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The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT.The adventurers are plying the Elemental Chaos when they happen upon a pirate base made from the hulls of six wrecked ships. The map for this location is something I’d created for another purpose—an upcoming Organized Play event called D&D Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee—but I loved the way it turned out and decided to plunder it for my home campaign. A DM’s gotta do what a DM’s gotta do, and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

If I could get a paying job as a "D&D mapmaker," I would take that job in a heartbeat—even if the pay sucked. Don’t get me wrong—I’m perfectly happy with my current line of work—but creating maps has always been a true passion of mine. Many hours have I spent drawing halls and statues and spiral staircases on graph paper over the years! These days, my schedule rarely permits me to indulge this artistic passion. Often I’m forced out of necessity to repurpose maps created for other uses—either maps I’ve created myself or maps created by others.

At right is the version of the map I created for Talon of Umberlee and plundered for my Wednesday night game, juxtaposed with a more professional rendering of the same map by freelance cartographer Mike Schley.

Damn, that’s a cool map, if I do say so myself! Mike’s version is lovely, but the location itself has a certain novelty. I spent a long time getting the shape of the hulls just right. It’s always risky to go "off the grid," and I struggle a bit with curved walls. (With this map, I cheated: I drew a ship’s bow on a separate piece of graph paper and then traced it over and over to create the versions that appear in my sketch version of the final map.)

Those of you who choose to participate in the D&D Lair Assault program (premiering in September and running concurrently with the in-store D&D Encounters program) might actually get to play the encounter for which this map was truly designed. If not, feel free to loot the map for your home campaign. That’s what I do—and what every good Dungeon Master does.

When I was a kid, I spent a large chunk of my allowance on D&D and AD&D adventure modules, knowing full well I’d never find time to run all of them. The adventure maps were usually printed on the inside covers, and they were so incredibly evocative and immersive that I would often decide whether an adventure was worth running based solely on the maps. Would Count Strahd von Zarovich be half the vampire he is today if not for Castle Ravenloft?

I think it’s hard to be a Dungeon Master and not be inspired by good maps. World maps, dungeon maps, castle maps—they define the world as much as any character, NPC, or plot. I don’t think a love of maps is required to be a great DM, but it certainly hasn’t hurt or hindered me. In fact, whenever I try to conjure up a new adventure, one of the first things I think about is the key adventure location and what the map might look like. In your campaign, it might be a haunted castle, a temple built by a pharaoh’s monstrous thralls, or the killer dungeon of a mad archwizard. In my campaign, it might be the winter palace of the Dragovar emperor, a star pact warlock’s celestial observatory, or an elemental warship.

Recently I had an opportunity to catch up with Monte Cook, who I don’t see often enough these days, much to my chagrin. Monte is a brilliant DM who creates stories of remarkable depth and worlds of such intricacy that they feel absolutely real (although what actually makes him brilliant is his willingness to let the players decide where to take the campaign and roll with it, which, incidentally, is the topic of next week’s column—but I digress). Years ago, I was a regular player in Monte’s famous Ptolus campaign which, like my current campaign, was run with two different groups on Monday and Wednesday evenings. I was in both groups, which allowed me to observe how Monte managed to create intersecting stories and opportunities for one group’s antics to influence the other.

One thing that Monte and I have in common beyond our passion and predilection for DMing is a love of maps. He, like me, is a diehard map aficionado. One need only flip through the 672-page Ptolus: City by the Spire tome to see his passion for maps brought to vivid life. (The book’s cartography won an ENnie Award in 2007.)

When Monte worked at Wizards of the Coast, he used to bring graph paper to meetings and draw gloriously Gygaxian dungeon maps. I wonder how many of those offhand designs ended up in print? I did the same thing in high school English class—my only regret was that I didn’t save any of those old maps, crappy as they doubtless were. My early designs were often nonsensical, and over the years I’ve learned that even dungeons need some internal logic in their design—that even the craziest archwizard or pharaoh builds toward a purpose, and every castle regardless of size needs at least one lavatory or privy.

I don’t have as much time to draw maps as I used to, so whenever I attend a gaming convention and have a few hours to kill, I glide through the exhibit hall and peruse RPG books for interesting maps. If I see something I like, I’ll buy it in the hopes of plundering it for my home campaign. Masterwork Maps products are notorious for catching my eye; they produce great stuff, and their castle maps are particularly awesome.

When I’m feeling lazy or pressed for time, I forgo the graph paper and instead turn to the Internet for inspiration. For an upcoming adventure, I needed to create a map of a mansion, so I typed "mansion blueprints" into the Google search engine and discovered among the myriad images the following low-res image of a real-world residence called Whitemarsh Hall:

Click for larger view
Click for larger view

Realizing that I was missing the upstairs blueprint, I did a Google search on Whitemarsh Hall and discovered an excellent website chronicling the history of the mansion, with maps of the upstairs and downstairs levels as well as exterior and interior images that could easily serve as player handouts. Marveling at my good fortune, I copied the mansion blueprints (GIFs) to my desktop.

Since these maps don’t have a grid, I decided to add one. (The grid makes it easier for me to replicate sections of the map on a wet-erase battle map during the game.) I downloaded some free digital graph paper, which is a wonderful DM resource, and even specified how big I wanted the grid and the paper size to be. After converting the graph paper PDF into a JPG, I superimposed the maps of the mansion onto the grid. I copy-and-pasted them onto the graph paper as separate layers and resized them using the Edit > Transform function of Adobe Photoshop so that the walls and grid aligned more closely. Here, then, is what the mansion’s ground floor looks like on digital graph paper:

In Photoshop, I can erase the tags I don’t want and add whatever other embellishments I like. However, in this case, the maps don’t require much manipulation. I’m pretty happy with them as they are.

Lessons Learned

I’ve often joked that maps are D&D porn for Dungeon Masters. Forgive the weird analogy, but opening up the gatefold covers of old AD&D adventures is like opening a Playboy or Playgirl centerfold, inviting drooling DMs to take their players into the poisonous dungeon beneath the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan or the haunted house on the cliff in The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. Past issues of Dungeon are another great source of maps; the magazine has been around in one form or another since 1986, and those of you who have access to back issues are sitting on a veritable goldmine.

We’re even learning the lesson here at Wizards and trying our best to get new maps into DM’s hands, by every practical means, because we know DMs don’t have the time or ability to create their own. Alas, too many modern adventure modules don’t pay enough mind to creative map design, and consequently they offer precious little plunder for DMs who need good maps to fuel their campaigns. (There are many notable exceptions.) If you can’t steal a map from Dungeon magazine or some other source, you can always turn to the Internet and use its power for good.

Do a Google search on "castle maps" and see what you get. Now try "dungeon maps." Next, "wilderness maps." Finally, try searching for "medieval city maps." (editor’s note: Don’t pass up a chance to visit the Cartographer’s Guild.) I think you’ll be awakened to new adventure possibilities. Truth be told, you might never need to draw another map again—although I hope that’s untrue, since it’s incumbent upon all DMs to put pencil to graph paper and create new dungeons that might one day get published for the rest of us to steal at our leisure.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 07/28/2011 Results:

1. How many disruptive players do you have?

  • 0: 47.3%
  • 1: 33.5%
  • 2: 13.0%
  • All: 3.6%
  • 3: 1.9%
  • 3+: 0.7%

2. Complete non sequitur: If the gang of Acquisitions Incorporated was to reunite for another grand adventure, what should be their next quest?

  • Explore the Darkmagic estate in New Hampshire: 21.5%
  • Actually acquire something . . . anything! 19.8%
  • Free the prisoners trapped in the mines of Slaughterfast (a sequel to last year’s PAX event): 15.5%
  • Travel to the Forgotten Realms and kick Drizzt Do’Urden’s ass: 13.9%
  • Build an ark and gather two of every monster in the original Fiend Folio: 9.8%
  • Travel to the Feywild and slap Aeofel’s parents: 5.8%
  • Discover a way to merge into one Voltron-like super-character: 4.5%
  • Find a beardless lass to woo the fair Binwin Bronzebottom (yes folks, it’s true, he’s a virgin): 4.2%
  • Battle the gods for supreme control of the multiverse: 3.8%
  • With the help of 7-Zark-7, stop Zoltar and the planet Spectra from conquering Earth: 1.2%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 08/04/2011

Hey DMs: How do you prefer to create maps for your campaigns?

How do you prefer to create maps for your campaigns?
The old-fashioned way: Pens (or pencils) and graph paper.
The old-fashioned lazy way: I let someone else do it for me.
The newfangled way: With a computer and digital drawing tools.
The newfangled lazy way: With mapmaking software.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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