TTRPG Thoughts: No Maps

This may be a generational thing, but I rarely hear modules referred to as, well, “modules” anymore. “Adventures” is much more common. I’ve always liked the term modules, as it suggests prewritten content that can be slotted into your existing campaign with minimal work. Modular, if you will. I generally create my own adventures, but occasionally I get tired or my creativity wanes, and a module takes some of the pressure off.

Even before the pandemic, I was used to gaming online. I move around a lot, which is great for personal growth but less great for maintaining a regular gaming group. Online platforms let me enjoy games with friends no matter where we are.

One of my current games is the original “Temple of Elemental Evil,” or as my players like to call it, “Potential Retirement Strategy.” The module is a bit out of date by current gaming standards (“No, I don’t know why there are two werewolves in a room with a magic mirror! Deal with it.”), but I’ve had fun creating additional content to shore up the plotline and get my players invested.

The hardest adaptation for me to make was using maps. The Moathouse wasn’t too bad, but after we moved on to the main temple… woof.* Too many tunnels, rooms, and secret doors. I did okay for a bit by cutting up the map and hiding areas with a fog of war, but it got cumbersome fast. Plus, I didn’t like how each game was devolving into “search the next 30 feet, listen at the door, search for traps.”

I’ve adapted my style to include a system I’m calling the New Orienteering Method Amber Produced Solo, or NO MAPS. This is how it works.

  • Before the session, I review the area of the dungeon the PCs are in. I divide the area into quadrants (or whatever makes the most sense) and note what monsters/threats are there and how much activity is generally in the area.
  • I have the players make some sort of detection/investigation roll. In GURPS this usually means Perception, but I allow Survival, divination spells, or anything the players come up with they can defend.
  • Based on how well they did, I give them general clues regarding what’s in each area. For example, I might say, “The hallway leading north seems well-traveled. You see many tracks in the dust and there are lit torches on the wall. In the distance comes the sound of clanging. To the southeast, the passages look rough-hewn and the floor is covered in dust. You don’t see any tracks, but you hear a faint moaning sound.”
  • The party then decides which direction they want to explore based on their goals. If they want to stay sneaky and investigate, they might take the dusty route. If they want to murderify a bunch of cultists, they might head for the light and sound.
  • The players then make general search checks to look for traps, guards, etc. If they find something I let them know what it is. Otherwise, I break things down a little further. “To the southeast, there are three areas with rooms in them. You search the eastern side quickly and find nothing of interest. The south has more dirty hallways and thick cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. The west has runes carved on the walls, and the moaning sound gets louder.”
  • Once combat breaks out, I draw or place a map and we roll for initiative! Only not in GURPS because it doesn’t work like that.

This method won’t necessarily work for everyone. My players trust when I say “there’s nothing over there” that there’s really nothing over there. I maintain that trust by not tricking them into skipping areas that hold important creatures or treasure. And my players are happy to skip rolling dozens of search checks and inspecting countless empty rooms every session, while some groups might get a kick out of that.

For us, though, it works really well. It gives the players an incentive to search new areas carefully, and gives them guidance on exploring the dungeon in a way that aligns with party goals. I can still spring surprises on them (to be fair, they WERE caught off guard by the two werewolves and the magic mirror). Most importantly, for our group of grown-ups with responsibilities, it gets us to the fun part of the evening faster. We get four hours a week to be heroes, so we’d better make it count.

*I just finished watching Only Murders in the Building, and it was SO GOOD. Woof.

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

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