by Mike Shea on 1 October 2012
I'm a huge fan of poster maps as a simple aid for Dungeons and Dragons encounters. In short, they're cheap, easy to set up, and portable. A good portfolio of poster maps can carry your games for many years, giving your players beautiful detailed environments in which to face horrifying monsters.
A lack of flexibility, however, limits the usefulness of poster maps. Unlike more flexible tools such as dry-erase poster maps, dungeon tiles, or 3d terrain; poster maps don't change. How many times can you re-use the same map? Hopefully many.
Today we're going to look at a few ways to help you re-use your collection of poster maps, keeping the environments fresh and interesting for your players.
One easy way to change up your players' perception of a poster map is to change the effects of various elements of terrain. Pools of water in an overland map might turn into acidic pools in a black dragon's fetid swamp. Crumbling walls might become hand-holds to higher ground that provides combat advantage to ranged attackers. You can easily change the terrain effects of elements on any poster map, making the whole encounter feel different even if the map stayed the same.
Turning the map around and changing the starting location is a simple technique to make an environment feel different. The strategies a group of PCs might take change depending on the situation they face. Even if they've seen the map before, the change in the situation will make the whole encounter feel different.
Mixing our materials is a great way to keep our encounters fresh and interesting. There's no reason you can't mix some 3d terrain or dungeon tiles into your map to add some details. These terrain elements should matter to the encounter, either as a terrain effect or even a goal for the overall encounter itself.
While many encounters might focus on the PCs defeating monsters, changing encounter goals (the combat out) makes the entire encounter a bit more interesting. These changing goals can breathe new life to our poster maps, pushing our players to defeat challenges not only by finding advantageous areas, avoiding nasty terrain, and killing monsters but by giving them an entire new challenge to defeat.
Zone-wide environmental effects add another new variable to our poster maps. Mushrooms might emit powerful hallucinogens that force PCs to attack each other if they fail a saving throw at the beginning of their turn. Escalating heat might erupt. These zone-wide effects change up conditions quite a bit.
Bringing PCs back to the same location might also fit well into your story. Perhaps the town's square always seems to be the hub of trouble in the city of Tyr. There's no reason PCs might not find themselves at the same location to fight a new foe or face a new challenge.
Even when changing up all of these variables to make a battle seem interesting, you generally don't want to run the same map for a new location very often. Give it a month or two off before dusting it off and your group might not even remember the encounter in which they previously used it.
The physical map you choose is only one knob of many you can twist and turn to create new and exciting battles. Building a portfolio of solid reusable poster maps will give you maps you can use time and again all by changing the story and mechanics wrapped around the map itself. Give it a try.
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 use these links to purchase the excellent D&D map packs: Vaults of the Underdark and Haunted Temples containing a total of twelve maps for $20. Not a bad deal!