they can piece together as well as filling in their own discoveries and eventually mapping their maps to other fragments they find.

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I wish I could provide the source for this advice, so that I could avoid plagiarizing it, but several years ago, I saw a similar question, albeit focusing on the in-person tabletop dungeon-crawling.

Give accurate measurements, but don't let the players use grid paper

Tell the players that the room they're in is 10 ft by 20 ft, that the corridor is 5 ft wide and goes on for 50 ft. But tell them they have to freehand the map. That means that it will be harder for players to use those measurements to look for "negative space", for example, but still gives a pretty good relative sense of where the players are. As a bonus, it also produces maps that look more authentic (and which may look a bit different for each player choosing to map it all out).

Caveat

Minor caveats are that this can fall squarely into the "player ability vs character ability", or not match up with the tools the characters have onhand, and that it relies on players not "cheating" plugging your accurate figures into a grid.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any experience with this method, especially with regards to regional maps instead of dungeons? (as this question is about larger regional maps). How is this advice applicable in this situation? \$\endgroup\$
    – Patta
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 19:32

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