How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Battle Maps

As of two Monday nights ago, I am officially running a 4E D&D campaign again.  After more than two months, all the members of my regular group, save one who moved several hours away, got back together for a session.  It feels great finally getting back into the swing of things after so many weeks.

One thing my time off convinced me of was that my DM style needed to change somewhat.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the feeling that each session has to be bigger, better, and more awesome than the one before.  While this is a noble goal, it’s also a recipe for burnout.  I am determined to dial it down a bit in the continued campaign.  I hope to balance my duties as a DM with my real life responsibilities a bit better.  One area in particular I want to scale back on is an essential to 4E: battle maps.

Ease Back on Expectations for Battle Maps
In my experience, nothing takes more time than taking care of the battle maps for encounters.  The map is such an important part of 4E D&D, I try my best to make sure its just right each time.  But why is it that DMs give so much attention to these maps?

A great map can immerse the players in the experience.  Maps can really make the game world come to life.  The feel of a desert map with sand, shrubs, and stones littered across it is quite different than that of a stone-floored dungeon with arcane runes and odd statues lining the walls.  A map is an aid to imagination, allowing the group to easily picture their character’s actions.  A good map adds to the sense of exploration and wonder that good campaigns provide.

As 4E emphasizes tactical miniatures combat, a good map is also important because it provides a challenge for the players.  When the map provides many hiding places, choke points, dangerous areas, and other interesting features, it becomes a puzzle of sorts, which the group must work together to “solve”.  A interesting map with cool terrain features is far more enjoyable than a simple open room.  Combat can be much more exciting on a map with interesting terrain features than on a simpler one.

Because the map for an encounter is so important, I emphasize three different aspects of it: making sure the map is visually appealing, interesting to play on, and that it matches my vision of the game world.  But meeting all three criteria is very difficult.  Even with the Gaming Paper Mega Dungeon Set, over a dozen maps from adventures and minis products, a Master Set and two older sets of Dungeon Tiles, plus a roll of Gaming Paper, many times I can’t find or create a map that looks cool, plays cool, and fits the environment the group is in like I want it to.

So what’s the solution?  Work harder?  Buy more maps?  No.  Instead, ease back on your expectations.  Prioritize what is most important to you.  Pick what matters most to you in a map and focus on that.  If you absolutely must have a map filled with interesting tactical choices, there are many options available.  Published adventures, including those on DDI, are great for this.  If you can’t use them outright, you can at least replicate the important features on Dungeon Tiles, Gaming Paper, or even the classic wet erase battlemat.  If you value looks and production values over anything else, there are dozens of choices available for you out there.  Just be prepared to lay out the big bucks for a huge library of printed maps or even the high quality Dwarven Forge sets.

In my case, the most important attribute for any map is that it feels natural, like it’s part of the adventure.  For example, in my campaign, the party is in the bowels of a mountain cave complex, so the battlemap shouldn’t look like a forest clearing or a boat near a dock.  In this case, I’d prefer a simpler map as long as it matches an authentic cavern setting.

I picked up a very nice Game Mastery Flip Mat called Darklands that fit the bill nicely.  One side had an interesting bridge location, while the other was much simpler, a wide open area with columns scattered around.  The bridge was a hit with my players, so I might reuse it at some point; maybe next time, the players will be on the other side wanting to get out!  The other, more open side of the map could easily be altered with dry or wet erase markers as needed in order to be reused often.  It was definitely worth the $10 at my local game store to have an easily customizable cave map like this in my repertoire.

Decide what’s most important to you in regards to battle maps, and let the other stuff slide a bit.  Homemade maps in full color with exciting terrain features and lots of intricate details take a long, long time to make.  If you can’t devote that kind of time to each map, decide what’s your highest priority (looks, tactics, etc.) and concentrate on that.  Not every battle map has to be perfect, and expecting it to be so is a good way to burn yourself out very quickly.

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