Mapping the points of light

April 29, 2008 at 8:00 pm
filed under Roleplaying
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Assuming it survived various changes before being released, etc, the “points of light” setting conceit is probably one of the coolest things about 4e in my opinion, mainly because for once the “implied setting” of D&D is actually really awesome.

The common folk of the world look upon the wild lands with dread. Few people are widely traveled—even the most ambitious merchant is careful to stick to better-known roads. The lands between towns or homesteads are wide and empty. It might be safe enough within a day’s ride of a city or an hour’s walk of a village, but go beyond that and you are taking your life into your hands. People are scared of what might be waiting in the old forest or beyond the barren hills at the far end of the valley, because whatever is out there is most likely hungry and hostile. Striking off into untraveled lands is something only heroes and adventurers do. Another implication of this basic conceit of the world is that there is very little in the way of authority to deal with raiders and marauders, outbreaks of demon worship, rampaging monsters, deadly hauntings, or similar local problems. Settlements afflicted by troubles can only hope for a band of heroes to arrive and set things right. If there is a kingdom beyond the town’s walls, it’s still largely covered by unexplored forest and desolate hills where evil folk gather. The king’s soldiers might do a passable job of keeping the lands within a few miles of his castle free of monsters and bandits, but most of the realm’s outlying towns and villages are on their own.

I would consider toning this down just a little bit. The idea that local authorities are basically helpless makes the whole notion of civilization somewhat less plausible. It’s either that or you have to make adventurers more common, which also goes against the flavor of the default setting. Instead, I’d make the roads a little bit safer as long as you have some kind of escort. That way you can still have merchant caravans and trade and whatnot without them constantly getting owned. Stick to the roads and you are safe. Wander off, and you’re inviting trouble.

But I love what this implies with regard to maps. One way or another, they will probably be inaccurate or have a lot of gaps, and in general be a much more important plot device if you so wish.

“Recent” maps will tell you where cities, forts, towns and roads are, but they might very well be wrong due to recent Plot Events or what have you. More to the point, there’ll be huge swaths of the map that are blank. Why? Well, see, going there would involve actually going there. In this case, being there involves being there with the other things that are there, such as horrible monsters who murder people.

Old maps are another story. These maps date back to the days when there were empires and whatnot. Most of the time they won’t be useful for figuring out where the nearest town is. What they will be useful for is looking for interesting places to go, like ancient cities or strongholds, and possibly providing a more accurate picture of the geography of the area. Maybe there are, for instance, some abandoned roads. Or maybe old battlefields are marked on the map. You get the idea.

In between, you have adventurers’ maps. Oh yes. You hear word of legendary heroes whose maps describe all kinds of interesting places and are probably fairly informative in terms of what they cover. These maps can either make you very rich, or lead you to an extremely horrible death because it turns out that the people that wrote this map were way more badass than you are.

The ability to give unreliable information in this way can make the game a lot more interesting to me, from a DM or player perspective. When the text supports that by default, it’s even better. A largely uncivilized world is a world ready for the PCs to make their mark.

  • deadlytoque

    In my short-lived 4e game (about 3 sessions before I resurrected my hiatus’d Mage: the Awakening game), I did up two maps, and was planning a third. Map #1 was a “plot map”. It wasn’t a drawing, but rather just the names of all the cool places I wanted things to happen: “Rotworm Swamp”, “Crescent Glacier”, etc, connected by lines showing how the players would have to progress between them. To get from the Keep to the Graveyard, for example, they needed to move through the Town of Cadmus, and then through the Ruins of Old Cadmus.

    Based on my plot map, I threw together a sketchy, not-to-scale “player map”, so they could see roughly how the locations that they had been to fit together geographically; information their characters would have initially, or would quickly acquire.

    The third map I was planning was the “empire map”, which, as you suggest, would show how things used to be back before the collapse of the last great empire, allowing me to give rein to my ideas and figure out where some particularly spectacular dungeons, strongholds, and artifacts might be.

    Also, given the lack of an official “timeline” for the various collapsed empires, I took it on myself to sketch one out, with the final goals being not to contradict too much printed material, and still have the “layered” approach to former civilizations. So I wrote about my giant empire with its dwarven slaves; my decadent and proud dragonborn empire; etc. Of course, no sooner had I written it than WotC came out with some contradictory info (namely the timing of the dragonborn and tiefling empires), but I figured that was safe to ignore. This helped in mapping, because I was able to say things to myself like “this graveyard is build on top of an imperial catacomb, which is itself resting on a dwarf-built tomb from the Age of Giants; as the players increase in power, I can let them find their way deeper and deeper into this dungeon.”

  • It’s turned out that for Er-Eret, my own game, I don’t have a map at all. It’s funny, because I spent a decent chunk of time fighting with one, and ultimately decided to skip it. Only one time has the topic come up, when my PCs were setting off to beat back the goblin menace.

    That said, I still think maps are cool, and I like what you describe above. I need to get over my hang-ups, as I’d really like to go full-out with such as an ancient one, all put in the oven to look old and whatnot.

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