Do you really need a world map?

I remember when I started my first D&D campaign. It was the early days. Those funny dice were nearly impossible to find. Miniatures were made out of lead. And we made up the campaign world as we went along.
The first thing I want to say is that there are many fine maps that are works of art. They’re beautiful and inspiring. I’m not trying to denigrate anyone’s work. But I’ve been thinking. How much does a DM really need that world map?
My first world map was just some random notes. This was to north. That was to the east and so on. Later it turned more into something that looked like a cross between a flow chart and a poorly sketched dungeon. It was simple. The player characters knew (usually) where they were. They knew there was village that way. Some mountains in that direction. And big city over there. They knew roughly how long it would take to their destination. And that was enough. If there was something interesting out there, it would end up in their path. Nothing about “If they had only been walking a few more miles to the east then they would have found something interesting.” As a DM, you’re supposed to know where everything is or might be in the world. But a detailed map isn’t all that necessary. Flying without a map also let’s you throw in those interesting little extras that pop up after the campaign has started.
So discuss away. World maps. Great as art. Optional gaming tool. What?

3 thoughts on “Do you really need a world map?”

  1. It’s a big ol’ case of “depends”. And not the adult diaper kind.

    On the one hand, you are correct. Creating the world map ahead of time is a lot of work for the GM. Work that may not actually have a significant payoff.

    Also, it is not uncommon for a GM to treat the world map (or similar element of a campaign bible) as inviolate. If it takes three and a half days to get from Point A to Point B, then there is no way for the characters to make it in two, no matter how cool it would be.

    On the other, a world map can serve as a common touchstone for the campaign. Everyone can see exactly where they are, where they’ve been, and where they can go. It can communicate a whole lot about the world without the GM having to do a verbal infodump.

    Also, it can be a source of inspiration. If I need an idea for my new character, I might check out some fun corner of the map. What is this weird mountain in the middle of the desert? What kind of people might live there? Why would I have left? You know, basic seed stuff.


  2. When I was running my own D&D campaigns, almost all of my inspiration came from the maps that I drew. I didn’t use any stock material, so my world was my world. Having it allowed me to have firm grasp of what might happen if the players took one road vs another. It allowed me to keep weather effects upon the land consistent, so that the players could have a good idea of what areas of the world had better climates and such. While I think it’s perfectly okay not to have a World Map, I personally like to have one.


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