How would you orient a map of a ship?

As is tradition, all ships in my current work are always travelling east, which means that you can use north/east/south/west or port/fore/starboard/aft interchangeably without any ambiguity about the letter S.

The question is, how should I orient a map and/or in-game compass rose? North at the top (fore is to the right), or fore at the top (north is to the left)? Which would you find more intuitive?

(Both sets of directions are explicitly recognized by the parser.)


I would expect port as north.


Fore to the right. Plenty of mechanical diagrams do this as well. Also, it will be easier for those of us who struggle with compass directions already.


This is interesting. I’ve always thought of fore to the north, and that’s how PunyInform’s nautical directions work, but I can see merit in fore being to the right or east, as that’s how ship plans are normally drawn.


I’ll be honest, I didn’t know that’s how ship plans are drawn; my reason for making fore be east is to ensure that the command S isn’t confusing or ambiguous (since starboard and south are one and the same)!

I believe it’s for this reason that the Titanic in Jigsaw is travelling due east, on a rather strange deviation from its historical route.

But if I have another reason for it, I’m certainly not complaining!


I’m not a fan of the ship directions (fore, aft, starboard & port) and mostly consider them unnecessary and confusing. I don’t move around in daily life using compass directions but accept that in games it makes moving around easier. I’m happy to use compass directions on a ship as well. Using compass directions inside a house is just as strange as using them onboard a ship.


POSH - Port over, Starboard home. (From and Back to England from an american perspective. :wink: )


Technically, the compass rose is relative to the course, for hopefully obvious reasons; As Daniel noted, Jigsaw’s Titanic has his course “rounded” into a cardinal direction, that is, N, S, E, W, for mere player’s QoL. And I agree with Nelson (of Inform) on this rounding; if I ever code something aboard a ship historically navigating in an ordinal direction (ordinal = NE, NW, SE, SW) I’ll round the course to the nearest cardinal direction.

of course, having an eastward course (fore = W) allow S being synonym of both South and Starboard…

(the best mnemonic for Port and Starboard is visualising a ship north of UK and with an westward course, in which case the STARboard side is toward the Polar STAR and the PORT side is toward the british PORTs.)

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


A marine vessel moving on a map should have compass coordinate directions. On board the vessel, shipboard directions are relative to the bow. While facing the bow port is left and starboard right. It doesn’t change regardless of the ship’s direction or orientation of the observer. Hence the reason for the different different coordinate systems. On larger military vessels they frequently paint a line along the centerline in main passageways with port and starboard designated by color for those that can’t keep their bearings. With channel marker lights in ports, remember: red right returning.

There is always poetic license for alternative directions.


Intuitively, I concur with Garry regarding fore = north.

Since port = left and starboard = right, it feels natural to translate that equivalently into a 2D top-down map view, which means fore = topwards/up. And of course, on most of today’s conventional maps, up = north.

So, via that assocation, I’d personally like it best if fore, top, and north were aligned.

I almost tend to think I’d rather learn a new abbreviation for starboard (ST or SB, so it doesn’t coincide with S) than learn to deal with the changed alignment. Since nautical directions are relatively uncommon in IF, it might not even be too bad from a UX perspective to ask players to memorize a different command shortcut. (Admittedly, the issue would remain that someone might mistakenly enter S while intending to go starboard, and would be irritated by the resulting south/aft movement.)

If such a change is not on the table, or in other words, if fore = east (as you said in the OP) is settled, then I think you could decide what should be at the top side of the included map representation by looking at which set of directions you mostly use in your room descriptions, as those will probably influence what the players will orient themselves by, and what they’ll type.

If you mostly (or only) use compass directions in the descriptions, then stick to north = top as usual, and let players who want to use nautical directions deal with the mental translation on their own (the port side of the ship will not be represented on the left (etc.), but so be it).

If you mostly (or only) use nautical directions in the descriptions, then use fore = top, so that there is an easy, natural(?) mental mapping with port = left etc.; the coincidental fact that fore is also east (and therefore north unusually mapped at the left etc.) will only be important to the players who want to use compass directions (but their number might be low because they’ll be deterred by all the nautical directions in the prose).

So whatever has the primary role could determine what’s at the top side of the map.


One of the experiments in this game is letting the player choose if they want shipboard or compass directions in the descriptions, so unfortunately neither is really primary there.

1 Like

Ah, tricky, hmmm. That’s an interesting approach. I think in that case, I’d lean towards letting the players determine the graphical representation, too – either implicitly as a consequence of their choice, or explicitly as a further option.

1 Like

There is a reason why PunyInform implemented nautical directions the way they are implemented. It is the same reason why Infocom implemented them identically.

There is a common convention for orienting on a ship. You learn this on literally every cruise ship. You have to look forward, towards the bow of a ship. Port and starboard refer to the left and right sides, respectively, fore towards the bow, aft to stern.

Seafaring vessels even use use universal colors to reflect these directions, with green denoting starboard and red denoting port. If you see your ship at night, you’ll notice the colors used as running lights, with green lights on the starboard side and red lights on the port side, so other ships can easily navigate around them.

In adventures, you see through the eyes of the player. If you now apply the common convention for orienting on ships, you first face bow and then it is easy. Fore is towards the bow, aft towards stern, port is left and starboard is right. With that in mind, fore is equivalent to north, aft to south, port to west and starboard to east. This is why Infocom implemented it like that and also why PunyInform adapted it.

I would even say everything else is confusing. You don’t walk a ship like you do mechanical diagrams as the diagram is not seen from your perspective, even though the ship might have been drawn with fore facing to the right. Another thing to consider is that the above has become common. So players who are familiar with the concept, especially those familiar with the works of Infocom will expect it as explained above.

Oh and a side-note. Compass directions are bound to the pole of a planet. So if you are on a spaceship drifting through the cosmic void, there can’t be a compass direction. You can of course implement compass directions in such a scenario to make navigation more comfortable for the player’s brain but in terms of realism NSWE in space is absolutely bollocks.

Just my two cents as usual.


I’m going to try really hard to not write a multi-paragraph reply, but there are multiple compass systems that could realistically work in space. People aboard the ISS do not live directionless lives, and NASA does not toss stuff into orbit and hope the automation figures out a navigation system on its own.

EDIT: For the record, I agree there’s no “up” in space, but onboard direction guides for crew and systems for ship navigation both necessitate some kind of compass method, even if it’s a very strange one.


The one bit I learned recently is the reason the left side of the ship is called “port” (easy to remember because “left” is also four letters) because that’s the side with all the entry bays and cargo doors for access when they dock:

This side became known as larboard, or “the loading side.” Over time, larboard—too easily confused with starboard—was replaced with port. After all, this was the side that faced the port, allowing supplies to be ported aboard by porters .

As far as compass/mapping, I’d keep N at the top for familiarity, then orient your map so the front (fore) of the ship is facing east to the left if that’s how it works in the story.


The way a spacecraft navigates through space is not necessarily the same as how a human being interacts and moves inside said vessel in space, I was referring to the latter. In modern science fiction, spaceships sometimes use a coordinate system that is aligned to the galactic center.

Scientifically, a compass system in space is an oxymoron. Once you move away from the magnetic field of a planet, no compass will work and there are no cardinal directions.

NASA adopts conventions that make “earthly sense.” For example, while living on the ISS, you will be trained to use the terms “forward,” “aft” (back), “port” (left), and “starboard” (right). They also use “deck” and “overhead” to refer to the floor and ceiling, respectively.

NASA vessels navigate using precisely timed radio signals sent back and forth to Earth. Navigators on Earth track the location and speed and transmit course adjustments. So no, they don’t not toss stuff out and hope it will find its way. :smiley:

1 Like

Although when navigating a map, we don’t do it with the player character’s perspective, do we? Else we would use relative direction like “left” or “front” instead of absolute ones like “north” or “west”. So it doesn’t really matter if port is left when facing the front of the ship, since no-one uses “left” to begin with.

At least, when I navigate a interactive fiction map, I don’t do it through the eyes of the player character. I visualise the map top-down, with the north on top since that’s the convention I’m used to. Likewise, when the player is on a ship, I visualise it top-down, with the front on the right, since that’s the convention – I believe – when drawing a diagram (which is kind of a map, right?). And I believe I’ve seen more ship diagrams than I have been on a real ship.


I stand corrected. :grin:

1 Like

Whoops, I meant right! Right! Forget I wrote “left”! (I’m not an expert at all, I may be mistaken in any case.)


Which one should be the default?

1 Like