Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons

Early versions of Dungeons & Dragons always included miniature rules for movement, range, area effects, and even for actions similar to attacks of opportunity. But I never witnessed those rules in action. They seemed to require miniatures. Collecting miniatures cost a lot of money and invited another hobby consisting of painting miniatures.

D&D second edition arrived in 1989 with the usual easily abstracted and easily ignored rules for miniatures. However, six years later, Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics finally introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the third edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, and cover. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment.

TSR supported Combat & Tactics with The Gates of Firestorm Keep, which Dungeon magazine ranked at number 11 on its 2004 list of greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. The Gates of Firestorm Keep started the tradition of including printed battle maps for major encounter areas, and also included cardboard counters for the monsters. So The Gates of Firestorm Keep stands as the first adventure to invite D&D players to use a battle map.

Update: A few adventures prior to Firestorm Peak featured both battle maps and cardboard counters. See “Early combinations of adventures with battle maps” for more.

The complete change in approach arrived with third edition, co-designed by Combat & Tactics co-designer Skip Williams. When third edition debuted at Gen Con, vendors such as Chessex immediately sold out of their battle mats. While the third edition rules tried to phrase its rules so you could play without a map, everyone used a map, so 3.5 abandoned any nod to play without one.

For most folks playing D&D in 2000, the adoption of battle maps represented a big change. For instance, I played all three rounds the D&D Open tournament in 1999, and none of the DMs resolved combat on a map. (Now the D&D Championship plays as a tactical miniatures challenge. Still fun, but very different. In the lower left corner of the photo, you can see my figure, a turn or two away from being treated like a steak in a Benihana by a marilith.)

Fourth edition showed that some of the D&D community will rebel if an edition fails to adequately support their favored play style. But the third edition’s switch to battle maps brought no rebellions. Everyone started using maps and figures, and almost everyone felt the addition improved the game. Maps and figures enable all the players to share a clear understanding of the battlefield with the DM. The maps enable the tactics that make fights interesting.

Fourth edition brought changes that can make D&D combat more dynamic and exciting than ever, but some of the changes have threatened to sour players’ attitudes toward the battle map. Fourth edition forces every encounter to be a big set piece, and often these battles seem to take too long.

The set-piece problem comes from encounter design. Fourth edition works to prevent one-sided fights by bringing greater formality to what constitutes a combat encounter, and what adversaries the players can expect to face. This puts a stake to the heart of the old-school possibility of stumbling into 30-300 orcs, but it also eliminates short encounters where just you slew their sentry. In fourth edition, every encounter requires a battle map, because every encounter takes the same scale.

The problem of long combats has prompted much discussion, but I do not blame the map. Most players used maps in third edition, and the few who complained about the length of combat typically favored the non-combat pillars of the game.

So when D&D Next comes out, I’ll embrace it, but I’ll still use my battle maps.

Next: Solving the limitations of battle maps

10 thoughts on “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Pingback: Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map | DMDavid

  2. Pingback: Solving the limitations of battle maps | DMDavid

  3. John Jones

    David! I was reading a post on EnWorld, followed the link to this page, and was reading the article when I to the picture. I thought it looked oddly familiar until I noticed one of Tom’s Initiative Tents in the bottom right. No wonder it looks familiar! I was THERE when the picture was taken. 😉

    I had no idea you had a blog — and a good one, to boot! Congratulations! Keep up the good work!

    -john/Radiating Gnome

  4. Pingback: Picturing the dungeon – boxed text | DMDavid

  5. Curtis

    Hi, While surfing I came across your article on D&D battle maps. I believe there were quite a few products having battle maps prior to “The Gates of Firestorm Peak”. The first one I remember was “The Shady Dragon Inn” the cover unfolded and opened up revealing a battle map of the whole inn, upstairs, downstairs even the yard outside including a well. The module B10 ” Night’s Dark Terror” Had battle maps and tokens. The boxed set “Night Below” had the same. These are just off the top of my head. Anyway I liked your article and thought you might like to know. Peace!

  6. Patrick

    I read your comments about 4e where it “forces every encounter to be a big set piece, and often these battles seem to take too long.” This seems to be echoed by many others and I have to admit encouraged by its designers. I also had my doubts about it, being an old school guy myself (I’m pushing 50), but I’ve always believed to take the meat and leave the bones. I say with a chuckle, “Did we sign a contract to play 4e exactly as the designers intended it to be?” After playing this edition for almost 2 years my players have come to love the dynamics of 4e and would not trade it for another (they are new to this edition too). Part of the reason for this is I have made 4e work for us. Many a time they have fought the lone sentry standing by the door or ran across a group of minions which they dispatched in a few rounds of combat (some times even less than one round). I also try to play the monsters with a little more rational thinking instead of mere machines, thus a good sized group of enemies has retreated when they saw several of their comrades cut down in just two rounds. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had the encounters that have taken an hour or more to get through but that is the exception. I try to plan for multiple small skirmishes, usually less than five rounds. There are times we run a whole combat encounter without ever rolling initiative (once, the group was trying to get from one area to another and were being sniped by goblins, it was more roleplaying than combat).

    I have run the “skill challenge” using various means to succeed, many times combining roleplaying and dice rolling. What ever works for the moment. So for us, 4e has breathed life back into D&D and I wish WoTC would have adapted it to fit the variety of gaming styles. I don’t think we will ever go back to the days where a 1st level magic user has 4 hit points and the fighter just swings and hits. Thanks!

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Patrick,

      You take exactly the right approach to the game. Whatever works for the moment. Fourth edition provides a strong enough foundation to support a variety of play styles.

      I fail to qualify as a 4E loyalist, but I do most of my dungeon mastering surrounded by folks passionate about 4E’s virtues. Your enthusiasm for the game’s dynamics echoes the praise I hear every week.

      The original 4E rules recommended a play style where the DM skipped the to the good stuff, namely to combat encounters and skill challenges. In this vision, exploration just slowed the game, tests of player ingenuity risked player frustration, and role playing might make shy players uncomfortable.

      Almost immediately after the game’s release, the brains behind the game started reminding us that nothing prevented us from playing the game any way we pleased. Eventually, D&D essentials brought that message front and center. But by then, the damage was done. Half the community had fled to Pathfinder and virtually all the staff behind 4E no longer worked at Wizards. To have survived, James Wyatt must be a hell of a design-team asset.

      As for me, I like tactical combat, so that feature of 4E appealed to me. I never substituted die rolls for role playing. Because I DM for organized play, I couldn’t ignore the skill challenge, but I found a way to run skill challenges within the rules, and in a way that suited my DM style.

      I do occasionally run small-scale fights, but the nature of 4E means that small fights cannot possibly tax a party as they can in other editions of the game. In other editions, players rely on shallower reserves of hit points and on non-renewable spells. Even a small encounter takes a mounting toll.

      Unlike characters in other editions, 4E characters typically regain all their hit points and most of their powers after a fight. The only attrition comes as they slowly lose healing surges, but 4E characters rarely run out of healing surges. Every 4E character can wallop outnumbered opponents with encounter powers, making a mismatch even more of a rout. After the encounter, they regain all that firepower without meaningful losses. They may even grow stronger as they gain action points. No 4E player will waste a daily on a small encounter, so even that small element of attrition never factors in. In 4E, small fights just add flavor without challenge. We pay this price to reduce the lure of the 5-minute adventuring day.

      I never want to see a 4 hp Wizard with one spell again.

      1. Patrick

        Thanks for the reply David,

        You are right, 4e has its challenges to make a party really sweat an encounter or for that matter, a dungeon crawl. I too like the tactical side of 4e as does my group but we also enjoy the role playing side too. In fact, at our last session, we played for 6 hours without one combat encounter and they loved it (not that I didn’t have encounters ready, just that the group was more into pursuing the story line).

        Some ways that I make it more challenging for the players is to make traps and hazards take healing surges or not allow an extended rest due to things like monsters or the “presence” of evil.

        When our group first starting playing together we used a system that made combat a real challenge. It never failed though, a couple of bad rolls and the PC’s were in serious trouble, and believe me, I was trying to keep them alive as best I could. It ended up that they would only get into one combat encounter “a day,” head back to the inn to rest up, then start up again after they regained their hit points and spells. This got old real soon. I guess that’s what appeals most to my group of players concerning 4e – continuous adventuring without having to stop and rest up. Sure they have an abundance of hit points, but as a DM I’m always looking for ways to give out damage, “You missed that strength check to open the stuck door and take 5 hp of damage and a bruised shoulder, your Reflex is down by 1.” What ever works!

  7. Timothy Park

    Well, I’m coming late to this party and I’m going to sound like a reminiscing old man, but here it goes.

    The battlemat may have gained wider acceptance with 3rd Edition but it was not unheard of before then. I know for a fact that we were using minatures heavily and steadily in 1985. The figures had been around awhile but we didn’t really play D&D in a concentrated way until 1985.

    The first “battlemat” game I recall was actually a GDW product for Traveller: Snapshot. A fairly inexpensive boxed set with a square grid overlaid on the deck plans for a trader and a scout with rather blah counters representing the characters, enemies and a few creatures. The rules were a revision of the Traveller combat rules focusing on the first three stats in that game: Strength, Dexterity and Endurance. It made a great deal more sense of that combat system and we played it a good deal. That was around 1979 or so.

    In Tokyo in 1983 I was introduced to Melee which as you know had hex grids and printed figures of characters and monsters that fit the grids which simplified movement and made fantasy combat more tactical and clear. The few gamers I could find there tended to play that because it was rare that we’d get more than two or three of us together and that number and limited space let itself to Melee better than D&D. Back then and maybe still, Japan had all kinds of stationery stores with many flavors of writing implements and papers and creative things for organizing paper and such. The fellow who showed me Melee augmented his copy of the game with photocopies tucked into page protectors. Those a china marker and a little ball of some kind of silly putty sort of stuff for hanging posters that also held the sheet protectors steady on a table made a radical difference in how we played. Maps were much more flexible. Terrain could be simply marked on the sheet protectors and adjusted or removed with a tissue. I take credit for introducing the “trick” of using clear contact paper for easy lamination of the counters giving the photocopies a bit more thickness and durability. I also began decorating my counters with colored pencils to make them more unique.

    I brought my set for Melee back to the States in 1984 and into 1985 played with a variety of mixtures of those sheets with counters, miniatures and such. For a time we dispensed with the hex grid and simply used rulers on a bare table as from other games we had terrain pieces we liked for D&D adventures. Model railroad stuff, walls and redoubts and other oddiments from 25mm miniatures battles, home built things and more all wound up on the D&D table to help newer players visualize combat. For us who had been painting 15mm and 25mm *armies* for wargames, knocking out a handful of figures for a D&D session was nothing.

    There were other experiments where we used the Snapshot style grids and counters as well. But the main trick was the sheet protectors that let us use the china markers to map terrain on the fly.

    As we headed toward the 90s the only real change was that I had started working in the print industry and had access to large sheets of clear acetate film used in the pre-press processes. Occasionally a blank sheet of film would come through to clear the beginning or end of a roll of film and some customers were happy to save a few large sheets of the stuff for me. Probably more than 2’x3′ in size. With a lot of care and time and a fistful of sharpies I laid a hex grid on two that was permanent and something akin to the current battlemats was born.

    I still like china markers better as they don’t smear but they’re hard to find these days.

    At any rate we were experimenting with a great number of “battlemat” forms through the 80s based on Snapshot and later Melee.


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