Maps are important in many D&D games, but it can be difficult to make your own. So how can you make D&D battle maps that are interesting, engaging, and good-looking? Here are five tips for you!
1. Tie it in with the plot
It’s essential for maps to feel like they fit your game. Otherwise, the disconnect will break your players’ immersion, and you don’t want that! First, make sure the environment fits your game and your world—don’t use a map with a river if you’re playing in the middle of the desert. Then, add in some elements that you can link with the plot. For example, there could be a letter sent by a powerful NPC or a relic that will play an important role in the story.
These can be either tied to past events or to future ones! Adding elements from previous adventures will reinforce them and make their consequences feel more real. Using elements that hint at future events (such as a mysterious relic) is a great way to foreshadow the adventure.
Check out our 5 tips for creating interesting plot points!
2. Difficult terrain and environmental hazards
Not all dangers in D&D battle maps have to come from enemies. There could be fire, a thunderstorm, an earthquake, lava streams flowing around the players, or they could be fighting on a crumbling bridge. This ups the stakes and gives the players an extra challenge! Of course, you have to think about the context of the fight: adding lava streams in the lair of a monster that’s vulnerable to fire doesn’t make sense. But it could totally work in a red dragon lair, for example!
If you don’t want your players to deal with extra dangers, you can always use difficult terrain. This doesn’t provide a danger by itself, but it does provide some tricky challenges that will make winning more difficult. Just like with hazards, make sure it makes sense with the context. Some examples of difficult terrain are rubble, dense vegetation, a fast-moving river, deep snow, or a bunch of d4s spread on the floor.
3. Add Elevation to the D&D Battle Maps
“It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!”
Unfortunately for Obi-Wan, D&D doesn’t give specific mechanical advantages to elevation. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless! It can still provide tactical options for your players, such as a place to prepare an ambush or to get cover. And players love to get that surprise round! Of course, the enemies you control can also take advantage of elevation, so it will also be useful to you! If your battle map is a city street, consider including the roofs of nearby houses in the map: some characters might want to take positions there and prepare for a rooftop chase!
Something else that elevation does is add realism to the map. Few places are completely flat: forests have trees, deserts have dunes, and interior maps can have different levels. If aesthetics are important to you, adding elevation will help!
4. Don’t forget the details!
Let’s get this out of the way: a square room with nothing in it is boring—you might as well have a blank grid! Fortunately for all, fixing this is not difficult. Look at the place represented on the map and think about what daily life looks like there. If it’s a living room, add a fireplace, a table, and some chairs. For an inhabited cave, throw in some sleeping bags and food supplies. And this goes for abandoned places too! They might have some broken-down furniture or rotting food.
And yes, this can also provide strategic advantages and foreshadowing! A fireplace is a free source of fire damage, and a barrel with food supplies can be used as cover. Or, if you’re looking to include some hints, add a statue of someone who’s important for the story or a secret letter under one of those sleeping bags.
5. Dynamic D&D Battle Maps
If you have some extra prep time at your disposal and want a map that will leave your players in awe, try using dynamic D&D battle maps! These are maps that change during the scene. You can use it for dynamic action scenes like chases, but also to up the stakes! Remember when we were talking about fighting on a crumbling bridge? Well, you could have maps for different stages of decay so your players can actually see the bridge breaking down under their feet!
To do this, start with the first and the last map of the sequence. Then, decide how many additional maps you want to make in between. If you’re doing it for a chase, remember that players could decide to go a different way at any point, so keep that in mind. For something like a crumbling bridge, you will probably not be changing the map in the middle of a round, so don’t make a lot of stages if you think the combat will be shorter.
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