Creating high-quality maps for our encounters seems to be an almost universal quest amongst DMs. Everybody has their favorite approach: from Chris Perkins’ Map Fu with the venerable wet-erase battlemat to published poster maps and Dungeon Tiles. Recently, Mike Shea released a short video in which he demonstrated the benefits of sandwiching your dungeon tiles between black toolbox liner and an acrylic sheet. I’ve been using the acrylic sheet for awhile now and can vouch for it’s awesomeness… more on that later.
But I don’t use Dungeon Tiles or poster maps… I’ve always wanted to, but the limited selection of settings and pieces always leaves me wanting more. In the past I’ve played with creating some of my own tiles but, after a lot of work, I had that same “locked in” feeling. What I needed was an almost infinite source of high-quality maps that I could tweak or re-purpose as needed.
Enter the D&D Insider Map Gallery…
Every month, Wizards posts the maps from Dungeon magazine as well as recently published print products for D&D Insider subscribers. They even have a publishing schedule so you know when to check for new content. Many of these maps are very nice and almost all of them are gridded. So I downloaded some of them and pointed Windows Live Photo Gallery at the folder for a quick way to browse and organize the collection. If I ever have time, I might even tag each map with a little metadata like “dungeon” or “city” to make browsing more efficient.
Once I have a rough picture in my head of the encounter I’d like to create, I browse the collection looking for something with a palette and/or environment that fits. It’s never going to be an exact match but, more often than not, I can use the details I find in the maps to flesh out things like terrain and hazards.
None of this is rocket science, but I load my selected map into Photoshop and resize the image to match the drawn grid to a printed 1” square. You could do this in any image editing software that can scale the image (I’m pretty sure Paint.NET, Paint Shop Pro, or The GIMP would all qualify). Sometimes I’ll add elements from other maps or artwork from the web and I usually crop off the borders. Most of my maps require 4-8 pages to print at this scale (I print 8”x10” sections on card stock and trim the margins from each page). On screen, the resolution of the scaled result is often pretty poor, but they still look great on the table under that sheet of acrylic and add a lot of color to my encounters despite the low-res.
Once each page is trimmed of its margins (what I wouldn’t give for an inexpensive, full-bleed inkjet printer) I use a restickable glue stick on the back of each and let it dry. Now, when it’s time to build the map for a game, I position each page like a puzzle on a piece of black foamcore and then lay my acrylic sheet over the top. The black foamcore creates a nice rigid surface and adds a nice border for dark environments. I suspect green for forest encounters or beige for deserts would be a nice touch.
The acrylic sheet provides all of the same benefits here as it does for tiles and, while it isn’t necessary to keep the pages in place, I highly recommend it; my players love the polished look and the smooth rolling surface.
This is almost certainly not a unique idea, but I find the results far more flexible than tiles or poster maps, for only a little additional effort. Each map can be customized more or less depending upon how much time I have and, while they aren’t exactly interchangeable like Dungeon Tiles, they are certainly re-usable (isn’t funny how one forest path looks a lot like another?).