Tactical Markers: What's Your Preference?

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
This is a fairly straightforward topic: what do you like to use for tactical markers on your tabletop? This generally covers two separate subjects: the dungeon/terrain and the characters/monsters. So, two questions really. (1) How do you like to model the encounter environment on your tabletop? And (2) what do you like to use to represent creatures on that scale?

Modeling the Tabletop

There are a number of ways to put a miniature dungeon on your table.

Pre-printed dungeon maps are one option. As long as you're not drawing the map yourself before you sit down to play, the chief perk with these is the complete lack of prep-time. The map's already there, in glorious detail; you just need to slap it onto the table when the PCs arrive in that area. The down-sides are lack of flexibility (unless it's a very generic map, it's not likely to be reused in the same campaign) and the fact that with a pre-drawn map of any sort, the parts that the PCs haven't explored yet have to be covered up somehow.

Dungeon tiles neatly solve both of those flaws. Dungeon tiles are always generic, so they can be reconfigured for infinite reuse, and they need only be laid down onto the table as the PCs move through the dungeon. The down-sides here are difficulty of storing & transporting the bulk of a collection; the fact that searching for the right dungeon tiles can get fiddly unless they're somehow sorted or organized; and the fact that tiles tend to come in very regular shapes (and they're rarely narrower than 2" wide), so finding unusual shapes, or sufficient numbers of very narrow corridors, can be difficult.

Modeled dungeon scenery is pretty much just dungeon tiles in 3D... with a commensurate increase in expense and storage/transportation difficulty.

The classic vinyl battle-mat, gridded in squares or hexes, remains popular. Variations on this include gridded paper and "tac-tiles." All of these require that the dungeon somehow be marked directly onto the playing surface, either beforehand and covered up, to be revealed as the PCs move; or somehow drawn or modeled as play progresses, which can be a bit time-consuming, and, as when messing with dungeon tiles, can interrupt the flow of gameplay. Wet-erase markers are perhaps the fastest and least annoying tool to use for marking the dungeon as the game goes on, but this requires frequent erasure with water, followed by drying. One possible alternative is to use some kind of game-piece to delineate dungeon walls, e.g. dominoes (ideal for straight walls) or glass "gaming stones" (better for a variety of dungeon room and cave wall shapes).

Representing Characters

This is a simpler matter, because there are really only two varieties here: miniature figures (or tokens with images on them) versus generic playing pieces which can be designated to represent whatever the DM and players choose. Miniatures enjoy visual impact, but (as with dungeon tiles) suffer from difficulties of storing and moving a large collection, as well as the fact that a good collection must be built up in order to represent a reasonable variety of character and monster types. "Blank" game pieces, meanwhile (be they chessmen, board-game pawns, bingo chips, dice, scrabble tiles, or whatever happens to be handy), although mobile and versatile, suffer from precisely what makes them useful: their lack of visual character makes observing an encounter layout at a glance potentially ambiguous and even error-prone.

My Preferences

I like to keep my "gaming kit" light and mobile, so I've gotten away from dungeon tiles and miniatures. These days, I use a battle-mat with wet erase markers, with the caveat that I only draw rooms on the mat when it's time for a combat encounter. If the players are merely exploring, I stick to plain old-fashioned pencil and 0.2" graph paper. I find that this keeps things reasonably speedy and makes the game flow better than trying to draw the whole dungeon as the players move through it.

One of the peculiarities of my own games, though, is that I like to use a 10' scale rather than a 5' scale for pretty much everything, including combat. This is something of an edition-specific quirk, however. Whereas the d20 system pretty much demands a 5' to the inch scale, older versions of the game rarely give movement rates or spell effects on a finer grain than tens of feet. This is especially true of Basic/Expert D&D, which explicitly recommends using a 1" = 10' scale. (1st edition AD&D, I've been told, was sometimes played using a bizarre 3" = 10' scale. That just makes my head ache!) But where the Basic/Expert game still suggests that only one character or monster at a time can occupy a 10' square in combat, I don't find that very realistic. And so, once I switched from 3rd edition back to playing Old D&D again, I was compelled to quest for the perfect way to let several creatures (as many as four or five) occupy a single 1" square on the tabletop, should the situation demand it.

At first, I used the little soldiers from recent editions of Risk (the LotR edition was great for monsters!), but those tended to fall over and get lost. Next I tried using d6s, with the appropriate number of pips turned face up to suggest the number of characters or monsters occupying a square; but that proved inconvenient whenever a group would "split up" and take separate directions across the battlefield. From there, I was led to a variety of stackable tokens (checkers, coins, scrabble tiles, bingo chips), but that made only the top token visible, rendering the tactical display very ambiguous. So, coming full circle, I realized that I would have to use small markers that could all fit into a 1" square together, without stacking; but they would have to be easier to manipulate and distinguish than Risk men. Lately, I've hit upon the idea of using various colors of 6 x 9 mm "crafting beads." They work pretty well for my purposes.

Of course, since most folks around here play 3rd or 4th edition, my unusual scaling concerns are a big non-issue. But I can tell you that back when I was still playing 3e, I was pretty happy with Clue! pawns for the player characters, chessmen for all the medium-sized monsters, and poker chips or a soda bottle(!) for the occasional large- or giant-sized monster. :D
 

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IronWolf

blank
My current group has been through various styles of play, using 3.5 thus far. We started with Tact-Tiles, dry erase marker and minis. Usually the D&D minis, but we tend to have some good old lead for characters.

At the time we did all mapping on the tiles. Ugh. Time consuming and not worth the effort, I would certainly switch back to just mapping out combat situations as mapping the whole place was just tedious.

The DM that followed me ran with minis and the same tiles just because the precedent was set and he wanted to ween us off of battle mats and not make us quit cold turkey. These sessions tended to only have the combat maps drawn out. This was smoother than the map everything style I had used.

Present day we've been playing gridless. No battle mats or minis.

I'm about to assume the DM's chair again. We will likely go back to using either Tact-Tiles and minis or MapTool on a flat panel TV. Still up in the air. In either case, maps and such will only be used for combat scenarios and we will not be mapping out each and every hallway as we go.
 

OnlineDM

Adventurer
Most of my DMing so far has been online using MapTool - no muss, no fuss!

The first time I ever ran a session, I used a hand-drawn grid on letter paper for the battlemat, coins to represent the PCs, and little dried fruits for the bad guys (bonus - the players could eat the enemies that they killed!). More on that here.

Just today I ran another in-person session - my first real in-person session with preparation. I had a wet-erase battle map handy in case I needed to improvise some maps, but that ended up not being necessary. I had created the main encounter maps in advance using MapTool. I converted them to the proper scale using Photoshop then made them into poster PDFs in PosteRazor, which I then printed out in color and taped together. They looked pretty slick.

For minis, I used homemade tokens - circular images of bad guys printed on photo paper, punched out using a one-inch circular hole punch, then glued onto fender washers from the hardware store. They looked and worked great, and it was a cinch to transport a couple of dozen of them in my dice box. I could also write numbers right on the tokens to denote which bad guy was bandit #1 and which was bandit #2 (important when keeping track of their hit points and conditions). If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't bother with printing the bloodied versions of the images on the backs of the tokens, as it was easy enough for me to just drop a little red rubber band on the token to show that it was bloodied (and the rubber bands are also great for putting on minis that the players had brought for their characters).

The full details of my prep for today's session are here.
 


Ktulu

First Post
Map-Terrain - A strong mix of printed maps (fantastic locations, paizo flip-mats) and Dungeon Tiles. I have 2-3 sets of every DT released, except for Halls of the Giant Kings (curse you HOTGK!!!) making it rare that I dont' have exactly what I need.

Miniatures - For monsters, I use the D&D minis almost entirely. I don't have time to paint 50 orcs, but I have 150 plastic ones. As such, it's a win/win for me. For players, it's a mix of pewter and DDM. Some players want a more specific mini, or something that goes on the shelf when the campaign is done, so they turn to pewter. Mind you, they make me paint them :). Others are happy with a good DDM match.

Markers - For conditions/effects on the field, we use alea tools markers. The magnets are awesome. They are a great visual for helping smooth the tactics of the game.

Miscellania - As I've said before--I think--we also cover our maps/tiles with a large piece of plexi-glass allowing zones and such to be drawn with a dry-erase marker. All players place their characters in plastic-sheets as well, so they can use the dry-erase markers on the sheets without a lot of eraser marks and old pencils... This also doubles to protect the maps/sheets from Dumpy-Mc-Mt-Dew.. You know him; the guy that always dumps his drinks across three players' sheets and ruins the hand-drawn maps? Yeah, that guy. We don't suffer him.
 

Gilladian

Adventurer
We typically use a battlemat and wet erase markers, but sometimes I predraw places I expect the PCs to go frequently, on chart-pad graph paper.

For minis, I have a collection of several hundred hand-painted lead minis from years back when minis were still truly 25 mm. Those are used for the PCs.

Monsters are a semi-random mix of counters made from polymer clay, minis from the same clay, plastic monsters, and random lego -alike toys. Anything I can lay my hands on, really.
 

Osgood

Adventurer
Characters: My group has been using painted, and often customized, miniatures for characters for years. Monsters are a pretty even mix of painted metal and D&D plastic, and the collection has grown to the size where I usually have a good representation for what the party is facing.

Markers: With the advent of 4e we have been using the Alea tool magnets for conditions.

Terrain: After years of using the vinyl battlemat, I used dungeons tiles for a while. For the past few years I have been using Dwarven Forge pieces and Miniature Building Authority buildings. I'm planning on creating a gridded outdoor terrain board for wilderness encounters.

Other: One thing that has facilitated our using the 3D terrain, is having a finsihed basement dedicated to gaming. Our group built a custom gaming table with a recessed area for the minis. The table has built in shelves for all the terrain so its easy to quickly set up.

It has really been awesome using everything. Those rare occasions where we play elsewhere without the accessories it feels off. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, it's so choice; if you have the means, we highly recommend it.
 


One of the peculiarities of my own games, though, is that I like to use a 10' scale rather than a 5' scale for pretty much everything, including combat. This is something of an edition-specific quirk, however. Whereas the d20 system pretty much demands a 5' to the inch scale, older versions of the game rarely give movement rates or spell effects on a finer grain than tens of feet. This is especially true of Basic/Expert D&D, which explicitly recommends using a 1" = 10' scale. (1st edition AD&D, I've been told, was sometimes played using a bizarre 3" = 10' scale. That just makes my head ache!) But where the Basic/Expert game still suggests that only one character or monster at a time can occupy a 10' square in combat, I don't find that very realistic. And so, once I switched from 3rd edition back to playing Old D&D again, I was compelled to quest for the perfect way to let several creatures (as many as four or five) occupy a single 1" square on the tabletop, should the situation demand it.

Odd. Moldvay Basic D&D page B61 suggests a 1" = 5' scale. The 1" = 10' scale from Holmes can work too but I find it a bit cramped unless I'm using really tiny markers for things. Back when minis were true 25mm with bases often smaller than a dime, you could fit 3 abreast in a 1" grid with no problem.

Just like modern athletes, minis have gotten bigger. Most companies are using the 1" base as a standard now. When I stand a "normal" size Reaper fighter next to one of my vintage 1979 Ral Partha Varangian Guardsmen it looks almost like an ogre standing next to a man.

This is the main reason I think 3" as 10' is a good idea. A 10' square can thus hold 9 normal sized men (and the minis will actually fit!)

Which Basic/Expert set says that only one man can occupy a 10' square. Wouldn't that make melee combat require pikes? :p
 

Hejdun

First Post
When gaming online (which is unfortunately almost always, since our DM is in the Army and travels a lot), we use Maptool and create tokens with TokenTool and whatever art we can find.

In person, we stick with a MegaMat and wet erase to map, and have taken to using beer bottle caps to represent characters and monsters. The vast variety out there lets you pick a pattern that suits your character (our genasi has one that has lightning bolts on it, etc). We typically do the same with monsters, but large ones we use caps from, for instance, Vitamin Water bottles. These we often write numbers on, so we can differentiate them for HP tracking purposes.
 

Uder

First Post
I use a combination. For the map, I use wet-erase battlemats (some pre-drawn), printed maps, fully-modeled terrain, and paper terrain. For figures I use miniatures and fold-up paper minis, along with tokens for swarms. I use print-out templates for most spell effects (I have multiples for those that stay in place, like fogs or wall spells). For markers I use my pad of paper 1.0 to write notes or a simple d20 next to the fig for damage done.
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
Odd. Moldvay Basic D&D page B61 suggests a 1" = 5' scale.

<snip>

Which Basic/Expert set says that only one man can occupy a 10' square. Wouldn't that make melee combat require pikes? :p

Huh. You're right about Moldvay suggesting a five-foot scale on page B61, but it contradicts itself on page B19 ("If miniature figures are used, the actual movement of characters can be represented on a scale of one inch equals ten feet. A movement rate of 60' per turn would mean that a miniature figure would move 6 inches in that turn.") This text is reproduced almost verbatim in the Mentzer Basic Set ("Scale Movement," bottom of page 57 in the Player's Manual), and it's even more explicit in the Rules Cyclopedia that the ten-foot scale applies to combat as well as dungeon exploration (page 87, "When you use miniatures to conduct combat, 1" on the table surface represents 10' of distance.")

All the versions of Basic D&D are consistent in stating that characters must be within 5' of each other to conduct melee, but these days, I just read that to mean that meleed characters are standing in the same 10' square, dueling and wrestling and whatever else one might do in a foggy, chaotic scrap. And as more and more combatants enter the melee, it actually helps to clarify why Basic D&D is so insistent on distinguishing Fighting Withdrawal vs. Full Retreat for characters trying to disengage from hand-to-hand combat. (Personally, I find this much easier to adjudicate and keep track of than threatened squares and attacks of opportunity.)

I like the ten-foot scale for many practical reasons. I can put lots of battlefield or dungeon on my tabletop all at once; it doesn't seem like the monsters and characters can cross said encounter area as quickly as if I were using a five-foot scale, so it feels like there's more room to maneuver tactically; and one ten-foot square is such a large area in terms of "game space" that there's plenty of room for abstracting the combat action, and for imagining what's really going on in melee situations. That said, I just can't conceive of using regular-sized miniatures on that scale, hence my oddball quest for alternatives.
 

(Personally, I find this much easier to adjudicate and keep track of than threatened squares and attacks of opportunity.)

I'm so with you on this one!

I like the ten-foot scale for many practical reasons. I can put lots of battlefield or dungeon on my tabletop all at once; it doesn't seem like the monsters and characters can cross said encounter area as quickly as if I were using a five-foot scale, so it feels like there's more room to maneuver tactically; and one ten-foot square is such a large area in terms of "game space" that there's plenty of room for abstracting the combat action, and for imagining what's really going on in melee situations. That said, I just can't conceive of using regular-sized miniatures on that scale, hence my oddball quest for alternatives.

I enjoy painting,modeling, and using my toys in play too much to give them up. I just need a bigger table.
 

karlindel

First Post
Play Surface/Terrain - Chessex Mondomat and dry erase markers. We also sometimes use maps predrawn on Gaming Paper. I tried using D&D minis tiles and Dungeon Tiles, but it always took too much prep to find the ones I wanted, and they didn't always represent what I wanted them to. I have considered picking up a few of the paizo flip-mats, and will probably try picking a couple up to see how I like them.

Miniatures - D&D Miniatures. I have a large collection, and it is nice to have something that looks like what I want it to represent.

Status Effects - Alea Tools Magnets. These are very handy for indicating effects, and the magnetic attraction makes them easy to stack.
 

Holy Bovine

First Post
I use a combination of a battlemat, dungeon tiles and the newest addition the paizo flip-mats. I am really liking the flip mats (for those who don't know they have a really nice map of a location on one side then a blank side with just grass or wood flooring or stonework on the other - this gives a lot of variety in backgrounds and outdoor encounters feel like their outdoors with a grass coloured mat). The flip mats can also have dry or wet erase markers used on them with no colour bleed (a HUGE benefit as most of the players use dry erase markers to track power use, hps etc on their character folders dry erase and battlemat do NOT mix).

For keeping track of conditions we are currently just using small coloured elastic bands but I think we will move to something like the Penny Arcade guys use - round stickers with the condition they grant marked right on them.
 

Festivus

First Post
Play surface - Typically I use my flip mats, but whenever possible I will use printed maps as I have a lot of them that I have collected over the years. I find those really fun to use in game.

Miniatures - I have a lot of them, and usually will use those. In a pinch I will use tokens and pogs that I have from both the Fiery Dragon collection and generic ones WoTC has provided with some of the gameday material, but my preference is actual minis. If I am travelling far I'll use the token/pogs.

Status Effects - For monsters and badguys, I have a 3x5 index card that I track effects on them... but I am probably going to switch to a notebook or use some software to track that stuff because at higher tiers it gets rather silly how many effects and when they end can get. As a note, I put the onus on the players to remind me if I miss a status effect. It's to their benefit and it helps them to pay attention to things going on.

For players, I hand them an index card with the effect placed on them and if it's a save I say hand it back when you save, if it's till monster X turn, it says Monster X turn on it.
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
You know, I just picked up the basic Paizo flipmat a couple of days ago, and I have to say, I'm head over heels in love with it. As if the dry erase surface weren't enough of a selling point, it both folds up (MUCH easier to transport than a roll-up battlemat) and manages to unfold and lay flat with a minimum of fussing. And the price was right. A wonderful thing Paizo put out there.
 

Verdande

First Post
I dislike battle-mats, and miniatures in my role-playing game. Anything more than a dry-erase board for complex fights is far too much "fiddly bits" for me.

This comes from a man who loves Descent: JitD (the reigning champion of fiddly-bit-having games), so it's not just me being codgy.
 

Krensky

First Post
I have a few flip mats, a one foot by two foot wet/dry whiteboard, some homemade pressboard tokens for the PCs and the typical bad guys and NPCs, and a bag of 1", 2" and 3" wooden disks from a craft store with numbers scrawled on them in black sharpie. The tokens are a mix of images, many of them from Fiery Dragon's Counter Collection. The big one of JPGs. Color laser to a full page label, label stuck to pressboard, and some time with a matte cutter.

Combat typically doesn't involve any of that, although I make it a point to pull it out semi-regularly since one of my players really likes grid combat. Most combat is purely descriptive, or with a quick not to scale map to provide relative location.

Or, with vehicles, it's so abstracted maps wouldn't be possible anyway.
 
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samursus

Explorer
Characters: We use DDM minis... I have a few hundred or so... so they can usually find one close enough to represent their PC.

Monsters: I kinda a try to use DDM minis, but most of the time I resort to 1" mini poker chips I bought online a few years ago.. I have 20 each of about 12 colours. The nice thing about them is being able to write numbers on them with dry-erase.

Conditions: I use my collection of plastic pop-bottle rings I have accumulated after someone on ENWorld mentioned the idea when 4e first came out.

Maps: Pretty much use my Paizo flip-mat exclusively now. I had/have 2 other laminated grids (one hand-drawn, one from a 3.5 rulebook) but I LOVE the easy portability of the flip-mat. I am thinking of using regular graph paper for exploring as some have previously mentioned, using the flip-mat for combat only. If I have the time and inclination I will pre-draw the battle scene using the 12-colour dry-erase set I just bought, to occasionally make a vibrant map. Also planning on getting into the Dungeon Tiles: Master Sets, just to try out.
 

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