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Your world is full of infinite adventures just waiting to be written; characters to save, treasures to discover, injustices to right! Take part in the World Anvil Community Challenge and create a short, one-shot RPG adventure from one of these quests. And of course, we here at DungeonFog challenge you to create at least one - or many! - stunning new battlemaps for this new adventure.


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Published on 2023-04-17 13:37

Part III: Designing the Maps

Designing maps for our adventure is closely related to level design within computer games. Depending on the narrative there are different map progression types we can utilize.


Linear progression

Linear progression is by far the most common layout for maps and once we have internalized the difference between narrative progression (the six areas we previously defined) and map layout, we will be ready to create great maps:

As you can see, the layout of the areas underlines the linear plot progression throughout the map. By mapping the progression to the layout, we can make sure that our heroes have to encounter the guardian before they face the puzzle. They then get some free reign in the explorable area and will face a setback that creates tension before we lead them to the final climax and their revelation.

There is no alternative route for the heroes and thus it is a linear progression.


Now you might think that this is a very basic way of map design, but in fact this is a very common concept for adventures. The reason we often do not realize this is because those sections of the map are not always single areas, but often complex. Area One, where we set up the prerequisites of the map, could be a vast system of rivers or islands or a labyrinth of tunnels that guard the entrance.

Regardless of how we do our final layout, the important element is that our characters progress through those areas in a predefined pattern with only one option to progress - forward.


Winged progression

This structure splits the map into separate wings and a blocked area that keeps our party from progressing, as long as they haven’t solved specific tasks in each wing.

For example, a chasm that our heroes need to cross. They need to find or make a bridge – a forest to the left and an abandoned mine to the right present options. This changes the narrative structure by introducing a second exploration area and we need to think about how we want to treat this split, because we now run the risk of tricking ourselves into creating another linear progression and unnecessary backtracking.



As good designers, we want to avoid backtracking at all costs, because it hardly ever creates tension or excitement. Don’t fall for the trap of saying “But I can add story to the backtracking part!” No! This would just change your story progression and might lead to more complex stages and arcs, putting you at the risk of destroying your plan and any tension you designed.

Instead, we will have to use a trick, to make the winged progression stand out and offer a different experience to our party.


Consequences and Choices

Our heroes must choose where to go first, but consequently their decision will have an impact on the dynamics of the story:

  • Different Factions living in our exploration areas could change depending on your party's decisions
  • Event triggers in one exploration area could cause the other exploration area to change drastically. (YAY! Different maps for different choices).
  • Time-based events will force the party to choose one exploration over the other, sectioning off the unexplored location once the decision was made. This decision only affects the current area and not the overall story structure.

Split Progression


If we want the heroes’ choice to affect the whole story even more drastically, we need to change our plot structure.

The character’s choice will alter the story without a chance of going back (unless they could time travel).

To illustrate the split progression, let’s look at an example that illustrates this concept:
We want to have two separate stories unfold on the same map. So depending on the choices our heroes make, they do not just change the way they approach the same final goal, but they alter the story fundamentally.

We can do this if Area Two is inhabited by two factions who are fighting over dominance of this location and your players need to pick a side, formulating our Turning Point #2: Change of Plans.

The predicament our players will have to face is that once they have chosen which faction they want to side with, they can’t go back, because the story has already progressed.

We need to make the difference between those choices substantial! If both factions are just soldiers, it doesn’t justify the split in our story structure. It would be either “fight for these or fight for them”… But if — let’s say — one faction are scientists who want to preserve the location, while the other faction is determined to destroy everything, your characters will experience completely different stories, depending on the side they pick.

While exploring Area Three, the neglected faction will try to hinder them and when the party reaches the setback, they will learn that the neglected faction has already gained an advantage and they now need to hurry to prevent whatever is about to happen.

The climax will then have the leader of the neglected faction doing something they need to stop and depending on which faction they have chosen, their revelation and reward will be different.



Let’s have a look at one last example. Can you already tell what we have done here?

This story structure tells us that our players progress under the same prerequisites as before. They then experience - based on the faction they choose - two different stories within the Puzzle, the Exploration Area and the Setback, but whatever faction our party chooses to side with, once they reach Area Five they will face the same big bad in the same climax and have the same revelation.



As you can imagine, there are countless different variations for plotting our final story. That’s why it is important to know your story's structure before you start creating your maps. Only as long as we keep the Six Stages of our plot structure in sync with our Six Areas of our map layout, we can guarantee that we will never accidentally ruin the tension build-up of our story.


What maps should we prepare?


Don't waste time fleshing out every map. Instead, establish a rule of thumb for what maps to tackle so you're well prepared and our toolbox feels versatile enough to handle every situation.

A good example would be a vast cave network that our characters need to traverse to reach an underground temple. To plan this adventure, we need to look at the locations, and what maps might be helpful to have prepared:


GM map for the tunnel system

We should have a sketch of the whole tunnel system for ourselves so we can map their location while they travel. Our characters do not necessarily need a complete map for this part of their journey. We can narrate their travel through the tunnels, describe the atmosphere and pull up a few scenic images to spark their imagination.


1-3 Random tunnel maps

Knowing that our players will get in trouble while traversing the tunnels to the temple, we should prepare a set of random encounter maps, including a straight tunnel, a crossroad and an intersection. This allows us to bring these maps up whenever a battlemap is needed and since the whole tunnel area could be described as “indifferent tunnel sections” we can re-use any of those three maps if necessary, without breaking the immersion for our players.


The Spider Queen's Lair - a battlemap with lair actions

Taking the wrong turn in the tunnels, our characters might end up in the lair of the spider queen. Since there are specific map mechanics (like webbing and eggs) that make this encounter more interesting, we want them to have a special battlemap that emphasizes this encounter.


The Underground Temple - GM and/or exploration map

This is a location that follows a planned story and helps us to map out every location of the temple, its obstacles, pacing, read-alouds and encounters. For our characters, the location map will help them to understand that they are now shifting into the endgame of that story arc. We don’t necessarily have the whole map to be explorable, but reveal and hide the map to our players as we progress through the temple and highlight their arrival at specific locations.



All in all, we would enter the session with about six maps ready to be pulled out. The random maps can be done quite fast, since they are just variations of the same tunnel map. The same goes for the Spider Queen's Lair as it is a dead end variation of our tunnel maps, with special lair mechanics.

The one map that needs more time to draw is the Temple of the Dark Gods. We are also facing our first pacing decision here. Do we want our characters to explore the full map, uncovering room by room, or do we want to use the map as a GM map only and create specific battlemaps for our encounters?

So before we can make that decision, we need to think about pacing and how our map concept can help with it. Knowing where in our story arc our characters are, will help us greatly to decide what type of narrative maps we are going to use.


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Quick on the fly reference tables and step-by-step creation tips, tricks and guides for every type of natural location imaginable!


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