Most groups use miniatures (or tokens), on some sort of grid, to help visualize their battles. When I started playing D&D 30 years ago, if you wanted to use miniatures you had one choice to make: buy a gaming mat or draw a grid on something yourself. Things have changed a lot since then and today there are a great many choices.
Chessex Gaming Mats
Chessex was the first to come out with gaming mats in 1981. Their mats are made of a high quality vinyl that work with wet erase markers. They come in three sizes: 26″ x 23.5″ (Battlemat), 34.5″ x 48″ (Megamat), and 54″ x 102″ (Mondomat”). Originally, they were single-sided with a cloth backing. Now they are double-sided with a square grid on one side and a hex grid on the other. Chessex produces mats with 1″, 1.5″, and 2″ grids. Mats start at $22.98 on their website. All their mats, even the huge ones, can be easily folded or rolled. I prefer to roll mine and store it in a tube.
I purchased a Chessex Megamat within days of their release and still use it today! Out of all the gaming accessories I’ve purchased over the years, this is probably the most useful item in my collection. It is durable, well-made and has survived everything that we have thrown at it in over 30 years of gaming.
At one point, I had stored my mat near a leaky water heater. The mat became horribly stained and I was afraid that it was a complete loss. With a great deal of trepidation, I immersed it in a tub of pure bleach, let it soak for an hour, and then scrubbed it briefly. It was spotless! And the bleach didn’t hurt it one bit. If you accidently use the wrong type of marker on the mat, I suspect this method would remove those as well. If you try something like this, be sure to wear gloves!
Even if you decide to use something else for your battles, I strongly recommend getting a Chessex Megamat (3′ x 4′) to place under it. That way you will always have a large scale grid handy, which I find extremely useful. Everyone else produces 2′ x 3′ mats which, imo, are just too small. It also protects your table, tablecloth, or whatever else you may have under the mat.
I can’t say enough good things about their mats. Buy one! You’ll be happy you did.
Game Mastery Flip-Mats
You can find all the Game Mastery Flip-Mats at Paizo. Flip mats are 24″ x 30″ and fold down to 8″ x 10″. You can use wet erase, dry erase, and permanent markers on these mats. Each mat has a full-color map on each side and are available in a variety of terrain types. At $12.99 each they are very affordable. Having a collection of these would significantly reduce the amount of game time you have to spend drawing out terrain for your encounters.
The only complaint I have ever heard about these mats is that since you fold them, they tend to have a crease that stands up. This is easily corrected though. Simply unfold them and lay a book on them for a couple of minutes while you are preparing for your game. They smooth out very quickly.
Home Made Flip Mats
There are a number of good mapping programs available that are specifically designed for fantasy gaming as well as tons of free images suitable for terrain. See my earlier post on Mapping Software for more information.
With a bit of work you can create your own flip mats. Create two maps, that each span four 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper, and print them out on heavy cardstock. One map will be for the front, the other for the back. Arrange each front and back sheet, back to back, with a blank sheet in between, and have them laminated. Many shipping or printing stores can do this for you. Or you can purchase a laminator fairly inexpensively (I think I paid around $60 for mine). You can either leave the sheets separate and arrange them for use, or tape them together.
Print Your Own Maps
Homemade Flip Maps are good but I think of them as more of a generic setting. I’ve known one DM that did something similar but for specific uses. He printed his entire dungeon at a 1″ per 5′ scale, on a series of 8.5″ x 11″ sheets. Then he laid out the sheets, as needed, and used them as a gaming mat. This provides a cheap, easy method of pre-drawing maps of specific areas. They are even somewhat reusable, depending on the frequency with which you visit that particular dungeon.
You can buy rolls of Gaming Paper (12′ long, 30″ wide) for $4 a roll. This allows you to pre-draw extensive areas in advance and not have to worry about clean up at all. Even if you don’t use it in that manner, it may make a good table cover. That way, you have an impromptu grid at the ready whenever you need it.
Of course you could always just purchase pads of graph paper and piece them together. Graph paper comes in endless varieties and is readily available at all sorts of stores.
This is something that I think every DM should have a good supply of anyway. I use all sorts of different types of graph paper, square and hex, for drawing my maps. Even if I plan to create a map in some sort of mapping software, I always start out on paper.
Plus, my players like to make their own map as they go. Having graph paper around for them is a must!
Print Your Own Graph Paper
Have you ever forgotten to take your pad of graph paper to a game? Or found yourself sitting at home wanting to draw some maps and find that you are out? No need to take the time right then to run to the store. You can print your own graph paper!
Incompetech was nice enough to provide an online widget that allows you to print out any type of graph paper you want. You can specify a square or hex grid, set the size, width, color, etc, and print it out on any printer in a variety of sizes.
3D Terrain – Paper
There are a number of companies that produce 3D terrain. You purchase a PDF file online and print it out on your own printer. It takes some skill and some time to assemble but you can make as much as you want. You want to be sure to use heavy cardstock. What you end up with is sturdy, fairly durable, and if any of it does become damaged you simply create another piece. The terrain that you create with these sets can easily support the weight of miniatures and work well for gaming.
The price for the sets ranges from about $5 to $20 with $11.99 being pretty typical. Since you are buying a digital download, there is no cost for shipping and you don’t have to wait for delivery.
3D Terrain – Resin
Dwarven Forge sells sets of interchangeable painted resin terrain pieces. They are beautiful, very sturdy, and can be rearranged to create whatever scene you need.
In addition to standard city and dungeon terrain, they also have sets of accessories that add flavor.
I heard from one person who has been using these regularly for a great many years. In addition to gaming, his three young boys play with them and throw them around quite a bit. With all that abuse, he said that he has only ever lost one and that was because he walked on it. :)
Prices, and number of pieces, vary but around $100 for a set of 30-40 pieces looks pretty typical. One set would allow you do quite a bit but realistically, I would expect to need at least 5-6 sets in order to do what I want with them.
They aren’t cheap but they are truly amazing. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who has used them that doesn’t agree that they are well worth the price.
Make Your Own 3D Terrain
Hirst Arts sells silicone rubber molds suitable for casting your own pieces. You can use plaster, dental stone, or a variety of other materials.
Casting is easy, setup time is fairly quick and painting is pretty basic. There are no special skills required. Anyone can do this. Assembling the pieces into the terrain you want is kind of like building things with legos. The pieces don’t have little connectors like legos but otherwise it should feel pretty similar.
There are hundreds of molds to choose from. Typical prices seem to be in the $20-$30 range. Each mold creates a number of different types of pieces and you can build quite a bit with the types of pieces from a single mold. However, you will want at least a few to get started.
Getting started should be fairly inexpensive. If you plan to get serious about making lots of terrain you are probably looking at a few hundred dollars or so. However, you can continue to make as many pieces as you want. Beyond the cost of the molds, the materials cost should be pretty minimal.