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

5 thoughts on “Solving the limitations of battle maps

  1. Pingback: Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons | DMDavid

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  3. Joost

    when height is essential, I carry a bunch of cheap wood building blocks. one of these blocks is about 4 inches in height, which does a great job to act as a normal ceiling height for medium creatures.
    Four blocks, one on each corns to act as posts, and everybody gets the picture. On a flat, stable table, you can create multiple levels and place the fight inside an actual stairwell! The tactical advantage of height is instantly clear, and it’s a memorable experience. my players still talk about that day 😉

    1. Joost

      and it’s not just fun – it makes sense too. in your picture, the balcony is held up by magic, whereas the real (or ‘real’) world needs supporting columns to hold up the ceiling.


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