Like a kid playing with Legos, I derive a childish glee from clearing off my coffee table and laying out dungeon tiles. I also have vinyl grids and wet-erase pens. When tiles can’t help me, carefully drawing vinyl maps is a close second in the glee department. I’m a busy DM though, I don’t always have the time or the creativity to come up with a bunch of amazing maps. Sometimes I lay out a bunch of tiles but forget to pack them for the game. Sometimes I need a backup plan and I need one fast.
Luckily, I have an amazing resource for map-making right at my table: my players. That’s right – turn over the vinyl mat and markers to your players and let them draw the map. Whether you forgot your map, or didn’t have time to get it done, deciding to let your players draw the map instantly wipes one item off your list of Things To Do.
Give your players a time limit (2-3 minutes is plenty of time) and a basic prompt like “You’re in the woods, there’s a road running north-south, add lots of trees” and then sit back and watch. When time is up or when you like the look of the map enough you can stop the players and reclaim your markers. If you were planning to implement terrain hazards or traps, now is the time to implement it. I usually don’t need to do much more than decide where to plant the additions – usually in something they already drew or add a quick doodle myself. Don’t hesitate to alter anything they drew – like changing height on an elevation, or adding a hazard where they clearly wanted a nice safe clear spot. The map may not be a work of art at this point, but it’ll probably be a very interesting piece of work.
Chances are your players will love the chance to be in control of their surroundings. They have a vested interest in the combat map – they’re the ones fighting on it of course. As a DM, how many times have you described a detailed environment, only to have players completely ignore certain elements? Or point at something and ask you “What did this do again?” When the players draw the maps, I’ve noticed the level of attention increases dramatically. They remember what they contributed and when the “What is this?” question comes up the other players are quick to pipe up to promote their own contributions. “I drew that! It’s a 10ft deep pit with rough rocks at the bottom!”
Running a weekly game, I frequently recruited my players to draw. The players even began to anticipate it. When they saw a blank vinyl on the table, they sometimes they’d start eyeballing my markers a little too eagerly. Comically, they’d always try to out maneuver me by adding terrain features that they hoped would benefit the group. Such additions – pits, hazards, elevations – more often than not ended up being more or equally frustrating for them when the monsters were well placed or devised clever tactics. However, because of (rather than in spite of) these obstacles, the players truly revel in their triumphs. They feel like the tables were turned on them but because they persisted and won their triumph was that much sweeter. And when the fight did go sour: they good naturedly cursed themselves for not adding more beneficial terrain features! They always vowed to do better next time they had a marker in hand.
One Size Does Not Fit All
While it is fun, clearly letting your players draw the map has its limitations. I recommend you only employ this type of mapping when running encounters in large open spaces that will benefit from lots of random details. I suggest anything outdoors, gladiatorial arenas, inside large spacious caverns, or even inside a very large building like a warehouse or an enormous ruined cathedral. Dungeon or indoor settings with limited spaces are not ideal for this style of mapping. Players will want to draw large open areas, even if you define a very limited area. Plus, less space means less things your players can draw. They may end up more frustrated by the attempt than entertained.