There are many long-held myths in our glorious hobby. Among these, that encounters are somehow 'balanced' for mathematical perfection, that RPG authors have somehow hit a secret equilibrium that has special fun-enhancing properties, that GMs contain a vast and complete set of world-answers, that hacked or home brewed systems somehow become untenable or 'broken,' or that certain play styles are more 'old school' than others.
Of these many myths, though, one of the most pervasive is that of the map... that players are exploring a near-exact series of spaces to known or published dungeon or area maps, and that the GM has perfectly translated this map to descriptions and scenes being played.
As a quick disclaimer, VTT play, using literal maps as the play-space, are exempt of this entire discussion. In that experience, the map IS the table, and the GM is translating nothing, only adjudicating movement through the visually present map-as-surface. In all other types of play, though, there is a mind process by the GM between the map (seldom seen by players in totality) and the encounters and moments played in detail.
For the sake of elucidating the maximum number of readers, let's use a widely known example from here on out: Castle Ravenloft (Hickman & Hickman). The gloomy brooding-roost of Strahd, cursed to lament his fallen bride Tatyana, tormented by his brother's Sergei's betrayal, lord of the pocket realm of dread Barovia, complex of pointy towers and scary ramparts... Castle Ravenloft. If you're reading these words, you've probably had some experience with this legendary Stoker-esque dungeon.
Ravenloft has a well-known and much iterated map. Like all large-scale castles, it is a collection of rooms and hallways, spiral stairs and storage closets, balconies and gallery-chambers. We've all seen this in some form, especially GMs...
Castle Ravenloft Map. GMs are expected to translate this data into descriptions, ensuring that
no doorway is improperly measured, no foyer forgotten, no 5' square overlooked.
Before I continue, and throw the teddy bear into the blender, let me say that maps of this nature are incredibly cool. Giant dungeon maps brimming with rooms, doors, and halls... vast gridded complexes festooned with ASMR cross-hatching... they're staples of what makes GM'ing cool. Now that I've said that, let's debunk this myth. It all starts with TRANSLATION.
Just like Bill Murray and ScarJo, maps are mostly Lost in Translation. Sure, they make the GM feel cool. Sure, they give the GM a vast and omniscient sense of relative size, orientation, and inter-area access, but do they ever REALLY reach the players' minds? I'm her to argue no. No they don't. That's why it's a myth. Now that I've revealed my premise, let me submit some evidence.
Charlotte and Bob are lost in the rights and lefts of Tokyo,
slowly realizing that the map is leading them to each other.
Exhibit A: Translation
Let's face it, Castle Ravenloft is complex as hell. I'm looking at this map, describing left and right turns, grottoes, closets and distance measurements to players. My brain CPU is heating up. Wait, I also need to role play this Lipseige guy AND telegraph the incoming vampire-spawn? (yes, it's Helga.) At some point, just to keep my bran from melting, I'm going to delete a room or hallway here. I'm not a madman! The more you ask of the GM, the less fidelity to pre-ordained detail you'll get. We're not supercomputers. Thus, why inflict this massive map on me? It's fun to look at but guys, really? This cpu-limited artform is called translation... translating a map (not seen by players) to their minds. Right away, I'm cutting bits out to avoid the nut-house.
Exhibit B: Memory (Loss)
Do players remember empty closets, right-left doorway choices, foyers, or how many levels of spiral stairs it took to reach the belfrey? No. They remember exciting battles, sad monologues, goofy accents, and that Lipseige guy. Strahd's laughter echoes through the castle, Tatyana's ghost is seen falling into the ravine, Toranescu is howling with agony! Exact architecture is utterly forgettable. Both as GM describing and player recalling. Thus, it is not needed in time-consuming detail.
Exhibit C: Utility (Lack of)
What is really useful to players confronting Strahd? An exact measurement of cabinet space, the dimensions of a line-of-sight stunt at a banister corner? The number of naves in the castle chapel? No. Players want to know how to kill him, why he's so mean, and if the curse of Barovia can be lifted. They want answers on this wedding thing. They want to put Tatyana's ghost at ease! So focus on those things! Exact mapping not only eats tons of CPU and table time, it's just not that useful to the players.
Maybe the map, in its full glory anyway, never does really reach the players. Maybe the arguments above ring true enough to hear me out. So what? Well, here comes the thesis, the call-to-action: let go of the map! Embrace a new method that captures all of it with more cinematic skill and emotional impact: the art of the scene.
One super-effective 'Dinner with Strahd' or 'Wrath in the Organ Room' scene / battle is worth more
than dozens of oddball rooms, grottoes, and side-areas combined. That said, don't forget Helga.
Image from Beneos Battlemaps
You know, I spend a lot of time chillin' with DM Scotty. He's a good friend and mentor, and no one rocks a table like he can. This real-world evidence gives me a tendency to listen when he lends his Yoda-secrets. In this case, here's what he says about complex maps:
"It is assumed that characters explore various hallways, empty rooms, cobwebbed closets and long, lonely corridors. All these are noted, but there is no need to view the adventure inch by inch. They explore in such a way then BOOM, the scene they care about is upon them! If a branching feel is desired, only the big choices matter, not every door and window." -DM Scotty
With this approach, what has become of Castle Ravenloft? Well, purists are going to skewer me, but it's probably 5 or 6 scenes, connected by spiral stairs, lonely halls, and misty ramparts. There's the awe-inspiring entryway and its haunted armor, the crypt of King Barov, that torture chamber filled with 'Strombies,' the highest tower; its Barovian witches and vision of poor Tatyana, and finally the quintessential organ room with brooding Strahd and a chaotic appearance by Toranescu (or hateful ghost Sergei) for good measure.
"After your encounter in the dungeons, still smelling of rotting flesh and dead teeth, you navigate upward, as stated, finding a winding path up and up to the towers and wall-tops. Through one spidery stained glass window, you see the apparition of a woman... forever falling... forever weeping... she bids you ascend..."
Remember, if the coffin is intact, you can't really beat the guy. Mist form, y'all.
Image from Adobe stock
Don't toss your map collection into the fire, or scribble out your Dungeon23 project. Maps will always be a part of our hobby. But when table time comes up all too soon (that's every session, am I right?), and you have too little time to deliver every 5' square to UHD fidelity, be gentle with yourself, goodly GM! Focus on the highlight moments, the coolest scenes, and save your CPU for Lipseige's badly-acted tomfoolery, this whole wedding storyline, and that clockwork Pidlwick thing. The map can be cool on the wall.