Spectacles for Your Maps

April 27th, 2011

In the spirit of this month’s blog carnival on maps, I thought I’d talk a little bit about map design.  Not the act of creating the actual map, although there’s plenty to be said about that; rather, the art of populating it.  Not with settlements, either.  With spectacles.

Spectacles are an element overlooked by many gamemasters, even experienced ones.  We’ll lay out mountain ranges and rivers, forests and plains, cities and villages, political boundaries and dungeon locations.  But what we sometimes forget to include are those sites that take advantage of the fantasy nature of the setting.  We might have something akin to Weathertop from The Lord of the Rings, but what about the fairy tales’ giant beanstalks rising to the clouds or mountains made of glass?  The mysteries of the world that inspire local legends and bardic songs?

Scattering these liberally across the map adds to the fantasy atmosphere.  You won’t want one every 500 feet, of course — but as a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea for any cross-country journey the party undertakes to involve one.  Why have the PCs guard a caravan across the generic forest when they could be making their way through Grendeep, the Forest That Walks?

If you want to be really sneaky, you don’t even have to set these spectacles in specific locations prior to the start of the campaign.  Just make a list like the one below, and choose or roll something any time the PCs travel off the main roads.  They can encounter the site directly on their journey, or perhaps just hear tales or rumors, but either way, you’ve got a new location on your map and a new site for an encounter — if not an entire adventure.

The list below is just an example of the spectacles you can scatter across your map.  Causes and effects are left deliberately vague — decide for yourself what made the forest walk, or what those mysterious whispers are saying.

  1. A forest whose trees move about of their own accord.
  2. A cave appears normal, but those who make a Perception check can hear faint whispers in an ancient language originating from somewhere within.
  3. A cliff face has giant runes engraved across it.  A wizard who can manage to view the entire message may decipher a spell formula.
  4. A hill flows across the valley as a wave would across water.
  5. A field where flowers grow to the size of small trees.  Watch out for the giant bees.
  6. A chasm seven miles long and a mile wide breaks the land.  A spar of stone wide enough for two carts side by side presents the only bridge across.
  7. A metal door and its frame stand alone in the middle of a clear area.  The door is locked.  The frame resists any effort to move or topple it.
  8. A small stream of blood flows from a crack in the side of a mountain, feeding a small pool nearby, which drains back into the earth.
  9. A particularly large tree bears crystalline fruit.
  10. A tiny star-shaped flower grows only here.  A skilled alchemist can use its fresh petals to create a powerful remedy against poisons.
  11. A perfectly-still pool inside a cave is like a mirror, except that anything reflected in it appears to have aged ten years.
  12. The sky over this area is always overcast, yet it never seems to rain.
  13. A circle of standing stones has been erected atop a hill.
  14. A spindly tree is on fire… constantly.  It never completely burns, nor does the fire spread.
  15. A stretch of ground appears perfectly ordinary, but animals refuse to set foot onto it.
  16. What appears to be a lake from a distance is actually a sheet of glass.
  17. A crumbling statue towers above the trees in the middle of a forest.
  18. Every night at midnight, lightning strikes a specific spot in the middle of the village green.
  19. A waterfall feeds a mountain lake.  Bathing in its waters will speed recovery from wounds and disease.
  20. A dilapidated hut by the side of the road is still solid enough to serve as shelter.  Sleeping there on a night of the full moon will remove a curse; however, sleeping there during a new moon will inflict one.

Related posts:

  1. Maps and Legends

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  1. richard, May. 4, 2011, 10:48 am:

    Inspiring! Love the hill moving through the valley, and the general mood of these. I can also see some of them featuring in cryptic sets of directions. Wait for the hill to pass. Cross the plain at night to avoid the glare. Line up the column of smoke with the reflection of the waterfall, but keep out of the lightning field.

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