Tag Archives: battle maps

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

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

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

Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map

In the late 70s, the ads that ran in Dragon for the Melee and Wizard microgames convinced me to send away for Melee. I had grown interested in seeing how games other than Dungeons & Dragons handled fantasy combat, but I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters. Still, Melee seemed cheap at $2.95, even weighed against the little money I made cutting lawns.Advertisment for Melee and Wizard

Game designer Steve Jackson created Melee and Wizard after his first game, the futuristic-tank classic Ogre. In Space Gamer issue 29, Steve wrote, “Like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating—but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.”

I didn’t share any dissatisfaction with the D&D combat rules, because I had never seen any better alternatives. However, my D&D games had drifted away from the uninteresting fights and toward exploration and problem solving—the more satisfying parts of the game.

So Melee provided a revelation.

Unlike early D&D, where your six characteristics hardly mattered, and where one fighter played much like another, with Melee you could create a variety of heroes from two, carefully-balanced characteristics: strength and dexterity. Strength determined how potent a weapon you could wield and how many “hits” you could survive. Dexterity determined your chance to hit, and who gained initiative.

I liked Melee so much that I immediately sent for Wizard.

Wizard added intelligence, a dump stat for non-wizards, which cleverly balanced wizards against mundane heroes. The spell point system allowed wizards to cast spells every turn, without resorting to darts or a crossbow. And the spells featured a variety of interesting battle effects. I loved how my wizard could snake a wall of fire across the battlefield, dealing damage and obstructing the enemies.

For me, the real revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at GEN CON, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how limited we were by theater of the mind. Without a map, nobody can really follow the action unless things stay very simple. In practice, you could be in front, swinging a weapon, or behind the fighters, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

My enlightenment came long before third edition D&D brought the battle map into widespread use. Ready-made battle mats simply didn’t exist. So at GEN CON, I purchased blank, poster maps with both 1” squares and hexes, and I had them laminated for use with wet-erase markers. I discovered that drawing the rooms and corridors of the dungeon on the mat as the players explored gave the players a much better understanding of their surroundings. (No players enjoyed the old-school practice of sketching a map based on the DM’s descriptions. It’s only fun for sadistic DMs who like frustrating players with teleports and gradual slopes.) When Steve Jackson Games introduced Cardboard Heroes, I came to rely on them. I hardly ever ran a combat without a map.

As much as Melee and Wizard inspired me, the games suffered some flaws. Wizards drew on strength to power spells, leading to some curiously brawny wizards. As your character gained experience, their characteristics increased. Soon, experienced characters earned high enough stats to succeed at everything, virtually automatically. Ultimately, Steve would address the flaws in Man-to-Man and then GURPS, at the price of wonderful simplicity.

Next: D&D brings back tactics late in second edition.

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.