Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: Maps, Mystery, and A Promise

My friend Bart from the creative collective Lans Macabre spent a lot of time discovering the wonderful world of maps. As you know, maps are a vivid part of many RPG campaigns and adventures. But some of them aren’t what you think! Here are a few of Bart’s map adventure ideas…

When you first see the map in a fantasy RPG session, don’t you feel the call of adventure immediately? Precisely drawn on yellowed paper soaked in tea or burned at the edges, a map can bring the charm of the old days… hinting at the heroes who marched boldly into unknown lands, penetrating dangerous underworlds, and cursed ruins for riches, treasures, and glory.

I’m talking of course about the maps in the old adventure stories. The map offers both a mystery and a promise. The mystery because you have to read it the right way or in some mysterious way so it reveals what is hidden in the place it symbolizes. The promise because each engraved stone or scroll stashed in a chest, coffin, or hidden compartment. Each piece of the puzzle promises real rewards to the daredevil as well as surprises, dangers, treasures, and further adventures.

Let’s be honest though… How many times have we handed these maps to the players? Sewer maps. Ruins maps. Fortress maps. Maps that normally work in this context. And what are they? Routine! We must find some out-of-the-box ideas, but in order to do that we must first consider what a typical adventure map looks like. Let’s start there.

A typical map…

  1. Takes the form of parchment, roll, cardboard, stone, or clay tablet where some pattern is drawn or cut.
  2. Applies to an existing place, such as the palace chambers, in a simplified two-dimensional form.
  3. Describes a specific place in a particular time. For example, it can record the layout of city streets, which were later rebuilt after a fire.
  4. Are prepared by someone for a particular purpose. For example, it leads to a hidden treasure, helps find the way in a Dwarven mine, or shows secret passages in the old castle.
  5. Is valuable and difficult to obtain, but is the only proper map. There may be inaccurate or fake versions to deceive (and get rid of) intruders.
  6. Offers a mystery and a promise…

So let’s look at a map idea and mix things up a bit.

Let’s modify the fourth and fifth point. The map shows the way to some very dangerous place, help us avoid the traps and get to the treasure made famous by rumors and legends. Certainly it’s valuable. Certainly there will be some scammers who will try to sell someone a fake to get rich. Simulate the map or craft it in some way. Then the trick becomes separating the real map from the fakes – which one will safely lead you to your destination?

The answer is simple – all of them. Someone spreads the rumors. Someone builds the legend of a dangerous place to lure some naive suckers. Why? To seize them and slaves, experiment on them, or worse… It might present this way…

The Old Earl is holding a monster in a circular maze in the basement of his castle… A large female spider who is actually his wife, damned years ago. The Earl loves her and that’s why she’s still alive, though she has repeatedly begged him for death. But he must provide her food to keep her alive…

His old servant is playing cartographer, creating identical maps of the maze, noting the only proper way of getting in. Each copy appears to be old and yellowed. Servants are spreading them around the world and building the castle legend – “An Earl stores his greatest treasure in the basement of his castle. This map shows the safe way in…”

Daredevils from all over are coming. One group has decided to present a comedy to the old Earl and then sneak into his basement. Of course, they will most likely become easy prey of the bloodthirsty monster. The group believes their map is unique, real, and will lead them to the prize. It’s true that the labyrinth is fraught with pitfalls. And it’s true that the map enables you to enter safely. But each map offers those same benefits.

Obviously the map’s charm works. The players won’t realize that there is no treasure at the center of the maze, just a monster (remember the Minotaur!)! Give the map to different party members and tell them to keep a close eye on it, but don’t let them know others have the map. At the same time, let some cunning NPCs come to the castle with their own copy of the map, also believing it’s unique. Now we must finally allow the players to compare maps and figure out which is the real one.

They will wonder who is trying to mislead them and pick up the loot for themselves, while at the same time familiarizing themselves with the history of the castle and its occupants. They’ll also be collecting hints suggesting that the treasure may not be what it seems. Maybe someone will discover the old legend of the curse on the Countess… Maybe someone will pay attention to the spiders lurking in all the dark corners of the castle… Maybe someone will connect the facts… Bravo! But then you can watch your surprised and horrified players when they find the Countess walking on eight clawed legs in thick cobwebs and piles of half-eaten bones and piles of rotting maps…

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