What’s on Your Table – Maps

There are many different ways to represent where the PCs and monsters are at any particular moment and what their condition is. I thought I’d run down the list and give my personal thoughts on each. Please note I’ve included links to the various products in question, but I receive no money from any of the links. They’re just for your convenience.

Graph Paper: Ah, the old-school staple. Anyone who’s been gaming for longer than a decade or so has used graph paper at least once, usually just behind the DM’s screen to map out the dungeon. However, I have used graph paper as a gaming map with varying levels of success (take my advice, make sure the squares are 1-square-to-the-inch to save yourself a lot of hassles). You can also get them in larger easel formats that are better suited to gaming, but they’re a bit pricier unless you can find a sale at the local office supply store.

Poster Maps: Some other bloggers are big fans of these, but I personally hate them. It’s nice if it’s part of a boxed adventure to be used with that adventure, but they’re only good for a one-shot. Since you can’t reuse them, I don’t like them. The map packs from Paizo’s Gamemastery line tend toward the generic, but they’re still not that reusable as every inn or graveyard in your campaign will look exactly the same. The only ones I’d consider purchasing personally would be the Paizo Gamemastery Flip Mats and even then only the ones that have a blank grid on the flip side. Unlike other poster maps, you can use wet or dry erase markers to draw on them to modify the terrain, mark conditions, or just to change up bits you didn’t like. But if you’re going to do that anyway, I’d recommend…

BattleMats: Probably the most versatile ways to go, the Chessex Vinyl BattleMats are perfect for gaming. The one I’ve linked to is huge and is double-sided with squares and hexes on the alternate sides. My personal mat is this size, but unfortunately doesn’t have a hex side. This size can also double as a tablecloth if you like, it’s so big. There are smaller sizes, but I really like this one because it perfectly fits the table I generally game on. These are great to use because you can draw the map as you go quickly, or you can draw it in advance if you want more detail. Some people feel that the ability to only use wet-erase markers (as opposed to dry erase) as a flaw, but I’ve never seen a store sell dry-erase without also selling wet-erase at pretty much the same price. Warning: If you have any permanent markers like Sharpies, bury them in the back yard before the game! It doesn’t matter where you store them, if you have one in your house, one of your players will accidentally grab it and use it on your mat without realizing it.

Dungeon Tiles: I’m a bit new to Dungeon Tiles, as I was initially not interested in the product. That changed the moment I actually got my hands on a set that one of my players brought to the game. These aren’t thin, cheap little bits of cardboard like you might expect, but thicker than a board game board and very durable. The art’s solid and they’re specifically designed to be mix-and-match. Maybe it’s because I grew up with Lego building blocks, but the idea to collect a bunch of sets and put them together however I like really appeals to me. The only drawbacks are that you’ll need to spend about $30 or so to get a good collection that’s not quite as versatile as a similarly-priced battlemat (I’d suggest the Master Set: Dungeon and Master Set: Wilderness, then adding additional sets as fits your personal gaming style) and that they tend to slide around if on a table with no tablecloth (my Chessex BattleMat does the job well). This can be fixed by using some shelf liner (though I’d suggest stopping by your local dollar store as they tend to have the stuff there cheap) or by using Poster Tack (the sticky putty-like stuff, not thumbtacks) to hold the tiles down.

Printable Maps: There are a lot of PDFs you can purchase or download for free that you can print out and use as maps. I prefer this method over poster maps if you desire this sort of thing, but they’re not as good as Dungeon Tiles because they’re printed at home (thus won’t have the same level of quality unless you have an expensive color laser printer) and they’re not going to be as sturdy, even with the cardstock that can go through a printer.

Full 3D Terrain: Dwarven Forge is the Cadillac of gaming. No, the Bentley, the Lamborghini, the Rolls Royce. It adds a lot of realism to the game, but it gets pricy fast. And from what I’ve heard, it’s addicting to buy them. You can never have enough. The advantages are…well, just look at it! The disadvantage outside of price is that they’re heavy and you pretty much need to set up the whole dungeon in advance, so it’s hard to keep parts of the dungeon secret. Bendy Walls are a cheaper and more flexible (no pun intended) option, but they’re not nearly as good in my opinion. They don’t look as good (not surprising since they’re a fourth of the price for twice the quantity) and they’re not really that stable. Use of the aforementioned Poster Tack can help, as can using the magnetic conversions they sell, but don’t buy their story that you can build terrain on the fly. It just doesn’t work and slows things down.

Personally, I use a combination of Dungeon Tiles and my BattleMat. The tiles work best for preplanned encounters as you can sort out the tiles into different piles and drop them on the table as required, while the mat underneath keeps the tiles from sliding too much as well as acting as a place I can draw maps for encounters I weren’t expecting the players to get into (like getting into a fight with the city guards when I assumed they’d try to talk to them) as well as giving an “overflow” as it were for outdoors encounters I don’t have enough tiles for. The main advantage that tiles have over the mat and the reason I use both is the ability to add elevation easily. Using just a mat, you have to make little marks to indicate where a drop-off or cliff is. Using Dungeon Tiles and some unfinished wooden blocks bought in bulk dirt cheap and painted black, I can easily add elevation to my games. I bought several 1″ and 2″ cubes to use, allowing me to stack them up and create scale elevation that adds a lot to the game.

There are other methods, from using Lego bricks and figures to just ignoring maps altogether old-school style and running combat without them. If you and your group does something unique to map things out, leave a comment below and let everyone know.

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Published in: on December 23, 2011 at 8:27 PM  Leave a Comment  
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