Since the dawn of civilization there has been the use of sketches and symbols in maps. From the ancient Babylonian view of the world as they perceived it, to the google maps that have now become the norm for getting from A to B whilst hopefully avoiding C due to traffic.
(On display at the British Museum,the Babylonian map of the world 750-500 BCE.)
Maps have helped intrepid explorers and conquerors (such as Alexander the Great with his conquests of Persia and beyond) explore the lands they found. They themselves would have been able to add their own contribution to cartography. They mapped out their discoveries and built a picture of new continents and coastlines as they found them. The British Library has a great selection of maps of the world before 1400 CE that can be viewed here.
Compare the maps people relied upon then to a modern map today. With its pinpoint accuracy and detail, cartographers over the ages have shown that a lot of skill goes into something which we now use daily and rely on.
But what has all this got to do with Fantasy roleplaying games? Well, everything as a matter of fact. You see, the characters in an RPG exist in a world perhaps very different from our own. Characters interact with that world. So at some point they are going to want to go to A to B. Avoiding the large doom laden volcano if possible. Like our own world, a map of lands where player characters are campaigning lets us understand their world through their eyes. A map uses visual symbols for mountains, forests and roads. Through these, we can start to build up a picture of the environment which our player characters will travel through.
As the characters travel through the world and use the map to guide themselves from A to B, the Games Master will describe the kind of landscape that a party is currently travelling through. Here, the GM is providing much more immersion and depth for a game. This helps the player characters identify with their surroundings and make decisions that keep the game flowing.
For example, the party have reached a crossroads. Their final destination is southeast and many miles from their current location. Looking at their map of the area they know that if they head east they will enter a mountain area. A much shorter route than if they headed on the flat south road which meanders by the river. Whilst heading through the mountains might be quicker, the mountain passes are dangerous with hidden terrors. The weather is diabolical this time of year, making it all the more difficult. But do they have time to take the easier southern road? They’ve been tasked to deliver an important item to a Lord, any holdups or misfortune en route could prove disastrous. Once again they study their map of the world and hopefully make the right choice.
Over the years I’ve looked constantly at the maps that Tolkien drew of Middle Earth. I’ve imagined the grimness of Mordor and the beauty of Rivendell. Robert E Howard’s sketches of the lands Conan travelled has helped me understand the locations and visualize the places where Conan ventured. Moorcock’s maps of Melnibone, the Young Kingdoms and other places Elric and his chaos forged sword “Stormbringer” travel to have helped me imagine places such as Imrryr with its decadence and debauchery.
Maps are an essential part of the fantasy world. They give credibility and dimension to the worlds where characters have their adventures. Not only above ground but also beneath the depths and in the darkness below as they seek new places and challenges.