Dev Diary #5 | Using Maps As Characters

You're designing your new amazing adventure. You've thought through the main plot points, the locales and even a storyboard for the narrative flow. You start working on the characters: the villains, the goons, the masterminds, the bystanders and the heroes.

But then you hit the wall. What next? You want to figure out the details of combat, roleplaying and exploration, but in what context will those encounters be resolved? Will these encounters take place over wide spaces, within cramped passageways or across multiple scenarios? How should each new event be introduced to maintain a smooth pace?

Well, you need a map.


Just for practical purposes, maps provide players and game masters a powerful visual aid for keeping track of positions and relative distances. Maps help take the game from the minds of your players and put it at their fingertips. It gives a tactile interaction, allowing players to physically move their characters and easily map out their next actions.

But perhaps most important for content creators, maps help you define the experience.

Maps, just like the characters you create, establish the tone and expectations for what the players will encounter. When you create a villain, you think through several questions:

  1. Why is my villain here? What is he trying to accomplish? What are the motivations for doing so?
  2. How are the players interrupting that goal? How will the villain react?
  3. What does the villain look like? How will the players recognize that this is the villain?

Good map design will answer those same questions:

  1. Why is this map here? What am I (the content creator) trying to accomplish? What is my motivation for sending players here (instead of there)?
  2. How are the players engaging with the map? How will the progress through the map adjust to the players?
  3. What does the environment look like? How will the players recognize this particular setting?

Let's put this in context so that it's more than just words.

While working on an encounter for the FALLING STAR campaign (which will be available for alpha testers later this Fall), we hit a point where we needed to know what our environment looked like before we could figure out the details for the exploration and combat.

We had a storyboard. We had an idea for characters to include, but we needed a map.


So we started designing this map of crashed wreckage that the players would be exploring nine years after this station had crashed into the planet. The wreckage is on a collapsed planet (a tragic consequence of chromatic experimentation by the Taes Empire hundreds of years prior), so the map would be overgrown and wild. The wreckage itself would need to be cramped and restricted. Locked doors would force players to explore broken passages and solve puzzles.

The three floors of the wreckage became three encounter areas, which helped us to determine how puzzles and enemies would be introduced. The map itself became integrated with the storyboard.

As players move throughout the map, they also move throughout the story.

Once we realized that we were addressing our map development the same that we address our character development, our map design became much stronger. We're not simply creating a space or parameters to contain the players. We're creating a wild, sinister tone -- what secrets are hidden here? We're creating a restricted, stubborn personality -- how can I get past this obstacle? We're creating tangible reveals as doors open to usher players deeper into the story.

Want to make better maps? Starting developing your maps like you develop your characters.