How to plan IF (map locations)

Some postings about digital mapping that exports to various languages piques my curiosity. I believe that the process is generic enough to encompass planning your IF.

For me, this process is for story based IF, instead of puzzle. Also parser based, instead of CYOA. For puzzles, game design begins with mechanic instead of maps. For CYOA, it begins with first paragraph and add branches.

I actually don’t use digital/computer based mapping software. I just use papers. Specifically, I decide on plot and theme. Then write down locations, characters, and objects. Next I transfer rooms to index cards, noting name, descriptions, static objects, and paths. Portable objects are written on mini post-it notes, or something that is attached to poker chips for ease of transfer. Characters can be represented with pawns.

Then some repeated plays, roleplays with GM, condensing the map, making it smaller and more concentrated. By the end of it, I’d have list of rooms, objects, and their attributes. Characters, their locations,
and motivation. Also some suggested verbs beyond the standard LOOK, GO, TAKE, DROP, USE. At this point, drawing custom map (cartography) is optional. I don’t feel the need for digital mapping software because it’s easier for me to shuffle cards. Besides, once the map is decided, it’s not like I’m going to change it significantly.

It’s the need for role-playing sessions that compels me to do it on paper, instead of digital mapping. Can’t have computer games without coding, after all. Can play board games with minimal rules.

Then just copy the list of rooms and objects to your preferred IF language. Notice that coding does not happen until the flow of the game is determined.

This method does help more with story based IF, instead of puzzle based IF. Any “puzzles” is part of the story. I do not have a set method to develop puzzle based IF, or anything requiring novel game mechanic.

If you have any advice for planning hard puzzle IF, please feel free to share.

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Are you saying that you plan to write a hard puzzle IF and you’re wondering whether you should still be making maps on paper and cards?

I can see how cards would be useful for a role-playing session, but in my experience devising puzzles initially is best done on a single sheet of paper. This way you can draw lines and jot notes inbetween and around rooms describing their connections or what obstacles might exist between them. At this brainstorming stage, being able to see and change ideas quickly is what’s important. I think that for anyone who can write, nothing beats the speed of a pen and paper.

In my own games, I don’t think I’ve ever produced a revised copy of the piece of paper with scribbles on it. I can usually go from there into Inform and continue the work, but in modern times I’ve never made a really huge game. Once the overall structure is laid out, any more advanced notes I make will usually be within the inform document. I might make some more paper notes later just for a programming/puzzle concept that’s tricky to think out (you may need to do more of this for a very puzzly game) but they are just note-notes.

I can understand that if your map is really big, you may save time by entering the room names into some sort of mapping software, and arranging the rooms there instead of writing out (or at least scribbling) the names of 40 rooms by hand, for instance. And then you save some time again if you don’t have to retype the room names into your game authoring software. If it was me, I would still probably print out a copy of the map so that I could scribble over it while thinking about puzzles.

Those are my thoughts/experiences.

(If you want to see how many notes I had to make before I did ANY programming when making an adventure on the Apple II in 1990, have a look at the scans at the bottom of this page: Wade-Memoir - Dark Arts )


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Ah, I tried the card method on hard puzzle. I failed. That method is only good for story mode, at least for me. Thank you for your notes. It brought back old memories. Unfortunately, that way took too long for me to do, so I’ll have to find another way.

I can’t imagine making an adventure game with more than 50-60 locations. If the story warrants larger size, I’d probably do multi-part instead.

I have released five parser games and in nearly* every case the map has evolved along with the story. I never start with a complete map because I never know exactly what I want to happen in the game at the outset. Instead I begin with the start location and add, rearrange, and occasionally delete rooms as I go along. I try to ensure that every room has a purpose, in that something of significance occurs there at some point in the game, but I do allow a few lesser-used rooms for spacing, or as a nexus, connecting different areas. Consequently my games have quite small maps, the largest being Alias ‘The Magpie’ with 34 rooms.

I’m an improviser by nature (as well as in the theatrical sense), so I don’t tend to start out with a plan, but I do make copious notes as I go along and I often find myself writing transcripts, particularly of conversational scenes. For short games this has worked out well, but my longer games might have benefitted from better planning. I’m not sure Alias ‘The Magpie’ would have been a better game if I’d planned it better, but it might not have taken me eleven years to write it.

I think Emily Short’s approach of having a playable-through game as early as possible is eminently sensible. The games that gave me the least trouble were those** which started out as speed-IF, and hence were playable-through from day one. When I came to work them up into full-sized games, it was just a case of fleshing them out.

*The exception being To Hell in a Hamper, which only has one room.
**Renegade Brainwave and Yak Shaving for Kicks and Giggles!


well, also I prefer paper and pencil (no pen, because with pencil corrections, esp. on tentative maps, are easier) but I’m one of these fast-typer accustomed to CLI/shells and firing an editor is one-second matter (because ideas came often during playing IF or browsing IF source, jotting down ideas in an editor/WP (I use nano(1) for this quick’n dirty jotting, albeit I reckon that there’s plenty of note-taking software, but is best having a truly insta-load simple console/shell based editor at literal finger’s reach for those spurts of creativity…)

also, on computer-based notetaking, tabbed editor is a very dear friend (I use Kate for editing IF (and doing general coding…), and opening a new tab for jotting notes is another quick-typing (^o in this case) thing…)

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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I’m finding this very interesting, because I’m just getting to the first point where I really need to have a map (as opposed to a plot). Thank you all for sharing!


On paper and pencil IF designing, I stumbled today in this rather interesting fresh file on the Internet Archive:

the bulk of pages from 48 onward I think deserve to be taken in consideration, if not even printed… and, on this, why not try to develop an set of “IF developer’s sheets”, for our little redoubtable IF community, in both .odt and .pdf ? :wink:

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


This is really interesting to me. It gives me a glimpse into how other persons’ minds work.

The map is always present before the plot in my mind. I have a vague idea about a story and a protagonist, and then my mind immediately jumps to an alternate world with its own geography and history.

I do change the map around in small ways to fit the story I want to write, but the world determines much of the plot, or at least the possibilities of where the story can go.

[Edit: I think the medium we choose reflects a lot about how our imagination works. I’m working on a parser game, you’re working on a choice game. Outer geography/ inner geography?]

Yeah, it probably all depends on your focus. Choice games usually put more emphasis on story and characters over environment.

The choice game I’m working on has been mostly focused on the character development. During the process I’ve changed the location of the story three times to fit the needs of the story and character interactions.

My game was originally meant to be a short illustrated story, and it was only some months after I tried and failed to arrange for someone to illustrate it that I found out about interactive fiction (I’ll go more into that bit in the last section of my answer). In other words, I’d already had to wrestle with general elements of plot, characterisation and world-conveying before starting to make the game.

In the first part of the game, it’s quite clear what needs to be done, and there’s obvious plot reasons why revisiting many locations doesn’t happen. (People go back home to pick up their passports fairly often. They rarely go back home to pick up items they don’t know they’ll need yet). While that was the case, the stage of the plot and its relative importance, combined with medium expectations as I understood them, pretty much determined what world could be built in that space.

However, there are parts of the next sequence that imply major differences in options, in a space where even that’s expected to be only a small subset of the options. The plot can tell me some of what is in the world but it can’t tell me everything a player is likely to need to see to not feel railroaded or that they are in a repetitive situation. In my case, the world is spectacularly full of options, and it’s about putting forward and fleshing out the most appropriate options.

Mapping may not be the same for us in any case, because you are mapping a completely fictional location. That requires a lot of creative thought, to build up that fiction layer by layer. An additive process. I, on the other hand, need to simplify places that actually exist to serve my game and those who play it, but can still plausibly stand for the relevant fragment of those places. This is arguably a subtractive process. It’s a bit like the difference between a painter and a sculptor. Doing a sequel in the same alternative world as a game you’ve already made is a situation where both of these elements come into play.

I suspect you may have put more thought into choosing to do your game as a parser than I did to make mine a choice-based game. To continue the story promised from earlier, I found out about interactive fiction when I looked for something like Princess Maker 2 and saw a tentative suggestion for Long Live The Queen. That game convinced me I could broadly adapt the same tools to create the story I had as interactive fiction. Long Live The Queen is (modified) Ren’Py, thus Budacanta was also Ren’Py - and, by extension, a choice-based visual novel (minus a couple of things largely taken for granted in that space, like character sprites). Had Long Live The Queen been a parser game, Budacanta would probably be a parser game at this point… …less odd than it sounds, given that I since found a parser-driven rougelike with more than a few nods to Princess Maker 2 called PrincessRL!