Using maps, minis, and terrain

I’m not pure theater-of-the-mind; I still do like to use miniatures and grid maps to help understand lines of sight, spell effects, etc. I find these help me create more complex situations in which the players can get immersed.

I worried at first using 3D terrain would reduce their engagement, but photos by my players like this let me know they’re being transported.

A photo taken low down near the table looking over the shoulder of a miniature of a dragonborn paladin wielding a sword as he prepares to enter an eerily lit stone tomb. In the background can be seen another player getting in low with their camera to take a picture.
(photo by Lance Arthur)

Now that I’ve made the investment, I’m often using elaborate miniature setups like that pictured above, and in a less character-centric perspective here:

A view down a table with a multi-room tomb laid out with 3D terrain tiles resting on an erasable gridded mat. Beyond the entry hall and first room, through an archway, miniature figures can be seen in a room with an open sepulcher gathered around a closed one. In the background is a stone shrine with a dagger on it which has moved aside to reveal a chamber beyond lit by green and gold lights.
(photo by Terrance Graven)

However, I don’t always use the 3D terrain. In the photo below you can see how I’m combining 2D and 3D pieces to amplify the feeling of a cave environment.

I want the organic intricacy of the cave space to come through, so I’m using a great set of paper map tiles from Paizo. But I also want the players to feel the closed-in solidity, so I’ve built the entrance and exit with Dwarvenforge terrain.

An erasable 1" grid mat is on  table, sitting atop it in the center are color map cards with a view of above of a cave area. At the top and bottom edge, connecting to the cave map, are pieces of 3D terrain which extend the map. Miniature figures of stalagmites and characters are placed on the map.
(photo by Dinah Sanders)

Notice above how I’ve placed a couple 3D stalagmites on top of those drawn on the 2D map. This really helps to give the immediate sense of the ratman peeking out at them from partial cover.

Though this was intended as a non-combat encounter, I was ready for it to become a fight. That’s part of why I built out the exit from the room to show where reinforcing ratfolk would enter and take cover in corners.

I hope that picture also illustrates how investing in even a few 3D terrain pieces can make a big difference.

I recommend your first investment in 3D pieces (whether you buy them or craft them yourself) be these cave pedestals (or something like them):

You can use them in combo with your 2D maps or even without a map to help clarify a complex combat or visibility situation. “I don’t understand. Why can’t I peek around the corner, across the hall, and into that other doorway?”

The pedestal blocks shown below are also super helpful to illustrate vertical situations.

A dry-erase mat with a 1" grid has a small room drawn on it and a group of miniatures standing in the space. One edge has two blocks which look like rough cave stone stacked to be about two and a half times the height of the miniatures. One mini is balanced on the shoulders of two others and it is clear that they would not be able to reach the lip of the raised column unless the ones supporting her hoisted her higher, lifting her up from under her feet.
(photo by Fred von Lohmann)

Here is the party in a small room (which I drew on a dungeon tile grid just before the players got to my house and set aside until we got to this puzzle).

I told them, “The room has a 20′ ceiling, but on one wall the top 5′ are open.” Their challenge was how to get somebody up those 15′ to get into a treasure room once hidden behind a long-gone tapestry.

  • Rhogar metal mini is from HeroForge, I think
  • 3D terrain is all from Dwarven Forge (as is the ratman mini). Be sure you’re buying painted; they do a fantastic job.
  • The paper map tiles are from Paizo (who also make really great big maps with tons of detail, which I’ve used a lot in the past and will be using again):
  • The dry erase dungeon tiles are made by Role 4 Initiative and I think I bought them at our lovely local game store, Gamescape. You should buy local whenever possible to help keep gaming alive; local shops are where many people first play. When I visit a shop and don’t find anything else I want, I try to buy a set of dice or something small and useful like that to help keep the business going.
  • The other minis are from various sources. I am always visiting game shops in cities I travel to and checking for painted plastic minis. Alas, so many are sold in random packs now that for monsters I often buy used to be sure I’m getting exactly what I need. Cool Stuff, Inc. is a good source:
  • The big vinyl mat under all this I probably also bought at a game shop. It has 1″ grid on one side and hex map on the other (tho’ I never use that side). I wish someone would make a vinyl mat that was greenish-tan on one side and stone gray on the other, to be a better place setting for wilderness and city/dungeon adventuring.
  • The nice wooden dice tower, dice tray, and storage box you can see in the background is from Wyrmwood, who make absolutely beautiful stuff.
  • In the background of the last shot you can see the top of my little wheeled cabinet of drawers. This fits in our back room most of the time, but on D&D night I roll it out next to my chair. It’s a huge boon for a DM as you can keep everything you’ll need handy in it and it provides a space for you to put your drink out of the danger zone of your dice rolling and gesticulating. The top drawer has stuff I use almost every game like our initiative order tracker, condition markers, some of the players minis, my pencil and eraser, small paper cards for passing notes to players, etc. The drawers below that I keep empty and set up before each game with the NPC/monster minis and terrain I expect to need. The bottom drawers have my miniatures sorted into broad categories like “NPC/hero/villager types”, undead, goblinoids, beasts, etc. [You can buy the same cabinet here: but as of August 2020 I no longer recommend it. If you put anything at all heavy in it, including a drawer full of papers and softcover rulebooks, the sides bow outward eventually and then the drawers start falling out of their tracks. Cheap turned out to be too cheap. It’d be fine for underwear or lightweight crafts or something though. I recommend also getting some lining for the drawers so minis don’t get chipped as you roll the cabinet (I didn’t stick it down, just cut it into pieces to drape across the inside of each drawer) The caster wheels that come with the cabinet are cheap plastic and will break within six months if my experience rolling over carpet is typical. Assemble it with sturdy ones instead. I got my ball caster wheels at the local hardware store (shop local when you can!) and they look a little like these: ]

(The original version of this post was published on Medium in December 2018 as part of “D DMs D&D”)

Author: Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg

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