Wednesday, May 2, 2012

An Ode to the Battlemat

Yes, the Battlemat - humble canvas of our dreams & nightmares, the gridded arena of life and death for our imaginary creations, transmitter of our fantastic visions - take a moment and consider it's import.

Tomb of Spells!
In my case the mini's came first - one of Grenadier's "Adventurers" sets and the Tomb of Spells. Before that we used boardgame tokens (sorry, Sorry), Stratego pieces (look I'm a Colonel), and Chess pieces, not to mention the army-men style knights and the plastic dinosaurs pressed into duty in those early days. Back then we mainly used them to show marching order - front line, second line, back line, all the precision of the  early Roman army reproduced unwittingly -  because we didn't have a thing to move them around on. After all, this was a game of the imagination - we didn't need a board! We didn't want one! I think in one game we actually used the Stratego board for a wilderness encounter, but it was a one-time thing that was not attempted again for a while.

The first tactical encounter map ...
Then, somewhere in the mid to late 80's I started playing with a new group and they used this amazing thing that had squares and could be erased and redrawn infinitely with overhead pens! It was a revelation! Sure, I had seen the Chessex ads in Dragon but it had never registered with me just how transformative a single device like this could be - now we could actually move our figures around, adjusting to the situation as it developed, and so could the DM! The variable tyranny of the over-volumed fireball and the rebounding lightning bolt was ended forever as distances could now be clearly worked out! A new form of point-whoring optimization became available as being just exactly the right distance from something became much more feasible. Also, mapping became a lot simpler and more accurate as the agonizing over exact distances and the shuffling of graph paper around the table dropped away. Within a month every group I was a part of had at least one 'mat. Office supply stores suddenly became interesting as that's where we could find the widest selection of pens. A standard had been established and would rule unchallenged for years.

The really good ones come with hexgrids too - for Champions! and maybe GURPS too ...
Then an interloper appeared - dungeon tiles! They existed back in the 80's but no one I knew used them and the ones I saw were not terribly impressive, being too light and thin to stay put when moved upon. I actually had experimented with Warhammer Quest tiles and Space Hulk tiles a few times in the 90's, to no lasting effect. During the time of D&D 3rd Edition though, and continuing into 4th, this was an organized effort previously unseen. Multiple companies, multiple sets, some heavy cardboard, some plastic, some poster maps, some the same old thin card we had seen and discarded before, some downloadable and printable. I tried some of them and realized something:

I am not a tiles kind of guy.

Well I suppose this does solve some problems, and I'm betting it's cheap.

I don't think ill of them, but I find they feel very limiting to me. I never seem to have the right set of shapes or the right set of corridors or stairs or a fountain or a river of lava or whatever. I find that my map designs start to hew to what tiles I have. With a battlemat I can draw whatever I want and I can do it as needed. With tiles I need to sort pieces out ahead of time and keep them organized or it becomes rather time consuming. In play it's also difficult to reveal part of a room or part of a hallway - you have to do the whole thing. When I play a published adventure it is unlikely that the author was concerned with tile selection and lord forbid that it be a set of natural caverns with irregular shapes! It turns into a struggle to combine the available tiles into something resembling the adventure map, a problem I never have with a vinyl mat and markers. Plus they roll up for transport, instead of requiring a box, or several boxes.

I do like poster maps for big set-piece encounters. D&D 4E adventures have been especially nifty in this regard.

The one game I have enjoyed using tiles is Star Wars - quite a bit of a typical adventure takes place indoors - starships, bases, buildings, tunnels - so that the gray-toned Galaxy Tiles set works really well. Until the adventurers land on a remote forest planet, and then the mats come out.

Yep, that works

I think the printable dungeon tiles do have a future - if I can select and print my own tiles to need on regular paper, then I at least feel less limited when making my own adventure maps. Published ones can still be a problem, but this goes a long way. I realize that one could scan and copy existing tiles too, but it can be a little tricky to use the heavy thick card ones and paper versions of the same at the same time. Here's a good example.

Mapping programs that let you design maps and then print them to a one inch grid are very cool too, but I've never had the drive to sit down and learn how to use them and the cost of printing a sizable map is not zero either. With a battlemet I can spend 20-30-40$ and get some pens and be good for a decade or more, the same as a single ink cartridge that will only last through a few dungeon levels at most. Heck, you can make your own in various ways at very little cost. Dundjinni seems to get it done pretty well though I have only dabbled with it.

Certainly there are those who scoff at the very idea of the mat. For some mini's and a mat are a budget issue and I get that. For others you sometimes get the "we don't play with miniatures" sneer. That's fine - I do, most of the time. I've run sessions of older editions of D&D without it and I don't use one for ICONS or Marvel Heroic, but you can bet that when the 12d6 Energy Blasts start flying the hexgrid mat is out, and when the PGMP-12 is warming up there's a grid on the table too. There are games where a 'mat is not necessary but in others I enjoy the game a great deal more when it's part of the scene.

The battle rages - and everyone knows where they are!
So I'm pretty happy with my battlemats. I rank them right up there with dice as "things I need for a typical RPG night". I expect I'll be using one until we all get those nifty tabletop hologram generators at home, and even then I'll bust one out on occasion to do an old school game with the grandkids so I can educate them properly - "When I started playing we had to DRAW our dungeons ... or build them ... out of ... cardboard or legos or something ... we didn't have an iTable to do it FOR us like we were Tony Stark or something ... it was ART and we liked it that way ... zzzzzzz"


bliss_infinte said...

I'll never understand why a grid became the norm for D&D, especially with 3.5 & 4 which are strategic miniature games and position and movement are SO important, when hexes are much better balancing those positions and movements out. I did go with a Hex layout when I created my gaming table.

Tom said...

LOL Great posting. As someone who graduated from graph paper to battle mats to Dungeon Tiles ( I agree with you- I dont like using them) Dwarven Forge/Hirst Arts- I can appreciate their use both from a mechanics perspective and how it adds to the game as a whole. Like you I used to use buttons ( to represent characters and monsters) on graph paper, then when I got my first metal figures, I was drawing out 1" scale graph on large sheets of paper and laminating them myself for the same purpose.
I agree, with 3rd and 4th they became necessary and only helped to cement that style of strategist wargaming miniature style of play. At first I didnt mind, but I agree, it can be a nusiance at times. But ultimately I find even when running my Old School games, the Battle Matt or Dungeon Sets ( Dwarven Forge/Hirst Arts) are great for ease of movement, line of sight, distance, etc. But I still try and use Hex overland encounters and Graph for underground/indoor encounters- to keep that AD&D old school feel ( though this does not work with my 3rd edition group one bit).

Amanda Heitler said...

More battlemap love from over here as well.

Don't know if it's just us, but they get very, very hard to clean after a while. The ghostly history of battles past remains to haunt us.

Blacksteel said...

Bliss - I agree that the hexmap is better in a lot of cases but remember that at the Dawn of D&D you could buy graph paper at the grocery store or drug store. The only hex paper I remember early on was the TSR Hexagonal mapping booklet, so I would guess that availability was a big factor. Also, for rectilinear buildings and tunnels squares are easier.

Tom - the dwarven forge stuff looks cool but I have steered clear of it as it's basically the dungeon tiles problem with at least 10X the price tag. I'm not afraid to spend a little money on my games (I play Warhammer so I know how that goes) but I think I may try legos before I go that route. One experiment with older games that can be fun: Try drawing the map out on big paper without a grid: You can see relative positions etc but without the positional optimzation of 3E and 4E.

Amanda: I keep a squirt bottle with a mix of dishwashing soap and water in it and try not to leave the 'mat "unwiped" for longer than overnight. That seems to keep mine pretty clean. Also, don't leave it out if your apartment happens to catch fire. My 3rd string 'mat has some pretty well defined outlines in one corner from a dungeon a long time ago but is otherwise quite useable. Apparently heat kinda seals those things in...