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So I'm a new GM, and I notice there's usually a problem with positioning, so I started drawing EXACTLY what happens on the map in combat for my players. Thing is it gets messy, annoying and time consuming.

Do you guys have any suggestions for any downloadable&printable/purchasable/ideas for do-it-yourself ways to get a good gameplay board?

If you know any good software which can fill this role that'll work too.

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What are you talking about drawing on the map? The character's positions are usually plotted with miniatures, and terrain is usually accomplished by drawing or using models. What's your exact problem? – C. Ross Oct 4 '13 at 14:14
What edition are you playing? – SevenSidedDie Oct 4 '13 at 15:26
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I've found that the more visuals you have the better is is for people to know where everybody/everything currently is located. Visuals I always have when I DM

  • Map. Generally a smallish (letter/a4 sized page) that covers the overall area where the players are likely to go. It's a great reference, and the players do miss it when it is not there. If you have bigger/fancier, great. Just have SOMETHING to show the "big picture".
  • Encounter Mat. This is any sort of surface that is easily erasable and has a 1 inch grid on it. I use something like this Chessex mat. However my group has also used Dwarven Forge, as well as a paper-craft version similar to Dwarven Forge. If you want to go the cheap route, you can get a page with 1" grid on it (graph paper works great for this) and then photocopy it as many times as necessary. I would recommend only using pencil on it so you can erase/reuse later, otherwise it gets very wasteful. You can also cover the grid pages with contact paper that are dry/wet erasable. Regardless of solution chosen, I recommend you get a mat that can be used with both wet and dry erase markers. I use wet-erase markers to put the terrain/permanent things on the mat and dry-erase markers for anything that is temporary such as spell area effects. I try to also have some string on hand for measuring distances, and also marking something that will change every round (like flaming sphere that moves every round).
  • Erase-friendly marking equipment. Which will vary depending on what your mat ends up being.
  • Miniatures. There are metal, resin, plastic, and paper minis. Metal, plastic, and resin are all 3 dimensional, whereas paper tends to be a picture stuck onto a base. I like to use the 25-30mm scale minis, especially the Bones Line of minis by Reaper, but there are no shortage of other companies making them. You could even cheap-out by cutting squares of cardboard with an arrow drawn to mark where the character is facing. Sure, minis that are lovingly painted look better, but you can get the job done with the cardboard markers.
  • Any other visual aids needed. I like to also have a picture of any opponent for any planned encounters and have at hand any unplanned encounters (what exactly does a flibbertygibbit look like?) or other important things (what is the holy symbol for the Cult of Foo?). Players tend to like those visuals, especially if they are not easily explainable as something like "a golden hand on a background of green".
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Also, in the near-term there is the Bones Kickstarter II which if it is at all as successful as Bones Kickstarter I, it is a good way to get lots of minis on the (somewhat) cheap. – Pulsehead Oct 4 '13 at 14:23
+1 for Chessex. Mine has lasted the last 7 years, only recently getting some holes from a dropped cigarette. Also, if cost is the issue, Chessex sells one off pieces and most conventions I have attended. Grid might be slightly sideways, or one side printed incorrectly, but usable for half off. – Danial Wayne Oct 4 '13 at 18:14

Whiteboard & Miniatures

I got a fairly large Whiteboard (4x3'), then took a crafting knife and a large ruler, and carved a grid into it (each square is 1x1"). For a board that size it took about four hours. If you used a 2x3 board instead, you could do it much, much faster.

If you do not want to carve into the board (because you want to use it for something else), you can use thin tape, or magnetic tape to get a similar effect. It may also be possible to find a board that has a grid already on it for you, which would be faster.

So, I've got a grid now. I can use the whiteboard to draw terrain like walls, rivers, or the smoking ruin where the Fireball hit. The really nice thing is that whenever I erase things, some of the marker goes into the grid grooves I carved out with the knife, so they turn black and get easier to see.

Players also like to use the edges of the board to track things like temporary buffs or anything else that needs writing down for the duration of a combat. Pass a marker to everyone and have fun!

To represent players and NPCs on the board, we use miniatures. Those can be bought online if you want nice ones, or you can use simple folded paper printouts of character portraits. When someone moves, we move them on the board.

Anybody looking at the board can see immediately where they are relative to everyone else, what the positioning is, and what terrain obstacles are in the way.

A big advantage to this is that it has virtually no setup time when combat happens. You don't need to know how to use software. You don't need to set up an area using 3d terrain pieces or tiles. I can draw a typical combat zone in 30 seconds, place people on the board, and we go. It's not as immersive as some of the fancier options, but if you just want to get to playing with a low time (and cost) investment, it's a great option.

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The easiest thing I've found is to head to your local school supply store (Walmart works too).

There you can by a 3 pack of large, lightly pre-gridded poster board. Generally these are gridded with half inch grids; use a ruler and a fine tipped Sharpie to trace over the 1" grid.

Buy a roll of contact paper; it's found in various places, but it's often located with shelf paper. Cover your new sharpied grid with a layer of this clear paper.

You now have a 1" gridded dry/wet erasable surface that can be rolled for easy transport. If you want it to be a bit more durable you can contact-paper the underside, but these are cheap and relatively easily replaced so I wouldn't worry too much about it.

You can then draw your maps/dungeons to spec on your paper with dry or wet erase markers. (I use wet erase on mine.)

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My friends and I use D&D 3-D dungeon tiles. They are a great investment because you can tailor make the maps to your monster battles so it becomes very easy to use the terrain in combat. Usually we'll stack the tiles one on top of the other when we want to depict height. It adds to the realism of the game and creates natural choke points and advantage points. The tiles come in all sorts of styles from water, soil, grass, forest, to bricks and dungeon settings.

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If you need a portable solution for mapping things out then I recommend the Noteboard.

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Take a photo from your playbook with your smartphone and AirPlay / Chromecast to the tv. Works great.

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Could you describe how to use this to help resolve the hitches the asker's described? – doppelgreener Jun 19 at 7:16

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