In my continuing Kwai Chang Caine-like quest to find Prep-Lite mastery, I stumbled upon another place in my session prep, that was consuming a lot of my time, and begged for some prep-lite love. This time, my prep-lite scalpel made an incision into one of the cornerstone elements of our hobby…the Map. When I was done, I had once again removed precious time from my session prep without sacrificing the important parts. So grab your walkin’ stick grasshopper, and let us journey once again on our quest to Prep-Light nirvana.

In Our Last Episode

For those that have not been following along for the past few months, Prep-Lite is my current philosophy and techniques to reduce my time to prep a session, without crossing the border into total improvisation. You can follow that journey in the following articles: Prep-Lite Manifesto, Wireframes and Skins, Wireframe How To.

Why The Maps?

My entry into this Hobby was through Basic D&D and B2: Keep on The Borderlands, and I can still remember looking at the blue and white map on the inside cover with wide-eyed wonder. I have always enjoyed maps, though I have never been great at making my own. With the birth of PDF publishing, buying maps became a reality, and I spent some bucks on collecting maps to pull into games..

For some types of games, especially the Dungeon Crawl where the dungeon is a character of its own, the map is an essential component of the game. What I am going to talk about for the rest of the article, does not apply to games like that. .

For the rest of the games out there, maps are a nice-to-have visual aid for either the GM alone (to describe to the players), or to put out on the table between the GM and players. For the GM, the map gives you the spacial details for a location: the tomb, the altar, even the broom closet.

If you are making maps, then either you are creating your maps by hand or using software. The creation of maps can be time consuming, as you have to layout the location, and account for all the space, doors, windows, etc. For a small location like a convenience store, this may only take 10 minutes, but for a 100 room palace this can amount to considerable work.

If you are finding/purchasing maps online, then you are still spending time shopping for maps, and then reviewing them, and then spending time customizing them to your needs.  That can be as time consuming as making your own maps.

In either case you are using some of your prep-time for mapping.

The Essence of Maps

Looking at Maps with the Prep-Lite philosophy, some things become apparent. Maps can be decomposed to a few essential elements:

  • Interesting locations– these are areas of the map where cool things are going to happen when the PC’s are there. Examples: Throne Room, Lich’s crypt, Arrow trapped hallway.
  • Uninteresting locations– these are areas of the map which are often added to make the map complete and logical. While PC’s could do something cool in them, that was not their intention. Examples: Food pantry, Bathroom, Guest room #16
  • Spacial relationships– Maps show the relation of one location to another. Is the dining room next to the kitchen? Is the sick bay on the starboard side of the ship?

Now in all things Prep-Lite, we look for how we can keep the important elements and reduce or remove the rest.  So we can break down a map into two parts…

The Important

The important parts of the map are the Interesting locations and their spacial relationships. To create the prep-lite map, start with the locations, treat each location as its own set piece. List out the important locations with single word or short phrase descriptions.

For a recent game of Corporation, I put this into use. The Agents were responsible for breaking a person out of an high-tech, underground detox clinic. In my prep I had identified 6 interesting areas for the site:

  • Reception
  • Security Office
  • Medical Bay (a room where the patients consciousness is removed from their body)
  • Body Storage (where the meat is put into tanks and detoxed)
  • Matrix Storage (were the consciousness is sent on a pleasant vacation)
  • Storeroom (where a rival party would be entering to capture the same target)

Next, apply the spacial relationships between each of the locations. Don’t force the locations to line up nicely to one another, or even to conform to a shape, but rather show how each location relates to another. This will show which areas can be reached directly and which require the players to travel through another location.

Going back to the Corporation map, the spacial relationship is shown below. Thus, from the reception area, the Agents would have to travel through the Medical Bay to reach any of the other rooms.

Clinic Map with brief descriptions

You now have a simple map which shows the relationships between the important areas. In your notes, try to keep your description of each room brief. Here are a few tips for what you might want to note:

  • Purpose– every location has a purpose, it helps to define a single sentence about what the role of this room is.
  • Description– keep this down to the most important elements. Things that will jog your memory about the room.
  • Occupants– who is in this room? Monsters? Hostages?

Leave out the minor details about the room from your notes, allow this to be something you will ad lib during the session. Also, do not worry about exactly how the rooms are connected, that is something else that can be ad libbed as well: full of turns, with interior doors, wide, narrow, etc.

The Unimportant

All that is left then are the Uninteresting locations. Now these locations, while uninteresting are not useless. They are present, they just do not need to be represented on the map in advance. In most cases these rooms will not be a factor in your game, but when you do need one consider them Schrödinger’s rooms; they can appear when defined. There are two situations where these rooms may come up:

#1- Does this building have a copy room?

The first way an unimportant room comes into play, is when the players ask if it exists. Once the player asks about a room you can decide if the room exists. I use two rules when deciding on the existence of the room:

  • Is it logical for this kind of building/area to have the room in question? If the players want to know about a copy room, and you are in an office building, then sure there is one.  If the players are in a residential house and ask, then likely not.
  • Will the scene be cooler by this room being present? Players never ask for a specific room with out something in mind. Find out what it is; just ask them. Then decide if having this room makes the upcoming scene cooler (i.e. Rule of Cool).  If the scene would be enhanced by the room being present, then add it in.

Back to my Corporation example, as the players formulated their plan they asked me if there was a meeting room in the facility, because they wanted to meet their target in person before they considered breaking him out. There is not one on my map, but it sounded reasonable, so I added it to the map, right then.

#2- I open the next door to the left and go in.

In this case the players have opened a random door and entered the room. Perhaps they are being chased and are looking for a place to hide, or they are searching for something room by room.  In this case you will need to come up with the contents of the room. You can take a few approaches:

  • Make up an uninteresting room– The players open the door to find a spare bedroom.  Not every room is exciting.
  • Make up a new room with a twist– The players open the door and come upon the kids room where three little girls are having a tea party, and invite the players to come sit.
  • Make it one of the interesting rooms– The best part about not having a set map is that you can change the connections between each of the rooms on the fly. So now that random door leads into one of your interesting rooms.

Save That Graph Paper

Not every game needs a detailed map, in many cases just knowing how to get from one scene to the next is all you need. For those cases, employing the Prep-Lite mapping can speed up your session prep, and free up your valuable time.

Do you use full maps for your games, when they might not be needed? Have you ever tried to simplify your maps? What techniques have worked for you?