Mapping Techniques

Hello, everyone! Admittedly, last week’s Combat Cartography article was a tad dry, and I apologize for that, though I do stand by my statement that the article was important info! To make up for such a dry article, I thought I’d go over the simple, actionable techniques you can use to make your maps better communicate information to your players.

For this tutorial, I’m going to be using my Noteboard to draw a simple map, a room with a couple of columns in the center, and one wall at a diagonal.

At a glance, this isn’t a poor quality map at all(a little small because I’m just doing some general technique pointers, but I’ll talk more about that in Map Design), but there is room for improvement with a few simple tweaks!

Diagonal Lines

This first tweak is a pet peeve of mine – a character might want to move along a wall to avoid traps or to keep their bearings in a room, but when you reach a diagonal(or any slanted line for that matter) wall, an issue arises – Which squares can you stand in?

When you divide a square into equal halves, it can be ambiguous whether a character can stand in the squares marked in red. So how do you fix this? The solution is fairly straightforward – when you draw a diagonal line on a combat map, start it from the center of a grid line rather than a corner.


With this technique, it becomes clear that only the squares with their centers on the inside of the wall are passable.


A room like this would be pretty strange – there’s no way in or out! You can quickly fix this by adding simple icons for doors. My technique for doors dates back to shop class in middle school. Erase a segment of your wall where you want your wall, and draw a new line segment at an angle to show which way your door opens. Finally, draw an arc to show which way your door swings.

Negative space

Let’s say that the room walls are cut from a solid terrain feature, like a mountain. (I don’t know how many times I’ve had a player move their mini across what was supposed to be a solid wall!) While it’d be hard on your supply of markers or pencils to fill everything that isn’t walkable, you can make it more apparent by marking the edges of “negative space.” I like to do this by crosshatching an area about half a square thick around the playable area, and any impassable regions like a column.

To crosshatch, start by drawing three (roughly) parallel lines across the area you want to cover. Continue drawing sets of three lines which connect to that first, working your way around all of the negative space. Don’t worry too much about keeping a perfectly even or regular pattern – crosshatching is more of an art than a science.

Elevation Changes and Stairs

So we’ve got a solid-looking room now, but what if this room is supposed to function as supports for a bigger complex of some sort? Odds are that this relatively open space would be where an architect would place stairs to keep them from taking up space elsewhere in the building. For vertical drops which are the height of a grid space, I separate squares with a dashed line, like this platform.

Of course, we also need a way to get up to this landing. I like to draw a rectangular border where the stairs or ramp will be, and then taper the low end into a trapezoid. Fill the triangles that you’ve made to sell the illusion of a height change, and then add steps at half of the grid spacing(these stairs aren’t necessarily to scale!).

If these stairs lead to another level, fill the last step as well to make it clear that the stairs end on a different floor.


This last technique may seem obvious, but it’s incredibly helpful when getting into nitty-gritty tactical decisions. Always make sure to add a compass rose, even a simple arrow with an N. This will help players communicate where they want to move to other players or to you, which reduces the need to reach over the table, potentially knocking minis over or spilling food or drinks at the gaming table.

Drawing a battle map is mostly a matter of communication, and hopefully, you’ll find these techniques helpful when you’re drawing your battle maps. Keep your eyes peeled for next month’s article on map mechanics, where I’ll discuss how a map communicates rules information to your players(and how you might want to incorporate that information).

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