DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Maps

We’ve Lost Our Way When it Comes to Maps

Have you picked up a mainstream RPG book lately? Did you look at the map inside?

It’s utterly depressing.

Map by Mike Schley from Curse of Strahd[1]

All of the maps that we use now look the same. Our iconography is the same. Our roads meander meaninglessly along, in windy paths that go nowhere to homes that are utterly unoccupied. We number our important locations and beside our enumerations we write such meaningless claptrap as: “Location 135: John Gault’s Head.”

We stopped being interesting in favor of being standardized.

Fantasy games don’t have to be standardized. Look at these maps that once graced the end papers of the books that inspired our imaginations[2]:

Nursery Rhyme Land, London 1925
Donald Foster / John Wood/ Quietest Under the Sun , Museum Press London 1944
Joan Hassall/ Frances Brett Young/ Portrait of a Village Heinemann London 1937
A.M.Highes, J.K.Stanford, Bledgrave Hall, Country Book Club, London 1953
Geofrey Wales/ Janet and John Hampden/ Sir Francis Drake’s Raid on the Treasure Trains, Folio Society, London
Aruthr Ransom’s Swallows and Amazons
from John Buchan’s novel The Island of Sheep first published in 1936

None of these maps are as beautifully detailed as the standard fare you find most of the time today, but they’re also not giving us a bunch of information that we don’t need. We aren’t being asked to check out enumerated keys to find out what’s connected to each numbered circle. Instead all the big, important locations on these older maps are easy to find and anything of interest is highlighted with a clear description.

When roads are illustrated on the maps we see clearly what the big thing they’re going towards is each time. We see the Sea Wall with it’s dangerous break. We see the Queen of Hearts and where the marsh lands are threatening to overwhelm our paths.

Unlike more modern maps these older, antiquated maps tell us a visual story and help pique our imaginations. We need more maps like this and less that all look exactly the same.


[1] I picked out a map by Mike Schley here because I’ve been reading the Curse of Strahd adventure lately. Mike has rightfully been recognized as one of the great, modern, fantasy map makers out there. It’s a bit unfair to use one of his maps though as it makes it seem like I’m bagging on him when really I think Mike does excellent work. I would just like to see more styles out there instead of everyone doing the same style every time.

[2] Special thanks goes to Chris Mullen’s The Visual Telling of Stories for collecting these maps. You can find more at this link:

4 thoughts on “We’ve Lost Our Way When it Comes to Maps”

  1. Although I get your sentiment, I don’t necessarily agree. Products like Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount and Mythic Odysseys of Theros have pretty easy to read maps (the latter is a little short on World Map department unfortunately).

    Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica has a very unique, almost strange map, that I personally love, because it conveys the feelings of the world like none other. It might not be very useful in terms of navigation and crawling within campaign but that’s not the only purpose for a map.

    What I like about Mike’s maps is that they paint you a picture and let you fill the blanks. I personally use his Saltmarsh map, that I’ve re-purposed for my homebrew campaign. The fact that there are buildings, roads and places that have no notes on them, allows me to incorporate easily my won elements of the world into it, without altering the map itself.

    The only thing I really dislike is the scale and a lack of grid. Especially with bigger maps, navigation can be hard and the distances are confusing. In that regard, I would like to know is it realistic approach or just a stylistic choice to have that scale there.

    Anyway, thanks for interesting post. Maps are fun as hell.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t like the colors on the Mike Shea map. For a land cloaked in fog it should by less vibrant green and more grays. The map was also too small for our DM that wanted travel in between villages and other locations to take more time. So I’d say lose the scale and the idea of a grid.

    The Avernus side view map was terrible. I hope I never have to play on one of those again.

    Liked by 1 person

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