Dungeon Tile Mastery: 9 Ways To Get The Most Out Of Your Tile Collection

rpg blog carnival logoThis month’s RPG blog carnival is about cartography and mapping. And I thought dungeon tiles would fit that theme nicely.

I like the WotC dungeon tiles a lot and have been collecting sets over the years. They offer a number of advantages over other mapping methods.

  • They save on your toner bill. Printing out maps is great, but can get expensive.
  • Clean. Wet and dry erase ink can make a mess.
  • Fast to clean up. No wet cloths or dry brushes – just scoop up your tiles from the table and you’re done.
  • More details. Tile art supplies you more features to aid gameplay, description, or flavour than an outline on a battlemat would.
  • If you are organized, it is faster to map as you go. Just lay tiles down according to plan. The key is being organized, though, else you’re flipping endlessly through tiles looking for the right ones.

However, there are also some challenges with using this game aid.

Following are 9 tips to help you get the most out of your dungeon tiles.

1. Design with tiles in mind

I gave up trying to match tiles to existing maps long ago. There just are not enough tile variations, plus the square corner nature and fixed sizes of dungeon tiles make it impossible to reproduce maps from most published products.

However, the awesomeness of tiles comes into play when you create your map using tiles first. Layout your tiles to suit your encounter and dungeon needs, and then take that arrangement as your map.

It is tempting to whip out a pencil and start drawing while you design encounters. But if you want to use tiles then you are stuck again trying to match tiles to a pre-existing map.

Instead, get into the habit of keeping your tiles nearby and whipping them out as soon as you need to create a map.

2. Photograph your maps

Take a photo of your tile map design and put them on your computer. Use this to help you layout tiles to recreate your maps fast as you GM.

Use your paint program of choice to annotate map photos. Use these versions to help you record and track GM-only details:

  • Secret doors
  • Traps
  • Inhabitants
  • Treasure
  • Pre-planned tactics

3. Keep tiles from moving

Game tables get bumped, players jostle tiles when moving minis around, and GMs nudge tiles out of place when laying new ones down.

One option to prevent moving tiles is shelf liner. You can get this stuff inexpensively at dollar stores and department stores. It grips most table surfaces as well as tiles. As a bonus, you can get different colours to serve as thematic map backgrounds, such as gray for caverns, brown for dungeons, and green for outdoors.

You might consider getting a large piece of cardboard, foam board, or cork board. Lay tiles on the board and use push puns to pinch tiles in place at corners.

A third option is to use non-residue tape to fix tiles in place.

Finally, sticky tack – the kind you use to put stuff up on walls – can hold tiles in place.

I prefer the shelf liner. Pins only work if you have a complete map laid out and can see the best pressure points to pinch. Using the wrong kind of tape and sticky tack can leave residue on your tiles, or rip the top surface off tiles.

And for speed, you can’t beat just laying down tiles on a non-slip surface rather than messing with tag, pins, or putty for every tile.

4. Use tiles to enhance battle maps

Instead of drawing the whole map with tiles, use tiles in specific places on your maps for flavour, extra detail, or special areas.

For example, draw out your map on your battlemat like you normally would. Then lay down a couple tiles in spots for special purposes. This offers you the speed and freedom of freeform hand-drawn mapping, plus the special qualities dungeon tiles offer.

Example enhancements using tiles:

  • Furnishings
  • Hazard areas
  • Spell effects, magical areas
  • Doors and stairs
  • Elevated platforms
  • Hybrid areas with natural caverns and worked or crafted areas (i.e. a cavern with a temple carved out in the back)
  • 3D environments

You can also switch up between hand-drawn areas that would be difficult for tiles to represent, and rooms and corridors perfect for tile use.

5. Tiles work with dry erase

You can write on tiles to add extra details or modify zones in ways the tiles cannot represent.

For example, you can draw such things as pits, walls, and pools. You can add doors, altars, and furnishings.

When done, just erase before putting tiles away.

A couple caveats with this tip. First, I have not left marks on tiles for more than a few hours. Maybe someone has tested and can let me know if you can leave dry erase on for longer.

I have also only used black and blue markers. Like battlemats, there might be colours that leave stains, such as red. Maybe somebody could advise me on this, as well.

Dry erase particles will get into the tile surface. You will not be able to 100% clean the dry erase marks off tiles. Look close and you can see how the manufacturing process has left bumps in the tile surfaces. Some of the dust will get into these. It is easy to wipe well enough so tiles look clean, but just be aware some dry erase always remains behind.

6. Use on a coloured surface

As mentioned above, you can enhance theme and flavour by placing tiles on a coloured background. Castles go on gray, forests go on green, dungeons go on black, for example.

Go to a stationery or art supply store to get large sheets of heavy paper or light cardboard coloured to suit your needs. Alternatively, you can get felt in a variety of colours. And then there’s shelf liner material that also offers no-skid properties.

As a bonus, the background material can help protect your dining room or kitchen table top, and hide irritating table patterns that break the mood.

7. Get to know your tiles

One of the most common complaints I have heard about tiles is finding the right pieces for the map you’re using or designing. While part of the problem is tile inventory – if you do not have the right piece then you are out of luck – I feel the main issue is lack of familiarity with what tiles you have.

Tiles offer art on both sides, further complicating the problem. And, after not finding a needed tile in-game a few times, you might be inclined to put your tiles away and stop using them altogether.

Before going to that extreme, try getting to know your tiles. Nothing makes tiles more useful than a GM who is familiar with his tile inventory! If you know the shapes and features, plus typical design patterns, tile selection gets faster and easier.

Get your tiles out and start creating maps with them. Do not try to recreate a map. Instead, just freeform it. Make your designs as interesting as possible, which you can do a couple of ways:

  • Looks cool. Make maps that are aesthetically pleasing. (I’m too left-brained for this, unfortunately, but you might have an artistic eye to make this possible.)
  • Tactical. Make maps that would enhance combats by offering tactical choices. For example, choke points, cover, and sneak attack zones.
  • Unique. Avoid big square rooms. Layer tiles on top of each other, and mix up designs so you do not make a bunch of boring spaces.
  • Mix sets. At first glance, that wilderness piece might not fight your cavern motif, but experiment anyway. Use your imagination to explain why a forest might be underground, or why there’s a tent in a dungeon.

The purpose is to fiddle with tiles, flip them over, and put them together in different configurations so you become familiar with all the art of each set and what tiles offer what mapping opportunities.

However, as a big bonus to this exercise, after each map is done you should take a picture of it. Why buy a book of map templates when you have a fun map generator at your finger tips? Make 10 maps from a set, take a pic of each, and now you have 10 maps to use any time, any way you want. Best thing is, these maps are digital, printable, and tile-able!

Help me with the holy grail

In preparation for this article, I racked my brain trying to think of how you could make a game out of dungeon tiles. Perhaps something like Carcassonne or another tile-based board game. Or maybe something with dice + tiles.

If there was a fun game that involved tiles that also created maps for you when the game was over, you would have the holy grail of GM prep on your hands. Not only would you play the game often because it was fun, but you would learn your tiles inside and out for very easy future tile use. And after several playthroughs, you’d have a cool collection of maps (by taking photos after each game) that took no effort to build.

Help me turn dungeon tiles into a short 1, 2 or more player game. Send me your ideas or comment below. Best idea gets a prize!

8. Combo with printable tiles

Combo printable tiles with dungeon tiles to get a whole lot more mileage out of your tile sets.

RPGNow abounds with inexpensive printable tile products, and you can always design your own on your computer with art software.

Use printable tiles to fill dungeon tile layouts with shapes and types missing from your collection.

You can also enhance tiles by stacking them. Take those big area tiles and put printed special-use tiles on top to run more interesting terrain, hazards, and battlefield features for combats.

9. Accent with wooden blocks

From Bill Hein

Invest $20 in two $10 sets of blocks at WalMart. Nothing fancy, just the wood blocks we played with as toddlers. This gives you walls, arches for doors, cylinders for columns, and more.

Combine them with the dungeon tiles. The blocks make the walls, while the tiles are pretty enough to evoke mood. I thought about painting the blocks darker colors, but passed; when they’re bright, it’s obvious from across the table where the wall is.

If you can find the old WizKids Dungeon Tiles for Mage Knight, they’re useful too. I bought mine a long time ago on clearance, but I still stumble across the stuff at rummage sales and flea markets.

Aquarium terrain is good stuff, too. I don’t much like the standard prices, but used stuff on eBay, garage sales, or flea markets works well.

Do you use tiles? If so, you will find my dungeon tiles tips over at Campaign Mastery, as well: 8 Easy Ways to Organize Your Dungeon Tiles.

If you don’t use tiles, check out a few sets I recommend at Amazon.


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