How to Design D&D Encounter Maps

Hi, I’m Matt from Loke BattleMats and this blog is a little insight into how I conceive, structure and design maps! 

Matt is an award winning encounter map designer!

Categories

I’d like to start by categorising what the various types of maps used in RPGs are; World Maps, Regional Maps, Location Maps, Battle Maps and Challenge Maps.

  • World Maps – The highest-level view of a setting, such as a continent, planet map, solar system, magical plane etc.
  • Regional Maps – These are the maps that lay out the locations that player characters may visit in each region.
  • Location Maps – This type of map would show details of a location, somewhere the characters are expected to explore or interact with, but that doesn’t require a tactical scale.  
  • Battle Map – A map drawn in tactical scale and intended for use with miniatures/tokens to resolve structured events within a game, such as combat.
  • Tactical scale simply means the map is drawn to a consistent scale appropriate to tokens/miniatures that are used to represent characters. I use a 1-inch square grid, where each inch represents 5 feet (this is a common standard and works well with 28mm miniatures).
  • Challenge Map – A challenge map is a version of a battle map that isn’t drawn in tactical scale; instead it would use a more abstract layout to track a certain event in a game, like a chase scene.

Roll For Initiative!

We’re going to focus on the Battle Map category for this article. A battle map is likely required to facilitate Tactical combat, Skill challenges and/or Puzzle challenges, or for even more fun maybe all three!

Tabletop roleplaying had its origins in wargames and traditionally uses miniatures for combat encounters. This means that games need to use maps to plan and track these encounters, so the GM & players can clearly see range, line of sight, terrain, and many more factors which can affect actions, plans and traps!

When you have decided you need a map, there are several key considerations to go through before you put pen to paper or mouse to screen. Every encounter, group and game is different and you may want a map which is very specific, or one which you can use many times. Deciding these at the start will give you the structure for your map and ensure the result is practical as well as beautiful!  

Key Stages

There are some key stages to think about and work through, which I have tried to capture here. It’s a bit of a list but I like to be quite methodical. 

  • Why do you need a battle map?
    1. Tactical miniature/token encounters (Combat, Challenge, Puzzle etc.)
  • Is this for a specific encounter, set-piece location or for generic use?
  • Encounter Area/multiple encounters – is the map for a single or multiple encounters?
  • Consider the Theme
    1. Make a ‘mood board’ with reference colours and inspiration images
  • Viewpoint and perspective tilt (top down, isometric etc.)
    1. The choice of viewpoint will impact how a map is designed.

Design Considerations

You may have a dedicated gaming room with a huge boardroom style table, or you could be using half the kitchen table and working around snacks! You also know which monsters are likely to be appearing, and if you’d like tight spaces, open areas, or both. Remember if you’re designing a more generic map to make sure you don’t restrict yourself by adding specifics. For example, if I’m drawing a castle map I won’t include cannons as some games may not be set in that time period.

  • Choose what size the map will be. For this consider the table space, online size limits, size of the surface you’re drawing on, etc.
  • Consider the requirements for Players, Monsters, NPCs, vehicles etc. 
    1. Think of the encounter design here, make sure the map accommodates what you’re planning and can cope with the direction the players may take things…
  • Consider range; weapons, spells, movement etc.
  • Add features to grant tactical options
    1. Walls (actual walls or any other barrier to movement)
    2. Doors (or other elements to open/close areas)
    3. Furniture (actual or plants etc.)
    4. Bottlenecks
    5. Multiple paths
    6. Breaks in Line-of-Sight
    7. Cover
    8. Difficult terrain
    9. Skill challenges (jumps, climbs etc.)
    10. Hazards (lava, machinery, deadly plants etc.)
    11. Hidden Hazards (traps)
    12. Verticality (steps, platforms, cliffs etc.)
    13. Water (Rivers, lakes, sea etc.)
    14. Concealment areas 
  • Think about how the space would be used day to day and how it evolved to be whatever it is now. But I’d always recommend you sacrifice realism for usability and what looks cooler.
  • Interactions – what elements of the map could be interacted with
  • Negative/unusable space
  • Imagine a run through of how an encounter might play out on the map
  • Scale, a matter of Realism versus usability
    1. I keep some reference mini’s and terrain pieces to hand when drawing the final map so I can check things look to scale
  • Is the map going to be used with other assets? E.g. Stickers, 3d terrain, digital assets, vehicles, risers and so on.
  • Will the map change over time? (destroyed elements, fire, flooding etc.)
  • Does the map need to connect to other maps (interiors, higher levels etc).

Sketch it Out

You cannot beat a pen and paper. This is your top line sketch to give you a feel for the map’s scale and layout.

  • Start the sketch with the grid
    1. set tactical scale, e.g. 1” = 5’
    2. Squares or hexes?
    3. Gridded math workbooks or plain battle maps come in very handy here!
  • Use pencil and don’t put too much detail in at the sketch stage.

Making the Map

I use Photoshop, but at the end of the day that’s just an electronic pen and paper tool, so work with whatever you are comfortable with and have to hand! My next challenge for myself is to develop my Illustrator skills.

  • Setting up to draw
    1. Drawing tools (pen, Photoshop, mapmaking toolset…)
    2. Medium(s) for final map (paper, vinyl, cloth, book, online, 4k TV…) 
    3. File Size (consider table space, online size limits…)
  • Printing concerns (if the map is to be printed, set the specs first)

Photoshop Overview

I could (and may well) write an entire blog on Photoshop! All I will say is that layers are your friend!

  • Layers, layers and more layers
  • Textures, patterns and layer effects
  • Custom Brushes
  • Use the guide layout to make sure drawing to grid is accurate (switching Snap as required)

Tips

  • Hide the grid in natural elements of the map
  • Shadows, via a semi-transparent dark layer, are great for adding depth to elements.
  • Light, via a semi-transparent bright layer, can highlight elements. 
  • Build an asset library.
  • Avoid pattern repetition, try viewing a compressed image of your map to highlight.
  • Frequently check both 1:1 scale and a view of the full map.
  • Make notes of any settings or effects you may want to use again. You can create actions to do this.

Fin

The end result – physical vs digital. Of course if you’re playing online you will probably want a digital map at the end of the day, but there will always be a place for pen and paper maps. I draw maps all day on Photoshop, and I still have hundreds of full notepads around the house and spend far too much time with graph paper working out encounter areas!

At the end of the day, you don’t have to be an artist or Photoshop wizz to give it a go, and it’s a great fun process to go through.

Of course if you are a little pushed for time I would recommend a map book!

Matt Henderson
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