RPG Superstar 2015: What the heck is a map, anyway

UPDATE: The Round 2 entries are public! Go view them and vote!

Designer and host Owen K.C. Stephens provided some hella vague hints about the next round of this year’s RPG Superstar: maps! Namely, some key points about the submissions included:

… a full-page map, of a previously unmapped fantasy-themed location in Golarion …

… having enough information for a cartographer to be able to create a publishable map from your entry …

… No one needs a map of a 20-foot by 20-foot room with a door centered in the north and west walls, or of a forest that’s six miles long and three miles deep with a single road and one town in the middle …

… it must be something that could be used by a GM to run a game set in the mapped location, and it must have all the information a cartographer needs to make the final map …

That doesn’t narrow anything down much. No scope limits except that it be on Golarion and fits on a letter-sized piece of paper, which isn’t much of a content limit considering a map of the entire passage of souls from creation to death and encompassing all of space and time fits on a letter-sized piece of paper, much less Golarion’s entire solar system, much less all of Golarion.

So let’s look at equivalent examples in actual Paizo products of “full-page maps” of “fantasy-themed locations in Golarion” that “have enough information for a cartographer to be able to create a publishable map,” encompassing any scale as long as it “could be used by a GM to run a game set in the mapped location”, with the caveats that:

  • Paizo products are not necessarily “Superstar quality”.
  • Ready-to-publish maps like most of these are not what Paizo’s looking for.
  • I don’t have perfect knowledge of all locations in Golarion that have already been mapped in previous products.

To keep references simple, I’ll link to maps already released under the Community Use Policy and uploaded to PathfinderWiki so they’re easy to view.

Places that could technically fit this definition include:

  • Supercontinental and continental maps, like The Inner Sea region. The linked map is poster sized, but page-sized maps of the region show up in many products.
    • Does it fit Owen’s parameters? Yes—sort of. Garund, Avistan, Tian Xia, and the Crown of the World have been mapped. The levels of the Darklands are sort of a toss-up as their nature makes them much more difficult to map. A continent on another world or plane, even one previously described or broadly mapped by Paizo, doesn’t seem to fit the letter of the (suggested) rules. Otherwise, Casmaron, Arcadia, and Azlant could potentially be mapped on a single page. (Sarusan, while a continent, is small enough to be a nation-sized map. Maybe. Nobody really knows; the closest thing to an official world map has in-character question marks on it.)
    • Would I make this map for Round 2? No. Since the goal is to “be something that could be used by a GM to run a game set in the mapped location,” I wouldn’t make such a map for Round 2. Continent-sized maps provide a geographic reference for locating places in relation to other places. How far is Absalom from Egorian? What’s between the Worldwound and the Hold of Belkzen? Especially in a kitchen-sink setting like Golarion, it also serves to create relationships between each mini-setting within it—the Nirmathi Robin Hoods and Molthuni Generals can’t be in the same Inner Sea Football League division uh, at war with each other if they’re on opposite ends of the setting.
      As a game reference, though, it doesn’t do much to inspire me as a GM unless I’m running a very broad sandbox campaign—at this scale there’s too much in the space between places, and too little detail in the few clearly marked places, to run a game out-of-the-box with a letter-sized continent map alone. What’s the difference between the Hungry Mountains and the Bandu Hills? What’s unique about Absalom and Egorian? You have to come up with it on your own, which makes it harder to “run a game set in the mapped location.”
  • National or nation-sized regional maps, like Varisia: This map of Varisia is in the back of the original Rise of the Runelords Player’s Guide, which is a free download.
    • Does it fit? Yes—sort of. Most parts of the Inner Sea region have this scale of map in The Inner Sea World Guide and Pathfinder Campaign Setting books dedicated to individual nations. I haven’t found any maps of this scale for Tian Xia (the Dragon Empires Gazetteer contains two full-page continental maps, one color-coded to identify individual nations). Other continents’ nations are unmapped, and Sarusan is about as large as some large nations.
    • Would I make this map? Not likely. To create a map of this scale that doesn’t already exist, I’d have to pick a nation on a continent that hasn’t been mapped. It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg problem, and while Owen’s suggested rules would technically allow it, it would be a dangerous sort of space to work in. How would the judges view a map of a nation that’s already been mapped internally by Paizo? And even at a national scale, you’re still mostly providing a relational reference for detailed locations; it’s difficult to put a story into dots on a map for cities and lines for roads and rivers while keeping their structure organic and sensible. I’d have to have a killer idea to go this route.
      On the other hand, this is the minimal map size for a far-reaching campaign. (Many APs, which run from 1st to 17th-ish level, spend most or all of their time in a nation-sized area.) The hard part would be communicating an AP-worthy plot in a single letter-sized map. Do you show a map of two nations at war, with disputed borders and battleground locations? Illustrate the unstoppable expansion of a corrupting force?
  • Local and small regional maps, like Bloodsworn Vale: I’d prefer to use the Sandpoint hinterlands map that appears in Rise of the Runelords and the Beginner Box Game Master’s Guide, but there’s no CUP-friendly version to share. These are sometimes full-page but often run on half a page.
    • Does it fit? Yes. By limiting yourself to a town and its surrounding area, or one or two small islands, you open up most of Golarion outside of the major cities and Shackles while avoiding many concerns about places with unmapped surroundings.
    • Would I make this map? Maybe. Again, even at this scale, you’re struggling to do more than say “this awesome place where things happen is 2 miles from this other awesome place where things happen.” But you have a bit more to work with—you’re at a scale where novel harbors, massive creatures, and sprawling locations aren’t just dots on a map, they can be visible features that suggest specific things to do.
      This is the scale where it starts to get easier for “a GM to run a game set in the mapped location”: PC travel time is simple at all levels, the game’s scale is limited to a few encounters in a handful of environment types, and locations can be just evocative enough for a GM to run them with relatively little prep—at least if the map is clear and interesting.
  • City maps, like Sandpoint: These are usually a full page in a book where most of the action is set in that city. A few are half-page maps.
    • Does it fit? Yes. There are lots of cities and towns in Golarion that haven’t been mapped, including some metropolis-sized cities. The problem is figuring out whether they’ve already been mapped. You’ll have to do some research to be sure; PFWiki is a good starting point, as is searching the Paizo store for the city’s name.
    • Would I make this map? No. Even though city maps are a step down in scale, they’re right up there with national maps in density. There’s a lot going on in a city, and a map that shows an entire city struggles once again to do more than show that city hall is six blocks from the meat market, or the graveyard is 200 feet by 100 feet in size. The bigger the city, the tougher it is to present “a game set in the mapped location”. For me at least, smaller towns have more room to be evocative; you can zoom in closer, show more detail, and come closer to telling a specific story. For instance, compare Sandpoint to smaller Falcon’s Hollow, larger Riddleport (which shows off some particularly cool city-map features), and gargantuan Absalom.
  • Location maps, like Foxglove Manor: This is from Richard Pett’s The Skinsaw Murders, the second Rise of the Runelords AP issue.

    • Does it fit?
    Oh yes!

    The possibilities at this scale are endless. You can carve one of these out of nearly any place in Golarion, regardless of whether it’s already on the map.

    • Would I make this map?
    Oh yes!

    This is grid scale, and it’s where GMs run games. Period. Larger maps are great for campaign-scale play, but they’re literally the big picture of the story, the whole book. This map scale is the chapter of your book, and it’s where you can tell stories with nothing more than walls and labels.

    Foxglove is an especially nice example as it uses one scale to show three different types of map. One page gives a GM three maps worth at least an entire session of play. You have lots of flexibility, you can still tell stories with some scale to them, and you don’t have to worry nearly as much about whether you’re tripping over the “unmapped” rule.

    The hard part is avoiding the “20-foot room with a door” suggestion: just because a location you map is interesting to you, that doesn’t mean it’s interesting to other GMs, even if you play the map at your table and your players have a blast. The map itself has to communicate what makes it interesting, and it has to be flexible enough for any GM and any party. That means providing options, avoiding a single linear path, and/or creating unusual situations that take advantage of (or at least allow) creative tactics.

    Because this is so wide open, your options are particularly diverse. They don’t have to be overhead with a 5-foot grid; they can have a 20-foot grid, or be a side view with a 50-foot grid.

  • Single-floor, single-building maps, like Cayden’s Hall: The linked map is Tim Hitchcock’s turnover for PFS scenario #40: Hall of Drunken Heroes, from Joshua J. Frost’s Paizo blog post back in 2010 about how, well, Good Maps Make for Good Adventures, which is a nice segue to wrapping up this too-long post:

A good map, like Tim’s, tells us immediately everything we need to know about the location. I don’t have to redraw his map and I don’t have to send a novel with the map order that includes tags and descriptions for every room so the cartographer can get the map right. Were we to send our cartographers the bad map example from above, without also sending along the entire article that goes with it, we’d get back a nicely drawn, full-color drawing of 5 box shapes, a circle, and a few smudges. Our cartographers are awesome, but their base for quality is only as good as the hand-drawn map they receive. A cartographer should be able to open the author’s map and immediately get to work turning a good map into a great map rather than reading a wall of text and then turning a terrible map into a mediocre map.

  • Would I make this map? I wish! Tim’s map is an excellent example of freelance map turnover, but I’m not sure how voters would react if this was submitted in Round 2. That’s where the “game” of Superstar seems to diverge from freelancing—no matter how much Owen says “voters are asked to vote not on artistic talent, but on clarity, imagination, and usefulness,” I’m not entirely certain enough voters are going to buy as much into an entryway to a Cayden Cailean temple made of two back-to-back bars called the Hall of Thrones as much as I would.

Is this novel enough? If enough of the Top 32 submit colored, textured, pretty, evocative maps that aren’t more imaginative or as turnaround-friendly but capture voters’ imaginations, would they bump this designer out of the Top 16?

In other words, clean maps like these are freelance bread-and-butter, but can they be Superstar enough?