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Map Fu
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.



MONDAY NIGHT. The heroes infiltrate the martial district of Io'calioth, capital city of the Dragovar Empire, and storm the fortified manor of Colonel Arzan, an evil dragonborn soldier who's secretly harboring a tiefling crime lord. They attack while the colonel is away, slaying the crime lord and snatching her corpse, but not before she summons a pair of pit fiends to defend her. Believing they have accomplished their mission, the party's main striker and defender decide not to face the devils and instead flee the scene by phasing through the walls, leaving the other party members to their own devices and allowing the pit fiends to gain the upper hand. The remaining characters find their means of egress cut off as the devils use their considerable might and intelligence to corner and crush them one by one.

T o prepare for the attack on Colonel Arzan's estate, the player characters procured blueprints of the fortified manor. Thus, it seemed like a good idea to render the three-level manor on a wet-erase battle map so that the players could get "the lay of the land" and plan their assault.

While dungeon tiles, printed poster maps, 3D terrain, and other kinds of prefabricated mapmaking tools are helpful on occasion, my preferred medium for displaying tactical maps is the wet-erase battle map. I find the blank, gridded canvas extremely versatile, allowing me to create encounter locations that aren't easily replicated by other means.

There are some drawbacks to wet-erase battle maps:

A. They take up considerable space on the game table. Since I run my games at work in a fairly spacious conference room with a large table, this isn't really a concern for me (although, it's worth noting, with eight or nine players around the table, that conference table isn't as big as I'd like it to be sometimes).

B. It takes time to draw a half-decent map on a wet-erase battle grid, particularly if you're like me and make mistakes and need to dab a damp towel on the map occasionally to correct a drawing error.

C. A quickly drawn or poorly rendered battle map can add very little to the play experience. You'd almost be better off drawing the map on your forehead without using a mirror!

There are dry-erase products similar to canvas battle maps, from laminated posters to oversized plastic jigsaw puzzle pieces that fit together to form a map board, and they provide not only excellent "creative canvases" but also have the added virtues of being easy to modify and erase. However, I like to draw my maps ahead of time rather than during the session, and I find maps drawn on these laminated or jigsaw surfaces smudge too easily for my tastes. When I lay out a map before my players, I want to conjure a specific reaction—not one of disappointment, but of awe. That's hard to pull off if the players are actually sitting around the table, watching you draw a straight line or, worse, a circle!

When it comes to wet-erase canvases, I've drawn enough tunnels, chambers, statues, staircases, alcoves, railings, fireplaces, and rubble over the years to become quite proficient in the medium, and I have a few tiny tricks that might be of interest to you. I find that it's the little flourishes that really help to make my maps stand out, and they don't take as much time as you might think.

Map Tricks

To help illustrate some of my teeny-weeny map tricks, I took snapshots of the battle maps currently rolled up on my DM cart. The locations shown here are snippets from several different maps created for several different adventures, and some of them are quite old. Some were drawn hastily in a matter of seconds, others in a matter of minutes. They are all "final" versions (i.e., not works in progress). When I draw a map prior to a game session, I quite often leave off details until the PCs actually explore the area, at which point I add furnishings and whatnot, and I sometimes make additions and alterations to a map when the features of a location change. What you're seeing here is how the maps ended up looking when all was said and done. Alas, I don't have versions of the maps as they appeared at the beginning of each session, so you'll have to take my word that what I'm saying is true.

Trick #1: Rubble comes in two sizes.

When I draw rubble, I first create rough circles to represent the big chunks, and then I fill in the gaps with some hasty "stippling" (dots). It looks more time-consuming than it is, but it gives the rubble texture.


Trick #2: Rubble is the easiest kind of terrain.

If you don't know how to fill a space, use rubble. It adds easy yet tactically interesting terrain to any encounter, and its presence is easily explained. When drawing the big chunks, try not to make any two exactly alike. It lends the map a great deal of verisimilitude, and it's easier done than said.


Trick #3: Cliffs fill squares, and they have forks.

When I draw cliffs, I let them fill up entire squares (because they are, in effect, terrain). The fewer squares "thick" they are, the steeper they appear. The great thing about cliffs is that they look best when the lines aren't straight. Every few cliff lines, I add a "fork" (like a fork of lightning) to help distinguish them from steps. The forks also give the cliffs a naturally chiseled look.


Trick #4: Minimal furnishings are ideal.

I don't waste time drawing all of the contents in a given area. Minimal furnishings provide clues about what's important. A bed in the middle of a room tells my players it's a bedchamber. A spiral staircase in a corner gives the players hints about where their characters can go. If they ask me what else these rooms contain, I tell them (and add detail as needed), but I like having lots of empty squares for monster minis!


Trick #5: I don't believe in using empty rectangles, and railings are just hollow walls.

This map illustrates a couple tricks: (1) I never use empty rectangles to represent items within a room. They provide no information could be anything, which is why I don't use them. Want to turn a nondescript rectangle into a table? Just fill it with wobbly lines to represent the wood grain. (2) When I treat railings as "hollow walls," my players never have trouble figuring out what they are.


Trick #6: Build battlements starting with the corners.

Here's a map of a rooftop battlement. First I draw the inside line that defines the overall shape of the roof. After that, the battlement is built thus: (1) Always draw the "corner blocks" first. (2) Then draw a block over each gridline so that it straddles two squares. (3) Add a block between each of the ones you've already drawn. (4) Connect the blocks with a thinner double line to complete the battlement.


Trick #7: Cross-hatching is great for filling in "dead space."

Nothing is better than cross-hatching for filling dead space and defining the edge of a wall, and hastily drawn cross-hatching is better than none. It adds a couple minutes of extra time to the mapmaking process, but the results speak for themselves.


Of course, these map tricks can apply to pretty much any hand-drawn map, regardless of the surface upon which it's drawn. Hopefully DMs of all experience levels will find one or more of these quick tricks helpful. If I learn any new ones, I'll be sure to pass them along.

Lessons Learned

If you do a Google search on "battle maps," you'll discover some pretty cool blogs that compare different kinds of dungeon-building tools, including wet-erase and dry-erase battle maps, dungeon tiles, 3D terrain, and whatnot. Ultimately, you must choose the map medium that works best for you (and the dungeon in question), but there's something to be said for the simplicity and artistry of a hand-drawn map. While it's true I have a steady hand and can draw a decent circle, I'm no artist. I rely on little tricks such as these to fool my players into thinking otherwise.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Last Week's Poll Results

How would you like to end your current campaign?
With a big end-of-the-world scenario. (This is 2012, after all.) 384 19.4%
With a big fight. 356 17.9%
By tying up all the loose ends, then sticking a fork in it. 339 17.1%
With a teaser for the next campaign. 275 13.9%
With the PCs ascending to godhood—lord help the multiverse. 151 7.6%
Whatchu talkin' about, Perkins? My campaign NEVER ENDS! 143 7.2%
With lots of meaningful character deaths. 96 4.8%
With pizza and cupcakes and beer. 92 4.6%
With a flash-forward to show my players what miserable old people their characters turned into. 55 2.8%
Abruptly, without fanfare. 34 1.7%
By flying away on my umbrella like Mary Poppins. 30 1.5%
With lots of ignominious character deaths, to punish my players for the hell they put me through. 29 1.5%
Total 1984 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #51A

 Hey DMs: How often do you use wet-erase battle maps when running your D&D games?  
Always.
More often than not.
Occasionally.
Never.

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #51B

 Hey DMs: How would you rate your wet-erase battle map fu?  
My map fu is best.
My map fu is second best.
My map fu could use more fu.
My map fu is weak.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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