We’ve talked about distances before, where accuracy beats alacrity and vice versa, but let’s get down into the virtual dirt with the actual ways to bring the various maps to life at the table, and which is the best fit for your game.
Let’s start with the simplest, cheapest and most available option: paper. Printer, graphing or lined notebook paper make surprisingly good map fodder, and not just in a pinch.
Printer paper is best for abstract maps and large-scale drawings not intended for combat measurements or the like – maps of the region or simple illustrations to give players enough to go on for abstract interactions.
Graphing paper is just a grid by another name. Its main advantage over professional inch-by-inch grid maps is that it allows for very granular movement – unfortunately it also makes eyeballing distances more difficult, so it’s an up and a down. It’s often better used for guiding the less skilled drawers among us for large-scale maps not intended for direct use as combat grids, just to prevent any Mercator projection situations.
Lastly there’s lined notebook paper. Not as good as printer paper for freeform drawing (the lines can cause confusion), not a set grid for more graphical designs. The only real use for lined notebook paper is to turn it 90 degrees and use the lines like longitude markers for a large-scale map.
GMs on the go may prefer index cards instead of 8.5×11 sheets. They have the advantage of being modular, and making changes to a single card is much easier than erasing a whole sheet of paper. Use the blank side for the map and the lined side (or just the back) for info on the room – you can give it to the players for reference of items or clues they recovered once they’ve moved on to a new spot.
You can even build a whole dungeon or town ahead of time on index cards (one card is “treasure room,” one is “tavern,” etc.) and place them at relative spots on the table to give players a sense of relative scale without having to draw all the fiddly bits in between. Do this with encounters and you can deal them out randomly as the PCs explore, drawing from the treasure or monster piles to see what they stumble upon.
Going up a step in cost and bulk, dry erase boards work just like printer paper. The advantage is that they can be updated – something very essential in just about any game situation that needs a map. Not very usable for miniatures or the like, but great for giving players an idea of the up-to-the-minute situation around their characters.
As a bonus, a generic dry erase board can be used for non-map functions like tracking initiative, modifiers, task actions, etc. It can even be handy for freeform planning your next session or two.
A great marriage of the dry-erase board and the index card method is a Noteboard – very useful for a traveling GM, whether it’s to a convention or just across town, if you’re GMing but not hosting a game.
Canvas grid maps are typically wet-erase, although they also come in paper form. The former has the same advantage of a dry-erase board to track a changing situation, while paper grids could become reminders for games that take place weeks or months apart, and can even become keepsakes for especially memorable sessions.
And then there’s the top of the arc: miniatures and 3D models. Cadillac suites like Dwarven Forge or Reaper Minis can bring a game to life if you and your players can put together the pieces you need. Having a real representation of the immediate game world can automatically answer a number of player questions on classically confusing things like elevation and line of sight.
Some minis also capture the imagination much better than a monster manual image might, bringing the combat itself to life in an epic action-movie sense, at least for some.
The natural drawbacks with minis are the cost, of course, and also the setup time – especially where full 3D maps are concerned. If you have a gaming space that doesn’t get disturbed between sessions, it can be a worthwhile endeavor to set it up once and take a few sessions to run the PCs through your marvelous construction. Otherwise, simply coupling minis with a flat grid map is a cheaper and more portable solution.
Lastly, there are the electronic options. Naturally, an online game is going to use something like Roll20, kLoOge.werks, or MapTools if they need mapping (although a simple online whiteboard will do in a pinch in all the same ways it would in person).
But the same digital tools can also be used for an in-person game depending on the setup you have available. Passing a tablet around with the map allows for easy updating and switching between rules PDFs or other game data during the session. If you have it, a TV with a laptop plugged into it and a wireless keyboard/mouse can be a tabletop without the tabletop and function the same way.
Given time to set them up, online map programs can lend much of the same imagination fuel that minis and 3D structures do just in terms of the rich art (and there’s rarely a need to draw on the fly, which is handy for many of us who are artistically challenged to a rare degree).
Whatever map medium you gravitate toward for your group, you’re likely to consider the affordability, the portability, and the changeability of the format.
There’s one other thing you should consider: the accessibility. Where maps are concerned, visibility is typically the prime concern.
Take time when you’re labeling areas or targets on a drawn-out map. Make sure you can zoom in and out on a digital map. Minis or features that look similar likely merit an index card label all their own for clarity. Labels should use a dark sharpie or black marker with a thick head – pencil is right out, and thin lines even in marker can be tricky to see.
Also consider the contrast in your colors. If you’re not familiar with how best to contrast shades and colors, this guide is a very good start.
You may think it’s unnecessary if none of your players have mentioned it, but it’s far better to be sure than to risk a player suffering in silence because they don’t feel up to asking for special accommodation. You may find all your players appreciate the considerations – being able to clearly read without squinting or leaning over the table is a definite plus in any game.