Updated: Nov 10, 2021
With online gaming becoming the norm, more GMs are using digital maps in their game but are they all they're cracked up to be? Here is a list of the potential benefits and drawbacks I've experienced in my own game.
A picture is worth a thousand words. The saying is true, but what I want to suggest to you is that those thousand words are something you may not want or need in your game. There are at least a few things to consider before simply placing a map out in front of your players.
As a Game Master, you always need to keep in mind the control of information, what your players know and don't know. Both sides of that information is important to keep in mind when playing any RPG. Maps can reveal a lot of information this has some specific advantages and disadvantages.
I started thinking about this last weekend when I got to play with every player in person for the first time in a long time. And it felt good. And I think I identified at least one of those reasons why. Maps. Specifically the lack of any kind of online map. I didn't need a ton of maps or an online platform to support the game, and I felt free. If there was a battle, what once would have been a high resolution, intricately detailed map that I spent at least ten minutes searching the internet for, is now a few strokes of a water erasable pen on a battle mat.
All this to say that sometimes less is more, sometimes the lack of something can actually improve something else. But as almost everything in life, it is a balancing act. There are some benefits to maps that are irrefutable and I'm not going to be throwing them out entirely. But I am going to be much more conscious on how I use them in my game from now on. So now let's get to the list: first up, drawbacks.
Thinking Like A Video Game
Playing online has really shown us a lot of things. How often have you had players start moving around your roll20 map square by square to signal their desire to move on or investigate another part of the room, while you're still talking to another player? This takes control out of the DM's hands, who was able to resolve things one at a time before but now feels some pressure to react to the players map movements.
It Can Signal Combat
You need to be careful and think about when you put a map out for your players. Before the online maps were main stay, your DM drawing up a map essentially defined that a combat was about to start. This makes players shift their mind set into a different mode of the game.
It Can Kill Immersion
This is probably the biggest take away for me. We too often underestimate the advantage of less. Less can be more, because less makes it so we engage with our game differently. The imagination is a more powerful special effects engine than any movie budget. And it is because each person is conjuring up their own personalized picture of the situation, it's this act which engages the imagination and gets us immersed.
Instead of engaging with the NPCs, or thinking about specific images players can become enamored with studying the map you've given them. Taking their cues from the map rather than the information that you gave them. Sometimes there are features to maps that you'd rather not have, or things that you need to clarify about the map in order to move forward.
Now that I've spent the last few minutes convincing you to go to voice only online games where you run exclusively theatre of the mind. Let me temper my own advice by giving you some situations where maps are necessary.
Maps Describe Complex Situations
The first is when you enter a room, and there are more than three things happening in it. Describing a room with multiple areas, entrances and exists, and participating NPCs can leave everyone at the table overwhelmed with information. A map helps keep that information ordered and shown in front of everyone. This way you wont have to describe room details again and again, because everyone has some visual aid to help them understand the structure of what you're talking about.
Maps Make Combat Less Clunky
When you're in a complex situation with many different combatants, at least a simple map with tokens to represent where everyone stands is too helpful to pass up. Running theatre of the mind is good; until the tempest cleric is asking if their going to hit allies and doesn't want to accept that there is no way of getting just the monsters. Having back and forth conversations on where everyone is, and if they will hit allies is easily mitigated with a simple map.
Exploration can generally be improved with having no map, instead allowing you to describe and slowly let information out about the scene in some kind of order for each of your players.
The bottom line is, you control roll20, or whatever platform you are playing with. Don't use maps until YOU are ready to. Think about the situations that make sense for it. And maybe, just maybe, after that combat has been completed, turn off the map so the players can re-engage their imaginations.