This article series is aimed at that huge mass of players who use D&D Miniatures in their role-playing games. It's a big miniature world out there, but we're going to make sense of it for you and improve your miniatures experience at the same time.
Like a player character, we'll start at the simplest level and work our way up through the available options. We open with a discussion of the simplest ways imaginable to get good use out of miniatures, one of which you might not have imagined.
In the first installment, we tackled the use of range bands as a quick and dirty way to track ranges between distant groups of characters. This week, we discuss the most common method for mapping tactical encounters in D&D -- the battle mat.
Battle mats come in a variety of styles from several manufacturers, but the common them is that they are made from vinyl and have a printed grid. For D&D purposes, a one-inch square grid is the most useful, but it's not the only choice available. One-inch hexes or larger squares or hexes can also be useful. Mats are also printed in a background color. Parchment-textured tan is popular, but green is useful for outdoor encounters, and other colors can serve other purposes. They're sold in a variety of sizes, and all of them roll up nicely for easy storage.
The beauty of a vinyl mat is that you can draw on it with wet-erase markers, play out your encounter, and then wipe the mat clean with a damp cloth or paper towel in preparation for your next encounter. If the map is complex, you can draw the whole thing before the game begins and roll it up to keep players from eyeing it beforehand. If the map involves exploration, you can add rooms and details on the fly as characters move deeper into the building, dungeon, cave, or what-have-you. It's easy, it's quick, and if you have any artistic talent, it can look pretty good.
An alternative to a vinyl mat is a paper mat that's been laminated. The original D&D Miniatures battle mat, which had a one-inch grid over a gray stone texture but was otherwise blank, works perfectly for this. Most office supply stores and quick print shops can laminate a poster-sized sheet. Wet-erase or dry-erase markers can be used on the lamination, as can grease pencils or simple crayons.
Vinyl mats have a couple of disadvantages, too. The mat itself is sturdy and unlikely to tear or wear out, but if you a) leave a drawing on it for too long -- say, because your players fail to get through an encounter in a single night, and you leave the map drawn on the mat for a few weeks to save the effort of redrawing it -- or b) you pick up the wrong type of marker -- dry-erase or typical school-type markers -- the drawing can't be erased and the mat is ruined. This isn't a problem with a laminated map. Second, if you want to maintain some mystery about what's coming up in the adventure or you run several combats on the map per session, maps will need to be drawn during the game. That takes time and slows down the action.
Instead of a reusable map, you might also consider using paper maps. Office supply stores sell pads of paper that are intended to be hung on the wall during business meetings for note-taking and graph-drawing. A typical pad has 50 sheets of approximately 24 inch x 36 inch pages with a one-inch grid.
These can't be re-used, but they have three advantages over re-usable mats. First, you can draw on them with anything -- pencil, colored pencil, crayon, highlighters, any type of marker in any imaginable color, even water color paints. If you're artistic, you'll have many more options to express that talent on paper than on vinyl or lamination. Second, the maps are permanent. Once a map is drawn, it can be used, stored for a week, used again, stored for three months, used again, stored for six years, and used again. Obviously, this is a big plus if your campaign includes sites that are frequent battlefields (an arena or temple, for example) or generic locations that are prone to violence (taverns, markets, lonely bridges). Third, every map you expect to need in an adventure can be prepared ahead of time and kept handy for instant use.
The disadvantage is cost. One vinyl mat might supply all your mapping needs for $15 or less. Large pads of gridded paper typically sell in double packs (two pads of 50 sheets each) for around $30. If you draw lots of maps, you'll eventually run out and need to buy more. If you like to reuse a manageable number of key maps, then paper may be the way to go. Finally, if you have an interested friend, you might also buy a two-pack and split the pads and cost between you. Fifty map sheets go a long way.
The last option when drawing your own maps is to skip the grid entirely. A grid simplifies the tasks of counting range and measuring movement, but in lots of cases, it's not really necessary. If most of your encounters take place in 30 foot x 30 foot rooms, a target is seldom beyond short range and a character rarely has the opportunity to move farther than is possible in one turn. Large sheets of blank paper can be purchased at office supply stores and even some packing, moving, or shipping stores. This is basically the same paper that newspapers are printed on, so it's cheap and easy to draw on but not tremendously durable -- you won't want to keep these maps around for years. (On the other hand, it's easy to recycle.)
Any one of these options is worth experimenting with if you've never tried your hand at drawing tactical maps. And if that doesn't work out, there are always pre-printed maps -- but that's a topic for next time.
About the Author
Steve Winter is a web producer, writer, and game designer living in the Seattle area. When not lost in fantasy worlds of his own devising, he drops in on other people's fantasies. That's been interesting ...