Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Map Feature Symbols

I am really interested in ways a map can communicate to players to help them make choices. Zak had the great idea of using the fonts of place names to convey some sense of the place. I think in addition to that we might make more use of symbols on the map. I know that sounds ridiculously obvious, but maybe I need to think about it a little more.

First, these do exist and have for a while, the symbols for ancient battlefields on the map of Basic D&D's The Known World come to mind (Though I wonder why. Are there undead armies lurking there at night?). Fantasy maps often show caves or mines on them. All these can give players a sense of what exploration choices they have. But I'm thinking a little more feature rich, something like a tourist road map. I have seen these all my life but the google oracle is being dense today. This tourist map of Turkey is sort of what I'm thinking of:

My world map probably would be a little more sparse, a little less cartoony. But the idea is there. Like most fantasy maps you have your ancient ruins located. But also, if there are nomadic tribes to the east, it's probably common knowledge. Or if a region is known to have precious gems or valuable furs they would have symbols on the maps. Waterfalls, rapids, huge canyons, hot springs, bandits, large carnivores, there are lots of possibilities.

The idea isn't that the map is accurate. It's an abstraction of general knowledge of the area. So, no one in the home town or local keep has necessarily been to the marshes down south in generations, but they know tribespeople keep bringing amber out of that region to trade. And those traders might mention circular ruins.

Another influence in my mind on this topic are the resource icons for the video game Civilization, at least those in the first two versions. Internet bonus points if you can point us to some nice examples or resources for useful thematic map icons.


  1. I like to use symbols on my maps. In my last contribution to Fight On! I introduced such map symbols.

  2. Ingenious idea. Makes a nice change from hexes and abstract symbols.

    Internet bonus points if you can point us to some nice examples or resources for useful thematic map icons.

    * Mystara/KW trade goods map w. icons
    * RW map w. mineral resource icons

    The Times Atlas of World History also has an extensive array of historical trade good icons (livestock, precious metals, cloths, spices, etc.), used on its historical trade maps. I'm afraid my Google-fu is too weak to hunt out a copy of the map legend.

  3. Frikkin brilliant!

    If only I had an artistic bone in my body.

  4. @Alex that's a cool map, but I'm not quite sure what it represents (I don't have the latest Fight On!). Is it a flowchart for an adventure? Or a map of a journey a party will make with all the encounters figured before hand?

    @Paladin: thanks, I'll look around to see if I can find anything in the public domain that we could all share and use on our own maps, but I'm afraid these arose with the highway system in the U.S. so they'll probably be under copyright for 30+ more years.

  5. The map shows a section of an underground river the party can follow. The text then describes all the locations with a letter. A is the stone statue, B os the stone medusa, C is the nest of giant spiders, etc. I tried to place a little icon for every encounter on the map to give referees some context. This is for Fight On! #9 which is still in layout.

  6. Thanks Alex, I like the idea of conveying info to the DM better.

    And thanks Chris, for the symbol sources.

    ps. I found what Google wanted from me was US State postage cards, "Greetings From . . ." will get you tons of examples of what I'd internalized from seeing all my life. Unfortunately they're all from the 50s-60s like I thought. I suppose someone will have to do some original artwork.

  7. I really like old sea-charts. I've being using them as inspiration for my archipelago-based campaign:

    Interesting fact: The wonderful decorations of sea monsters etc on many old sea-charts coincide with the locations of dangerous reefs or difficult currents. It seems they were actually encoded information.

  8. That's great Dan, thanks. I like the way, in a fantasy game, players using a map with monsters on it might wonder if those icons represent reefs and normal nautical dangers or literal sea serpents and such.

    Also gives me the idea of cartographers as individuals, so, once the players are familiar with Zivi the Elder's map making style they would know that they were going to be sailing past a sea serpents lair.

  9. Reminds me of the map in White Plume Mountain. Instead of symbol for fort/castle/tower/dragon's cave the map has a little drawing of what that specific site looks like.

    Great for player maps which I don't believe should be gridded, perfectly scaled, and of variable accuracy.