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Improve Your RPG Maps! – Part 1

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“It’s taking forever to cross this map.”
“Where’s the exit? I can’t figure out how to get outta this town.”
“Why am I even here? There’s nothing in this room.”

That moment when you realize the game designer really had no idea what they were doing when they designed the giant mazelike dungeon with nothing in it but random battles.

Not naming any names. 🙂

I know you guys want to put your best into your work, and considering maps are the primary way a player interacts with your game, it makes sense to spend a bit of extra time making sure that the experience is as smooth as possible.

So, have a collection of our personal thoughts, plus additions from observant people across the intarwebs.  Not everything applies to every map, but hopefully this list will be of benefit the next time you start mapping.

What’s this map for?

No map should be boring or purposeless. It’s granted that some maps are going to be transitional; after all, it’s likely that you’ll have several maps of forests or similar to traverse between towns if you’re making a standard fantasy game. But what if each map can be made just a little bit special or meaningful somehow? Even if the reward is only a small item pickup, it adds to the overall worth of the area. There’s always a place to stash a small secret, and this is good because…

Easter eggs and secrets encourage the player to spend more time exploring

If the player knows there’s a good chance they’ll find something of value, whether it’s a helpful item, a piece of armor, or even an interesting bit of information, they’ll spend much more time exploring each map and it will be much more enjoyable. It goes from a simple journey from place to place to a constant treasure hunt to see just what goodies you might have left behind.

Reward the player for diligence.

Personally, I find it disappointing to find a room chock full of furniture items and pots that look as if at least one of them should hold something…only to find that every single one has absolutely nothing. I wasted all that time. Small additions add a lot of value to otherwise lifeless maps, and that’s helpful because…

“Walking is not gameplay.”

I heard the quote once, but I can’t seem to find the source for it now. It’s a valuable bit of information. Simply walking across a map is boring. I mean, there are probably some battles to be had, and maybe somewhere in there is a save point, but what reason does the player have to hang around other than being forced to? What could hook their interest about the current environment? Try to convey something about your world on each map…what are the details in the house of an NPC of interest to tell you something about who they are? Can you leave hints about optional sidequests in the forest?

The whole excursion can be more than “how fast can we get through this set of maps to get to the next point of interest?” The current map can be the next point of interest. Scattering tiny bits of information is a good way to expand on your world, too. I don’t know of any players who mind having the opportunity to stop and smell the roses…given the reason to do so.

There’s also the possibility of reusability. Does the player get an item that increases accessibility later in the game, giving them a reason to return here later, even if only for a valuable piece of treasure? If the player gets an item that allows them to scale cliff walls, perhaps add several cliffs in earlier maps? Consider designing with that in mind.

Are the maps too big?

This probably isn’t as big a deal when you’re roaming the wilderness, as there’s some expectation of sprawling size, but with smaller maps like houses, there seems to be a tendency toward making large rooms with bland decor. Yet old-school RPGs seldom did this, because the scale of the rooms doesn’t quite align with the character sizes.

Star Ocean Maps

Star Ocean

Star Ocean Maps

Star Ocean

Tales of Phantasia Maps

Tales of Phantasia

Chrono Trigger Maps

Chrono Trigger

As I mentioned before, walking isn’t gameplay, so forcing a player to walk further “just because” really makes no sense unless it’s part of the plot (ie, crossing a desert). Consider tightening up rooms to more realistic proportions…it’ll be easier to make it look well-decorated, too. As long as the players and NPCs can move freely, it’s big enough.

On that note…

Is there enough room for NPCs to stay out of the way?

Ever had an NPC walk smack into a one-tile-wide doorway and decide to park there for no other reason than their random walk led them there? And you’re standing there waiting for them to move their butts out of the way?

Speaking of things that aren’t gameplay. 🙂 Watch that little guy keep walking into the doorway instead of turning around.

Yeah, you feel good about yourself, obstructing progress like that, don’tcha Mr. NPC?

In RPG Maker, at least, there’s a way to put an end to behavior like that. Consider dropping in Yanfly’s Region Restrict plugin and draw areas where the NPC isn’t allowed to go. That’ll keep the little guys outta the player’s way.

And while we’re on the subject of barricades, intentional or otherwise…

Is everything that stops a player actually worth stopping them?

Does each map difficulty actually challenge the player according to the skills the game teaches, or just annoy them with an unnecessary barricade? Is it necessary to make a player walk down a long hallway that eventually loops back for no reason? Is there a point in the tiny block puzzle when the player has other actionable skills…for instance, the ability to climb? Why is this boss fight really here if it isn’t blocking access to something or someone important? Does the interruption fit the overall style of gameplay or just slow the player down a bit so they don’t breeze through the area?

It’s worth considering what you want the game to actually teach the player to do. Just slowing down the rate at which the player experiences the game, I think, is not really enough. The player needs to feel as if the reasons for slowing down are important. It makes sense to place barricades in front of the dungeon’s treasure…that’s proper pacing within the dungeon’s gameplay. It’s one of the goals, perhaps even a story-based goal. It doesn’t make sense, however, to place a non-goal object in the player’s way when it doesn’t call upon the skillset that the game is already using.

On a similar note, it’s worth asking if any mazes you’re including have a real purpose, and a good payoff for having to be bothered with the tediousness of walking through a maze. It’s all about the reward system. 🙂

Obstacles in main walking paths

This is a personal grievance, I’ll admit. It’s a tiny one. But I really, really dislike when a game puts stuff right in the middle of a common path and forces me to go around it repeatedly. Especially if it’s an area I have to visit a lot. I recently played a game that featured a poorly lit, cavernous dungeon with numerous small rocks scattered throughout. You could barely see them, and at least in a couple of rooms, there were places where you had to wind around them. I kept running into them over and over…each time I stopped, it was jarring and annoying. It’s fine to have rocks, of course…but maybe not right in the middle of the path. It’s another case of considering player comfort…if it stops them for no reason, it breaks immersion and, well, isn’t gameplay.

Puzzles/obstacles that have to be solved repeatedly

This is a problem that I’ve observed more in much older games…some of the old Zelda games, for instance. It tends to be problematic in puzzle-heavy dungeons where you may get a little bit lost about the next step and have to go back and forth to find your way again.

And every time, there’s a mini-puzzle or other obstruction sitting smack in the way. The doors lock, you gotta do it all over again. This isn’t so much about tiny block-push puzzles that only take a moment and serve as a one-way gate to get somewhere.  I’m thinking of something that takes more than a few seconds to solve to move on…it leaves one wondering “why do I have to do this?” after a while. Strictly my opinion, but once you beat it and prove you know how, that ought to be enough.

Make sure that doors that should be obvious, ARE obvious

In another game I played recently, I arrived in a city with paths branching off to each side. In the center of the area was a tiled square. To the north, a big, obvious path made with the same tiles. To the east, the same. To the west, the edge of the tile, grassed-in areas and foliage with only a small area to pass between.

There is a door to the west…one that isn’t hinted at or easy to see. Yet there were important plot points in the area to the right. It’s supposed to be a city; while total consistency isn’t expected, a large chunk of town hidden past the edge of brush is kinda…not. For whatever reason, I tried it anyway and discovered the door there, but I can see how many players might easy move on without ever having realized there was something there. This wasn’t a small secret treasure room…several main plot events took place on the obscured map. I can see some massive frustration happening because of that. It’s worth considering if doors to necessary areas are clear enough.

While we’re on the subject of town design…

Keeping important things close to the entrance

This is merely player convenience, but consider potentially placing the inn/shop/save points (or your equivalents) closest to the area where a player may be grinding for levels. That way, when they visit your town maps, they don’t have to run to the far side just to get necessary supplies. It’s something that will wear on the player if done wrong. But we want the player to be happy. 🙂

And on the subject of player convenience…

Consider providing easy ways for players to return from long walks/boss battles

Even if it’s just a shortcut that loops around to the beginning of the area. The player will thank you for not making them walk back through areas they’ve already beaten.

As you can see, a great deal of these notes are just a matter of seeing if you’re being courteous to the player while still maintaining a sense of challenge. Are the elements of your game truly rewarding or just a hindrance to gameplay? It might be a hard balance to strike, but if you get it right, it will only increase enjoyment of your game.

Here’s a link to part 2, where we focus more on design and aesthetics in game mapping.

Do you have any additional tips to add to these lists?

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