Friday, 18 April 2014


Reader Thea asks:
A G+ friend posted this link to an intriguing map, and that made me ponder other real or historical maps that could be stolen and repurposed for gaming:
Very cool! I am a big believer in repurposing maps for gaming, although it's important to be clear about what they're for. Take that cave map in the link, for instance. It's super impressive, but from a gaming perspective the map isn't terribly interesting. It doesn't provide a lot of challenges for the players -- most of it consists of a series of single tunnels, so there are few choices to be made in terms of where to go. You go forward or you go back. There absolutely would be tactical challenges fighting anything in there, and there would be big exploration challenges in terms of climbing, but they aren't really represented on the map, if you see what I mean. It does, however, give a great impression of how far deep underground you are at any point, which is useful, so that's cool.

This then prompts the question: what are we looking for in a map? Obviously, the question depends on what it's going to be used for in a game session. There are several functions a map can serve:

  • It can set the scene and give you an impression of what kind of place you're arriving in. This is what those big country maps in the endpapers of fantasy novels are for, I assume.
  • It can create tactical possibilities and challenges for things like combat and chase scenes. ("I duck behind this dumpster here!" "Quick, take a right on Grand and we'll cut him off!")
  • It can ground travel and investigation and make them feel more natural. ("Hey, the security camera factory is right across the road -- maybe they got a picture of the murderer?")
The particularly good thing about maps is that they produce these effects in ways that the players hadn't anticipated. And the great thing about stealing maps for other sources is that they produce these effects in ways the GM doesn't anticipate.

One of my favourite set of gaming maps are the foldout maps from the backs of the old "Arkham Country" books for Call of Cthulhu. Here's an example: this is the map from Escape from Innsmouth.

So it does two things: first, it tells you where everything is, which is important because one of the scenarios in the book ends with a big chase through the town. Second, it gives you a feel for what Innsmouth is like -- the style of the art, the curves of the streets, all suggest something bowing under great age, something rotting and turning in on itself. So it reinforces the Innsmouth atmosphere and also has this practical function. 

Historical maps are good like this as well: a friend once asked me for a map of a medieval town which was intended to be an Innsmouth-alike. In the end, I think we settled on Cork: 

When I wanted to add a port city to my game, I used Stettin: 

It's nicely complex, it's got features I wouldn't have added if I were drawing the map myself, and it shows the town in a nicely varied landscape context. Result. 

Note that neither of these towns are very big: most preindustrial cities weren't, but great big cities is a fantasy trope, so if you're looking to swipe a historical map you may be out of luck. 

The easiest way to find this kind of map is really just to pick a town somewhere or other in the world, put its name into Google image search, and see what you get. I searched for "Avignon medieval map" and this came up right away: 

Click here for a zoomable version. 
In a previous post I talked about castle maps, and even though the image didn't come out very well, I encourage you to click on the link to Estalia and check it out -- although the castles are not historical per se, they're very well researched and definitely worth taking a look at. 

You can find lots of historical house plans online, which is particularly good for more modern scenarios. Medieval house plans tend to be simpler than most fantasy games make them out to be, presumably because there are fewer secrets and fewer fun things to do in a house that's basically one big room and a few little ones. 

But the toughest map of all is the dungeon map properly so-called. The problem is that real-world structures other than homes don't often have the complexity that a real dungeon requires in order to be interesting. Still, there are some good ones. 

If you play in my Wednesday night D&D game, read no further.

So, for instance, check out this lovely Polish salt mine: 

You should be able to click on those, particularly the top one, to enlarge them. Well worth it for that top one, although sadly I can't find a bigger version of the second image. 

Or check out this map of the catacombs of Rabat. 

I tend to chop maps up, relabel them, use parts of them, add things and so on. I have a huge hangup where I want things to look neat and professional, so in fact I am extra crude in my manipulations as a way of overcoming that. 

Here are some good places to find maps: 

If you're looking for a location in the UK, you want to go here. However, it's search-by-location. Good if you want to know what Braintree looked like in the mid 19th century, not good if you just want to find somewhere cool-looking. Also some good resource from the British Library

The New York Public Library has tens of thousands of maps (and other things) online -- and not just maps of New York, either. 

Old Maps Online has a map-based search which is pretty cool. 

There's some quite good stuff in the Old Maps tag on flickr, even. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for all the great resources!

    The first thing I thought of when looking at that deep cave map was that we were pretty much looking at it in a cross section. So any of the places where it seems to level out for a while with a big cavern space could be an opportunity to do pretty much whatever was wanted with the actual layout of that level. Sure in real life it's probably just mostly straight shafts with occasional wide spots, but in D&D land all those wide spots could hold underground cities or complex inter-relating passages, or otherwise be considerably bigger and more complex that what could be seen in just a cross-section.

    One of my favorite sources of inspiration for town maps, in particular, are the three-dimensional models that lots of museums have, reconstructing what various places look like at various periods. There's a whole museum in Paris dedicated to these huge things, that were actually used to plan out military strategy, but lots of places have modern ones too. Unfortunately I never seem to get very good pictures of them, since they're usually covered in glass. One of the big museums in NYC had a whole series of these, depicting various important port towns. I should go through my photos and see if any of those came out.