Recently I noticed a strange discrepancy in my behavior and after some thought, I have a possible explanation, but I’m sure it’s a fairly complex issue, so that said, feel free to jump into the comments section with your own take.

The issue is this: I love construction based video games. I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into Minecraft, Ark, 7 Days to Die, Starbound and a handful of others. In addition, I love physical building toys like Lego construction sets, and had a large collection of them when I was younger. But on the other hand, I hate sitting down and making maps for RPGs. Strange, right?

If we compare the two activities side by side, it gets even weirder. In general computer game “construction kits” have failings that paper maps or a digital equivalent do not.

  • Usually to construct something, you have to go out and harvest the materials to make it, digging up stone for your castle walls, chopping down trees for wood, or even breeding and harvesting livestock. Yes, I know that in creative mode you don’t have to, but my particular OCD doesn’t let me. It feels like cheating and cheapens the end result for me. If you don’t have that limitation, by all means go right ahead. I just can’t do it.
  • The end results are usually very limited. Either you have to work with big blocks and all your walls are comically thick, and detail work is right out, or you have a limited number of set pieces to work with and creating something else is impossible. In addition, some games limit the number of items you can place in the world, or give you limited ability to change the world. (I’ve heard that some newer games allow you to build your own set pieces of tiny voxels and thus have the best of both worlds, but I have yet to see one deliver on that promise. Feel free to recommend one if you’ve seen it done.)

In contrast, paper maps require only some paper, a pencil and a few drawing tools or a piece of software. Their results, while abstract, are of unlimited flexibility and variety. It seems like they should be the far superior choice. So why then can I spend hours making a sprawling ranch in Minecraft, a huge anti-zombie fortress in 7 Days to Die, or a complex in Ark, but picking up a pencil and opening my notebook to hand draw a map is a big hassle?

I don’t have a real answer here. I suspect that the answer lies in the fact that while constructing something in a video game I get to see the work in progress and then get to play in it afterwards in a way that’s very different from a hand drawn map. In addition, showing off digital creations is pretty easy if your friends also play or just by taking a screen shot or video, whereas with the map you have to sit and describe the end result otherwise it just looks like an overhead map. Much less impressive.

Of course the “It’s hard to show off” issue is easy to fix in the course of playing your RPG, so with a little faith and some ability to wait for delayed gratification, that can be put up with. Here’s the solution I’ve come up with to the (essentially) “top down vs. 1st person” issue with some success: As I’m drawing the map, I imagine myself or an avatar in the map from the first person view looking at things as I draw them. This gives me a sense of faux immersion that map making is lacking. It also helps to firm up existing details and add new ones that might have been overlooked. Of course too many details have a tendency to become overwhelming unnecessary notes, so deciding which ones need to be written down and which ones can be “re-envisioned” on the fly is essential, but the end product should be richer for the exercise.

I’ve only been engaging in this process for a few days, so I don’t know how well it will pan out, if I’ll find that I’m as eager to spend hundreds of hours filling a notebook with paper maps as I am to build another castle from cobblestone voxels, but so far results are promising.

I’m still looking for further solutions, so please jump in with your take on the whys and the solutions involved. I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot more I haven’t thought of and more solutions out there to try and your insight is as good as or better than mine, so I want to know what you think.