Many gamers today take automapping for granted. Very likely, they couldn’t imagine a product without it. We of the (cough) “elder generation”, however, know otherwise. Those who go back to the “golden era of gaming” remember well, perhaps all too well, the joys of manual cartography.

I learned my lesson fairly early. It wasn’t long, as I wandered in the mazes of Colossal Cave and Zork, before I realized that random scraps of paper or sheets stolen from the printer just weren’t going to do the job. It was time to get professional about this. I bought a stack of graph paper, a package of pencils, and that most important item, a blister pack of erasers.

Actually, mapping out the adventures games usually wasn’t too bad. Aside from an occasional nasty trick or mean maze, they were pretty straightforward, and most important, nothing was out there waiting for lunch. RPG’s, however, were quite another matter.

Despite being on mere 8-bit machines, the RPG’s were big, and seemed all the larger because mapping was a very slow process. There you were (or I was), carefully pencilling in one step at a time, and there all the critters were, ready to pounce and rip out your heart, lungs, and assorted other organs for appetizers.

In no time at all, you were turned around, and only twenty minutes later (if you were lucky), did you realize your careful cartograph was somewhat inaccurate. It’s amazing how many erasers you could go through mapping out just one game.

The prime example for huge was the first Might & Magic. I still have my 50+ maps from that one. Yep, that many. It seems incredible now, to look at those old sheets, and ponder the time and effort needed to draw the maps, one step at a time.

There was one saving grace, though: the dungeons were all standardized, being the same size and shape. Naturally, size was different in different games, but if you were doing M&M, you could count on each outdoor area, each town, each dungeon level, being the same 16×16 square.

Of course, that meant 256 happy little steps per section, each one carefully mapped. With notes, naturally, on where things were found, where traps were, where messages appeared (and what they said), and so on. And fighting off monsters galore almost every step of the way (it’s odd how Monsters Galore showed up in every RPG; busy little critter!).

While Might & Magic was the most excessive in terms of mapping, other games weren’t far behind. The Bard’s Tale, for instance, required a fair amount of cartographical effort, though it featured a mere one town and no outdoors. Seventeen maps for that one, each a generous 22×22 in size, and our friend Monsters waiting for us everywhere.

I don’t know if it’s possible to adequately convey what it meant to map-as-you-go. This was work, real work. Okay, you knew the size of the dungeon, drew it on the graph paper, numbered the sides, and usually knew your starting point. Say it was X3, Y5; here were the stairs out. Everything else was unknown.

So you started off, taking a step, drawing lines on your map, and hoping against hope that you hadn’t just stepped on a spinner that turned your merry band in another direction, or worse, an undetectable teleporter that just sent you halfway across the dungeon without your realizing it.

Beyond that, there were nasty little places where everyone took damage as they walked through, where magic was suppressed, where it was totally dark, where you could walk into pits or chutes, or any combination of the foregoing. And remember, our pal Monsters was there, too, practically every other step.

Yet we perservered. We mapped. We fought. We erased. We screamed and cursed and muttered (maybe louder than muttered) imprecations against the evil designers. Then we mapped and fought and erased and screamed some more.

We could take it. We were tough. We were dedicated. We were hardcore gamers. We were masochists. Nothing else could explain why, the moment a game was finished, we put aside the old maps, reached for a fresh sheet of paper, and started on the next RPG.

It’s a pity there was no Game Scouts of America to hand out merit badges for Cartography. Not a few of us earned one, and we still have the calluses to prove it.

Ah yes, the golden age of gaming. It many ways, it was a good time. But y’know, there are some things about it I don’t miss at all….miniscorp