Category Archives: Dungeon master’s tools

Update on elemental miniatures and 3D battle maps

In the 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures, I lamented the lack of translucent miniatures for fire, water, and air elementals. I have discovered that the early Dungeons & Dragons miniatures sculpts for the medium-sized elementals reappeared in a HeroScape set called Fury of the Primordials.  Unlike the original, opaque versions of these figures, the new versions come in translucent plastic. This makes the fire and water elementals look terrific, and the air elemental now looks like an air elemental rather than an angry, melting fish. 

In addition to the three, translucent figures, the set includes an earth elemental figure, and a Wyvern figure, which once appeared in the Aberrations set in a form that now costs about $16 when purchased individually.

For D&D players, the HeroScape miniatures suffer from oddly-sized bases. The medium bases span a bit more than an inch, making them a bit too big for the squares on the battle map. Large figures like the Wyvern have peanut-shaped bases unsuited to D&D. The Heroscape to DDM re-base guide describes a simple procedure to re-base the figures.

Unfortunately, Hasbro dropped the HeroScape line in 2010 and the Fury of Primordials set is long out of print. Most online vendors sell the packs at well above the original retail price, but I managed to find a few still offering the set at a good price. As of this post, some bargains remain available.

Also in that my top 11 list, I called out the Lurking Wraith as the best D&D miniature ever, and hoped a painted version would reappear in the Dungeon Command Curse of Undeath set. The set has arrived and, rather than including another version of Lurking Wraith, the set includes a translucent version of the Cursed Spirit renamed the Hypnotic Spirit. I’m happy to have the new figure, but it cannot unseat the Lurking Wraith as my favorite. I prefer the original Lurking Wraith’s shadow gray over the ectoplasmic blue of the Hypnotic Spirit. Plus the enigmatic Lurking Wraith works as a neutral ghostly figure, while the Hypnotic Spirit’s malevolence limits it to being a threat. Nonetheless, if you want to plunder Dungeon Command sets for figures to use in D&D play, the Curse of Undeath set ranks as the best assortment yet.

In solving the limitations of battle maps, I looked for better methods of presenting 3D battles. When I posted my question to the EN World and to Wizards’ D&D forums, I received a number of interesting suggestions. The Combat Tiers system from Tinkered Tactics ranks as my favorite.

Next: Before miniature sculptors used computer-aided design

Tips for battle maps and dungeon tiles

I do most of my dungeon mastering at conventions and game stores. This post shares some of my tricks for working with battle maps on the go.

Wizards of the Coast includes pre-printed battle maps with Encounters and Lair Assault adventures as well as most of their published adventures. I love the maps, but they never lay flat. The folds and creases always seem to topple figures on the map.

To solve this problem, I purchased a sheet of Plexiglas from the window department at the local home improvement store. Laying the sheet on the printed map forces it flat and prevents it from sliding. You can even mark up the sheet with a wet-erase pen. Suitable Plexiglas sheets cost about $15.

Living Forgotten Realms adventures encourage you to use dungeon tiles. As I’ve confessed in other posts, I prefer to bring the best possible production value to the table. Particularly if I’m running the same adventure several times at a convention, I feel like the extra effort of assembling maps pays off.

For the times when I plan to set loose tiles on the table, I spread sheets of non-slip drawer liner, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep loose tiles in place. The lightweight material easily rolls up for transport.

For all but the simplest layouts, loose tiles take too long to arrange on the table, so I like to assemble maps in advance. I use removable mounting putty to stick the tiles on foam-core art boards. Office supply stores sell both the boards and the putty. Get the white putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.

I transport my maps and Plexiglas in a cheap, $10 artist’s portfolio case.

Next: Evolution of the skill challenge

Secrets to storing and retrieving D&D miniatures

As I’ve written before, I always attempt to use suitable miniatures for the creatures in my game. I collected a lot of the pre-painted D&D miniatures. Early on, I heaped the minis in a storage tub, but that quickly became unworkable. Finding the proper figures for a game took way too much time.

To solve the storage problem, I went to the discount store after the back-to-school supplies reached the clearance shelves. I purchased a cart-load of plastic pencil cases at $0.54 each. I printed sticky, address labels with the names of sets and ranges of numbers within the set. For example, “Blood War 11-20.” Now I could organize the miniatures by set and figure number in the little boxes. In the picture, you can see some of my collection sorted into a larger cardboard box.

To solve the retrieval problem I rely on the wonderful, online miniature database at The database includes all the pre-painted D&D miniatures along with their pictures and, for most, their card images. You can search by name, or by tags such as ‘female’, ‘crossbow’, or ‘insect.’ If you sign up for a free user account, you can track the number of each figure present in your collection.

With, I can run a few quick searches to find the miniatures I need from among the ones in my collection, and then I jot down the set names and numbers. This lets me quickly locate the correct figures in the pencil boxes.

Now if only I could find a better way to manage my dungeon tiles. Does anyone have a system?

Next: Picturing the dungeon – boxed text

Solving the limitations of battle maps

In “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons,” I wrote about how the widespread introduction of battle maps improved the fun of combat encounters. Everyone knows where everything is. The game never gets bogged down with boring descriptions of layout and dimensions.

Nonetheless, as much as the simple map avoids confusion, it suffers two weaknesses where I still search for improvements.


Without 3D terrain, battle maps do a poor job of representing elevation, and cannot clearly represent rooms with multiple, overlapping levels, such as balconies.

When I create my own adventures, the limits of the flat map limit the kind of spaces that I imagine. So sometimes I work to break the constraints of the map. For example, I once ran a vertical dungeon, perched on walkways and platforms carved into—and jutting out of—a giant cliff. While this kind of environment can inject some fresh wonder into the game, I’m always annoyed when an encounter forces, say, a balcony into an essentially static combat. If an encounter adds the complexity of multiple levels, I want a dynamic encounter with characters on the move between levels, trading fire and flying around. If you have levels, force the characters to go to them before they clear the room.

I used to have trouble representing flying creatures at the table. Players constantly had to ask which creatures were in the air, and who could attack who. The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories solve this problem for medium creatures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. Fourth edition’s non-Euclidian geometry simplifies flight, because flyers can rise or descend one square of elevation for each square moved across the map.The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform.

I want to find some convenient brackets or holders that raise dungeon tiles over the battlefield as with my improvised balcony in the photo. Ideal holders would be compact enough to fit in my convention bag, but heavy enough to stay put. Do any MacGyvers out there have suggestions?

Lighting and visibility

Someday, I hope we all have touch-sensitive, electronic battle maps that sense and track the presence of a particular miniature in a particular spot, and automatically reveal the parts of the cave that that the players can see. Until then, dealing with lighting and line of sight is a chore that I too often gloss over. Some methods help. You can reveal the map as the players explore, either by lifting coverings, laying new tiles, or just drawing as needed. However, in a big battle, where some combatants lurk in the darkness, the matter of tracking who sees what becomes unwieldy.  Does anyone have any tricks for handling lighting and visibility?

Next: Secrets to storing and retrieving D&D miniatures

Marking Zones and Areas in Fourth Edition D&D

As a way to mark zones and other lasting, area effects, I purchased a set of transparent, colored sheets from American Science and Surplus. I cut the sheets into a 3×3, 5×5, and 7×7 square sizes.

Area markers clipped to DM screen

In play, I discovered that the 3×3 sheets worked wonderfully. I paper clipped a variety of sheets to the inside of my DM’s screen. Now, whenever someone drops, say, a cloud of darkness, I can lay down a sheet on the battle map. Because you can see through the sheets, the terrain stays visible. Typically, you only have to lift one or two figures to place a small sheet, which is easier and faster than marking each of the area’s four corners.

Litko Boundry MarkersAfter a while, I started leaving the larger sheets at home. The larger areas seldom come into play, and when they do, you inevitably have to lift several miniatures to position the sheet. Remembering the positions of everything becomes a challenge. Then when you remove the zone, you have to lift and reposition everything again.

For larger areas, I now use the boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories. They’re cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.

Rolling in a box

The picture of my DM screen in the first post also shows a transparent, plastic cube.

As a dungeon master, I like my players to feel a little sense of jeopardy, a small sense that their character might not survive this combat. Rolling my dice in the open enhances that drama at the table. The players know I’m not fudging rolls to spare them–or to pick on their character.

I like when a tense moment brings players to their feet, and when everyone at the table watches to see the outcome of a roll. In one memorable moment, I reminded a player that his movement would provoke a pair of attacks, but he cockily laughed off the risk. I rolled a pair of natural 20s and the table burst out laughing. If I had rolled behind the screen, and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.

Despite all this, I would rather not kill any characters (unless this is Lair Assault, when I will coup de grace your dying body). One of the virtues of fourth edition is that the system prevents a couple of bad rolls from turning into a dead character.

Rolling in front of a DM screen raises the problem of keeping the dice corralled. I roll into a transparent, plastic box purchased from a craft store. Unlike a big tray, the box packs easily, takes little space on the table, and never hides the outcome of a roll.

Update: I use this Containables 3-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ x 5″ Plastic Container with Removable Lid. It comes in a set of 4, but I can no longer find just one of anything similar.

Dungeon master’s screen

At the big conventions like GEN CON, I always like to walk the Dungeons & Dragons play area to see how some of the other dungeon masters run their tables. I see very few DM screens. I understand the appeal of dropping the screen; I don’t like peering over that little wall either.

Nonetheless, I continue to use a screen for D&D for a few reasons:

  • I track initiative using folded cards draped across the top of the screen. Though I could stand the cards on the table, hanging them makes them a bit more visible.
  • As a player, I prefer not to see the DM’s notes. But when the DM spreads his pages on the table, my eyes tend to settle on them. I would rather not worry about averting my gaze from Medusa.
  • Some players want to look, but I want to maintain an element of surprise and uncertainty.
  • I reference some rules and tables often enough for them need a place on a screen. This includes rules for monster knowledge checks, some uncommon actions, and the “Difficulty Classes for Level” table, which is essential for organized play.
  • Tradition.

Despite my preference for a screen, standard-sized screens stand too tall for my taste. I prefer the 6” tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games.Mini dungeon master's screen on table

This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I filled the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I needed most at the table. For the player sides, I inserted artwork cribbed from the first edition, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons screen.  In my opinion, David Trampier stands as the finest of the early D&D artists, and his collage on this screen may be his best work. It still calls me to adventure.  Not shown in the picture, the players’ side also includes a tribute to Gary with the image of a signed cover of the first Greyhawk supplement.

Signed Greyhawk Cover

You can download a PDF copy of my fourth-edition rules inserts here and my fifth-edition inserts here. I created the inserts using Adobe FrameMaker, so I’m afraid the source files will be unusable to tinkerers.