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Using Maps for In-Person Games

by Mike on 15 May 2023

Broccoli, a Patron of Sly Flourish, asks:

Do you have any tips on preparing and using maps for in-person games?

After fifty years of different approaches there is no perfect solution for preparing and using maps at in-person games. Instead, there are many different popular solutions. These include:

You can read more on these different types of battle maps in my Battle Map Comparisons article.

Each of these solutions come with tradeoffs including:

With these tradeoffs in mind, here are some best practices for using maps for in-person games.

Draw Maps Ahead of Time

I'm a huge fan of the Pathfinder Basic Flip Mat for drawing maps right at the table, but when drawing maps ahead of time, nothing beats drawing maps on big sheets of paper. Drawing maps this way takes time time and requires particular tools but it's relatively cheap, doesn't take up a lot of space, and provides great results when you need a detailed map for your game.

Choose the Right Paper

If you're drawing maps ahead of time, try drawing them on big sheets of paper with a 1 inch grid. Big pads of 1" graph paper provide the best value. These come 27 inches by 34 inches and provide over 2,000 square inches per dollar – way better than gaming paper and likely better than even cheap wrapping paper. I like drawing with big sharpies but they bleed through so put a spare sheet underneath before you start drawing.

Learn Your Drawing Style

Practice your style and symbology when drawing maps. Seek techniques that help you draw maps quickly and also capture the details of the environment. Consider these excellent resources:

Print Poster-sized Maps as Blueprints

Some local print shops offer large-format black-and-white "blueprint" or "architecture plan" printouts perfect for black and white maps like DysonLogos. These are much cheaper than color maps and look great. You'll need to spend time in an image editor scaling your map to the right size but the result is a big well-drawn map you can drop right onto your table. Here's an article on scaling maps using Gimp. If you can fit the map into 24" by 36" it'll be much easier to use than a 36" by 48" map. Blueprint maps like this run $5 to $10 and save a lot of time drawing things out.

If professional printing isn't an option, you can use tools like Adobe Acrobat to print big maps across multiple sheets of regular-sized printer paper and then cut and paste them together. Again, you'll need to spend time properly sizing the map in an image editor before you print it.

Get a Big Acrylic Sheet for your Table

One of my favorite tools for in-person GMing is a big sheet of acrylic on top of my gaming table. The acrylic sheet provides a perfectly flat, dry-erasable surface that feels awesome with miniatures. You can put maps, handouts, pictures, cheat-sheets, or other flat props under the surface and draw on top of it with dry erase markers. A couple globs of sticky-tack (another incredibly useful GM aid) keeps the sheet from sliding around. You can usually pick up a 36" by 48" sheet for about $30 at a local hardware store, Home Depot, or other home improvement store. It's an excellent investment that lasts for years.

Revealing Maps

If you draw maps ahead of time, you'll need some way to hide what the characters haven't yet found. Cover the parts not yet revealed with sheets of paper or cloth. Sticky tack or heavy objects, like glass tumblers, keep these sheets in place so they don't fly around the table every time someone moves.

Mixing Theater of the Mind and Gridded Maps

Be open to running theater of the mind or abstract combat options along with your tabletop maps. Consider using smaller maps of larger dungeons and use bigger detailed battle maps when terrain and positioning really matters. The laziest map to draw is the one you don't draw at all.

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