I Was Wrong About Battlemaps

You read that right. Everyone’s favorite egotistical narcissist is admitting he was wrong. Well, not completely. Allow me this modicum of clickbait so that I may bask in my own humility.

Alright, now that that’s done, this is my blistering hot take: I used to hate battlemaps, and now I don’t. But to really explain this incredible shift in my belief as a DM, I have to go into detail. A lot of detail. Context is important, so we’re gonna go through it, point by point. Oh, and as an aside, more than half of this post can be disregarded if the comparison is for pre-made adventures, as there’s an expectation of railroading and the battlemaps would obviously fit the situation already, if you can find them.

Any time anyone ever asked me about anything having to do with DMing, one of the first things I’d talk about for ‘streamlining the process’ and the like would be doing away with battlemaps. Or grids. Or whatever you want to call them. When I used to run an in-person game years ago, I had a nice big Pathfinder-branded mat that I drew on with wet-erase markers, but that took time. Or I could prepare it ahead of time. Which… well, I’ll get to why I hate doing that. Either way, it was awkward at best and a complete mess at worst. Not to mention the organization of pawns in lieu of miniatures, but that’s for another conversation (that, given I don’t run any in-person games, is a post I probably won’t write for a long time).

The best way I can really explain why I was wrong about battlemaps is to refute my own beliefs, which I held until very recently. There are three very straight-forward, if stupid, reasons that I’ve always been against them, and I think with a quick breakdown of each, I can explain my old reasoning and why it… kind of doesn’t make sense any more? Either way, here we go!

1. They take a long time to make. Alternatively, you use pre-made ones you found online and they feel impersonal and don’t reflect your vision.

So, this one is fairly straight-forward and I feel like my reasoning is within the, well, reason itself. I’ve tried so many different ways to make battlemaps, from various programs to generators to photoshop to drawing them, and the best I ever got was the aforementioned drawing-on-a-mat strategy. Which vaguely works online, but not really. I’m an awful artist, and about 12 times worse with a mouse, so it would take even longer and look even worse, more often than not.

The obvious response to that is to just use pre-made battlemaps, as there are at least 61 being posted online every minute. But the drawback there is, well, they feel impersonal. As a DM of a homebrew world that I’ve spent absurd amounts of time on, the idea that anything doesn’t properly fit just feels strange. Sure, a pre-made map for a forest encounter might work, but even then there’s sometimes things that you want to include but aren’t there, sending you back to the need of the quick-and-dirty drawing-on-paper strategy.

Above all, though, there’s the fact that they just take a long time to make. That’s the big gripe of the first one. You can get over them being ‘generic’, but the time sunk into them, given they might not be used, can really suck. It’s time I’d rather spend fleshing out characters and reorganizing various world notes– you know, things a DM does to make D&D not feel like a video game.

2. It can break the illusion, or otherwise feel railroad-y.

Yeah, this is much more abstract and something I feel the average DM won’t have a problem with, and 99.999% of players definitely won’t care about, but it matters to me. The gist of the argument is that if you spend time making a battlemap, you want to use it. Especially if it’s really nice. Like, sometimes you make a piece of art and just want to show it off, and this can come off as similar. I’ve seen comments on all kinds of battlemaps posted on reddit, pinterest, etc. that can all be summarized as “that’s awesome, I’m definitely planning an encounter for this map for my players!” And there’s nothing wrong with that! But for me, it feels… hollow? I don’t know if there’s a better way to describe it, but I’m sure it makes some sense? I hope. After three re-writes, hollow was still the best descriptor I could come up with.

As for breaking the illusion, that’s more abstract, even, than the first paragraph. Like I said, (virtually) no one will care about it, but it matters to me that the players never get a peek behind the curtain. And there’s nothing that I feel brings the players back into the gamification of tabletop gaming quite like when they go to confront a bunch of bandits after a HARD FOUGHT inter-party argument with three outcomes: Try to talk them down, deal with them using subterfuge and take them out one at a time, or go in guns-blazing into their hideout. When they’ve decided that guns-blazing is the way to go, and you pull out a beautifully designed battlemap with intricacies and more, nothing is stopping that thought (or reminder?) from creeping into their head: Maybe this wasn’t a choice, the DM wanted this battle all along, and the soft hand of god pushed us toward it, one way or another.

Of course, if your players know you as the guy who prepares maps for every. Single. Situation, then this might not be as much of a problem, but as I’ve already said, I feel like major levels of preparation should be used elsewhere, most of the time.

3. It gamifies D&D, separating the roleplay from the combat.

This is the big one for me. I haven’t even completely gotten over it, yet, but I think (like most things) it comes down to needing to have trust in your players as, well, roleplayers. When you spend two sessions doing nothing but roleplay, using the theater of your mind to imagine conversations, being dragged into an overhead, strategic view will immediately make things feel different. But of course there’s a meta aspect to combat, because it’s intrinsic to most every system’s design philosophy. In 5E in particular, certain meta aspects are used to drive the implication of dangerous, clever, or more powerful foes forward as a concept. In particular, legendary and lair actions, which use the meta concept of the turn order to make foes more dangerous.

More than this, though, it makes the players stop visualizing their surroundings. If they’re in a bar brawl, and you’ve quickly drawn that battlemap as squares on a blank paper for the sake of measuring distance, they’re apt to forget about the details of their surroundings. And this is the toughest part for me. Smashing a glass on somebody’s head, or knocking a shelf down so everything on it falls onto a prone enemy– these are things that are easy to visualize in your own mind, but much harder to efficiently represent with battlemaps. And it’s something that, as I said, comes down to having trust in your players to have imagination and be good roleplayers. Assuming that’s what you want, of course.

What the hell changed?

Those three points have been my stance on battlemaps for a very long time. For most of that time, I used them anyway and did the best with the meager amount of artistic talent I had by dragging boxes in Photoshop to create lazy representations, and finally a couple years ago I did away with it completely, opting to go through with theater of the mind. And I finished a long campaign without using a single battlemap. So I definitely don’t think they’re necessary. But they can certainly be a more helpful tool than I give them credit for.

The first thing that changed was the amount of people in the party. My last campaigns never had more than five and six people in them, and mostly sat closer to four and five. The campaign that I’m currently five sessions into has eight. With that many people, even imposing turn timers, it’s a lot to keep track of. And of course, you need to balance for eight players, which means either tougher enemies or, more commonly, higher numbers. So instead of a combat of 5v5 or 5v6, you’re doing 8v8 or 8v10. Even something like 8v6 is 14, versus a maximum of 10 or 11.

Of course, that alone wasn’t enough to force my stubborn ass to change. There was a vague light at the end of the tunnel, solving my problems nearly completely: A program called Dungeondraft. It’s not perfect, it’s still in early testing releases as of this writing, and there are certainly a laundry list of features missing, but it does so much so well. It looks decent, has a consistent art style, and – perhaps most importantly – it’s fast. Just the other day, there was a fight when my party came across some bandits camping by the river, and I was able to completely draw up a map from scratch in about three minutes. Which is incredible, considering I still (again, as of this writing) hardly know how the program works, ins and outs. What’s more incredible is that I did it while I was DMing. No program is going to be perfect, but it’s so close to what I’ve been looking for that, for at least basic large encounters, things seem to have sussed out with an answer.

I’ve had people tell me to try using battlemaps again for a long time now, but it always felt like something I didn’t need to waste time on, because there were more important things. I was able to perfectly visualize the battlefield as easily as I can visualize a screenshot from Baldur’s Gate, so why couldn’t everyone? I tossed that slightly-selfish attitude out the window, and I think, at least for some battles, the importance of battlemaps trumps my inane pride and need to go against the grain.

In Summation

I don’t think this is something that needed to be said, but I think it’s something worth saying. I’ve seen arguments every which way when it comes to streamlining combat, or getting it to be more in-line with the style of DMing that any given person already has, but for me, I finally feel like I’m finding my answer.

The broader conclusion that I drew from this, reading it back, is that technology’s never-ending advancement is nothing short of absolutely incredible for tabletop gaming. It seems like there are a hundred roll20 competitors out there to fit every niche, a hundred ways to make battlemaps, a hundred ways to roll dice– in a weird way, this is me avoiding turning into the old man who yells at clouds, and actually embracing the technology that exists, and using it to enhance my game, rather than be convinced that the ways I already knew were as good as the game could be.

As an aside, this really sounds like a roundabout way to advertise Dungeondraft, but it’s not. It just so happens that I found a program that was able to hide my biggest weakness as a DM, and it inspired me to try something new. 

Posted by Robert Wall