Hello, everyone! With more reviews in the pipeline, Primordial Power’s art and layout steadily progressing, and my development time gradually shifting towards a new supplement, I thought it’d be interesting to try and write some more self-contained series of articles. This is a series that I’m calling Combat Cartography, in which I explore various aspects of designing the stages for combat encounters.
Why map a combat encounter at all?
I’m sure you think that this article is off to an abysmal start if I have to justify its existence, but it’s an important discussion point. Fifth Edition has tried very hard to distance itself from Fourth, emphasizing the viability of the “theater of the mind” style of gameplay. In this style of gameplay, a Storyteller describes a scene and relative distances, and players track their characters’ and objects’ positional information verbally. It’s great for quick, improvised situations and for simple fights where positions just don’t matter – melee fighters are going to hop into melee and stay there, ranged attackers will keep their distance and volley a target with spells or projectiles. As long as the players are actively paying attention to your verbal descriptions and have a good spatial imagination to track what’s going on, theater of the mind is serviceable.
Theater of the mind breaks down, however, as soon as a Storyteller introduces any degree of nuance to the scene. Are all the goblins within the blast radius of a wizard’s fireball? Can a single fighter keep all these enemies from straying too close to an injured bard? Any attempts to record this positional information eventually lead back to the most straightforward solution – visual aids such as miniatures. Overall, if a combat encounter is significant or nuanced(and frankly, if it’s unimportant, why are you going through the bookkeeping?), it’s worth the effort to make a battle map in some capacity.
How to Make a Map
There are a lot of ways to produce a serviceable combat map. Below are a few options which I’ve personally used and enjoyed.
One of the cheapest ways to get a map onto the table is to use paper. Wrapping paper will usually have a dashed grid on its backside which you can use as a guideline(I’ll talk more about grids in a future article), and you can quickly fold it and store it however you please. If you’re looking for a higher-quality alternative to wrapping paper, Gaming Paper is your best bet (they make erasable tiles, too!), and you can find their products in just about any local game store.
Several companies have produced modular Dungeon Tiles to allow a consumer to build quick-but-detailed battle maps. Originally made as a companion product for Fourth Edition, Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeon Tile sets can still be purchased, currently as Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated. Wizards of the Coast has divided these tiles into three separate sets, Dungeon, City, and Wilderness. Admittedly I haven’t seen these tiles at game stores, but most should be more than happy to place an order for you.
Unfortunately, Dungeon Tiles don’t typically interlock, so you’ll have to get creative to keep them in place when running a game. My go-to is to use a little bit of poster putty on the bottom sides of the tiles and affix them to your game table.
If you find yourself making a lot of maps or your tabletop gaming venue is away from home, you may want to consider investing in something a bit more durable than Gaming Paper or wrapping paper. Chessex makes a popular wet-erase vinyl Battlemat, and you’ve probably seen gamers using these mats.
I use a Noteboard for my game maps, which is effectively a laminated sheet of gridded index cards. The Noteboard had the benefit of being foldable, compressed down to a convenient size for travel, and came with a sleek pouch which doubled as the board’s eraser. Unfortunately, the Noteboard is out of print, making it more difficult to find. If you do find one, however, I cannot recommend it enough.
If you’re looking for a more robust fixture to reuse time and again, there are alternatives. Gaming Paper also makes erasable tiles, which you can assemble into broader shapes to suit your table’s needs and pack into a small space. Forged Dice makes a double-sided, foldable board which erases cleanly and features both a hex grid and squares.
At the absolute lowest unit price, if you are inclined towards grander scale battles or want to build your own game table, you may want to consider buying raw materials. A sheet of melamine will provide you with the traditional white dry-erase surface, or, if you’d prefer a darker play area for your game table, you could lay a sheet of plexiglass over black felt, and use neon dry-erase markers instead of standard dark colors. For a dramatic sci-fi neon effect, you could light a board like this with a blacklight to make the maps luminescent.
Tabletop role-playing games have always had strong historical ties to tabletop war games, so it makes sense to embrace the creative opportunities that wargaming has to offer. A few pieces of scatter terrain can add texture to a combat scene, and immerse your players in a way that two-dimensional maps can’t. This immersive depth comes at a price, namely the time investment it takes to produce believable pieces, and 3d terrain just doesn’t pack well.
Making pieces out of XPS(extruded polystyrene, or as we less-fancy folks call it, “styrofoam”) is incredibly cheap and easy. The material takes texturing very smoothly, allowing you to make believable rock faces and wood grains almost effortlessly. There are several avenues of support for sculpting gaming terrain, such as great youtube channels like Black Magic Craft, and books on making wargaming terrain.
We live in interesting times, and innovations in commercially available 3d printing technology make it more possible than ever before to create impressive terrain and minis quickly. I use a Monoprice Maker Select printer for my 3d printing needs and have been known to run my printer on the day of a game session, only to drop a newly-printed mini onto the table(I’ll talk more about the 3d printing process in a later article). Much like painting gaming miniatures, you’ll need to experiment with a 3d printer to decide what you and do not like in your process. Several sources exist for printable 3d objects if you aren’t a 3d artist, such as Thingiverse for free models, and paid sources such as Hero’s Hoard, Printable Scenery, and Hobgoblin3d.
Like just about every aspect of tabletop gaming, mapmaking is a deep rabbit hole – there are low-investment options like “theater of the mind” combat and dungeon tiles, and high-investment options like crafting your own gaming terrain and 3d printing. Typically, a gaming group will use the mid-level compromise of a dry or wet-erase battle mat, but how much effort(and sometimes money) you want to invest will definitely influence your decisions. If you have the time or funds to invest, though, I strongly recommend experimenting and seeing what you like.