The Case For Maps And Minis
I’m not sure when the serious backlash against using maps and miniatures in your game began. I suspect that it found root first when 3rd Edition D&D made tactical, grid-based combat into the norm rather than the exception, then the dislike of maps and minis blossomed into full flower with 4th Edition D&D where it was very difficult to even play the game without a map. It’s possible that the hatred originated somewhere else, but given that D&D is still the biggest, and arguably the most divisive, name in tabletop gaming it’s a pretty safe bet that the origins are there. Regardless of where it came from, the virulent hatred for maps and minis, along with the barely concealed contempt that a fair few players and GMs have for the people who use or like them, has left me feeling more than a little frustrated and annoyed. There are some reactionary elements in the gaming community as a whole (to say nothing of the D&D community) that are so focused on the One True Way to play RPGs that they belittle, deride, and ostracize others who don’t follow along exactly. Without ever considering the reasons why the people who disagree who may feel that way. While this increasing One True Way-ism in gaming is a problem in general, I want to start by talking about maps, minis, and why they aren’t the Devil’s Tools that a vocal group of gamers make them out to be.
This Brain Is My Brain. There Are Many like it, But This Is My Own.
Maps and minis often get ripped because there’s this nebulous idea that the people who use them just are too lazy or stupid to use their imaginations. If only these people would reach out and engage in the “theatre of the mind’s eye” (a term which I absolutely hate, btw, for being smug and pretentious), they would find that they don’t need or even want to use maps or miniatures. To these people, maps and miniatures are an obstacle, a mechanical construct getting in the way of what they feel is the real RPG experience. To be fair, in some cases this might actually be true. People who are new to gaming, as well as people who aren’t invested in a campaign, might just use what’s laid out in front of them as their gaming reality instead of letting their imagination get heavily involved.
However, for all that some people might use maps and minis as a substitute for imagination, there are other people who use it to augment their imagination. A map or a miniature can give your imagination a stepping off point, a place to start which you can then use to make what you’re mentally picturing in your head all the better. A map doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, replace a good description from a GM as to what your characters are seeing, but it can make it easier for you the player to understand what the GM means as he or she points things out to you. A miniature can be an amazing visual shortcut, keeping a game running faster by keeping the GM from needing to describe or point out every possible bit of information about an encounter. Further, it can make it easier for a GM to do the describing in the first place by becoming a visual reminder of all the elements in a particular room or environment. Which leads to my next point…
It’s all fun and games with spatial relations until someone gets hurt
One of the other reasons that so many people want minis and maps is that not everybody perceives things in the same way. There are players and GMs who might have a hard time wrapping their mind around what’s being described and who process things much better when presented with a visual or audio element. Even a really well done verbal description from the GM might not be enough for some players, especially in the midst of a hectic combat or in a very “busy” environment.
I’m one of those people who really wants to have a map in a game. Appropriate minis aren’t always necessary and it doesn’t have to definitely be a tactical grid, but I don’t always process descriptions from a GM the same way that other players do. Sometimes something about a description messes up my spatial relations and I’m completely confused about what thing is where, who did what, and what is going on. For me a map, even one that just shows relational distances between characters, npcs, and objects, is an extremely helpful piece of kit to have at the gaming table. It helps me focus on the important events better and frees up some of my concentration to actually use my imagination rather than having to be hung up on wondering if I’m interpreting what people are saying correctly.
I Am Not My Character
The dislike for maps is not even just about a tactical map for combat either. I have seen people who go so far with their hatred of maps and minis as to forbid players to make their own area maps or to hide mapmaking behind rolling dice to see how well your character remembers what they saw. I’ve even seen people say that characters who are mapmaking should be punished by making them easier to surprise or have penalties to initiative. The argument is always that of “realism”. It’s not realistic for characters to be able to have a detailed map, they say. It’s not realistic for characters to be able to have perfect recall of an environment, they say. Well, what do I have to say to that?
You’re already playing a game that could include elves, wizards, magic, cyborgs, eldritch horrors, faster than light travel, or laser swords. Realism packed up a while ago and only comes by to visit now.
When realism gets in the way of fun in a tabletop game, realism should be what gives way. I am not my character and expecting me, the player, to be able to remember things the way my character does and in the same fashion is IMO absolutely ridiculous. My character may have gone through these rooms, passages, or hallways a few minutes or hours ago and should have a reasonably decent recollection of how they relate to one another. However, me the player may find that days, weeks, or months has passed since I last thought about them and I might not be able to remember a damned thing. Allowing players to have a map, even if they have to make it themselves and deal with the inaccuracies, is not going to break a game or suck all the enjoyment out of it. If such a simple thing as a map does ruin your game, I might suggest that you take a step back and reevaluate exactly how seriously you’re taking a game.
Don’t Blame The Tool, Blame The Tool Who Is Using It
Maps and miniatures are like any other object in the tabletop gaming toolbox. They might be used for evil, to replace the use of imagination and to teach players and GMs alike to be lazy and apathetic. Or they might be used for good, to help players better immerse themselves in the gaming world, augment their imaginations, or help them keep up with the action taking place in front of them. The same could be said of props, music, video, or other things brought to the gaming table. What is being used should be less important than how it’s used. If you don’t enjoy maps or any kind and miniatures aren’t your favorite thing in the world, you aren’t necessarily wrong to feel that way. Everybody is entitled to enjoy some things more than others. However, it’s important to remember that not everybody is going to agree and if you take a really hardline stance against things like maps or minis to the point of disallowing them completely or punishing people for using them, you might find that you are actively taking away from someone else’s enjoyment of a game. If you really want to bring them around to your preferred way of gaming, lead by positive example and make people want to try things your way. Don’t condemn, mock, and belittle what other people prefer, lest you drive them away from your style completely.