6 min read

Draw Maps, Leave Blanks

TL;DR: The "Draw maps, leave blanks" Dungeon World principle is an incredibly powerful principle that can lead experienced gamemasters to some of the most fun emergent entertainment that only role-playing games can offer.

Draw maps, leave blanks
Dungeon World exists mostly in the imaginations of the people playing it; maps help everyone stay on the same page. You won’t always be drawing them yourself, but any time there’s a new location described make sure it gets added to a map.
When you draw a map don’t try to make it complete. Leave room for the unknown. As you play you’ll get more ideas and the players will give you inspiration to work with. Let the maps expand and change.
– Dungeon World

The 'Draw maps, leave blanks' principle is one of my favorite pieces of advice as a GM. You can interpret it literally—draw a map, put some labels down, but also leave some things unlabeled. You can also interpret it as a guide for all prep.

As you prep, you'll often be asking yourself questions. For example, when making a Captain of the guard have a goal, I set it as "Follow all of his orders and please his superiors," but asking myself "why is this his motivation?" leads to a more defined motivation. He wants to follows his orders to a T because he's seeking a promotion. Again, "why?" here will lead to more information about this character. I determined that his wife is sick and a promotion would give him access to better doctors so he could get his wife the treatment she needs, but they can't afford or access now.

This is where draw maps, leave blanks comes in—my next question was "why was she sick?" and in a fantasy setting, that question is an exciting one to ask! This is where I decided to leave it blank—if this question is going to be answered, it will be answered by my players and I playing to find out—another fantastic Dungeon World principle.

The principle also applies very much to players. Sometimes we'll have a player who has complete ideas about their backstory or "character arc" they want to undergo in the campaign. Unfortunately, this has a lot of problems for improvisation on the GM. As GMs, we aren't able to inject ideas into this kind of player's backstory—we can only work within their defined story. We can't introduce anything that would interfere with their arc—only things that can support it.

As a player, you too should be drawing maps and leaving blanks. Draw a background map and leave blanks in it. When a GM asks a question to a player abiding by this principle, they can also work to build off of what the GM suggests. For example, if the party discovers a huge pile of recently burnt corpses, and the GM turns to one of the players, "How do you react, knowing that this could have been one of your lost relatives?" A player with a defined arc might believe they'll find their lost relatives alive. A player with blanks can easily consider the possibility that maybe their lost relative is, in fact, dead, and make their character come alive in the moment.

I'll give you a longer example of where 'Draw maps, leave blanks' created one of my favorite moments as a GM.

It's the first session of a new 13th Age campaign (I highly recommend 13th Age for d20 GMs out there). I don't like doing much prep, but for session 1 I will do a bit more than I like normally—I'll prep a little bit about a place that the players are at/going to, I'll prep an immediate encounter that starts the session, and I'll prep a simple, but interesting, problem for that starting location.

My players were going to the village of Brambletree. To begin the session, I asked "You are all on a cart in a caravan to the village of Brambletree—why are you going there?" All of my players gave different answers—this is an opportunity for them to decide if they want to have all known each other or not, and they decided they were all strangers. The player of the character Hallberta, a barbarian, answered "She (Hallberta) heard there was a man at the tavern by the name of Yafor who has work for her." Works for me! A wyvern eventually showed up and fled after taking some hits, killing a lot of the caravan drivers. The players decided to continue towards the village.

The road led to the village's center: A public circle. I did have my own idea on what was prominent in the center of the circle. I thought there could be this old an ancient tree (secretly one of the first trees of the world), but instead decided I'll leave it blank and ask my players the question, "what do you see in the center of the circle?" I gave them ideas like a well, a signpost, a tree, etc. Nothing exhaustive or prescriptive. Hallberta's player answered "pillories." I immediately asked "are they occupied?" which was obviously met with a "yes." I asked no further questions and had no answers for any that might be risen—this scenario is meant to be fleshed out later, not now.

The tavern, I decided, was to be located at the circle. It was night time, so the players decided to head there. They walked past the imprisoned individuals who begged to be freed. Inside, Hallberta questioned the bartender/proprietor of the tavern a series of questions, one of which was "Do you know anyone named Yafor?" I had no idea who or what Yafor was or actually wanted—I just learned that he existed about an hour ago! A light bulb went off in my head, though, when she asked the question: Yafor is in one of the pillories! Hallberta was obviously not expecting that—heck, I wasn't either!

I'll shorten the rest of the story, but here is what happened in that village in the next ~10 sessions:

  • They learn Yafor is charged with the murder of a guard.
  • The party druid had a friend in the village named Rimas (this was the druid's answer to that question asked in the beginning of session 1) and in the next morning found his house to be empty.
  • Discovered that there was a cult operating in an abandoned mine outside of the village.
  • Discovered that the Rimas was not just not around—he was kidnapped.
  • Hallberta freed Yafor from the stockades after a discussion with him he asserted his innocence and he had a job for her.
  • Discovered that Rimas was not only kidnapped, but taken by guards.
  • Discovered that the kidnapping guards offered Rimas to the cult in the mines to perform a ritual on him.
  • Discovered that Rimas was a target because he witnessed guards framing Yafor for the murder of the guard, who was actually killed by the guards themselves because that guard found out that the other guards had orders from up the chain of command to make sure the cult was not to be disturbed and their rituals should be finished.

All of these events unfolded based on the answers my players provided, revealing things I had no idea were happening in Brambletree. I only planned the wyvern attack and in the background of all of these cult shenanigans was a series of werewolf attacks and it turned out the werewolf was really the grandmother of the bartender—it completely paled in comparison to what my players were unintentionally creating with their actions.

The "Draw maps, leave blanks" principle isn't just a catchy phrase—it's a testament to the magic of collaborative storytelling in role-playing games. By embracing the unknown and allowing both players and GMs to co-create the narrative, we open the door to unexpected twists, deeper character development, and truly memorable gaming sessions. Whether you're a seasoned GM or a player eager to shape your character's journey, remember that sometimes the most compelling stories arise from the spaces we leave blank. Embrace the mystery, and let the shared imagination of your gaming table guide the way.