Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 5 February 2022

Mapping Your Dungeon

Given the origins of the roleplaying hobby—in wargaming and in the drawing of dungeons that the first player characters, and a great many since, explored and plundered—it should be no surprise just how important maps are to the hobby. They serve as a means to show a tactical situation when using miniatures or tokens and to track the progress of the player characters through the dungeon—by both the players and the Dungeon Master. And since the publication of Dungeon Geomorphs, Set One: Basic Dungeon by TSR, Inc. in 1976, the hobby has found different ways in which to provide us with maps. Games Workshop published several Dungeon Floor Sets in the 1980s, culminating in Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead and Dungeon Planner Set 2: Nightmare in Blackmarsh; Dwarven Forge has supplied dungeon enthusiasts with highly detailed, three-dimensional modular terrain since 1996; and any number of publishers have sold maps as PDFs via Drivethrurpg.com. Loke Battle Mats does something a little different with its maps. It publishes them as books.

A Loke BattleMats book comes as a spiral-bound book. Every page is a map and every page actually light card with a plastic covering. The fact that it is spiral-bound means that the book lies completely flat and because there is a map on every page, every map can be used on its own or combined with the map on the opposite page to work as one big, double-page spread map. The fact that the book is spiral bound means that it can be folded back on itself and thus just one map used with ease or the book unfolded to reveal the other half of the map as necessary. The fact that every page has a plastic covering means that every page can be drawn on using a write-on/wipe-off pen. It is a brilliantly simple concept which has already garnered the publisher the UK Games Expo 2019 People’s Choice Awards for Best Accessory for the Big Book of Battlemats and both the UK Games Expo 2019 Best Accessory and UK Games Expo 2019 People’s Choice Awards Best Accessory for Giant Book of Battle Mats.

The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats is a ‘Set of 2 Battle Map Books for RPG’. As a set, it comes as two volume set of map books in a slipcase—open ended at either side for easy access. Each of the two volumes is a twelve-inch squire square, spiral bound book, with each containing sixty maps, all marked with a square grid. These start with a pair of blank maps, but quickly leap into depicting particular locations. There are ruined courtyards verging on rough cave areas or overgrown grassed areas, before delving underground. Stairways leading down, a large room with a circular pool or fountain, eating or meeting areas around an open fire, a complex of rooms either partially flooded with either water or a gas or a magical field, a gaol area, a series of rough caves, a library and wizard’s work area, a puzzle trap over a roiling flame pit, a series of rooms accessed by a set of gear traps, sewer areas, and lastly, a demonic villain’s lair… And this is the same in each of the two books. This does not mean that the maps are exactly the same in each book. Rather they are thematically similar and this leads into what is perhaps the greatest feature of The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats.

Each two-page spread of the two volumes of The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats consists of two linked maps—physically and thematically. The Game Master can use either of the maps on the two-page spread on their own or together, as a twelve by twenty-four-inch rectangular map. That though is with the one volume. With two volumes together, the Game Master can combine any single map from one volume with any single map from the other, and if that is not flexible enough, any two-page spread from one volume can be placed next to a two-page spread from the other, in the process, creating a twenty-four by twenty-four-inch square map. This gives The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats a fantastic versatility which the Game Master can take advantage of again and again in choosing a combination of map pages from the two volumes to create location after location, and then use them to build encounter after encounter.

The individual maps are excellent, being bright, vibrant, detailed, and clear. They are easy to use and easy to modify. A Game Master can easily adjust them with a write-on/wipe-off pen to add features of her own. This is especially important if the Game Master wants to use a map which has previously featured in one of her adventures. She can also add stickers if she wants new features or even actual physical terrain features.

However, there is a limitation on how and when the two volumes in The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats can or should be used. To begin with, they are not necessarily that easy to use on the fly, to ready up an encounter at a moment’s notice. Instead, they are easier to use as part of the Game Master’s preparation and then have everything necessary to play. Then obviously, the maps cannot be used over and over lest familiarity become an issue. Lastly, there are the maps themselves, which are constrained by the square and rectangular formats, whether combining the two volumes or not. It means that the layouts are often too regular, too compact, and lacking in that sense of black, empty space in between locations within a dungeon. Now this is not obviously an issue in other collections such as The Towns & Taverns Books of Battle Mats or The Wilderness Books of Battle Mats, where there is an expected sense of regularity and compact size, or a more open sense of space. Neither of these are issues which will prevent a Game Master from using The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats, but rather that she should be aware of them prior to bringing them to the table.

Physically, The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats is very nicely produced. The maps are clear, easy to use, fully painted, and vibrant with colour. One issue may well be with binding and the user might want to be a little careful folding the pages back and forth lest the pages crease or break around the spiral comb of the binding. Although there is some writing involved in The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats, it is not really what a Game Master is looking for with this two-volume set. Nevertheless, that writing very much needs the attention of an editor.

There is no denying the usefulness of maps when it comes to the tabletop gaming hobby. They help players and Game Masters alike visualise an area, they help track movement and position, and so on. If a gaming group does not regularly use miniatures in their fantasy games, The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats might not be useful, but it will still help them visualise an area, and it may even encourage them to use them. If they already use miniatures, whether fantasy roleplaying or wargaming, then the maps in The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats will be undeniably useful. And there are so many fantasy roleplaying games which The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats will work with, almost too many to list here…

The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats is full of attractive, ready-to-use maps that the Game Master can bring to the table for the fantasy roleplaying game of her choice. Both practical and pretty, The Dungeon Books of Battle Mats is an undeniably useful accessory for fantasy gaming in general. 

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