Monday, 15 March 2010

Topology not Geography

Once upon a time, whilst I was still at school and it was the 1980s I did a fortnight's works experience at a local architects. Some of this involved standing at the other end of a tape measure while an architect measured up to draw plans of a factory unit in Wolverhampton that was commissioning extension plans. It was deathly dull and took ages. It also stunk of fish as some form of industrial scale fish-gutting was going on and, being an less enlightened age, the staff rooms stunk of stale cigarette smoke which was visible as an ever-present blue haze up by the stained ceiling.

Coop is not now an architect nor does he still wish to become one. He also no longer eats fish fingers.

Why do we give players architect's plan levels of detail about their immediate surroundings?
It's an accepted thing and normal practise but why?

Go back to the source material and you will never, ever find stuff like this.

"Stormbringer in hand, Elric stalked down the stygian corridor for another 40 feet. He then came to a left turning which he carefully poked his bone-white head around. The corridor went on for another twenty feet with two doors on opposite walls. Beyond the two doors, the corridor extended for another 60 feet and then there was a T-junction. Elric got out his tape measure and theodolite, carefully measured the corridors and ascertained that the corridor maintained a constant 10 feet width and checking against his lodestone showed that the corridors remained orientated to the orthogonal directions, north, south, east and west. As he drew out the map on parchment, Moonglum interrupted;"

"You've drawn that wrong, doomed friend. That's 20 feet you've scaled it down to 15 feet."

The AD&D Dungeoneers Survival Guide (a book I otherwise find very influential) even has a picture of a party drawing their map with a fucking set square!

Here's a quick exercise for the reader.

Knock up a map intended to get somebody to your front door from the nearest motorway (or freeway) junction. If you live within spitting distance of the nearest motorway junction then knock up a sketch map from your front door to your place of work or similar.

Come back when you've finished.

Now look at it. It's perfectly functional and fit for use, fits the paper it's drawn on rather than real life, is amazingly out of scale, does not bother about bends and winds in the road, lacks street names for minor roads, relies upon landmarks to indicate where to turn off or just to be reassured that the map user is on the right road and is heavily annotated. There is no compass rose, roads are not orientated towards each other and much the alignment depends upon which road you started drawing first. You probably ran out of space at one point so that a whole section of it is artificially squashed or you had to draw two detached maps on the same sheet of paper and point out where one finishes and joins the other.

This is a map. Not an architects plan.

If you are underground and want a route back to the surface and the environment is hostile, this is the map you draw. Straight lines for tunnels, you don't care about mapping their width or minor turns. Rooms in rough alignment, not precise.

One of the most best map designs ever is that of the London Underground. It's purely topographical and that's why it's a design classic. The genius behind it is the realisation that scales and distances don't matter. All that matters is the order in which stations come and which stations straddle two or more lines. Do you care that the stations don't line up to their exact orientation and relationships to each other "on the ground?". No, of course you don't. It would be less functional and less clear if they did.

So how do we achieve this and stop the game being a surveyor's expedition?

1 - Drop compass roses. N/S/E/W doesn't matter in the slightest. If we use it, we end up with everything running parallel to those four orthogonal directions. Everything instead should be left, right, in front of you, behind you. When people build or excavate they do so to the lie of the land. DM's draw their maps with the entrance pointing north so they can say "The tunnel leads in northwards". This is lazy and unrealistic.

2 - Vagueness. You have to tell your players roughly how far away the corridor turn is, but only roughly. Make sure that when you say "50 feet" you mean roughly 50 feet and the players know that. No promise it's 50 at all. It's dark underground and shadows are confusing. The darker it is, the more hazardous the area and the more the players are being rushed, the more inaccurate this should be. Evenly spaced pillars along this hall? Makes it easier to guess the length. Being chased by Grues through rock grottoes with poor sight lines? Very difficult. Those evenly spaced pillars up to the ceiling? Probably narrower at the top than the bottom to create an illusion of height - an old architects trick. Difficult to estimate the ceiling height.

3 - Irregularity. Lord Akoz of The Netherpit built his mausoleum tomb 25,000 years ago in an area of tectonic activity and yet his tunnels are still all as accurate and perfect as the boring for the Channel Tunnel. Coop Towers is getting on for 150 years old and doesn't have a single straight wall. The kitchen ceiling is higher at one end of the kitchen than the other and the nature of a building designed to "breathe" and settle means that this changes from day to day. Just down the hill from Coop Towers is a pub originally built to be offices for a coal mine that has subsided and shifted so much that snooker balls appear to run uphill. (They don't actually do this of course - it's just that one of the window sills is at such an angle that it appears to do this because you can have used to standing and sitting at an even more extreme angle. )

It's an irregular layout players. If you want to spend four hours with surveyors tools drawing out this cavern to scale you'll have to provide more light and hope that the Wandering Monster patrols don't find you. I've told you it's roughly oval with uneven walls if you want more, it's time to get the theodolite out and ask yourself if this really matters.

4 - Drop entirely the idea of inviting players to locate secret doors because their accurate maps suggest that there is suspicious "hole" in the map. This is why the players are surveying in the first place. Make sure they know that this isn't the style of game we are playing. Secret rooms will be discovered because the players looked behind the bookcase or moved the arm on the suit of armour not because of some "bit missing" on the plans.

5 - Drop miniatures. Why give the players the sudden, jarring and ridiculously helpful benefits of a permanent blimp-cam? If you are going to use miniatures then you need a perfect plan. Even if what you put down on the battle-mat isn't 100% there, it essentially is now. If you draw a wavy line for a cavern wall and a PC shelters in a niche, itself just an artifact of the way you waggled the pen when drawing it, that niche is really there. So it doesn't even matter if you try to be vague and approximate with the battle-mat, it becomes exact and precise.
Think of the last time you tried to get around an unfamiliar location (without sat nav), a pedestrianised city centre, a shopping mall, a new workplace). Imagine how easy to would be with the blimp-cam. We are three hundred feet below ground in a maze of twisty tunnels all alike and things are lurking in the darkness and we give the players the blimp-cam view? That's a joke that is, it really is.

6 - Fudge it, it's fluid. Miniatures advocates always state that's helpful, nay essential, to know who is in the blast effect of the fireball, who is closest to the spiked board springing from behind the cobwebbed archway. No it isn't. It really doesn't matter. It's never mattered to me. If you need to know randomise it. Use your judgement. Bias the dice dependent upon what you think the situation is. Nobody has a blimp-cam view.

Ever heard of the concept of Situational Awareness? It's the edge that divided the Aces flying above the Western Front from the cannon fodder. It's an understanding of where everyone in a fight (or a football match for that matter) is even when they are out of your field of vision. It's related to spatial awareness and is probably more of a male trait than a female one and might be why women traditionally can't park cars. Very few people have excellent situational awareness. The likes of von Richthoften, Ball and Mannock did and they killed lots of men who didn't. Most people cannot track everybody in a melee. If they could they wouldn't get struck down from behind. When it comes to relative positioning in a melee you really may as well make it all up and by that I mean throw the dice to decide.

You don't need an accurate plan and more than that, you shouldn't be providing one. Did you ever get frustrated when reading a fantasy novel that the author didn't give you the measurements and spatial data that a DM is encouraged to? No, because it really didn't matter.

EDIT - Had accidentally pressed POST when I meant to just save. Now spell-checked and with a link I meant to add to it added.


  1. Truth and wisdom. Schematic maps and vagueness as design choice ftw.

    Re: #2, vagueness. I prefer to give the players measurements in approximate paces (not exact feet-and-inches) unless they elect to unship the tape measures and theodolites.

    I'm heading in a similar direction with combat recently; dropping the chessboard kabuki and reducing combat ranges to wurblingly abstract zones of "bash > prod > throw > fire > gone home". I've found it breaks people out of the Mordheimy/3E-ish fractional-inch shuffle mindset...

  2. Quite right! Sod the schematics, they take all the imagination out of the game. They don't intend to, but they do.

    I've also adopted a range band type approach for space combat in my Rogue Trader game (not for ground combat, as the ranges involved are a bit too fiddly, and I can do that in my head). I haven't tested it yet, but it seems solid enough.

  3. I've just sold my copy of 3:16 but I admire it's three range band system and the way the players have to explain what they are doing to change which one they are in (charging, running away and hiding, climbing a tree etc.).

    It's like a codification of the way I've always run RPGs.

  4. Yes, 3:16 is where I pinched the idea from. The idea should have been obvious, but it took seeing it in print to make me do it for myself.

    If/when I ever do my Fighting Fantasy retroclone, I am leaning towards using a similar system there too.

  5. I've been driving m players crazy recently describing the time it takes to travel a dungeon corridor instead of relating it's length in feet.

    players "20 minutes to walk down a corridor, must be darned long"

    me "yeah that's at 120 feet a turn"

    players "wow that's really slow, surely we could walk faster"

    me "It's how fast you guys have been walking down dungeon corridors for decades (a little faster actually)"

    players "really? can't we go faster"

    me "of course you can but then you have a higher chance of being surprised and stumbling into traps"

    The time to travel instead of feet measured by a magic tape measure is actually giving them trouble and they are getting more on edge then they usually do traveling down corridors of the same size at the same rate when I've used feet and turns instead of time spent traveling.