Cartography, Movement, and Obstacle-to-Obstacle

In Challenging High Level PCs there was a point about cartography and mapping.

In order to increase the challenge for a high level party, Ethan says:

Backtracking would be more dangerous with the chance of wandering obstacles, reset traps, etc, forcing the party to rely more on the Cartographer skill.

Part of my response to that:

I’ve long felt that the rules around cartography are clear on how things go when maps work , but they’re tragically unclear about how the GM is supposed to handle backtracking without a map. As best as I can tell, you need to apply the Obstacle-to-Obstacle logic from p117 continuously until the players make an active effort to break the cycle and camp.

I’m curious how other people handle it. We all know how maps are supposed to work in the game, but how do you handle backtracking without a map — especially when there’s not necessarily any danger defined along the route (by the original adventure plan or through a twist). How do you approach it?

1 Like

The idea is that if you have a map, you can avoid environmental challenges you’ve already faced. Did you have to make a dangerous climb to get from one point to another? Swim a flooded tunnel? Cross a raging river? Dodge swarms of bloodthirsty strix?

If you’ve already dealt with them once and mapped the areas involved, you don’t need to test to deal with them again. If you don’t have them mapped, you do have to deal with them.

Did you test to climb the limestone curtain that connects the Upper Limestone Tunnel and the Lower Limestone Tunnel in Under the House of the Three Squires? Unless you’ve mapped it, you’ve got to test to climb it again if you want to use that route.

That said, any twist can be used to interfere with a mapped route. Maybe you, as the GM, use a twist to have the local monsters reset a trap the players have already dealt with. In that case, the players have to deal with it again to get through, even if they have it mapped.

As far as navigating without a map, if there’s no danger along the route I just let them tell me which way they go. As long as they can accurately give me directions, I let them: “From the circular chamber we head east, down the stairs, push south through all the junk to the down-sloping tunnel to the south, then turn east and follow the corridor to the big pillar.”

I have one player who used to insist that mapping was pointless because he could just remember all the directions. He now has a mapping instinct.


Emphasis mine:

I think this is the part I was missing! Basically, by requiring a narration of the entire route from the players, they can take wrong turns while retracing their steps. I haven’t been enforcing that at all.

The way it’s been, I let them talk about returning to a spot without telling me how as long as there’s no actual obstacle. This is great, I’m going to do this in my next Ardmor session. That castle is sufficiently labyrinthine so it should get interesting!


“So what do you do?”

“Let’s go back to the engine room.”

“Okay, how do you get there?”


Yup! “How do you…” is the most important tool in a Torchbearer GM’s repertoire.

Answer Questions with Questions, page 117


I am still not entirely sure how the Cartographer skill works, in terms of player involvement. Say the PCs want to explore the Crypt of Skogenby, so they enter the dungeon, they stop at the entrance, they ask for a description, I give them a description, they jot it down, then they decide to progress. At what point can/do the players test Cartographer? Is it after each room? After they have explored the whole dungeon?


It’s a bit subtle, but the Camp chapter has a section that describes what takes a check.

Making a map is one of those things. So in order to make a map, the party must camp (or spend lifestyle in town I guess).

Making a map is too involved for the adventure phase, although I might allow small updates with an Evil GM factor during the adventure phase.

So the best they can do is jot down information, and hope they make it to camp.

I am at the third reading of the book, and I still miss bits sighs. I hope I’ll be prepared when I run the game for the first time!

Just make sure you use Description Forward (p6), Describe to Live (p116), and the Good Idea (p117). Those rules are the heart of the game. Everything else is just paperwork used to keep the pressure on.

This whole thread is an instance of me getting the rules wrong and I know that book as well as anyone. Don’t worry about getting it perfect!


Continuing on the original topic, I had a chance to try narrated backtracking last night, and what happened? They immediately got lost! Luckily for them they only ended up taking wrong turns into areas they had already cleared, and they eventually figured it out.

It was fun, but also kind of a nuisance, which I guess is the point, right? If they’re really fed up with it, they should make a map.


This topic was automatically closed 90 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.