My experience as a Dungeon Master spans over 30 years, starting with the D&D red box picked up in the mid-80s to play with my school friends. Over the (many) years, one of the changes which has most influenced me and the way I run my games is the move from “theatre of the mind” to using tactical maps and miniatures. Indeed, I have so enjoyed designing the maps for my games that I now do it full time!
A battle map is a key part of any encounter as it sets the scene in so many ways, and for online play is quite literally your players’ window into your world.
Fundamentally, using a map to run tactical encounters is broadly the same if you are running a game in person or online, with the same challenges and opportunities for the DM. Over the last 18 months, some of my own games have moved online, and battle maps now play an even bigger role, not just for how my games look, but also how they feel for my players.
Step 1: Picking the Right Map
When setting up your encounter, the first step is to find an actual map to use, or to construct one from tiles and assets, that is suitable for the location where the action will unfold.
Of course, the other method is to find battle maps you like and then design encounters specifically for them, that way the map matches the encounter perfectly.
Think about the sightlines, varied levels, and different types of terrain on your maps.
In practice, I tend to settle on an even mix of making maps for encounters and using existing maps to inspire encounter ideas. I also try to always have a couple of extra maps ready to use in case of unexpected encounters, and these tend to be more multipurpose in nature. You can store these maps as extra pages in your Roll20 games.
There are some basics to consider when choosing or making your map. The most vital is space. The map must be able to accommodate all the actors (PC’s, NPC’s and Monsters), allow them a certain degree of movement, and have ample extra space to use any abilities.
If you are using a dungeon map full of dark, narrow corridors, then you will be limited in your use of the larger monsters (dragons are, after all, usually rather huge). So, whether you are constructing your own dungeon from tile sets, or playing a ready drawn map, consider the scale of the spaces and check that this fits with the encounters you want to have.
Step 2: Making the Most of Your Map
So now that you have chosen your map, you want to get the most out of it. Using the existing features of your map is a great way to develop your encounters, and a good map will inspire tactical thinking with height changes, obstacles, hazards, chokepoints, blind spots, and multiple routes to take.
You can also extrapolate from what the map shows and make the environment more of an active element of the encounter. If your map has trees, then you can surprise your players mid combat with falling branches or attacks from above.
Is there a darker area in your dungeon? This can be a breach in the wall or floor which the local monsters can take advantage of.
These small features can spark your imagination and offer inspiration to add new, unexpected elements to your combat encounters.
If your map is plainer, it is such fun to add in features with this in mind.
You can’t go wrong with a river of lava, of course.
Is that shaded corner a tunnel? It is now! Is that darker tile a hole? Does that wall have any loose bricks? Is the cave floor smooth and slippery rock or thick with mud that slows everything down? You can also make the map change during an encounter by adding scenery assets to change things up. On Roll20, tokens and other map features are easy to add both on-the-fly and while prepping maps.
Personally, I like to add some variation to encounters by making sure there are always environmental elements in play that could help or hinder. These can complicate even the simplest combat scenarios.
Restrict player and adversary movement by introducing things like thick mud and uneven terrain to outdoor encounters. Surprise them with falling hazards indoors from poorly constructed ceilings and outdoors from unsteady rock faces or dangerous snowy slopes that can collapse if disturbed. And these are tactics that work just as well when you play online.
Step 3: Adding the Roll20 Touch
On Roll20, you have even more options at your fingertips. Dynamic Lighting, for example, allows you to control your player’s line of sight. So where in person you would cover part of your map, turn the page in your map book, or only set up your encounter as your players open a door to keep the element of surprise, here you can go even further. Use features like pillars and debris to create blind spots even as your players move through an area.
The GM layer can hide things like chests, so more thorough exploration is needed to find valuables, and can also track intelligent enemies that are using stealth, either to ambush or escape.
Think about the spots on your map that your players will gravitate towards. Reward them for exploring!
It’s hard to beat the moment a player moves their token around a corner or opens a door only to reveal a horde of monsters ready to act, the player gets to be as surprised as their character, roll initiative!
Whichever tool you use, the aim is the same: To create a new, engaging experience for your players time and time again.
And for me, your choice of map and how you use it will always be the key to running immersive tactical encounters.
Check out Loke BattleMats’ offerings on the Roll20 Marketplace to find the perfect battle map for your next game. All the maps in this post are from the Old Dungeons Map Pack!