There are a lot of pros and cons to playing DnD online versus in-person, not least among those being the ease with which you can make and use grid maps. Most online TTRPG software centers around the map – a display of the world your players are in, gridded over with squares or hexes to guide character movement and interaction. One simply uploads a map, found online, or made yourself through a variety of mediums, and when finished stores it with the rest of your pdfs.
It’s a little harder with in-person gaming. Maps need to be bigger, for one thing, and you can’t simply copy-and-paste them onto a table like you can a browser. Luckily, there are plenty of options (as there are in most aspects of tabletop gaming) for you to choose from, in a variety of costs and complexities.
Some modules are sold in complete ‘sets’, that come with maps as well as miniatures, while others will give you small maps for you to either use as a Dungeon Master reference, or to create larger versions of to use as battle maps. Otherwise, its up to your own creativity to create a visual reference for your world.
Are Maps and Terrain Necessary to Play Dungeons and Dragons?
Being able to see the battlefield, to count the exact distance between enemies, and have reminders about the location of scene can be a great boon to players and Dungeon Master alike. But it’s hardly an absolute necessity to the game. If you don’t have the time or the money to put together a battle map, or battle terrain, for your players, that’s perfectly fine.
Simply verbally describing your battle, keeping track of the distances between your enemies and player characters, is enough to have a great combat experience.
Types of Maps and Terrain
If you’re making a switch from online to in-person play, this will be the most familiar option to you. Pre-made maps are just that: full-color illustrations of top-view topography, dissected with a simple grid so that you can arrange whatever miniatures or props that you have to your liking.
You can buy variety packs of these from your local game store (or even your local bookstore, if they carry DnD merchandise), or online. There are also printable versions available of the maps that you can find online, although getting those formatted correctly, and making sure you have enough surface area to your paper, can be tricky, especially if you want the squares to be a proper 1”x1” to use miniatures on.
Map squares are rather similar to maps, except that they’re like puzzle pieces of a larger image. You can mix, match, and mingle them to create a unique map for each circumstance that you’re in. There usually printed in the same manner as the previous maps, with top-down views of terrain of various kinds.
Map squares are a little harder to track down than whole maps, but your local game store can probably order some for you if they don’t already carry them. They’re a lot more versatile than full printed image, since you can use the same set to create any number of dungeons, wilderness, or city layouts. They do, however, require quite a bit more set up.
Battle mats are an extremely popular way of mapping, especially if your group requires a little less elaborate visual prompting. These large, roll-up mats are pre-printed with either square or hexagonal grids (or sometimes both, with one on each side), and a plastic surface that allows you to draw your own terrain in white board markers.
These mats are sturdy and can be reused for literally any terrain. That said, they don’t come with lovely artwork to immerse your players, nor really the space to draw your own. They do, however, last a great deal longer than cardboard or paper tiles and maps. Pretty much any game store will carry a few battle mats, and you can find board-game style folding boards printed similarly if you prefer such a set up.
If you prefer to get a little DIY for your materials, you can make your own as well! Simply measure and draw a 1” square grid on a large paper or posterboard, and cover with clear adhesive self-laminate. Most peel-and-stick laminates can be drawn on with dry-erase markers, although you might need to clean it off with wet wipes instead of a dry cloth. You can get everything that you’ll need at the dollar store, and it works just as well!
If you’re inclined to something much more elaborate, there’s also 3d terrain. These miniature dioramas are built to create a small display of the world around the miniatures that your players use. Some have grid markings, although they’re much subtler than the drawn lines of standard maps and mats, while others require you break out your tape measure to see how many inches apart your landmarks are.
Not every game store will carry terrain, although larger ones will. Most will come in small sets with landmarks, or you can order full dungeons online – many are made and marketed specifically for the game Warhammer, but those are plenty useable for any other TTRPGs as well. If you have a 3d printer, there are also plenty of free files out there for you to print yourself!
You can also DIY this! Foam, clay, and wooden sticks are all fairly common materials to craft your own three-dimensional landscapes, and you can find plenty of tutorials on how to make them look really great online.
If you have a favorite type of map or terrain, we’d love to know what it is! You can also buy terrain tiles and maps from D20Collective: HERE