Tag Archives: battle maps

How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software

You can play Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder battles on a sketch, playing on a colorful, printed map raises  your game’s visual appeal.

Many of the artists who draw maps for adventures sell downloadable images of those maps. But these computer graphics never come scaled so that they print with a 1-inch grid sized for miniatures. Even when you solve the scaling, the images can’t fit on a single page from your printer.

Purpose

This post gives procedures for scaling graphic map files so they appear with a 1-inch grid, and then printing the map tiled onto multiple pages.

Contents

This post includes the following sub-procedures:

Before you begin

You must have the free programs GIMP and PosteRazor installed on your PC.

GIMP provides an image editor similar to Adobe Photoshop.

PosteRazor splits graphic files too big for a single page into multiple, printable pages, which you can assemble into a poster-sized map.

Opening the map graphic

To open your map graphic in GIMP, do the following:

1 Click File > Open.
2 In the Open Image dialog box, select the graphic file that will become the backdrop for your battle map, and then click Open.

Scaling an image to print

Battle maps in Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder feature a grid of 1-inch squares. To print your map image so each square spans 1-inch, adjust its scale so the image’s dots-per-inch matches its number of dots-per-square.

Start by measuring how many dots now span a square on your map.

Note: If your map image lacks a grid, I’ll explain how to add one in Adding a grid to a map image. For now, this procedure refers to 5-foot plots on your map as squares, even if the lines don’t appear yet.

Measuring the dots-per-square on a map image

To measure the dots-per-square on a map image, do the following:

1 Find two landmarks or marks on the map where you know the distance separating them.

If… Then…
the map includes visible grid Pick two parallel grid lines far apart on the map. Count the squares separating the lines.
the map includes a scale Pick the ends of the scale. Read the distance from the scale.
the map lacks a measure of scale Look for features that can establish a scale.
Example: If the map includes 10-foot wide halls, the distance between walls can serve as a scale.
the map lacks any measurable features Estimate a distance between two landmarks that suits play.
2 Click Tools > Measure.
3 Measure the shortest line between your landmarks.

Click one landmark, press and hold the right mouse button, and then drag to the second landmark.

As you drag, the angle of your line appears at the bottom of the window. When you measure a vertical or horizontal separation, drag a 0° or 90° line.

Release the mouse button.

Result: The distance in pixels appears at the bottom of the window.

scale-measuring

4 Calculate the width of a square in pixels.

If in step 2… Then…
you found a distance in squares Divide the measurement in pixels by the number of squares. The result is the width of each square in pixels.

Example: If you measured 330 pixels between grid lines 6 squares apart, then each square is 55 pixels wide.

you found a distance in feet Divide the measurement in pixels by the number of feet. Multiply this result by 5 to get the width of each square in pixels.

Scaling the map image

Once you know the number of dots per square on your map image, scale the image so its dots-per-inch and matches its dots-per-square.

To scale the image, do the following steps:

1 Divide 10000 by the number of dots per square.

Result: This gives the percent scaling needed to make each square 100 pixels wide.

2 Click Image > Scale Image.
3 In the Scale Image dialog box, set these controls:

  • Set the scaling drop-down menu to %.
  • For Width, enter the percentage calculated in step 1. Height will change to match.
  • Set the X resolution value to 100 pixels/in. Y resolution will change to match.

scale-scale

4 Click Scale.

Result: The image scales so each square becomes 100 pixels wide.

Cropping the map image

Most graphics suitable for battle maps include border areas that you don’t need to print. Remove these unnecessary areas by cropping.

To crop a map graphic, do the following:

1 Click Tools > Transform Tools > Crop.
2 Point the cursor to the upper-right corner of part of the image you want in your map, press and hold the right mouse button, drag the pointer to the lower-left corner of your map, and then release the mouse button.

Result: A rectangle highlights the part of the image that will remain after the crop.

3 If you want to adjust the size of the rectangle, point inside its corners or edges, press and hold the right mouse button, and then drag the edge or corner to its new size.
4 Double click the rectangle.

Result: GIMP trims the image to the rectangle.

If your image already includes a grid, skip the next procedure for adding a grid.

Adding a grid to a map image

If your map image lacks a grid, you can add one.

To add a grid, do the following:

1 If you want your grid to align with a vertical feature such as a wall, measure the distance from left edge of the graphic to the wall.

Click Tools > Measure.

Click on the left edge of the graphic, press and hold the right mouse button, and then drag to wall.

As you drag, the angle of your line appears at the bottom of the window. Drag a 90° line.

Result: The distance in pixels from the top of the graphic to the wall appears at the bottom of the window.

2 Calculate the vertical offset by noting just the 10s digit and the 1s digit measured in step 1.

Example: If you measured 123 pixels between the edge of the graphic and a vertical wall, then the vertical offset is 23 pixels.

3 If you want your grid to align with a horizontal feature, repeat steps 1 and 2 to calculate a horizontal offset, but now measure a 0° line from the top of the graphic to the feature.
4 Click Filters > Render > Pattern > Grid.
5 In the Grid dialog box, set these controls:

  • Enter a Width of 3 px.
  • Enter a horizontal and vertical Spacing of 100 px.
  • If you calculated an offset in steps 1 to 3, click the chain links under the Offset setting, and then enter the calculated offsets.
  • If the map features dark colors and a white or gold grid would be more visible, click the first color box and select a lighter color.

scale-gridClick OK.

Result: A grid appears over the map image.

Saving the map image

To save the map image, do the following:

1 Click File > Export As.
2 Select JPEG image from the drop-down menu.
3 Enter a file name that ends with the .jpg extension.
4 Click Export.

Splitting a graphic file too big for a single page into multiple, tiled pages

Most battle maps won’t fit a single sheet of paper. To print a larger map, you must split it into tiles that can print on separate pages.

To split a graphic file into multiple, tiled pages, run Posterazor and do the following:

1 Open a map image by clicking the open folder icon beside the Input image field, selecting the image file, and then clicking Open.

scale-posterazor-1Click Next.

2 Make the following settings:

  • Select a paper format from the drop-down menu. North America typically uses Letter format, while the rest of the world typically uses DIN A4.
  • Enter 0.3 for all the borders. This values limits the map to the printable area of most printers.

Click Next.

scale-posterazor-2

3 Choose the amount of overlap where two edges of one tile repeat on the next page. Choose from two settings:

  • Setting overlaps of 0 saves paper, but forces you to trim pages exactly to avoid white space or missing map. The lack of overlap at the seams between pages makes your map easier to fold.
  • Setting overlaps of 0.25 lets you make imperfect cuts when you trim the pages, because you can align a cut with the overlapping edge of the next page.

Click Next.

scale-posterazor-3

4 Set a Size in percent of 100, and then click Next.

Hint: Posterazor shows a preview of the graphic with the overlap areas marked in red. Count the number of pages shown in the preview image, and then back up to step 2. Switch the page orientation to Landscape, and then advance back through the procedure. Use whichever page orientation uses the fewest pages.

scale-posterazor-4

5 Click the disk icon under Save the Poster, and then select a filename and location for a PDF version of the map.

Result: Posterazor saves a multi-page PDF version of your map that you can print.

scale-posterazor-5

6 Print the map from your PC’s PDF viewer.
7 Cut the 0.3-inch unprinted edges from your pages and tape them together into a map.

Related

Mike Schley sells his map graphics for many of the current Dungeons & Dragons adventures.

Jarod Blando sells his maps for Out of the Abyss.

NewbieDM explains how to scale maps using PhotoShop.

Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less

If you are a game master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought game masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (Hint: Don’t do that.) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, game masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the GM’s attention. A GM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the game master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features as you describe them.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an NPC might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the NPC’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tracking conditions. Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons loyalists can benefit from letting one player mark figures suffering from conditions such as bloodied, dazed and so on. If the player consistently remembers when conditions lift, then they keep better track than I ever could.

Tallying experience points. I haven’t recruited a player to keep track of experience rewards yet, but I should have started last night. After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the GM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage, yet that data never vaulted us into first place.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. This player can keep track in plain sight: in dry erase on a white board or the edge of the battle map. If that proves impractical, then when a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe the kill. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the game master. It belongs to everyone at the table.

What things do I need to play Dungeons & Dragons?

If you have seen the Dungeons & Dragons played on TV or in a live play video, you might suppose that playing requires a lot of maps, miniatures, props, and other gear. While many players enjoy using the accessories, D&D is a game of imagination that requires dice and virtually nothing else. Many players prefer to keep play in their imagination, unburdened by gear.

The things you need for a Dungeons & Dragons game depends on your game’s style and how much you wish to spend.

Required: Rules and Dice

To start, all you really need rules and dice.

Start with the free-to-download Basic Rules. Print some blank character sheets from the one that appear at the end of the basic rules.

D&D uses an unusual set of dice, each with a different number of sides.

d4 d6 d8 d10 d12 d20

4-sided 6-sided 8-sided 10-sided 12-sided 20-sided

d100The ten-sided die shows a 0 on one side, but that counts as a 10. Some dice sets include a second 10-sided die numbered from 00 to 90. To generate a number from 1-100, you add a roll on this die with a roll on the other d10 , with a roll of all zeroes counting as 100.

Ten-sided dice with just 10 sides first appeared for sale in 1980. Before that, players rolled a twenty-sided die numbered from 0 to 9, twice. Those rounder d10s roll better, so I prefer them over the modern version, but I stopped using them. Whenever I made a damage roll with my 20-sided d10s, my players would panic. What sort of monster rolls d20s for damage! I will happily interrupt a post for a gaming history lesson, but not a combat encounter.

You just need one of each die, but many rolls add more than one result from the same size die. If you buy extra dice, you can make these rolls faster by throwing several dice a once. Veteran players tend to collect bags of dice.

More rules options

You could play D&D for years without anything more than the basic rules, but most players eventually seek even more options.

The Player’s Handbook expands your character options and makes a good first purchase.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeon Master (DM) acts as the games referee and storyteller. If you want to be a Dungeon Master, the Monster Manual adds monsters beyond those in the free Basic Game. The Dungeon Master’s Guide can wait until you’ve run a few games and feel an urge for more advice, options, or magic items.

Some DMs prefer to start with a published adventure. The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set includes the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver which ranks as an excellent adventure and a good start for new DMs. Of course, many DMs prefer to dream up their own adventures.

Optional: Battle map

Unlike some earlier editions, the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons enables you to play combats in the theater of the mind, a fancy way of saying in your imagination.

Theater of the mind works well for small battles, but for most encounters, I favor playing on a grid of 1-inch squares called a battle map. Blank, reusable battle maps let you draw walls and other features, and then wipe them clean.Doomvault Golem Foundry

The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

Even if you choose to run some fights on a battle map, you do not need to invest in miniatures. Instead, just use any tokens that you can tell apart. For example, a lot of convention judges use Starbust candies to represent creatures on the battle map. They come in a variety of colors, and players like to eat the monsters they slay. You can also use 1-inch washers or game pieces from other games. NewbieM explains how to create tokens from inexpensive materials. D&D is a game of imagination first.

Optional: Dungeon Master Screen

Many DMs prefer to work without a screen that divides them from the group, but I favor a screen.

Mini dungeon master's screen on tableIn my very first post, I listed five reasons I use a DM screen. Mainly, I like keeping my notes secret. Most players avoid snooping, but with a screen no one has to worry about catching sight of a spoiler. If you decide to use a screen, you can purchase one, use my rules inserts, or make your own screen.

Even if you usually opt for a screen, you do not always have to use it. Sometimes when an adventure reaches an interactive section, I lay my screen flat and portray non-player characters without a barrier.

Accessories

For more gear options, see my “Photo Guide To Dungeon Masters Tools.”

Dungeon masters: Why your players might not love theater of the mind as much as you do

Before the introduction of third edition Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, virtually everyone played the game in the theater of the mind—without battle maps, miniatures, or other markers. In an effort to focus on imagination and roleplay, the fifth-edition designers created a new game that welcomes that old style of play.

an overcorrection?

An overcorrection

In the run-up to Gen Con, in the group where  judges discussed the upcoming event, many of the judges touted how their masterly use of the theater of the mind eliminated their need for battle maps. When performed by a skilled dungeon master, theater of the mind apparently allows a DM to speed play and work without the burden of tokens and battle maps. Players can exercise their imagination and enjoy a game unencumbered by counting squares.

Perhaps.

Shadows Over the Moonsea at Gen Con 2014

Shadows Over the Moonsea at Gen Con 2014

Theater of the mind is a tool just like a battle map. Even though I strongly prefer running fights on battle maps, if the players just want to eliminate a sentry, I run theater of the mind. But if you boast that you’re so awesome at running theater of the mind that you never need a map, I think of a carpenter boasting that he doesn’t need a saw because he is so awesome at hammering.

After the convention, in reviewing the players’ feedback forms, judge coordinator Dave Christ surmised that some judges who favored theater of the mind may have suffered lower feedback scores because they ran games for players who dislike the technique.

In short, some judges favored theater of the mind, but overestimated how much their players shared their affection for the technique.

So why do some dungeon masters love theater of the mind?

The preference begins with an urge for easy preparation and fast play. The dungeon master doesn’t need to prepare maps or gather miniatures. For a DM, less preparation leads to more flexibility. Unlike the drudge working with tiles and minis, theater-of-the-mind dungeon masters have no stake in where players go because they paint entirely with words. And then when a fight starts, theater of the mind avoids pausing to set up. You don’t have to draw or lay out a map or place figures. In an elementary fight, players can operate faster too. No one needs to count squares of move figures.

Also, theater of the mind grants the dungeon master an extra measure of control over the game. I’m sure this urge to control comes from a good place. Theater-of-the-mind DMs want to tell stories. They want to say yes. On the battle map, everyone can see that a jump from the balcony to the dragon’s back spans 50 feet, but in the theater of the mind, only the DM knows. “Well sure, that’s a cool stunt. You jump to the dragon’s back.” These dungeon masters don’t want their creative wings clipped by the mundane battle map. It’s all about telling stories, right?

Plus, theater of the mind makes writing adventures easier. Often an adventure’s author can avoid drawing maps and let the dungeon master improvise. Where fourth-edition adventures included maps of encounter areas, fifth-edition adventures often just include a list of creatures.

So why might your players love theater of the mind less than you do?

Wait, what? I know you explain every scene so vividly that no one misunderstands, but in some games—not yours—players struggle to grasp every nuance of the DM’s mental picture. In these games, the fighter charges to engage the beholder, and then the DM explains, again, that the creature floats 20 feet above the battlefield, on the far side of a deep crevasse. Now the frustrated player must rethink her turn.

What’s happening again? I know your players pay rapt attention every moment, even during the other players turns, but in some games—not yours—players may let their attention lapse. In public play, I’m lucky if the players can hear everything. And the battlefield situation changes with each turn, so dungeon masters wind up explaining the situation over and over.

Mother may I? Players enjoy feeling like they have direct and complete control over their characters. They want their available actions revealed before them. They want the potential outcomes of their actions to be predictable, something I call resolution transparency.

Some players even have less interest in seeing their characters featured in the DM’s story than in tackling the challenges of the game world. If a story happens to emerge, all the better.

These players want to play D&D, not some version of Mother May I where they have to ask if their proposed actions match up with a map locked in the DM’s head. “If I use my lightning bolt, how many gnolls can I hit?” “How far do I have to jump to cross the crevasse?” “Can I reach the cultist without provoking?”

In theater of the mind, these players cannot plan their turns in advance because so many options require the DM’s consultation and approval. The dungeon master’s attention becomes a bigger bottleneck. As the dungeon master keeps describing the evolving battlefield and answering questions about what players can do, playing a round of combat without a map takes longer.  In an angry rant on theater of the mind, the Angry DM gives some advice on running without a map. “Be repetitive, repeat yourself, and use repetition.” Good advice, but the repetition shrinks the time saved by skipping the map. Eventually, time saved in setup gets lost. Fights over a certain size take longer to resolve in theater of the mind.

Of course, not all players enjoy the details of combat. To make theater of the mind work, Angry DM advises, “Don’t force the players to be too specific about the targets they are firing at and don’t keep too much track of which target has how many hit points. Just keep a vague idea of things. Then, apply attacks and damage to the places that make the most logical sense for the combatants.” This advice plays well if your gaming group cares little for detail because they see combat encounters as a means to reveal character or advance the story, rather than as a tactical challenge.

Theater of the mind could be the perfect match for your group, but DMs must avoid assuming your players share your love.

Way back in “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons,” I describe how the introduction of third edition brought a quick and overwhelming switch from theater of the mind to battle maps. The third edition rules continued to support theater of the mind, but they now supported maps better than past editions. For most players, the introduction of combat on maps provided a revelation. For all but the simplest encounters, maps provide a better play experience.

Gallery of poster battle maps published for Dungeons & Dragons

I have collected over 100 poster battle maps from various Dungeons & Dragons adventures and other products. Although these maps originally supported particular scenarios or adventures, I reuse them for new adventures.

The Slaying Stone (1)

The Slaying Stone (1)

To make the most of my collection, I needed a gallery that I could browse to find the best map to suit new an adventure, so I created one. Soon, I plan to create an page sorting maps into categories such as dungeons, ruins, towns, and villages. For now, I present galleries sorted by product category.

Battle maps in fourth-edition D&D products

D&D Encounters poster maps

D&D Fantastic Locations and map packs

D&D Lair Assault poster maps

D&D promotional and miscellaneous maps

The best poster battle maps published for D&D

Soon, I will post a catalog of the poster maps printed for Dungeons & Dragons products over the years. As I compiled the catalog, some maps stood out, either because of the design, or because the maps proved useful beyond the adventure that they accompany.

The Gates of Firestorm Peak adventure supported Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics with color battle maps. Artist David Martin painted these maps in a hallucinogenic palette rather than the more earthy colors of current maps. See “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons” for more on Firestorm Peak.

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (2)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (2)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (3)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (3)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (4)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (4)

Does the next map look familiar? The moathouse from The Temple of Elemental Evil returns as a map in the Village of Hommlet promotional adventure (of course), and also in the Against the Cult of Chaos Encounters season and the Shattered Keeps map pack.

The Village of Hommlet - 2009 promo (2)

The Village of Hommlet – 2009 promo (2)

Three map sets included double maps that fit together into a single large location. Both Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin and Shattered Keeps feature a sprawling ruined castle. The Vaults of the Underdark map pack includes a river and bridge that may be underground, but could also be out in the badlands.

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - Keep of Fallen Kings I

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – Keep of Fallen Kings I

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - Keep of Fallen Kings II

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – Keep of Fallen Kings II

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (3)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (3)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (6)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (6)

Before Wizards of the Coast started packaging battle maps in every adventure, they published maps intended for D&D miniatures battles. The underground maps include broken walls, which make them unsuitable for dungeon crawls but good for big battles. Of the miniatures maps, I favor the neon colors of Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow.

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Drow Enclave

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Drow Enclave

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Fane of Lloth

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Fane of Lloth

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Tomb of Queen Peregrine

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Tomb of Queen Peregrine

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Mithral Mines

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Mithral Mines

If you spot a copy of the third-edition adventure City of Peril for sale, snap it up. This adventure comes stocked with maps of a town square, an inn, rooftops, and sewers.

City of Peril (1)

City of Peril (1)

City of Peril (2)

City of Peril (2)

City of Peril (3)

City of Peril (3)

City of Peril (4)

City of Peril (4)

Recently I stumbled on a StackExchange question asking why used copies of the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Kit cost so much. I suppose some buyers covet the monster tokens, but for me the maps are the real draw. I have used the castle wall in at least 8 sessions.

Dungeon Master’s Kit (1)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (1)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (2)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (2)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (3)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (3)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (4)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (4)

I love the waterfall and magic circles included “Forest Cliff Lair” map included in Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto and Keep on the Shadowfell. This map fires my imagination more than any other.

Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto - Forest Cliff Lair

Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto – Forest Cliff Lair

Unlike later adventures with a single poster map, Keep on the Shadowfell included three. In addition to the “Forest Cliff Lair,” the package includes the useful “King’s Road” map, originally from Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin.

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - The King’s Road

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – The King’s Road

Most of the Lair Assault adventures include specialized maps, but Kill the Wizard includes a three-story house and Talon of Umberlee features a ship.

Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard (1)

Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard (1)

Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee (2)

Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee (2)

I have reused the waterfront map from Lost Crown of Neverwinter in more than one session.

D&D Encounters 06 Lost Crown of Neverwinter (5)

D&D Encounters 06 Lost Crown of Neverwinter (5)

The village map in King of Trollhaunt Warrens and War of Everlasting Darkness strikes me as particularly eye catching. I wish it connected with the similar map in the third-edition adventure Red Hand of Doom.

P1 King of Trollhaunt Warrens (2)

P1 King of Trollhaunt Warrens (2)

Red Hand of Doom (1)

Red Hand of Doom (1)

A map in Storm over Neverwinter turned the graphic assets from the Castle Grimstead dungeon tiles set into a grand palace.

D&D Encounters 13 Storm Over Neverwinter (2)

D&D Encounters 13 Storm Over Neverwinter (2)

Of all the seasons of D&D Encounters, the Web of the Spider Queen featured the most memorable encounter site: a hollowed out stalactite with bridges connecting three levels.

D&D Encounters 09 Web of the Spider Queen (6)

D&D Encounters 09 Web of the Spider Queen (6)

Finally, I have two mystery maps that must have been included with Dungeon or Dragon magazines around 2006. I can’t figure out what magazine issues included these maps. If you can help, please comment.

2006 Magazine Map

2006 Magazine Map

Dungeon Magazine Map

Dungeon Magazine Map

Early combinations of adventures with battle maps

In my post, “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons,” I credited the 1995 release, Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics with introducing tactical play to the D&D game, and the supporting adventure The Gates of Firestorm Keep with introducing the now-common feature of bundling battle maps with adventures. Alert reader Curtis tipped me off to several earlier instances. Thanks Curtis!

In 1985, TSR launched a series of D&D accessories with AC1 The Shady Dragon Inn, a collection of pregenerated characters with a name that suggests something else. A gridded, miniature-scale map of the inn appears on the flip side of the cardboard cover. This map seems like a way to do something with the inside cover, because the inn of the title gets virtually no mention beyond that.

AC3 The Revenge of Rusak detail

AC3 The Revenge of Rusak detail

In 1984, AC3 3-D Dragon Tiles: The Kidnapping of Princess Arelina packaged cardboard walls intended to be folded into 3-D dungeon rooms, with cardboard standees, maps, and an adventure. This product’s play map lacks any grid, so the set seems unsuited to visualizing tactical combat. Instead the accessory appeared intended as a toy for younger players. In 1985, AC5 3-D Dragon Tiles featuring The Revenge of Rusak presented a similar package with village fair and wilderness tiles, this time with a grid sized for the playing pieces.

B10 Night’s Dark Terror contents

B10 Night’s Dark Terror contents

In 1986, the classic adventure Night’s Dark Terror includes a section where players defend a homestead against a goblin siege. To aid dungeon masters running the assault, the adventure packages a gridded map of the battlefield and a set of punched counters to represent the battling forces. This adventure was a decade ahead of its time.

Night Below an Underdark Campaign contents

Night Below an Underdark Campaign contents

In 1995, alongside Combat & Tactics and The Gates of Firestone Peak, TSR released the boxed mega-adventure, Night Below: An Underdark Campaign, which includes gridded maps and color counters. Although Night Below, does not explicitly tie with Combat & Tactics, it supports the move to battle maps and tactical combat.

Photo guide to dungeon master’s tools

Update: Read my bigger, updated New photo guide to dungeon master’s tools.

As a dungeon master or game master, you can run a fun game with almost no gear, just a couple of dice, a pen, and some note paper.  I prefer to operate on the other end of the spectrum, with a full array of miniatures, markers, and props. This guide takes a tour through the tools in my DM’s kit. You do not need any of this equipment, but I suspect you will see some items to add to your  case.

On the game table

On the game table

Compartment case

Most of my essential gear fits into a translucent-plastic, compartment case. Removable dividers make the compartments’ size adjustable. As visible in the photo, I half-filled some of the compartments with foam rectangles. This prevents miniatures from banging around and makes small items easy to reach. When I need space for a larger miniature, I pluck out the foam for extra room. When I travel light, I only need this case and a battlemap for a game.

Deep compartment case

Deep compartment case

Dungeon master’s screen

I typically use a DM screen. I prefer the 6” tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games. 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. Stuff the players’ side with your favorite fantasy art.

I have created rules inserts for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which you can download as a PDF file. Put them in the Hammerdog screen, or just put the inserts on cardboard and fabricate your own screen.

You can learn why I choose to use a screen and download my fourth-edition inserts in “Dungeon master’s screen.”

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Battlemap

I always carry a blank battlemap. The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

When I use folded poster maps, I typically make the map lay flat by covering it with a Lexan Polycarbonate Sheet—the sort of material used for storm windows. The Lexan sheets cost more than Acrylic, but they resist cracking. By using wet-erase markers, you can write on these sheets and then erase. Purchase these sheets from your local home-improvement store for under $20.

Battle map under plexiglas

Battle map under Lexan

When I use Dungeon Tiles, I arrange them on sheets of non-slip drawer liners, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep the loose tiles in place. These lightweight liners easily roll up for transport.

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

 

Removable mounting putty

Removable mounting putty

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 Removable Adhesive Putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.

For more one dungeon tiles, see my “complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets” and “complete guide to using Dungeon Tiles.”

I transport my maps and Lexan sheet in a inexpensive, artist’s portfolio case.

Rolling in a box

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

For reasons explained in “Rolling in a box,” I always make die rolls in full view of the players. To keep my dice corralled, I roll into a clear, plastic box purchased from a craft store. The box packs easily, takes little space on the table, and never hides the outcome of a roll.

Status markers

Alea tools magnetic markers in case

Alea Tools magnetic markers in case

Plenty of folks use cheap or free methods for tracking status effects on the battlemap. When I started with fourth edition, I twisted pipe cleaners into rings and tried using the rings as markers, but this approach fell short. At best, only I knew what status corresponded to a particular color. By the time everyone else adds their bottle-cap rings, tiny rubber bands, and other refuse to the battle, the miniatures look like Christmas trees and no one knows what’s going on. Ultimately I invested in a set of Alea Tools magnetic status markers. You can mark the edges of these markers with adhesive labels so everyone can read the status names. The markers cling in place, and a storage case makes organization easy. When I lack miniatures for a game, I use my numbered markers as tokens.

Numbered alea markers

Numbered and labeled Alea markers

When Dungeons & Dragons Next supplants fourth edition and eliminates much of the need for markers, I will miss them. However, I’ll always use the numbered markers to tell one identical monster figure from another on the battlefield.

Plastic markers

Colored marking dots

Colored marking dots

Colored plastic disks provide any easy way to mark the location of things like a key, a magical glyph, or a wall of fire on the battlemap. Because the disks lay flat, miniatures will sit on top of them. I purchased my set from a convention vendor. You can also buy plastic counters online.

Sometimes, I use these dots to resolve area-effect attacks that target a large number of figures. I lay a colored disk by each figure, then roll attack dice in colors matching the disks.

Colored dice and marker dots

Colored dice and marker dots

The colors link the attack rolls to the figures, so I can roll a handful of dice once to resolve all the attacks.

This method works best when I’m playing, because I can set my disks without interrupting other business at the table. As a judge, I typically just ask a player to point out targets for individual rolls.

Marking zones and areas of effect

To designate zones and areas of effect on the battlemap, I use three types of markers:

  • 3×3 colored transparencies.  I keep a set of transparent, colored sheets clipped to the inside of my DM screen. 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. You can purchase the transparencies from American Science and Surplus.

    Area of effect markers

    Blue transparency and yellow boundary markers

  • Boundary markers. These plastic angles mark the four corners of square areas. The boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories come cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.
  • Area-of-Effect Templates. For third-edition D&D and descendents like Pathfinder, I recommend the wire templates from Steel Sqwire. Frugal gamers can bend and snip templates almost as nice from coat hangers.

    Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

    Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

For more, see “Marking Zones and Areas in Fourth Edition D&D.”

Line-of-sight indicator

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

A line-of-sight indicator reels out a string that you can stretch between figures on the battlemap to see if obstacles block the line. The string is spring loaded, so it draws back automatically like a tape measure. Paizo sells these, but office supply stores and Amazon offers the same item as a retractable badge holder.

Initiative tents

I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order.

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

You can find more advice and my printable initiative tents at “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Pens, clips, and scissors

Obviously, your DM kit requires regular pens and pencils as well as wet- or dry-erase pens suitable for your battle map. I bring clips so I can affix maps and pictures to my DM screen in the players’ view. Any convention DM must carry scissors to cut apart certificates and player hand outs.

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Post-it flags enable me to affix reminders to my initiative tents, so I can remember when conditions lift, and when the purple worm will burst from the floor.

Poker chips

Poker chips

Poker chips

I give players poker chips to represent action points. Different colored chips can also account for magical talismans, blessed elixirs, keys, and other items players must collect or use during the course of an adventure.

Miniatures

As I confessed in “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” I enjoy representing the action on the table with the correct miniatures.

My DM case always includes an assortment of two types of miniatures:

  • Bystanders and civilians. As I wrote in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads,” miniature figures for unarmed civilians can serve as bystanders to be protected as moving obstacles. Civilian figures can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s Bones lines.

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

  • Animal companions. Fourth edition made various types of animal companions more playable than any previous edition. In my experience, pets resonate for some players, and they collect as many the rules allow. However, players of pets rarely bring figures for their entourage, so I bring an assortment to lend. Now if only some vendor would create a medium-sized figure for the runaway most popular animal companion—the displacer beast.

    Animal companion miniatures

    Animal companion miniatures

For a list of other miniatures that I keep close at hand, see “The 11 most useful types of miniatures.”

To avoid the expense of miniatures, you can substitute tokens, Alea markers, or candy—tell players, “If you kill it, you eat it.”

Flight stands

Miniature flight platform

Miniature flight platform

The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories offer a way to mark airborne figures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. 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. Pack the stands carefully, because they snap easily.

Props

Potion vial prop

Potion vial prop

I carry a couple of corked glass vials from American Science and Surplus. While completely unnecessary, I find them enchanting and I sometimes use them as prop potions.

Dungeon decor

While completely inessential, I pack some miniature dungeon decor to add to the battlemap. Figures such as chests, statues, and altars can add three-dimensional flavor to the battlemap, while calling attention to important features. Ballistas appear in enough adventures to make a figure useful. The photo below features items from more recent D&D miniature sets and from Legendary Realms. Reaper’s Bones line also includes some unpainted decor.

Dungeon decor

Dungeon decor

Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads

Way back in “The 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I confessed that whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. The characters inevitably sidle around the statue, expecting it to animate and attack. This trick never fails to amuse me. Does this make me a mean dungeon master?

When players metagame, they use information from outside the game world to make choices for their characters in the game, even though the characters would lack this information.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for three reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If players know that every figure on the battlemap will have a role in the fight, no statue is safe a preemptive strike. But if you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that defy the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
  • I’m a mean dungeon master.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

Most commonly, I toy with three metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption  Countermeasure 
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. This helps set the scene, and the players become jumpy, expecting a fight. I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If an NPC or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. The recent Murder in Balur’s Gate launch adventure called for a ton of bystanders. More to the point, bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s bones lines.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. The fourth-edition design turns this into a bigger problem than with earlier editions, because players have more resources to save for the final showdown. Metagaming and fourth-edition design leads to the sort of trouble I described in “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master? Vary your adventures from the expected route to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start. Dan Anderson stands out as an author of Living Forgotten Realms adventures that defy expectations. For instance, in CALI3-3 Agony of Almraiven, the tough fight comes as an ambush in the middle of the adventure.
Everyone has access to the same information. In most sessions, the whole game proceeds with every player at the same table hearing everything the DM has to say. In the game world, not every character knows what the others know. When a character becomes privy to sensitive information, you can take the player aside to share it. If your players cooperate and everyone always reports back, private asides take more time that they merit. On the other hand, if someone enjoys playing the furtive, scheming type, keeping some things secret adds intrigue. If you only take the assassin’s player aside to ask, “Seen any good movies lately?” everyone else will think the assassin hides something. I think inter-party strife poisons too many of the games that allow it, so be careful with this suggestion.

Next: Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try.

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