In the early 1980s, as an early teen, while on the Staten Island Ferry with my grandfather, I remember seeing the strangest thing—a map of the New York City subway that just seemed wrong. I loved the New York subway system and pretty much had the entire system committed to memory. (I kinda still do, which comes in handy when I visit my daughter in NYC.) This map was the system I recognized… almost… The Brighton Line that I took regularly was there… But none of the trains had letters to identify them. And none of the trains could take me to 6th Avenue in Manhattan. As I studied it further, I saw more and more discrepancies—lines that no longer existed, missing stations, and other oddities. Talking to my grandfather, I learned this was a map of the subway system from the 1940s.
That image has remained with me all these years, and I regularly recall it when I play RPGs set in close-to-modern times. The maps of TSR’s old Gangbusters RPG, set in the 1920s and 30s, feature a fictional city whose architecture was close to, but not quite, what one would find in a modern city (of the 1980s).
I try to take advantage of the massive resources available to help make the past more real. This is especially useful when running games from the Victorian era onwards. How far you want to go is up to you—the cardinal rule I try to adhere to is that my players shouldn’t have to suffer as a result of my research.
Probably my go-to destination, when I’m looking for older maps, is Historic Mapworks. The Library of Congress is another useful destination. One of the neater things you’ll find at these places is old insurance maps of cities—as I understand it, these detailed maps were used by insurance companies for underwriting policies. However, they provide detail down to the individual building level.
Ward Maps provides the option to purchase reproductions of maps. (They also have a physical shop in the Boston area, which is convenient for me, as shipping framed maps are not cheap). I especially like their collection of transit maps. Even if you’re not interested in purchasing physical reproductions, their website is quite handy. Allow visitors to zoom in to considerable detail, making them quite convenient for gaming purposes in personal campaigns. However, readers should note that they watermark the online versions of their maps.
If you find yourself wanting a bit more detail, a little time spent searching will find you digital copies of historical travel guides from the likes of Rand McNally and Baedeker. Archive.org is a handy site, and some of the travel guides have been reproduced on Amazon—though I’d use some caution there, as many of the reproductions omit the foldout maps those guides sometimes had. Also, keep in mind those guide books are often found with the casual racism one frequently encounters throughout history—and as travel guides, they are giving the tourist’s perspective.
If you are looking for 1930s settings, the WPA published several guidebooks to various states and cities—I find the WPA Guide to New York City especially handy.
One word of caution: while old maps are often long out of copyright, you will want to be cautious about simply reusing digital products you find online, as specific scans and presentations may be derivative works and thus copyrighted. For your gaming table, this almost certainly doesn’t matter, but for commercial products, you’ll want to be certain you have the rights to use any such maps you include.
Not everyone is going to want this much detail in their games, though if you’ve read this far, it’s quite likely you’re one of those who enjoys doing so. I’m always looking for new sources; I’d love to learn what others have used.
- 1948 New York City Subway Map from nycsubway.org
- Rand McNally Boston Guide from author’s personal collection
- 1922 Boston South Station Insurance Map from Historic Mapworks
~ Daniel Stack
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