I was working on an Exalted book. I forget which. One of Geoff Grabowski’s development notes was something to the effect of, “It’s not the 80s. We don’t need a map for every damn thing.” (NOTE: May have not said “damn.”) He was right, and while he wasn’t saying maps were bad, he was talking about a particular outlook considered essential to lots of fantasy gaming, born of D&D, Tolkien and all those fantasy novels that shove a map onto the endpapers so you know exactly where questing heroes happen to be. It’s map fantasy. In map fantasy you tour the fantasy world. In map fantasy the story is scattered among a bunch of sites. You collect plot coupons, go sightseeing, and eventually redeem them for a finale.
GMs and some setting designers both love map fantasy because they can exhibit their worldbuilding chops. Visit the King of the Elves, learn about what elves eat and look like and such. Novelists and some adventure designers love map fantasy because locations are the easiest way to control plotting. If you need to physically haul ass to the Dark Tower and a bunch of critical places lie along the way it reduces the chance of anyone going anywhere in the wrong order. In any event, you can distribute plot coupons widely, and track them easily. Map fantasy reaches a certain degree of purity in hexcrawl and “West Marches” games, where you don’t redeem the coupons on a story, but in character power, and the arc ends up being about earning that castle
Exalted has a world map. It’s almost meaningless. Hardcore fans track every place listed in every book, correlate them and pound the map into meaning, but it’s supposed to be so huge that it will always fail to connect with places on a meaningful scale except in the crudest fashion. You can tell what elemental direction a place is, or if it’s on the continent in the middle. You can zoom in to places, but you’ll lose the context provided by the big map. Any swell on a coastline can possess a hundred inlets. Exalted’s giant map also makes great territorial empires a waste of time. The Roman Empire fits into an armpit somewhere. The Realm is the exception, and that’s through the setting’s special pleading. In Exalted, you will never do enough map fantasy tourism to know the whole of the setting. In Exalted, hex crawl wilderness clearing and domain building projects are ultimately pointless because it’s a trivial task for Exalt protagonists, and on the big map scale, nobody would notice.
Now I love maps, and I don’t mean to be totally down on map fantasy. I enjoy it! But there’s something to be said about going mapless. You can’t do it completely because a world consists of spatial relationships and places where people keep their stuff. But you can short-circuit the coupon collection tourism map fantasy encourages. Give locations individual integrity so that adventures can happen without hitting the road.
At its most basic, we can modify the tourism aspect into something episodic instead of quest-driven, where a story centers on exploring why a location is interesting, and teasing conflict out of it. The classic example is the Star Trek scenario where local strangeness is the source of conflict, and not mere flavour. It doesn’t matter where the Gangster Planet is in relationship with Earth, and the Gangster Planet doesn’t have one chunk of a superweapon (that has five more chunks scattered on other planets). The Gangster Planet is cool on its own. Yet I believe we can do even better, and give our locations depth, interesting inhabitants and dynamism, beyond a single theme or reactive sandbox. One example that comes to mind is Ba Sing Se from Avatar: The Show That Is Suspiciously Like Ex . . .er, The Last Airbender. Ba Sing Se has big novelties, but it also has an internal culture, and politics that move without just reacting to the protagonists.
Going mapless is about discipline. Can you tell stories without sectioning the scenes off in space? Can you create dramatic rhythm without trudging? Can you make places more interesting than a cheap high concept?