I love maps in RPG products. There’s something utterly compelling to me about detailed maps of things and places that don’t exist. They’re a joy to look at, and they’re fantastically information-dense. You can derive a lot of meaning about relationships and tensions in a setting just by studying a map and considering how people get form point A to Point B, or wondering how people in that mountain kingdom get crops, and how that impacts their relationship with the folks on those rolling plains next door. To this day, I have a huge fondness for Sunndi (a section of Greyhawk), despite never having actually played in it, because I really spent a lot of time zoomed in on that section of the map, thinking about it.
I want to make that love very clear, because I’m about to say something that seems to contradict it. When I see an RPG product with a huge map of the world, I immediately flinch and worry about the quality of the game. It is, to me, a red flag.
See, to me, a map is a promise. It shows me what’s going to be important to the game, and if you give me a world map, then I’m going to think that the game operates at a global level, and this is a problem when it does not. If the game has a narrower focus (as most do - truly global games are rare) then not only have I been handed a bait and switch, but I have also been handed a great deal of extraneous data. That might be annoying, but not merit a red flag, except for one other issue: It makes me wonder what the designer was thinking. That is, if they don’t understand what their game is about well enough to scale the map appropriately, what else is off base? It’s a brown M&M.
This is not to say that all large maps are bad. A large, detailed map is entirely appropriate for games of a certain scale, and I don’t begrudge them it. In fact, I think it’s pretty easy to spot the game/map mismatches if you look closely. And it’s fun to look for, since it also helps you see the games that really, really understand what their map was for. To that end, I want to call out a fantastic post by John Harper about what makes maps really fly in Apocalypse World, and add a big thumbs up to it. This is what a map should do for your game, and if it doesn’t, ask yourself why not.