RPG Surfaces

I’m trying to get back into playing Role Playing Games with some regularity. Remember, these are tabletop RPGs, not computer games. One of the things you have to consider as a Dungeon Master is how you want to help players conceptualize the location of their characters in relationship to the elements of the plot. I thought I would talk about a few of the methods that I’ve used over the years. It’s important to mention that all of these methods for showing character locations are completely optional. There’s no reason you can’t just sit down and talk through your encounters, using no miniatures or surfaces. In fact, I prefer this method for a number of RPGs. For a system like Fate Core, there’s little reason to bother with anything other than a quick sketch of the area so that players can point to where they want to go, and that’s only in certain circumstances like combat or exploration.

Wipe off surfaces and Poster sized grid paper

Cleric: It’s what’s for dinner!
(caption by Eric Burgess)

I own a few different surfaces that are meant to be used with wet or dry erase pens. I have a few Battlemats that I’ve had for years. This was the original reusable surface for gaming. Battlemats are a soft vinyl surface that feature grids or hexes of different sizes and you just draw on them as needed. Invariably, if you give the pens to your players, you will get some inappropriate doodles around the borderlands. Recently, companies like GameMastery have released products featuring rigid laminated maps, either in small half sheets or in large unfolding maps. I like the images on the maps, but I think they have limited uses. Also, if you have a nice laminated map of an alley that you use every time the players meet someone in an alley, it becomes a little silly. Wasn’t this the same alley we ducked into in the Secret City of the Undermeisters? Why do all alleys look the same in this dimension?

Using poster sized grid paper is one of my favorite methods, but it could get expensive over time I suppose. Go and buy a tablet of poster sized grid paper at an office supply store. You can have the players map out the dungeon or encounter region with markers and if you buy the one inch grid paper, they can place their miniatures directly on the map. Once you are done, you can peel off the paper and put it up on the wall until you need it again.

2D or 3D dungeon tiles

I have a ton of these high quality thick cardboard tiles from Wizards of the Coast. One of the things I like the most about these tiles is their variety. I can create just about anything with these and then use some of that sticky clay stuff to stick them to a large piece of black foam core. If you place another piece of foam core on top of the one with your dungeon, and clip them together with some binder clips, then you’ve got a dungeon surface that’s easily tossed in your vehicle to be taken to wherever you are playing. Really, the only thing I don’t like about these is tiles is also their variety. I have a ton of these things and they are double-sided. I have yet to figure out a way to store them. Every time I want to put something together, I have to spread them all out in front of me and start flipping them back and forth until I find the ones that I want.

Frank soon discovered the folly of bringing a pig to a knife fight
Frank soon discovered the folly of bringing a pig to a knife fight

I’ve only recently ventured into the very cool but rather expensive realm of three-dimensional tiles. When Dwarven Forge kickstarted their Game Tile line of lower priced 3D dungeon tiles, I decided to make the leap and fulfill the dreams of that 14-year-old me who always wanted something like this. I purchased the unpainted tiles and painted them myself, not due to the reduced cost but just because I like painting terrain. My first experience with 3D dungeon tiles was at Kublacon. That experience, along with the podcasts from Wizards of the Coast and Acquisitions Incorporated was the primary motivation in getting me back into playing RPGs. There is nothing quite like the experience of playing with 3D tiles. It adds a certain amount of excitement and a wow factor that can’t be achieved by any other means. The downsides are obviously the cost and some of the potential problems with set up. Like with the 2D tiles, you can place a dark cloth over the unexplored areas of the dungeon, but there is still the reality of dealing with such a large set up. It’s too heavy to mount it on a board like the 2D tiles, so you will either need to set it up in advance and leave it on the table or create it as the players move through the dungeon.

I never stick to a single method in a single session. Now that I have the 3D tiles, if the players are going into a dungeon, then I will probably just use those. If it’s likely that the players will be ambushed along a road, then I will probably prepare a surface using my 2D tiles. I usually have a Battlemat or some grid paper on the table just in case the players decide to do something unexpected, which they almost always do.

I know most of my readers are strictly boardgamers, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this if you have any experience with RPGs. Special thanks go out to Eric Burgess and Kevin Wing for participating in my first “caption this photo” thingy. Thanks guys! If you want in on future “caption this photo” thingys, you should visit Gameguythinks Facebook Page.


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