For many DMs, Dungeon Tiles have become a prominent mapmaking tool. With Set 1 first appearing back in August 2006, they're now featured as the basis for maps in RPGA, Dungeon Magazine, and published adventure encounters Tile sets have included crypts, corridors, and caverns. They've gone to the Underdark, and the Halls of the Giant Kings.
But how did they first come about? And where are they going next?
In this interview, we speak with Chris Perkins and Andy Collins on the beginning the Dungeon Tiles, as well as to Logon Bonner and Peter Lee about what's in store for them next.
Wizards of the Coast: Tell us about the genesis of Dungeon Tiles. How did the tiles originally come about? Were you looking to "solve" any issues with encounters and maps, fit a niche somewhere between battlemats and Dwarven Forge-style terrain pieces, or were you simply trying to create something new?
Chris Perkins: A bunch of folks in R&D were brainstorming ideas for useful D&D accessories, particularly stuff to make the DM's life easier, and the Dungeon Tiles idea just sort of rose to the top.
Andy Collins: At that time, there were a lot of different D&D play surfaces available, from blank battle mats to gorgeous-but-expensive resin models of dungeon terrain.
Chris: We were already producing large numbers of poster maps (in such products as the Fantastic Locations series), but the downside of a poster map is that it’s not customizable. Although we adore the Dwarven Forge-style 3D terrain pieces, we wanted to keep the price down and also make something that was easy to store and fairly quick to assemble and take apart.
Andy: We had also been producing 5-inch-by-8-inch tiles for the D&D Miniatures game that depicted dungeonlike environments. Some folks even tried to build dungeons from those tiles, but ultimately that was an unsatisfying experience.
We wanted something that captured some of the beauty and detail of actual models, but without the high cost. We could see that the building-block style of dungeon construction was also very popular and fun, so we took some time to figure out the sweet spot that provided quality and playability at an affordable price for the average gamer.
Chris: Jesse Decker (then the D&D development manager) took on Dungeon Tiles as a "pet project," urging other departments to buy off on the idea of configurable, high-quality cardstock tiles for less than ten bucks.
Wizards: In developing the tiles, how did their early design progress? Where avenues explored that didn't achieve what you wanted? How were initial tiles playtested, and what feedback did you receive from your playtesters?
Andy: We discovered two key "dead ends" that we discarded along the way, both for similar reasons.
The first was putting walls on the tiles themselves. Though this initially felt "right," we realized that adding thick black walls actually limited the utility of the tiles. If we imagined a 2-inch-by-8-inch dungeon-floor tile to be a "hallway" and put a wall along each side, the DM couldn’t then use that as part of a 4-inch-wide hallway (or a room). Instead, we determined that the table surface itself—the "white space" between your tiles would be the most effective walls.
The other discarded concept was to build an interlocking mechanism along the edges of the tiles—some combination of jigsaw-puzzle-style knobs and gaps that allowed the pieces to lock together. Again, though, this made individual tiles less useful, since they could only fit together in a limited number of ways. (We also worried that the locking parts would fray and degrade over time.)
Chris: Ultimately we went with flat sides and built our first product prototype. We knew that we needed five or six tiles to build a decent-sized dungeon complex, and we knew we’d get more mileage out of each tile by making it double-sided. The real trick was making the tiles thick enough to be sturdy and to cover them with a finish that had a rough texture so they wouldn’t slide too much. So we explored the cost of different cardboard stocks and finishes.
It took us a few sets to optimize the individual dungeon tiles, and we made several improvements along the way. For example, we decided later on that every door tile should have closed doors on one side and open doors on the other, so that the DM could just flip over the tile when the closed doors were opened. Seems like a simple enough concept, but it took a fair amount of playtesting to figure that one out.
Wizards: How did you decide what tiles to include in the original set? Were there tiles that you wanted to include but couldn’t, due to initial design concerns (and have these concerns since been solved)?
Andy: Our primary goal with the first set of Dungeon Tiles was to provide a generically useful array of dungeon-themed tiles that any DM would be able to use to build a variety of rooms.
Chris: We did the first two sets at the same time, and we knew from the start that they would be "generic" dungeon sets, with lots of blank tiles. We also tried to keep the number of tile sheets to a minimum. For this reason, we decided to keep the weirder tile shapes, such as curved walls, for a later set.
Andy: We intentionally restricted ourselves to a small list of sizes and shapes: partly to help the DM sort his new tiles, and partly because that helped us keep the product's price down (each different array of pieces on a sheet requires more up-front money to create the diecut that will stamp out that sheet). We knew that over time, we would increase the range of sizes and shapes: now, for instance, you can get 8x8 tiles, 3x3 tiles, diagonal walls, and (with Arcane Towers) even round tiles!
Wizards: Can you walk us through the process of designing a tile set?
Logan Bonner: At the start of the design process, the designer already knows what the theme of the set will be, and the set’s name. For instance, Halls of the Giant Kings was meant to include some big, giant-themed trappings. It was also the first "DU" set, so it needed to serve as a base set. That meant including plenty of blank tiles and standard dungeon dressing like magic circles, tables, and doors (giant-sized in this case).
We have a big stack of templates that show the different die cuts we use for Dungeon Tiles sets (and now there are PDFs to make it easier). While we often create new die cuts (like the circular walls for Arcane Towers), Halls didn’t need anything new. The designer simply draws out rough versions of the terrain to appear on the tiles (checking veeeeery carefully that the two sides match up correctly). After running it by people higher up the chain of command, we send it off to cartographer Jason Engle. We get review sketches and final art to make sure it matches what we wanted.
Wizards: How do you decide what tiles will be included in ongoing sets? Do you first develop a theme for the set, or do you have tiles in mind that await an appropriate themed set? Is there a balance you look to achieve in each set as far as including basic tiles versus specifically themed tiles?
Logan: Most of the tiles for each set are chosen by the designer while creating the set, based on a theme that’s already been decided. There are some exceptions. For example, I had the idea of a rope bridge that you could flip over to show damage, them take off the board to show it had been destroyed. It didn’t work thematically for Halls, but it made a lot more sense for Caves of Carnage, so Pete was able to use it there.
Peter Lee: There are two competing directions a set can take: flexibility and ease of use. A flexible tile set, which allows you to build any map imaginable, is more difficult to use. The most extreme example would be a tile set consisting of only one inch squares – you could build almost any dungeon imaginable, but it would be a huge hassle to use in play. The opposite end of the spectrum is the poster map – it's extremely easy to use, but it's not flexible as there is only one configuration. As Caves of Carnage is a cavern set, I first studied the previous cavern tile set, Lost Caverns of the Underdark. Lost Caverns is quite a flexible set, so I consciously went in the opposite direction to design something that would be easier to use.
The set came together with two realizations: the square is one of the easiest shapes to tile, and a cavern set needs a reason to have a bit of color. I was inspired by the ease of use of the 4x4 tiles in Lost Caverns as a tiling system, and once I realized that an underground river would add some much needed color to the set, the set started to take shape. The set in general has a wet side and a dry side, and each side of a tile is generally the mirror image of the other. This means if you’re sitting down with all the tiles in front of you and you see a tile you like but it has the wrong moisture content, you just need to flip it over to get the art you want. Most cavern corners in the set are on the 4x4 tile with the cut corner, so those are also easy to find. While you can’t create all possible cavern configurations with the set, what you can do is quick and easy – something important when a Dungeon Master is placing down tiles in the middle of a D&D session.
Wizards: Are there tiles you would still like to create, but are not yet able to due to design or other restrictions?
Peter: I love transition tiles that go from one art style to another, as it increases the utility of both sets. Jason Bulmahn designed some for Streets of Shadow, and I added in some more for Caves of Carnage. I’d like some transition pieces to the Dire Tombs art style, but I ran out of room in Caves of Carnage.
Logan: There are certainly broad categories that we aren’t sure will sell enough to merit entire sets (or at least, we don’t think they’ll be as useful as something else we could release in that slot). Some examples include big wilderness sets like deserts, underwater lairs, or ice terrain. One thing I’d love to have would be a set with big grass tiles and a ton of 3x3 trees, but that’s the sort of thing that would eat up most of your pieces with copies of the same thing over and over, so that’s logistically tricky.
Wizards: Will you ever reprint older sets, or otherwise look at reintroducing basic tiles into future sets?
Andy: We’re very aware that there are plenty of DMs out there trying to get their hands on some of the popular tiles from older sets. We’re investigating methods of keeping those tiles available to gamers, and we hope to nail down a plan very soon.
Wizards: Tell us about the relationship between 4th Edition encounter design and Dungeon Tiles. Do you engineer encounters with tiles now specifically in mind, or are tiles designed knowing the needs of most encounters… or a bit of both?
Peter: When designing sets, I don’t have specific encounters in mind, but I do imagine how I’d like to use the tile to create an encounter.
Logan: It’s a little of both. We’ve gotten better lately at making maps that work well with tiles. At some point, it’s just simpler to make maps that fit with tiles rather than doing new tiles that can accommodate more types of maps. For instance, would it really be that useful to make a set full of 3x5 hallways, or is it close enough that people can make do with 2x4 hallways? We want collections to be manageable and to include a bunch of new, interesting tiles, so it’s kind of a waste to try to reinvent the basics.
Wizards: Any advice for folks looking for good ways to store, organize and otherwise sort their collection of tiles? How do you, for example, use them in your games?
Peter: I store mine flat in drawers, organized by floor type.
Andy: I use inexpensive silverware trays (the kind that go into a drawer and hold your forks and spoons). I put the tiles in edge-down, so that I can flip through them quickly to find the ones I want.
Logan: I have a terrible system of organizing them. My little tiles are all just in a plastic grocery bag. I know Mike Mearls stores his in their original frames and keeps them on a bookshelf. I’ve thought about getting some slim cases and making foam outlines to store them, but that might be more trouble than it’s worth. I know plenty of people use little resealable bags.
Wizards: What tiles sets (or even specific tiles) do you envision for the future, either planned or would simply like to see one day? And what would be your sky’s-the-limit, ultimate tile set (printed on slate? magnetized sheet metal) be like?
Andy: As the tile-using community grows, I hope that we can afford to produce tiles that cater to narrower niches of utility: castles, volcanic caverns, swamps, extraplanar locations, and even tiles designed to support specific adventures.
Logan: I’d like a mansion/mastermind’s lair set, sort of a fancier dungeon. (We could stick a chandelier in there!) I’m a big fan of outdoor encounters, so I’d like more outdoorsy sets beyond just forests. I’d also like more vehicles. My ultimate set would really just big a ton of tiles with a nice box to organize them in. There are other products out there to satisfy the desire for fancy map-making. I like that Dungeon Tiles have a specific niche: a lot of variety and solid construction without a high cost.
Peter: I had the good fortune to design a single sheet of tiles for Chris Tulach in Organized Play for the DM Rewards Programs. It’s a couple of tiles that fit together to form a longship and a pinnace from Adventurer’s Vault. The art turned out awesome!
I’d like to break into more environments. Snow, swampland, planar locations like the Elemental Chaos. I can imagine a giant poster map of the Astral Sea where you could place tiles with astral skiffs or floating rocky platforms for excellent epic tier encounter locations.
I’d also like to see some larger tiles that can be used as the basis of a random dungeon. I have fond memories of Appendix A in the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide, and having a version of that where you have a couple of entry ways, hallways, and so forth would be a lot of fun for those sessions that you just don’t have the time to plan out.