Mapping as Fictional Positioning

June 21, 2011

Archived from Barf Forth.

So this may not be revelation to anyone but me…

Last week, the PCs in my near-earth-orbit game responded to a distress signal from this orbital monastic community called Sanctum. The folks who run Sanctum try to help people clear their minds from domination by the Psychic Maelstrom and, thus, escape from a life of reaver-esque cannibal savagery. Our touchstone is a “graduate” of Sanctum’s psychic rehab, but apparently not all their recruits took to their training so well (surprise!), so the PCs are basically walking into a bloodbath of insane debauchery and cruelty.

I began making maps like crazy, drawing the main airlock, the cargo room, the corridors leading to the medical facility, the kitchen, the training rooms, the initiates’ monastic cells, the flight deck where they launched shuttles, the central meditation chamber, etc.

All this mapping was inspired, for the most part, by our touchstone asking where certain things were, based on her memories, alongside some Reading of a Charged Situation and Opening of Brains. And then, once the PCs starting moving through Sanctum, with the vibe and setting of our game, plus the horrific atmosphere, it felt very much like Geiger Counter, surprisingly enough. Room-by-room, situation by situation, with the sense of danger building.

But what really struck me was that, unlike in some Geiger Counter games I’ve played, the map really served to ground the fiction in ways I wasn’t expecting. Without the movie-inspired jump cuts that sometimes happen in Geiger, the map really provided some tight constraints on player choices through the fictional positioning that went along with it. Unlike in Geiger or PTA, we weren’t thinking about what the next cool scene should be about; instead we looked at the map and were like, okay, clearly we have to go through X place next.

For example: The PCs proceeded first to track down Hugo, the initiate that sent the distress signal, who was in one side of the space station. But then, having come across some horrific scenes, the touchstone decided that Hugo must be dead and that they should proceed to the training rooms to confront Rufus, the failed initiate who seemed to be orchestrating this descent into base passions. Consequently, as demanded by the maps and the fiction, they had to make their way across the entire rest of the station to get to where Rufus was. No jump cuts, no excuses. That was clearly what the fiction — through the map — demanded.

Sure, the players could have decided to do something else: go out an airlock and walk around the outside of the ship, leave and not fight Rufus, blow up Sanctum, whatever else. But their choices were limited — in significant ways — by the little bit of sketching I did of the station.

I guess maybe I’m used to maps as a form of railroading, showing where you clearly must go, or as a series of light cues to help you remember things you’ve done and preserve consistency in the fiction, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the geography of a map really matter in a game that didn’t have wargame-inspired rules for cover or range calculated in squares.

So anyway, I’m thinking about that now and my future play of both AW and Geiger Counter will be better for it.

One Response to “Mapping as Fictional Positioning”


  1. You might also want to take a look at what some old school people are talking about when they discuss maps. In particular, I am reminded of this: Megadungeon mapping.


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