Behind the Screen: Regarding Battle Mats…

2007 October 6
by Dante

Let me begin this post by being very clear: as a rule, I generally dislike battle boards/mats/etc. I find them too time intensive to use “on the fly” and I have difficulty with matters of scale when forced to draw a scenario quickly. Most of our encounters happen on the road or in the wilderness, and drawing a believable landscape quickly is often problematic. Instead of using these products, I would prefer to describe the battle scenario (“you have three bandits surrounding you to fight, to your left you can see two more in the bushes”) and allow the players their own input.

If only it was this easy every time!

This week I had a chance to set up an encounter in a closed location. We have one player that is more visual than most, and he often requests a description or quick drawing of the ensuing battle. I grabbed the battle mat, drew out the room (it was a small room with a dias for giving a speech and some benches, so it it was easy) and away we went. It went much better than I expected, and the visual layout actually brought the characters more into the details of the battle which was nice. It did take considerably longer than I like to spend to keep it updated and move my bad guys around (there were many of them), so that part remained an annoyance.

Several years ago, we bought some “Dungeon Stamps” from Green Dragon Studio, These are extremely cool, they are small rubber stamps that represent common dungeon objects, such as crates, rocks, and other goodies.

By the time I would remember that I had them, the encounter was over and inking the stamps and laying them out tended to take quite awhile. The results were always extremely cool when we would decide to use them, but the added time investment in laying things out was almost always too much to bear and keep the session moving. As a result, we never really took to using them regularly.

You Tell Us: How do you use battle mats?

How do you handle performing DMing duties using a battle mat, and how do you handle drawing a suitably detailed wilderness environment on the fly? Are there any neat products or techniques that help expedite this process?

6 Responses leave one →
  1. ChattyDM permalink
    October 6, 2007

    I bought each and every D&D Miniature gorgeous color Battlemaps and a few of Paizo’s Gamemastery ones.

    It cost me a bundle so I use them all, all the time. I create my scenes with the maps in mind.

    To save time, I stack all the maps I intend to use in one evening and hide them underneath a large blank Vinyl Battlemap. As a fight comes, I tell the players to move their crap a bit and the take out the map from underneath and Voilà! Instant setting. We all love it.

  2. ben.c permalink
    October 6, 2007

    This is a very interesting subject, and already, I’m giving those stamps the eye, and considering picking up a few extra mats so I can draw up maps in advance. This would definitely speed things up during the game.

    Personally, I use maps for every fight, not to mention a lot of cases where the players are expecting a fight (such as when they were sneaking through the corrupt mayor’s manor).

    I actually find that I can fudge outdoor scenes a lot easier and quicker than interiors. I just try to think in advance what sort of features there will be (e.g. a road, a cliff, a campsite, etc.), and start with those, then fill in the in-between bits with trees, undergrowth, and so on as needed. I use very abstract symbols and don’t bother lining things up with the grid lines, preferring instead to make judgments on the fly about what squares characters can be in and what grants cover.

    For interiors, I’m bad enough at fudging things that make sense that I usually have my maps drawn up in advance, though I’ve found that having only a general sketch speeds things up, so I’m not counting out squares while I draw during the game.

    Honestly, it still takes more time than I like, though I have a pretty chatty group, so often this time is spent during one of our breaks. As I said, I think I’m going to try to draw up maps in advance, so we can spend more of our play time playing.

  3. Dave The Game permalink
    October 6, 2007

    I’ve never had a problem drawing battlemaps on the fly, even with my atrocious art skills. But I’m totally into the Dungeon Tiles put out by WotC (and for certain situations, the Paizo tiles.) Like Phil, I tend to build encounters around the stuff I have. When prepping for a game, I put the tiles I’m going to use in a small box so that they’re ready. It isn’t always as organized as it should be, but it works!

  4. Dante permalink
    October 6, 2007

    Good stuff, guys! I’m not generally an “in the details” type planner, so getting outside the box and trying to actually plan some mapped out encounters might be a fun change of pace for me.

    Keep the good ideas rolling in! 🙂

  5. David permalink
    October 7, 2007

    I don’t get to DM that often, but as a player I LOVE the use of miniatures on a well thought out map. This scenario leaves very little to guess work, i.e. “Does my enemy have cover? Is he engaged in combat? Do I have flanking?” It’s all spelled out for me on the map, I am able to make quicker decisions regarding the battle and my characters action. I also find it allows me to plan for my next turn in advance so as to not waste the time of my mates asking redundant questions.

  6. Robert permalink
    October 8, 2007

    I should start of saying that I usually DM my own kids, aged 9 & 7.

    For outdoor setting in particular I draw the road or track and that’s about all. Then I like to throw a handful of green Duplo blocks onto the map to represent bushes and trees and the like, some blue for boulders, a quick multicoloured wall to represent a cliff face and so on.

    For indoors we build some rooms beforehand and I use them on the fly as we go, straight on top of the battle map. It can be interesting to use the rooms diagonally to the battlemap.

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