Why Sucky Fantasy Maps Sabotage Your D&D Storytelling
My unpopular opinion: fantasy maps suck.
They suck in any fantasy series and they suck in D&D.
They are dumb… and stupid… and dumb.
Suuuuuper mature, right? But I truly believe creating original D&D maps for your campaigns are more trouble than they are worth.
Table of Contents
What a D&D Map is For
Maps Help Tell Stories
Which D&D Maps?
1.Geography is Really Complex
2.Fantasy Maps = The Uncanny Valley
What’s New and Strange Isn’t Helpful
4 Alternatives for Homebrewing Your D&D Map
What a D&D Map is For
Before we assess why D&D maps suck, we need to establish what makes a map good.
Maps present the world around us in a way our little brains can understand so we can successfully interact with it.
The information on maps presents exploration opportunities that can be pursued safely. They make the complex simple, organizing relevant information so we can figure out:
- A) where we are,
- B) what is around us,
- C) where we want to go,
- D) and the best way to get there.
D&D maps accomplish the same thing.
They help orient players to the fantasy world around them: telling them a little bit about the places they can go so they can make informed and excited decisions that impact the adventure.
Maps are FUN because they tempt players with opportunity and create an eagerness to adventure.
So you might be asking: “What’s your deal then? Why do you have a beef with fantasy maps?”
Because there is another thing maps do, and it’s particularly important for Dungeons and Dragons.
Maps Help Tell Stories
Maps both tell a story and they help tell our stories.
Where a story happens often dictates why a story happens, and how it takes place.
For example, you could guess the history of early 19th- mid 20th century France and Germany just by looking at a map of Alsace–Lorraine: the size of the nations, the small border they share, the formidable series of forts along the border, the obvious wealth, the high percentage of french and german speaking residents.
Alsace-Lorraine’s story of wars, treaties, and nationalism right there on the map.
Maps organize the settings of our stories: the structure and context that dictate the stories we tell.
When you are reading a fantasy novel, or in the midst of a D&D campaign, there are a lot of details that are difficult to organize. One solution is turning to the map in the back or in your notes
A quick glance should provide enough information to clear up where you are in the journey, character motivations, ethnic personalities, political goals, etc.
By putting all the details in context, the story makes a little more sense.
And yes, even in fantasy worlds full of magic and dragons, this is important! The story still needs to make sense (we can’t suspend disbelief in everything).
I believe this is the most important reason to have a map: by clearing up confusion, maps help keep players engaged and, by extension, excited in the quest.
And it is also why bad maps are so harmful…
Which D&D Maps Suck?
Let me be clear: I am not talking about city or battle maps, and my beef is NOT with regional maps of a country, or nation, or county.
Those tend to be ok… put mountains to one side, a coast or lake on the other, some forests here and there…
The D&D maps that suck are the continental and global ones.
As you can see, it’s simple but pretty good! Enough to establish the context and spark imagination.
Now, here is Narnia expanded into a continent:
Even if it was given a graphic design makeover to look like the first map… still… so gross.
So why does is the first map fine but the second one terrible?
Turns out that when I took “rocks for jocks” in high school, they were oversimplifying it a bit.
I realized this when I was designing a sea cave encounter for my table and stumbled upon this website.
I didn’t know there were anchialine, corrasional, fracture, littoral, karst, and talus caves. I also did not know there were 4 different cave type patterns, 4 cave ecologies, and 11 different types of cave passages.
Turns out, geography and geology are about 100x more detailed and complex than I originally thought.
And that complexity is made worse on a continental scale.
Let’s consider what I feel is the greatest problem of all fantasy maps… mountain ranges.
Mountains occur when plate tectonics crash into each other over millions of years. And different mountains form in different ways depending on what kind of crash that is. Sometimes the plates “fold” up together, sometimes they go down and volcanoes form, and sometimes one dives into the earth and the other rises up.
And as they push up, other forces of nature go to work in innumerable ways. Both glaciers and streams have a variety of ways they can dictate and shape how mountains and mountain ranges form.
That is why you get mountain ranges that look like this:
And like this:
And even this:
And to our eyes, they all look good and normal.
So… last time you drew your fantasy mountain range… did you take all of that into account? Did you spend hours studying to create a natural fantasy world for your D&D adventure?
Probably not. And that’s why your map makes people anxious.
The cold- hard truth is this: geography is so complex that being a life-long resident of Earth does not make you an expert in Earth.
Trusting your intuition backfires, resulting in something that looks similar to a real map, but feels wrong.
In other words, your D&D homebrew map rests deep in the “The Uncanny Valley”
The “Uncanny Valley” refers to things that are too far from fiction and too far from reality. Just like too much CGI in a movie, brains can just tell it’s fake, even though it’s familiar.
Its why those hollywood wax museums feel like horror movie murder houses. Or why Cats was the worst movie of 2019.
They sit in the middle… confusing our brains and making us anxious.
Look at this picture… it’s that feeling.
To a lesser extent, that is what your imitation map does… it “unsettles”.
Then you’ll randomly draw some mountain ranges, some forests, some rivers and deserts and swamps here and there. Eventually you’ll get something like this:
It looks alright… it has all the continent stuff that makes it look sorta normal… but it’s off… it's uncanny.
When people look at that map, their brain unconsciously sends off alarm bells telling them: “that’s not right or real!”, and they feel icky inside.
And those alarms are why your map is hurting the storytelling.
What is New and Strange Isn’t Helpful
(Ok, time to bring it all together)
Your map is brand new: you may have spent hours familiarizing yourself with your world, but to them it's totally new and unknown.
So in summary: A) geography is hard, B) intuitively drawing a map makes it weird, and C) they don’t know anything about your world.
Your fantasy map no longer does what a map is supposed to do: help tell the story.
It’s not something they can easily grasp and refer to throughout the journey… it doesn’t give them a better sense of their setting and context… it’s a difficult homework project: a chore.
Sure, it worked for J.R.R Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, but they are exceptions, not the rule.
Our maps (yes… “our”, mine too…) don’t suck out of lack of creativity or effort. I trust that most of you are truly creative and work really hard to make something good.
Our maps suck because rather than simplifying our storytelling, they make our storytelling more difficult and complex.
And I know, this feels backward, because so many of our maps were written AFTER we had a story in mind. We created the world for the story… how could it not help tell the story?
But this is exactly why they feel fake: geography shapes the story, not the other way around.
And when the geography doesn’t make sense, the story won’t. Cities need to be near a food and water source, mountains need tectonic plates, and forests need wind and rain. That stuff all fits together in certain ways.
And if your homebrew D&D map doesn’t take all of that into account, it becomes an obstacle to your players imagination and fun.
Alternatives to Homebrewing Your D&D Map
In my opinion, the time, energy, and expertise required to overcome all these obstacles isn’t worth it. You could get some training, like this book, but a DM already has limited hours for on more important things that are guaranteed to result in a better session for everyone at the table.
But adventures still benefit from a map, so what are the alternatives?
“The Last Fantasy Map You’ll Ever Need”
It is incredibly nonsensical and stupid, but the more I thought about it the more I came to love it. It solves all the problems of fantasy maps by embracing stereotypes and being absurdly simple. This provides a shortcut to player imagination to help tell the story!
“Commit to the Forgotten Realms”
WOTC has created a whole world, history, and maps for all of us, the most popular being Faerun. I believe it still looks dumb… but like Middle Earth it is becoming a standard we can all grow to love. And to their credit, each of their smaller, regional maps are excellent (Icewind Dale, Chult, etc.)
“Change it a bit so the teacher doesn’t think you copied me”
Take a real world map, alter it slightly, and call it a day. Panem from The Hunger Games novels did this brilliantly, using a natural disaster to justify eroding North America to create a perfect blend of familiar and foreign.https://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1295769/16973134/1331006576193/panem-school-map-23x35_print1.jpg?token=q7CSCR4OVMveoJnWzBARyn9nig8%3D
“Use the Real World Maps and History”
Similar to above, but involves more flip-flopping rather than atlering. It is also my preferred method, so I’ll spend a little longer on it.
Let’s look at Westeros from “A Song of Ice and Fire”. The geography makes sense and has a ton of lore and backstory to really ground the whole area with a sense of depth and realism
George R.R. Martin’s secret? He stole from British history and British geography.
Westeros is a remix of the British Isles. He cut it in half, flipped it, added Ireland, and created an iconic map that fans adore.
In my opinion, follow in his steps: take a real world map, twist and flip it a bit, add and subtract a thing or two, and you are ready to rock.
As passionate as I have been, I admit it’s really not that big a deal.
I am sure many of you absolutely hate everything I said.
That is fine. You are free to continue making your own maps and free to express your disagreement in the comments.
You are also free to ignore everything I said and disregard me as a raving lunatic, or a bore with no imagination.
No hard feelings. I do it all the time.
If you still stubbornly refuse and want to create your fantasy maps, all I can say is good luck and Godspeed as you do a ton of research. Just make sure you put a freaking scale on your map.
That said… I’m right.