Tabletop gaming has two primary frontiers. One is in our imagination - the DM paints a vivid, living picture of a world in the theater of the mind when there is no visual aid.
The other frontier - my personal favorite - is on maps. Some DMs painstakingly sketch them onto large battlegrids, others draw them digitally or procure them online to represent major points of interest in the world, should the party venture to them.
In my experience, a lack of immersive descriptors at hand can sometimes lead to two players seeing different things in their minds eye, (especially for newer DMs like me), and that's when having a shareable annotated map & searchable encyclopedia can be very useful. They tend to create a better shared understanding of the exact features of the landscape.
In this post, I want to share some neat map-based tricks I've employed in-game to help make it more fun, and to give my players a better visual grasp of my world and what's in it.
1. Organizing your entire game world
This one is a bit obvious. Of course with a map annotation tool like Cartonomicon, nothing's stopping you from creating a worldmap and nesting it with infinite locations, each with their own map. For example, your Cartonomicon maps might be nested like:
- Port city
- Trade docks
- City barracks
- Seaside tavern
- Mage Academy
- Archmage's office
- Kobold fortress
- Fortress interior
- Sacrificial chamber
- Feasting hall
With any number of markers on any of those maps.
The benefit to exhaustively chronicling the elements and features of your game world in a series of maps, is that you (and your players, if you wish) can easily look up and manage information about anything in an instant.
Let's say your players are wondering if the town blacksmith has any black powder for the gunslinger. Searching the blacksmith's name pulls up the blacksmith map you placed him in, along with the full inventory of his store and various features of his forge. Not only does he have black powder, but it seems he even sells ammunition he creates in his spare time.
2. Populate a marketplace with merchants and their inventories
Between games, my players often will try to negotiate their characters having gone off somewhere to procure items. I found myself improvising merchants and their wares - badly - when put on the spot that way.
Instead, I now keep maps marked with the location and inventories of the local markets, bazaars and storefronts at major locations in my world. That way, between sessions my players are free to 'search for merchants' around town, and I don't need to improvise people or the things they're selling, because I will have written it all in advance.
As the last session ended, Yerog the sorceror mentioned he would like to try to purchase a ring of spell storing from someone in town before the next game. As the DM I momentarily consider linking him directly to the map of the bustling & dense mercantile district and wishing him good luck, but after he rolls an 18 I decide to link him directly to the market stall of Wendell's Wystical Wares, who is selling various magical accoutrement. Among the inventory listed in his marker's information, a ring of spell storing is available for a good price...
3. Filling a crime scene map with clues to check in between sessions
If your campaign entails some sleuthy detective work, you could create and share with your players a map of a crime scene with all of the evidence marked and documented. You could give them such a map to delve deeper into in between games, so they stay engaged with the story.
Perhaps, if a player is investigative enough, they might spot a specific piece of evidence that links to a new, zoomed-in map with more impactful clues within, like the page of a diary or contents of a coinpurse.
Your last D&D game ended with your players, a party of arcane investigators, arriving to the scene of alleyway murder. You share a link to a marked Cartonomicon map showing details of the scene.
Charred remains and parts of the victim's body are strewn across the ground in dramatic fashion, showing signs of a fiery blast. A marker on the map looks to be no more than a pile of trash, but clicking on the marker reveals a linked map leading to a close-up of the murderer's bag of holding, which was cut from his waist in the struggle. It contains information your players can use to identify the killer.
4. Track the path of your adventurers
Every DM has had those head-spinning moments trying to reflect on the exact path taken by their party of adventurers. Some people track movement in an image editor, some try to document it in a Google doc.
Instead, create a series of markers chronicling your party's movement throughout a campaign. Write a small blurb about what they did at each area to build an over-arching view of the entire campaign.
5. Write immersive details about a locale to recite upon your party's arrival
If you know your party will be arriving at a specific location, such as the summit of a mountain, the stuffy back-room of an alchemist's shop, or a hidden village in the forest, your Cartonomicon maps can be your scratchpad for improvising immersive details that help put your players in the game.
Aftering creating new maps for these important locales, create a few markers around the areas that your party might be entering from. Use these to write about the general temperature, how the area smells, and what splendor of imagery meets their gaze first. Then, refer back to them when your party arrives to keep your train of thought on track while describing the area.
As a DM, I know my party will need to make a 2-day trek through the densely-forested Staghorn Weald. I've never actually fleshed this area out, so the day before the game I take a moment to write a brief intro that I place as a map marker:
"As you travel from Oakburn to the southern crest, the forest thickens visibly. After the first day or so, your path is shaded and the atmosphere dark, even during the daylight hours. At night your party huddles close to the fire, and it is difficult to sleep with the ever-present distant howling of wolves and the occasional roars of far stranger beasts..."
In conclusion: a good map is a DM's best friend!
I developed Cartonomicon as an open source tool when I realized the power and utility in being able to upload, mark and share an annotated map or image with my players. I'd never really found a great free tool to organize the points of interest and all the related information of my world, such as first-person descriptors, art, and other details.
I hope it is as useful to you as it has been for me! Join the exclusive Cartonomicon community to get access to up-to-the-minute details about the app's development, including any closed betas, feature planning, and more!
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