Glories of the Grid -- An Ode to Graph Paper (Deja Vu Blogfest)

I just found out about the Deja Vu blogfest this morning from Mythopoeic Rambling.  Apparently, it originated with DL Hammons back in November.  I thought it was a good idea, so I am jumping on the bandwagon, albeit very late.

The following is a post from waaay back in 2007, before this blog was a "gaming blog."  I think it stands as a nice piece of reflection on my own gaming past.  I'm interested to hear your thoughts!

An Ode to Graph Paper

I sometimes wonder why I keep a notebook AND a blog. It seems a little redundant. Granted, I can write things in a notebook I don't want to put out into the world. A notebook is portable (although I could twitter from my phone if I really wanted to). But one of the big reasons, I think, is that the notebook inspires me in ways the blog does not.

I started a new notebook today after filling up my Moleskin Pocket notebook last week. I've had this new one for awhile, ever since my 29th birthday/dissertation defense party. It was a gift, but I am sorry to say I forget from whom (the Moleskin was a gift, too. I think I received four notebooks/journals at that party. All of which have been used). This new notebook is thick, perhaps 200 pages, with a leather cover that is flexible and soft. It reminds me of the black King James Bible that seemed a staple of the churches I attended in my youth. In what is a first for me, it's neither lined nor blank; it's gridded.

The fact that I have a notebook full of graph paper leads me to think it was a gift from one of my gaming group friends. I remember someone saying "Hey, graph paper! You can use it to plan some D&D adventures."

I am not sure a page full of tiny squares has significance to any group of people the way it does to those of us who grew up in the 1980's playing Dungeons and Dragons. Graph paper meant dungeons (hex paper meant wilderness). I bought, collected, and hoarded graph paper. It was necessary equipment, like 50 ft of rope or a large sack. I had so many dungeons I needed to draw, I could never have enough graph paper. I'd ask for an extra sheet in algebra class, then take it to my dad's office after school and make copies, storing them in a red folder on the shelf with my D&D books. But this copied graph paper was always inferior to the green or blue lined paper you could buy. I preferred the green lines. That was the good stuff, because your pencil lines always showed up easier on the green paper. It was harder for me to get a hold of, so I was very pleased when my cousin gave me a big pad of green graph paper and a nice automatic pencil for my birthday. She worked at a bookstore and was well acquainted with my love for D&D. I immediately wrote on the front of this pad, in a 13 year old's feeble attempt at medieval script: "You are now in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons!", thus marking the pad for its designated purpose. It was for drawing dungeons.

Dungeoncrafting was some sort of esoteric science that was part art, a mixture of alchemy and cartography.  There was a special vocabulary of symbols to master, special signs for secret doors, doors that opened only one way, pit traps, crossbow traps, stairs that went up, stairs that went down, and stairs that collapsed on the unwary adventurer. There was always a compass rose, so you'd know that "the corridor stretches 50 feet to the north before ending in a stout looking wooden door." As a dungeon master, I'd do my best to communicate these directions, dimensions, and secrets to the players who, armed with their own graph paper (hopefully with green lines), would attempt to map the dungeon. This never, ever worked. Invariably, something went awry. Corridors didn't match up. Stairs ran into rooms. Dimensions didn't make sense ("uh, it's a magical room!"). So we'd spend what seemed like hours pouring over the player's map, trying to figure out if they had added 10 feet to a corridor or I'd forgotten to mention the side passage halfway down.

In high school, my friends and I played in a game set in Undermountain -- a giant, giant dungeon under a city. I cheated and didn't make it all up. I just bought the $25.00 boxed set with the four poster sized maps and the two books that detailed the place. I had the pre-made posters, which I copied in sections so I could keep them hidden behind my DM's screen, but I made the players draw their own map. It really didn't take that much convincing. They started with a 10x10 room at the center of a sheet of the green lined paper -- the well in the common room of the Yawning Portal Inn -- and expanded from there. Soon, the dungeon ran off the edge of that first sheet of paper, so they'd add others, labeling each new sheet "A, B, C" and so on. I think we got to K by the time I went to college. These guys would tape the new sheets to the old ones, being careful to allow enough room between the pages so that they could be folded and put away. At the beginning of each new session, they would take out the map and carefully unfold it, laying it gently on the green felt of the pool table that served as our gaming table. (We ruined that table for pool, by the way, with our pencil marks, drink spills, and tears in the felt). The group would tell me which unfinished corridor they wanted to explore next, and off we'd go, lanterns at the ready, carefully marking of 10 foot increments of stony corridor on a little grid of green lines.

We were exploring the unknown, fighting the evil that threatened to plunge the city above into chaos. The graph paper helped us keep track of it all. Otherwise, we would have been lost.


  1. I still have several partially used pads of graph paper that I got back in the mid/late 80s, tucked safely into my Moldvay box set. I think you may have used some of them when I ran Stonehell for you & Risus Monkey a while ago.

    I'd like to think that until all those pads with 10-20 sheets left in them are used up I will never die. If that is the case, I should have a long life ahead of me. Especially with the amount of gaming I'm doing lately.

  2. I love graph paper. I kind of miss. Maybe I'll get a pad of it soon, just to reminisce.

    Thanks so much for joining in the Blogfest!

  3. I can appreciate having the perfect tools for the job at hand, whatever that may be. I have an affinity for notebooks also, even though my iPad could serve just as efficiently. :)

  4. Aah, yes, I remember graph paper :)

    Of course, you realise that if the players' maps didn't line up properly, it was, by definition, the players' fault! If they had no room left for a 50' corridor, tough. It was up to them to mooch around working out where they went wrong...and taking up valuable time in the process. Not to mention making noise and drawing yet more unwelcome attention...

  5. @Rich -- It's like the Portrait of Dorian Grey, but with graph paper.

    @Lydia -- I am glad to be a tiny part of the Blogfest. It was fun finding this entry again.

    @DL -- I hear you. There's something about the physicality of pen on paper.

    @Botanist -- Maybe I was too nice as a DM!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts