by Mike Shea on 9 April 2012
Note: This article has been updated from the original article posted 3 August 2009.
Today is a glorious day to run D&D games. Long gone are the days of yellowed graph paper as the only option for encounter maps. Now we have options beyond counting, ranging from simple wet-erase poster maps to complex dungeon tile systems. We have systems light enough to carry in an envelope or heavy enough to require a U-Haul. Good encounter maps can be as cheap as a Starbucks coffee or expensive as a used car. Today we compare and contrast the most popular options for your Dungeons and Dragons battle maps.
By far the most economical option for quality maps, the Paizo dry-erase poster map is my favorite multi-use battle map. It's high quality, durable, flexible, light-weight, easy to pack, and cost-effective. It accepts wet or dry erase markers and the two sides, one light brown and one light stone, work well for either overland or dungeon encounters. This is the best single option for drawing your own maps. This option, however, sacrifices immersion for flexibility. A hand-drawn map doesn't have the artistic detail of a pre-printed map or the immersion of 3d terrain. At $11 for such a flexible system, they are the best single option available. Every good DM should have one of these.
Published poster maps by Wizards of the coast are my favorite option for immersion and ease of use. Each large two-sided poster map has excellent artwork and detail, drawing your players into the environment.
Recently released map packs include three double-sided poster maps for $12. A great deal for some quality maps. The D&D Starter Set, Dungeon Master's Kit, Monster Vault, Monster Vault 2, and Gardmore Abbey adventure also include some excellent maps if you happen to purchase the products.
Older poster maps aren't always easy to buy. Some come in out-of-print Fantastic Location map packs while others come in published adventures. For these out-of-print maps, you might have to pay up to $10 a map, which is a bit expensive.
You might think that these pre-printed poster maps have a limited number of uses but changes to the flavor of your encounter, changes to the environmental effects of the map's features, and even a simple re-orientation of the map gives them a lot of utility. You might even take the advice of Dave "The Game" Chalker and build your adventure around the maps you have on-hand.
Poster maps also save you considerable time. Instead of monkeying around with Dungeon Tiles or printing your own custom maps (ink costs alone make this an untenable option), you can spend your time on more useful endeavors like your game's NPCs, and the seeds that drive your player characters.
Building a portfolio of poster maps will run you between $2 to $6 a map, a good bargain for such detailed and useful maps.
For all of these poster maps, I highly recommend the large acrylic sheet. This large sheet sits right over your poster maps, protecting them from wear and leaving a perfectly smooth surface for your miniatures. You can also draw areas of effect, monster defenses, or anything else right on the map without worry. You can often pick these up at Home Depot or other home improvement stores.
Though more expensive than the WOTC poster maps, the Paizo Gamemastery Flip Mats have a wide variety of choices. Unlike the paper maps, you can write right on them with a wet or dry erase marker. They offer the same great level of immersion as the printed poster maps but with a higher durability and higher cost. Each double-sided map runs about $12.
Designed by a few different companies and running about $20, the wet-erase battle mat has been a staple in tabletop RPG games for years. They offer a flatter surface than fold-up dry-erase mats but require the use of wet-erase pens. Any other marker will permanently stain the mat. Like the blank flip maps, these offer a great deal of flexibility but lack immersion. For some great tips on using a wet-erase map, read Chris Perkins's Map Fu. Personally, I prefer the Paizo blank flip map since, when folded, it fits nicer into a small folio than a roll-up tube and it doesn't matter what sort of marker you use on it.
For over six years, Wizards of the Coast has published punch-out cardboard Dungeon Tiles. Most recently, they have published three Dungeon Tile Master Sets including the Dungeon, City, and Wilderness sets.
Though I've tried using dungeon tiles for years, I never had a lot of luck with them. Because they're two-sided, it's hard to see all the potential tiles in front of you all at once. If you're looking for a particular tile, you have to flip them all over. Many sets lack large pieces so you end up messing around with a thousand small pieces instead.
While a sheet of black poster board and some poster putty can help you set up layouts ahead of time, they still take significant time to set up. That's time you could instead spend building better encounters, enriching NPCs, or developing your story. They also don't have the same level of flexibility as a free-form blank poster map or the ease of use of a pre-printed poster map.
For these reasons, I don't recommend dungeon tiles. If you find yourself using them, consider my dungeon tile tips.
Dwarven Forge dungeon terrain is, by far, build out the most immersive battle maps you can make. They are also likely the most expensive. Made from high-quality resin, each piece of a Dwarven Forge dungeon is highly detailed. You can build out some of the most beautiful multi-level battle maps you can imagine. There is nothing else like it. There's a lot of problems with it, though. First and foremost is the cost. For the price of a single set of Dwarven Forge, you can usually buy about twenty to forty poster maps. A full portfolio of pre-printed poster maps costs about the same as just one of many potential sets of Dwarven Forge.
You also need at least three sets of any type of Dwarven Forge to really build out a nice area. Really nice areas probably need five. For more details, read my Dwarven Forge Buyer's Guide.
Setup time is another big problem. Unlike poster maps, which you can whip out and place down in a few seconds, setting up a good Dwarven Forge battle area takes about 30 minutes to an hour. Tearing it back down again also takes time. This inflexibility in setup means you're going to railroad your players to ensure they hit the areas you built out. This makes it particularly hard to use Dwarven Forge in sandbox games.
Dwarven Forge accessories are also heavy, making them difficult to store and move around. I've heard of people needing a trailer to haul all their Dwarven Forge to a convention.
Dwarven Forge accessories are the nicest dungeon accessories you can buy but their cost, setup time, size and weight mean I cannot recommend them over blank and pre-printed poster maps.
Numerous other solutions exist for battle maps. Hirst art molds for a do-it-yourself Dwarven Forge setup is a popular choice. A lot of alternative wet and dry erase map solutions also exist including Gaming Paper. Worldworks games produces a 3d cardboard system called Terraclips. Personally, I've never tried these solutions so I cannot offer an informed opinion of them.
There is a clear balance in price, immersion, setup time, and flexibility when it comes to poster maps. After years of trying out all of these products, I'm confident in the following choices. A Paizo blank flip map offers excellent flexibility for any encounter you can imagine. A portfolio of WOTC pre-printed poster maps and Gamemastery Flip Maps gives you beautiful immersive maps when the situation fits it. Adding in an acrylic sheet will protect your maps and give you a great surface on which to play.
For their difficulty in setup, I don't recommend Dungeon Tiles. Though they are the most beautiful and immersive accessories you can buy, I cannot recommend Dwarven Forge due to their high cost, difficult storage, and time to set up.
If you enjoyed this article, please take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. You can also pick up some excellent poster maps at Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.