Take a hike.
That’s right, get out into nature. Go to the source and see what things really look like. Then decide if it makes sense for a square to be difficult terrain or not? Does light foliage really grant concealment? If you really want an answer to these and other questions, take a walk through your local forest. Your eyes will be opened to a new set of possibilities and you might discover a new past time.
I was out hiking the other day with Sterling, we were doing a leg of the Bruce Trail. As we passed a small cliff one of us piped up that it would make a great location for an ambush. To which the other replied, how many rounds do you think it would take to run towards the cliff and scale it? From there the conversation moved to an analysis of the terrain, the density of the trees and how much cover they provided.
Most encounters in 4e D&D that I have seen haven’t used a map that is really big enough to represent the terrain and space that might really be at play. This is especially true for outdoor encounters. When you consider how far a longbow can really shoot, you realize that most maps are far too small. However, we need to work within the conventions of the game in order to provide balance and an enjoyable gaming experience. One thing I have noted about most maps is they tend to have a fair amount of open terrain, squares that don’t have any special conditions attached to them.
In our modern world of roads, sidewalks and manufactured green spaces this might make sense. Take a walk ten minutes outside of a major urban centre and you start to realize that not everything is flat. While running through a field might not be difficult terrain, depending on the height of the grass it could provide partial cover. If the grass is tall enough or you set the encounter in a corn field, more than partial cover would be granted and each square would be difficult terrain.
Forested space should be considered in the same light. Take a walk through your local forest and look at the space that’s off the path. Ask yourself how much cover would you receive based on the D&D definitions. Would the terrain be considered difficult? I’ve found there is no better way to put a realistic tactical map together than to look at the source.
Dungeon Tiles are great for building a map quickly. They really are a great resource, but they do have a shortcoming. Most wilderness Dungeon Tiles that I’ve seen are full of wide open spaces with a few random trees. This might do the trick if every encounter you ever run occurs on grasslands. However, every major game world I can think of has at least one very large and significant forested area.
Of course doing the researching and then designing the map are two different things. Fortunately there are a couple of great free resources that you can use to assist in designing your map. The first is Google Earth which is great for getting a topographical sense of terrain anywhere in the world.
The second resource is Gozzy’s random wilderness map generator. What I like about this random map generator is even on a map with a low foliage setting, there are still a lot of trees. That opens up the ability to make certain squares difficult terrain and to provide a great deal of cover. The generator also has the ability to insert a path, ruins, and water. This gives you a great deal of control about what will appear and you’re guaranteed a different map every time.
What experience have you had in designing tactical maps? Do you tend to overload your maps with terrain features or do you prefer a cleaner map?