Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Meditating on Maps

This month Dyson Logos of A Character for Every Game is hosting the RPG Blog Carnival. The theme du jur for April is Cartography, which got me to thinking about my own obsession with maps and how that has continuously manifested in a desire to play RPGs.

I suppose I have to credit my dad. When I was a kid, he would insist on driving places for family vacations. I would get carsick in the back seat, so I was graduated to the front seat, where my dad would make me the navigator. Thus, I have always strongly associated maps with exploration — all those abstract symbols represented something real that I could go see. This was the seed that would later spore into a full blown obsession; however, despite the fact that I had been paying D&D for several years, had studied Tolkien's maps for hours on end and had dreamed of fantasy worlds of my own, it wasn't until I ran across a map of a fantasy world created by my dad when he was kid that I really began to appreciate the power of maps.

My dad has always harbored a love for all things related to rails. His basement is a maze of electric rail sets that have three distinct destinations (a mine and two towns), he has an ever growing collection of train time tables and his childhood was defined by the electric rail system that used to dominate Cleveland. He still dreamily remembers being able to leave home with a quarter, take the electric train, see a Saturday Matinee and come home with change.

Thus, his fantasy map was not of a Sword & Sorcery world filled with magic, lost civilizations and ancient secrets. His was a world of modern transit. He had cities connected by roads, tram systems and railways. There were places with names like Forgetown, Valley Port, Willowgrove and Bannocksburg. I was taken in. What did these cities produce? When did people move there? Why did they get those names? Who lived in these places? How can I explore and see the reality of something that does not exist?

The answer came in the form of Pro Foto-Football. I came up with a football league based on the cities on my dad's map. I designed all their uniforms, came up with a schedule and a random means of choosing offensive and defensive plays for each team. Then I played out I can't remember how many seasons.

A game, using random tables (Pro Foto-Football) became the means by which I was able to interact with my dad's map in order to tell a story. Thus, maps aren't just a means to tell you how to get from point A to point B. They are a tool for interactive story-telling. They imply questions like: What does that look like? How did it get there? Why is it called that? Why is it there in the first place? etc. Maps invite us to answer these questions, even when the places don't really exist. Most importantly (for me at any rate), games are the best outlet for answering these questions.

I could have written a story about my dad's fantasy world and have answered all my questions via a piece of fiction; however, maps are about exploration. If I'm making up the story and making all the decisions for myself, I can't be surprised and I can't really discover anything. Games — especially the interactive story-telling of RPGs — with their built-in randomness allow for that discovery and surprise.

Sure, I could decide that this particular ruin is occupied by bandits and that they have allied themselves with an evil cult trying to recover from a near death blow from the forces of civilization and good. But it is so much more fun when that story emerges from a couple of random rolls on a table when a party of adventurers that I have no control over interact with them…


Telecanter said...

That's a cool connection. I would have been stoked if my dad had fantasy maps. The best I got is him regaling me with stories of making gun powder. My brother invented a little baseball dice game and I set the teams in a Pangea reached by time travel (so we could have players from every era). We had a whole fantasy league. The most fun was the draft.

FrDave said...


Yes, D&D is weird. That is why I play. As I stated in this post, I like exploring. Seeing the weird is part of that exploratory experience. I love retroclones because they represent a way of play (DIY) that existed back in the 70s and 80s despite the various attempts at a unified ruleset. I am of the opinion that the more retroclones we have, the better. This gives me more choices as a player for various house rules that make my own play as fun as I want it to be.