Solving the limitations of battle maps

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In “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons,” I wrote about how the widespread introduction of battle maps can improve the fun of combat encounters. Everyone knows where everything is. The game never gets bogged down with boring descriptions of layout and dimensions.Nonetheless, as much as the simple map avoids confusion, it suffers two weaknesses where I still search for improvements.


Elevation


Without 3D terrain, battle maps do a poor job of representing elevation, and cannot clearly represent rooms with multiple, overlapping levels, such as balconies.


When I create my own adventures, the limits of the flat map limit the kind of spaces that I imagine. So sometimes I work to break the constraints of the map. For example, I once ran a vertical dungeon, perched on walkways and platforms carved into—and jutting out of—a giant cliff. While this kind of environment can inject some fresh wonder into the game, I’m always annoyed when an encounter forces, say, a balcony into an essentially static combat. If an encounter adds the complexity of multiple levels, I want a dynamic encounter with characters on the move between levels, trading fire and flying around. If you have levels, force the characters to go to them before they clear the room.



I want to find some convenient brackets or holders that raise dungeon tiles over the battlefield as with my improvised balcony in the photo. Ideal holders would be compact enough to fit in my convention bag, but heavy enough to stay put. Do any MacGyvers out there have suggestions?


Lighting and visibility


Someday, I hope we all have touch-sensitive, electronic battle maps that sense and track the presence of a particular miniature in a particular spot, and automatically reveal the parts of the cave that that the players can see. Until then, dealing with lighting and line of sight is a chore that I too often gloss over. Some methods help. You can reveal the map as the players explore, either by lifting coverings, laying new tiles, or just drawing as needed. However, in a big battle, where some combatants lurk in the darkness, the matter of tracking who sees what becomes unwieldy.  When is lighting and visibility worth the trouble of tracking? Does anyone have any tricks for handling lighting and visibility?


Dave
      (You might also like my Secrets to storing and retrieving D&D miniatures)
My secret to lighting and visibility is to largely ignore it.  However, that advice while helpful if you want to adapt that playstyle is not helpful if you'd like to still care about those things so I will offer some additional alternative advice.

Let the players keep track of it.

This is the easiest way of keeping track of who can see what, but requires some extra trust to the players.  Let them figure out who has the light source what their vision is and based on the light source.  For additional sources of light inform the players up front about the light it provides and likewise make them keep track of it.    


Until there is a battle just use descriptions

You don't need a battle map until their is an actual battle.  In this approach you have a map in front of you and you describe things detailed enough for players to navigate that map.  This usually means that one of the players will have to keep a piece of graph paper so the party can make a map of their own.  Or you can do them a favor and just keep some extra paper and draw approximations of where they have traveled from.  

Don't use a map unless their is a "real" battle.

If the players are encounter a single scout for a group of  then perhaps you don't even need to draw the map, and you can just describe combat.  Granted, this does have some disadvantages but if we make some generous assumptions about positioning and additional rules than it can work out just fine.           

Use blocks or cups to add height when needed, or a seperate map.

Sometimes the easiest way to track elevation is to not actually use an elevated feature, and bring a seperate map.  Unfortunately this does create the issue of having to figure out where they are above the other minatures, however it works well for seperate floors.  For flying in the same room you could use a block to set a minature above the others, but I find it a bit easier to use some small clear plastic cups that way if people want to move under the model they can.


Sorry if my advice seems a little scatter brained, but these are just some of the musings I had off the top.   

       
I want to find some convenient brackets or holders that raise dungeon tiles over the battlefield as with my improvised balcony in the photo. Ideal holders would be compact enough to fit in my convention bag, but heavy enough to stay put. Do any MacGyvers out there have suggestions?

- Combat tiers
- Modeling clay
- D&D tiles 3-terrain (Harrowing Halls)
- D&D tiles box (or other boxes: especially if they fold up)
- Terraclips
- Legos (3 pips = 1")
- Halo boardgame pieces
- Solo cups
- Plastic Pizza saver stands: with a bit of clay on top to make them stick to things. Also work as flight stands.
In “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons,” I wrote about how the widespread introduction of battle maps can improve the fun of combat encounters. Everyone knows where everything is. The game never gets bogged down with boring descriptions of layout and dimensions.Nonetheless, as much as the simple map avoids confusion, it suffers two weaknesses where I still search for improvements.

A mapless game only becomes bogged down in boring descriptions in layout and dimensions if the DM is the sole proprieter of that information. As soon as players' brains are engaged to help provide detail, and their ideas are accepted and added on to, there's never another "wrong" answer to questions about those details - which, more often than not, don't need a great deal of detail anyway.

If an encounter adds the complexity of multiple levels, I want a dynamic encounter with characters on the move between levels, trading fire and flying around. If you have levels, force the characters to go to them before they clear the room.

"Force" them? "Clear the room"?

Someday, I hope we all have touch-sensitive, electronic battle maps that sense and track the presence of a particular miniature in a particular spot, and automatically reveal the parts of the cave that that the players can see. Until then, dealing with lighting and line of sight is a chore that I too often gloss over.

Do you find the gameplay suffers significantly from glossing these things over? I gloss them over constantly and don't notice any downsides, but the speed and ease of this approach would greatly overshadow most downsides I could imagine.

When is lighting and visibility worth the trouble of tracking?

Never. If something is difficulty to see, allow the players to know where they are and represent the advantages of darkness mechanically.

I've tried various methods of representing light sources and elevation and they're simply not worth it in the long run. I'm not one for completely gridless combat, in most cases, but the way forward is toward less physical mapping, rather than more.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

When is lighting and visibility worth the trouble of tracking?

Tracking lighting is almost never worth it. Just assume that the players have plenty of Everburning torches.

Tracking visibility and Line of Sight on the other hand should become second nature, as it matters for targeting purposes. Rogues that routinely want to hide (which is not easy) need to know how to do this. Some DM tips:
1) Improved cover almost never occurs
2) If it looks like a creature has partial cover, then they likely do.
3) Full cover should be pretty obvious. When in doubt, draw the lines.
4) Lurker type creatures often start combat hidden (so don't place them on the map), but they will have a difficult time rehiding (without some special ability, like invisibility), so best to leave them on the map once they appear.
Elevation is easy; put a die next to the character token with the number showing as the number of squares above map level the character is.  For stuff like balconies or elevated platforms, just write on the map how high they are (perhaps make them a different color to draw attention to the fact).

And I agree with mvincent.  Tracking lighting is just a pain in the butt and not worth the effort.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
There is a wonderful set of clear standies that represent invisible minis, and it comes with stands for flying monsters that grip the std 1" bases, and makes it possible to stand another mini underneath or (more often) the die indicating height.

Need stands for you maps? May I suggest Foam-core board. Cut the stands you need from the side, maybe hot-glue into a T shape so that it stands better, and they can store pretty flat in your bag. And, the larger piece of foam-core can be used as small map pieces. Just draw in the lines (I suggest a T-Square from any good art or office supply shop--any where you can still buy drafting materials).
comes with stands for flying monsters that grip the std 1" bases, and makes it possible to stand another mini underneath

Link?

Sorry, I'm not the one that bought them. I'll try to find out.
Sorry, I'm not the one that bought them. I'll try to find out.

Ah. I believe you are likely refering to:
Gamemastery Flight stands &
Gamemastery invisible character pack
They are two separate products, but same manufacturer (Litko). GF9 also makes invisible miniatures and many manufacturers (including Litko) make other flight stands, but I hadn't realized that this version had a spot for a miniature underneath. Thanks!

The only problem is that they are a little fragile.
I've had to super-glue them (with a little baking soda to firm it up).
Unfortunately, that does fog up the clear plastic.

I've just finished casting molds so I can create epoxy copies.
I second the recommendation for Gamemastery Flight stands, also know as flying figure stands from Litko game accessories.

I used to have trouble representing flying creatures at the table. Players constantly had to ask which creatures were in the air, and who could attack who. The stands solve this problem for medium creatures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. Fourth edition’s non-Euclidian geometry simplifies flight, because flyers can rise or descend one square of elevation for each square moved across the map.The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform. The stands are fragile, so keep them in a box.

Dave from dmdavid.com
A mapless game only becomes bogged down in boring descriptions in layout and dimensions if the DM is the sole proprieter of that information. As soon as players' brains are engaged to help provide detail, and their ideas are accepted and added on to, there's never another "wrong" answer to questions about those details


I don't mean to suggest that going mapless means the DM must keep everything in his head, while the players ask permission for every move. In a mapfree game, each player at the table bears a burden for staying engaged, and communicating their character's place in the game world to everyone else at the table.

Plenty of players enjoy play a fast and loose narrative style, where the story of the combat matters more than tactical nuances. If everyone at your table enjoys that style, forget the map.

Also, I'm happy to see that the D&D Next designers understand that not every combat needs a map, and that the game doesn't need to encourage every combat to assume a scale that merits a map.

"Force" them? "Clear the room"?

I've run many adventures in an organized play environment, where the author lovingly crafted an interesting setting for a combat encounter, complete with multiple levels, and cool terrain features. Too often, the players all stand bunched up near the entrance until all enemies are defeated. They might as well have fought in a 20x20 room. I encourage DMs and adventure authors to find ways to motivate the players to move around the setting as the battle rages.

I rarely feel that gameplay suffers when I ignore lighting, so I do it all the times. So I'm pleased to learn that I'm not alone in glossing over it. D&D rules traditionally devote much time and attention to lighting, but that exaggerates its place in the game.
Dave from dmdavid.com
I don't mean to suggest that going mapless means the DM must keep everything in his head, while the players ask permission for every move. In a mapfree game, each player at the table bears a burden for staying engaged, and communicating their character's place in the game world to everyone else at the table.

Even that I'm not sure of. Positioning really matters only very rarely,

"Force" them? "Clear the room"?

I've run many adventures in an organized play environment, where the author lovingly crafted an interesting setting for a combat encounter, complete with multiple levels, and cool terrain features. Too often, the players all stand bunched up near the entrance until all enemies are defeated. They might as well have fought in a 20x20 room. I encourage DMs and adventure authors to find ways to motivate the players to move around the setting as the battle rages.
This can be done, but I've rarely seen the work but in to accomplish it pay off to much of a degree.

Alternate goals help somewhat, I've found, and don't require much map design.  Last session, my characters had to get from one end to the other in a succession of rooms, with the monsters trying to stop them or accomplish other specific goals, such as killing the prisoner they had with them. There was very little interesting terrain in the rooms, but the PCs definitely had to move, and killing all of the enemies wouldn't necessarily have helped them.

Alternate goals for the enemies can make it less likely that the monsters will just meet the PCs in the middle and stand there. If the alternate goal is important enough, the monsters might have to disengage in order to accomplish it, forcing the PCs to chase them if they want to win.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

We're moving generally back to the abstract combat system.  It seemed over the years the players brains had become more focused on 5' steps (sorry for my archaic terminology), than on trying to think outside the box.

That said of course, we've done everything under the sun for elevation, etc.  Our most common things are:  clear dice containers for elevated creatures and "dice marking 5'" when people are "out of range". 

jh

Gamer Chiropractor - Hafner Chiropractic 305 S. Kipling st,Suite C-2, Lakewood, Co 80226 hafnerchiropractic.com

We're moving generally back to the abstract combat system.  It seemed over the years the players brains had become more focused on 5' steps (sorry for my archaic terminology), than on trying to think outside the box.

That said of course, we've done everything under the sun for elevation, etc.  Our most common things are:  clear dice containers for elevated creatures and "dice marking 5'" when people are "out of range". 

jh

You know, I've heard several DMs talk about "zone combats" as a sort of halfway point between "combat grid" and "theatre of the mind". The idea is for there to be distinct zones, each with unique traits, that PCs can transition between with one ormore move actions. The relationship of these zones might be sketched out on paper (not to scale), and PC minis/markers placed on their current zone to keep track.

For example, if you have a fight in a dwarven golem-works, you might have five zones, with lines between representing which connect to which, and DM notse explaining conditions/features of each zone:
1. Furnace and Boiler Room
2. Hall of Golems
3. Catwalk
4. Room of Golem Control Crystals
5. Big Turning Gear 

Has anyone rune a "zone combat"? How'd it go? 
We're moving generally back to the abstract combat system.  It seemed over the years the players brains had become more focused on 5' steps (sorry for my archaic terminology), than on trying to think outside the box.

That said of course, we've done everything under the sun for elevation, etc.  Our most common things are:  clear dice containers for elevated creatures and "dice marking 5'" when people are "out of range". 

jh

You know, I've heard several DMs talk about "zone combats" as a sort of halfway point between "combat grid" and "theatre of the mind". The idea is for there to be distinct zones, each with unique traits, that PCs can transition between with one ormore move actions. The relationship of these zones might be sketched out on paper (not to scale), and PC minis/markers placed on their current zone to keep track.

For example, if you have a fight in a dwarven golem-works, you might have five zones, with lines between representing which connect to which, and DM notse explaining conditions/features of each zone:
1. Furnace and Boiler Room
2. Hall of Golems
3. Catwalk
4. Room of Golem Control Crystals
5. Big Turning Gear 

Has anyone rune a "zone combat"? How'd it go? 

I sort of have. It's the standard approach from Spirit of the Century and probably other Fate and Fudge games. It hadn't occurred to me to give zones different aspects, but that's a great idea. Their main function is just to separate combat a bit. You can shoot, punch, or hit anyone in your zone. You can shoot someone in another zone. Particularly long-range weapons can hit someone two more more zones away. Moving (or moving someone else) to another zone takes some effort, but you can move pretty freely within your own zone. Zones sometimes have barriers that require even more movement. I should explore this further.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy