How Do You Like Your Dungeon Maps?

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on July 15, 2011

Map by Dyson Logos


The Dungeon’s Master home group currently uses a rotating DM system. Each of us takes a turn and as we approach the end of our segment we cue who ever is on deck to get ready to take over in a week or two.

The rational for this is that none of us has the time to truly run a long term campaign and it allows each of us to take a turn being the DM. As players we experience different styles in encounter creation, story telling and pacing.

The aspect I’m enjoying is seeing what everyone does with their maps when their shot as the DM comes around.

There tends to be three strong choices that present themselves regarding maps at the table. These are Dungeon Tiles, pre-generated maps, and hand drawn maps. Let’s look at each of these and consider the pros and cons they provide.

Dungeon Tiles

Produced by Wizards of the Coast, these tile sets allow a DM to create a variety of different dungeon configurations.

Pros

Dungeon Tiles are colourful and come with different scenarios. So if you need a wilderness setting you can purchase that pack and create a variety of different encounters. You can also mix and match packs allowing for some very interesting creations and encounters. Difficult terrain is also marked on the tiles making this accessory ready to go right out of the box.

Cons

There is a cost to Dungeon Tiles. If you want them you or your gaming group needs to shell out for them. The price isn’t outrageous, but it is a consideration. A lack of pieces might be another issue, I know I’ve often wished for one more statue piece or 4×4 piece and not had it handy. The tiles also may present you with certain design limitations. Most of your rooms will have hard corners etc.

Pre-Generated Maps

By this I mean the maps that were intended for use with another game or adventure. The best example of these are the maps that Wizards produces for D&D Encounters. If you happen to DM one of these sessions you get to keep the maps. A great benefit for those considering the role of the DM for these sessions.

Pros

These are high quality maps, rich in colour and depth. Often featuring tactical and difficult terrain. These maps are a great way to impress your players who don’t participate in Encounters. Finally, they are free so long as you are willing to give of your time as a DM.

Cons

The maps are set, and you can’t change them. Which means if you use them you are either settling on a map that doesn’t fit your idea for the encounter 100% or you are modifying your encounter to match the map. There is nothing wrong with either of these things so long as you have seen the map ahead of time. One way that we’ve tried to overcome these issues is to start with the D&D Encounters map and then expand it with some loose dungeon tiles. This at least adds some new elements to the familiar.

Hand Drawn Maps

Usually on large graph paper, most DMs will draw these maps out ahead of time or between sessions.

Map by Dyson Logos

Pros

A hand drawn map conforms exactly to the DMs vision, after all he drew them. Talented artists might draw the map on the spot while laying out the narrative, something I personally always enjoy. It is almost like reading the narrative text in a video game while the next sequence loads. These maps are cheap, easy to produce and can be re-used for multiple sessions. Not a bad combination.

Cons

The maps can look rather cheesy if your DM doesn’t have an artistic flair. This isn’t to say don’t do it, just be aware. The time the DM has each week to allocate to map work will also determine if one week the maps receive the full colour treatment and the next week everything is in pencil.

For myself I like a blend between the three and that is what I tend to default to. Though I do slightly favour the Dungeon Tiles as I can at least customize the map with what I have. I’m no artist and I know it, so I tend to stay away from hand drawn maps. What are your preferences when it comes to the maps you use as a DM? As a player do you have a preferred way of having the action displayed?

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sully July 15, 2011 at 10:06 am

I just picked up GamingPaper.com’s MegaDungeon 1 pack, and I’m really looking forward to using the geomorphs there to build encounters. In fact, i just did a post about it over at packofgnolls.blogspot.com!

2 Amradorn July 15, 2011 at 10:51 am

Tiles mostly. I have thinking about investing in campaign cartographer for those times when I need something a bit more custom. In our last DnD Encounters session I used tiles to layout the crypt instead of using the pre-done map.

3 Benoit July 15, 2011 at 11:16 am

You missed computer based mapping (Dundjinni, Campaign Cartographer) – I used to use Dundjinni, though I haven’t loaded it on my new computer yet. I also like hand drawn, (which I guess Dundjinni is just a high tech version of).
Benoit´s last blog post ..Where to get Gamma World Miniatures: Wheeled

4 Geek Fu July 15, 2011 at 11:57 am

I was always a hand-drawn map DM. I received many compliments on the detail of my maps, but they just take too long to make well. Recently I’ve switched to the computer drawn maps. I use RPTools’ program Map Tools. It’s really easy to use and makes beautiful maps that can rival the pregenerated ones WOTC puts out. It doesn’t hurt that I have access to a 24″ wide printer now either.

5 Cedrick July 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm

The grid or battlemap wasn’t widely used before 3E. We we used minis, I constructed dungeon walls by setting up dominoes on their sides.

Dominoes are a cheap way to build 3D dungeons and I still use them sometimes. Only problem is that the dominoes are always falling over.

The biggest problem with battlemaps is that they cause players to think in 2 dimensions. My players rarely think about walls or ceilings anymore, or how the height of the room could factor into the situation.

6 Vance July 15, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I used Dunjinni for my first few encounters, but then I discovered papercraft terrain, and it’s been all papercraft for the last few years for me, with only a very occasional hand-drawn map if I’ve been too busy to put paper together. I mainly use stuff from http://www.fatdragongames.com, but I have a few other brands I use occasionally as well. You can go simple with 2D tiles (what I started with), or full out 3D, like I do now. It does take a little more prep work, but I (and my players) feel it’s totally worth it. And now that I have enough stuff built, I can make pretty much anything I want with very little effort.

7 Naz July 15, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Prior to 4e I had maybe used a map twice ever. When 4e rolled around, and I realized that combat relied more on being able to count squares and such, I went out and started getting tiles, and another thing I didn’t used to use, mini’s. Sadly I had missed many of the good sets, and I ended up paying some rather expensive prices for some of them.

I also purchased a couple of Piazo’s 2 sided glossy maps with a scene on one side and a blank slate of squares on the other. Grab a couple of dry erase markers and viola! pretty much any terrain you want, with the draw back that difficult terrain and such takes some time to make.

I’ve also made several Set Piece specific terrains, out of things like empty fabric bolts, paper mache, and various fish tank type props. While these are very cool, they take a rather crazy amount of time to make, especially the more elaborate ones, and are sadly almost exclusively a one time use thing, but it is well worth it seeing your players faces when you undrape one.

Finally this however. One of the members of my regular group recenly found a magnetic board that some with various small magnetic “Flags” that denote things like status effects, bloodied, and several other things. We used this map once, and instantly it has become our go to way of presenting most standard encounters. The map is dry erase, and tiled, and very handy, especially with the flags (and strong, a solo the party fought last week had about 6 effects active on it at one time and the little flag pole stayed up). I still use Dungeon Tiles, and set pieces for major plot battles and such, but for the day to day battles, this mat is great. Sorry I don’t remember the name of it, or the company that makes it at the momemnt, but it is great. I look forward to the next post! Keep up the great work.
Naz´s last blog post ..Our Current Campaigns

8 shyDM July 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I prefer using pre-made maps, usually. It can be difficult to find one that fits what I’m looking for, but ultimately I’m not a fantastic cartographer nor am I willing to spend much money on aids like tiles or computer programs.

We do have a gridded battle map for when I need to represent an area on the fly. I like drawing little maps on there, but I find that I just don’t have the sort of mind to add interesting set pieces to my dungeons, like terrain features (that can aid or hinder a battle) or scenery that expands upon what the party is currently investigating/exploring. To me those sorts of things are very important, so I’d rather let someone else design those elements and I’ll just adapt them into my game.

9 Keith Davies July 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm

My preferred mapping programs are Fractal Mapper (http://www.nbos.com/) and GIMP (http://www.gimp.org/). Fractal Mapper is the closest thing to the mapping program I would have built (which honestly would be closer to a GIS that knows how to make pretty pictures), while GIMP does the really pretty stuff that I like. Fractal Mapper is also much cheaper than Campaign Cartographer and has a much easier learning curve. GIMP is even cheaper (free!) but you’re back to raster techniques; it takes more effort, but I think the results are worth it.
Keith Davies´s last blog post ..Ability Damage in Echelon

10 Jaana July 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I always prefer customized maps to any printed ones. Even if the become only sketched … I just want to have free imagination. We are always playing on “neutral paper”, only some battlegrid on a whiteboard and they I draw the map according to the situation.

If it has to be quick, I use online generators like Ye olde Map Maker or software, that already adds encounters etc.
Jaana´s last blog post ..Rüstungen für Frauen erfüllen selten ihren Zweck …

11 Matt Gallinger July 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Dungeon Tiles are great… but you have to spend the bucks to get a full set of about a dozen different sets to pull off any variety. Don’t get me wrong, I use the tiles whenever I can but sometimes there’s just no capturing the essence of a room or series of rooms like a hand drawn map.

Not because you can’t find the right number of portcullis or broken sarcaphagi tiles but because if you start with a blank slate and ask your players to make the leap of imagination, you will have more luck sustaining the illusion than if you have to keep setting up more tiles.

With that said, if you have the right tiles and can build the dungeon, tile by tile, as your party explores… all the better. I’ve done this on several occasions while DMing Encounters when I had the right tiles. The players loved having the map built as they explored the basement below Vontarin’s Mansion.

But in other cases. asking players to take a leap of imagination to set the right tone is the right thing to do. If you are going to run an adventure set in a dungeon made of rivited metal plates instead of stone your players will appreciate it if you draw the map and use your narrative performance skills to capture the essence of the setting instead of relying on dungeon tiles that paint the wrong picture…

12 00Nein July 15, 2011 at 11:38 pm

I do a variety of things, including dungeon tiles, pre-generated maps, computer made maps, and hand-drawn maps, but one thing that I like to do from time to time is get the players to generate the map while I’m prepping the minis and what-not for the encounter. I’ll give some instructions like “Make a map that is fairly open and ricky, dotted with pits of different heights from 10-35 feet deep.” the group always designs a map that they like to play on, and it keeps me on my toes too. Anotherrhing I do is throw on stuff bought at model stores like trees to help the group think in three dimensions. Just a little sticky tack and they don’t fall over when a sleeve brushes them

13 Alphastream July 16, 2011 at 12:57 am

Looks like that second image is from PyMapper, which is a pretty cool tool for making maps with tiles.

14 Wimwick July 16, 2011 at 9:16 am

@ Everyone
Seems I’m late to my own party. My apologies for the late response, things have been busy at work and home. There has been some great feedback and insight provided by many on what works best. I won’t be addressing all the comments as there is some overlap.

@ Benoit
I actually deliberatly left digital or computer generated maps off the list. Mainly because I feel this is a subject that is worthy of it’s own post. I have used Dundjinni and Campaign Cartographer in the past and both are great programs.

@ Vance
Papercraft and some of the other 3D terrain is very impressive. The catch is it can greatly range in price and some of the sets give you a good one off dungeon, but unless you spend the cash you are limited in what you can create.

@ Alphastream
I actually got that second image from the WotC website in connection to a tool they released a long time ago. Dungeon Tile Mapper.

15 Chet July 16, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I like your drawing Ameron

>) When I played 1e the DM would tell us how many squares to map out in pencil on regular sized graph paper. Marching order and initiative was more important than exact spacing. We also searched rooms and hallways for traps and secret doors. Wandering monsters were more in play. So mapping a hallway was just as important.

>) As was mentioned, 4e is so reliant on visually tactical combat with minis, markers or tokens, you have to use 1×1 in square tiles, mats or maps for better or worse. Minis for adventurer’s aren’t too hard to come by. But specific monsters very hard. Some people use Lego men – yuck. Ironically, I use my imagination listening to the Gameplay Podcasts. The cost of petroleum and lower sales were factors in WotC dropping the minis skirmish game. their token approach is a good compromise. Putting names on the back of the tokens is better.

>) Here’s WotC 3.5 take on maps, tiles and proper use of minis http://tinyurl.com/6e583fm

>) I own a lot of the Minis tiles and some big fold out printed battle maps are useful. Here’s a gallery link someone posted http://tinyurl.com/64j6gsq

>) WotC has re-used some fold out maps posted in the Evard forum. Fantastic Locations The Frostfell Rift used for Evard’s Black Library. Mini’s Skirmish 2 Starter used for 4e Red Box Starter “Crossroads” and “Monster Lair”, Fantastic Locations “Dragondown Grotto” used for 4e H1 Keep on Shadowfell “A:4 Burial Site.”

16 Chet July 16, 2011 at 2:31 pm

>) WotC Tiles look great, but don’t fit like puzzle pieces so you have to be careful not to move them. You have to plan where to start them on the table. They could be placed on top of a 24×36 battle mat, which is a similar idea to the original Miniatures skirmish game. They can also be tacked down with craft Adhesive Tack or a sheet of stick shelf liner.

>) Homebrew
- Cut apart WotC printed maps and double-stick tape them to cut up cereal boxes, card stock, poster board or foam board to make homebrew tiles so the maps themselves are presented differently. In fact the Red Box shows the big map reconfigured into new dungeons
- Clear contact paper on foam sheets with permanent marker grid drawn on 9×12
- Photoshop scans

17 Chet July 16, 2011 at 2:32 pm

>) Battle Mats
- Chessex Reversible Megamat erasable battle map 34½’’ x 48’’
- Paizo Gamemastery erasable Flip-Mats 24“x30”
- Office supply store easle paper grid pads 25“x30”
- Dark Platypus Studio Magna-Map Combat Grid 2 Magnetically Receptive works with Alea Tools and Bendy Dungeon Walls products 24″x36″
- Gale Force Nine’s Official Dungeons & Dragons Game Mats with printed themes similar to tiles 20“x30”

>) Flat paper battle mats
- Gaming Paper
- Staples Easel pads
- Printing large maps onto letter sized paper to tile the large scanned image with Adobe Acrobat, Excel or Sourceforge PosterRazor
- Photoshop scans of tiles or the DMGuide tile page

>) Themed Mats & Maps
- The Gale Force Nine Products
- WotC Art & Map gallery http://tinyurl.com/qzhkj
- RPGNow Fantastic Maps | The fantasy maps of Jon Roberts
- The Cartographer’s Annual 2011
- Maps of Mastery

>) Mapping Software
– RPTools MapTool
- TTopRPG 2.0
- Fantasy Grounds II The Virtual Tabletop
- Sourceforge Gametable
- PyMapper using WotC Dungeon Tile Maps
- Dundjinni Mapping Software
- NBOS Software Fractal Mapper 8.0
- Battle Map for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad
- Masterplan by Adventure Design Studio
- WotC D&D Virtual Table (one of these days)
- Tabletop Projection
- Photoshop or GIMP

>) 3D Paper
- WotC old 2003 Foldup Paper Models Series
- E-Z Dungeons @ Fat Dragon Games
- rpgcentric Freebies
- Dwarven Forge 3D Miniature Terrain
- Fat Dragon EZ Dungeon Paper Gaming Terrain
- WotC Art & Map Gallery Archive http://tinyurl.com/qzhkjj

>) 3D Plastic
- Dwarven Forge
- Paizo Dungeon Life Bendy Cave & Dungeon Walls

18 Chet July 16, 2011 at 2:34 pm

None of those meant to be advertisements, btw. Strictly one’s I’ve bookmarked the past year. Hopefully it helps! Imagination rules though!

19 Sunyaku July 16, 2011 at 10:20 pm

As my home game evolves, I find the most effective system for me is to lay down a large, blank battlemat and then use tiles and premade maps as needed.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Lair Assault Will Kill You

20 Dyson Logos July 17, 2011 at 2:47 am

Obviously, my favourite is hand drawn maps – like the two shown in the article above.

Which I happened to have drawn.

(ahem – a little credit please – I allow blogs to use my maps, but I do ask that they be credited to me and to include a link to my own blog)
Dyson Logos´s last blog post ..[B/X D&D / Labyrinth Lord] More Diablo 2 Necromancies

21 Wimwick July 17, 2011 at 8:14 am

@ Dyson Logos
My apologies for the lack of credit. The maps are all now pointing towards their original post on your site with credit. The problem with random Google Image searches. :(

22 Dyson Logos July 17, 2011 at 10:34 am

All is cool. And indeed, I’m a big fan of hand-drawn maps.
Dyson Logos´s last blog post ..Effectively Using Music at the Gaming Table

23 Chet July 17, 2011 at 1:34 pm

That’s funny Dyson Logos I thought Ameron drew them since I always read the Encounters recaps so Wimwick I’m sorry I thought he wrote the article when I said “I like your drawing Ameron” lol I’m a graphic designer and like I said we mapped 1e games on graph paper with No. 2 or golf pencils. Dyson Logos I like your cross hatching filling in the negative space. Yet another blog/site to bookmark. Nice.

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