Using Figures & Maps While Roleplaying: 11 Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0061

  1. Assess Your Group’s Needs & Preferences First
  2. Pick Tokens That Suit Your Group’s Needs
  3. Choose A Mapping Method That Suits Your Group’s Style
  4. Give Your Figs Sturdy Bases
  5. Lay Your Large Maps Out Before The Session Begins
  6. Create House Rules On Mapping & Figures Etiquette
  7. Pre-Draw Maps & Create Templates To Speed Play
  8. Use A Raised Platform At The Table For Figs
  9. Use String To Measure Distances
  10. Use Figures For Inspiration
  11. Try A Session With Figs & Try A Session Without

A Brief Word From Johnn

New Submission Guidelines

I’ve finally organised some submission guidelines and made them available to you via autoresponder, if you are ever interested in submitting articles (which I hope you are!).

Please note, the guidelines are not needed for your individual tips submissions, feedback or comments. Just for articles.

See the bottom of the issue for the email address.

About This Week’s Issue

I’d like to take a moment to thank all the tips readers who wrote in with their figures & maps tips. This issue is pretty much a compilation of the tips I received, plus my own two cents here and there.

While I’ve credited a few readers in the issue, there’s just no room to credit you all, unfortunately. Get a good sleep tonight though because thousands of GMs are now benefitting from your excellent advice!

Last week I asked for a vote on whether this issue should be published. The results were:

3% No: do not publish figs & maps tips
97% Yes: do publish them.

Total votes: 233

Thank you for taking the time to vote, your feedback was important to me.

This issue turned out to be rather long, so I decided to save the Readers’ Tips section for next week. I also cut a few tips out, so there may be a future follow-up issue or perhaps an article. I’ll keep you posted!

For those of you who prefer not to use figs in your games, thanks for hanging in there. Next week I have some tips planned for using fiction and books as GMing tools. See you then!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Using Figures & Maps While Roleplaying: 11 Tips 

Terminology note: in this issue, when I refer to “maps”, I am referring to to-scale maps for use with figures–not world or regional representational maps.

Assess Your Group’s Needs & Preferences First

It’s important that everyone in your group enjoys the “figs and mapping experience”. Things like picking a mapping method (see Tip #3) and a token type (see Tip #2) to fit your group’s preferences are good examples of making an effort to please everyone.To find your group’s preferences, have a chat with each of your players. I would do this one-on-one between game sessions, or at the end of a session when everyone is packing up. This way no precious game time is lost.

Ask your players questions like these:

  • What are your thoughts on using figures during play?
  • What do you enjoy/dislike about using them?
  • What failures/successes have you had in the past with them?

Keep an open mind and be objective when listening to your players’ feedback. Have a pen and paper handy to record preferences and ideas.

Also, you may want to divide a sheet into two columns: Pros and Cons, and fill it out as your players talk with you.

Afterwards, you should have two goals:

  1. Think up solutions to offset the Cons your players gave you.
  2. Figure out ways to accentuate/promote the Pros so everyone has the most fun possible from using figs and maps.

Pick Tokens That Suit Your Group’s Needs

There are lots of different ways to represent the PCs, their allies and their opponents during play. Pick the type that best fits what your group wants and needs.If you are just wanting to experiment with figs, use an inexpensive token type to start.

Other possible factors for your group, besides cost:

  • Imagination (do they enhance or intrude on your player’s imaginations?)
  • Game feel (do they enhance your game’s atmosphere, have no effect, or ruin it?)
  • Easy to transport (i.e. weight, size, fragility)
  • Stability (do you have a shaky game table?)
  • Customizable (can the players modify to better identify with?)
  • Storage (size of container required)
  • Durability
  • Scale & Size (easy to pick up and move around)
  • Differentiation (can players easily identify which token is theirs? Can you?)
  • Creature specific (can you just grab a handful of tokens to use as bad guys or do you need specific tokens for looks, size, etc.?)

Here are some examples of tokens:

  • Plastic or metal figurines
  • Cardboard/Paper figs (2D figs)
  • Flat counters
    • coins, counters from another game, poker chips, bottle caps
  • Beads
    • found at game shops or craft stores
    • colour-coding possible (i.e. the green beads are the enemy)
    • get ones that don’t roll around everywhere
  • Dice (a personal favorite)
    • colour-coding possible (i.e. the blue d6’s are the enemy)
    • numbers can be used to track wounds, initiative, etc.
    • use bigger dice to represent tougher foes
  • Pasta
    • different shapes, sizes and colours possible
    • glue + pasta = anything (monsters, buildings, terrain…)
  • Gummy Bears, Smarties, M&Ms
  • Toys
    • Star Wars, modern, sci-fi and fantasy plastic figurines
    • variety of scales and sizes
    • can be expensive but colourful and highly detailed

Choose A Mapping Method That Suits Your Group’s Style

The way you have your figures interact with your maps is a very important decision because mapping done in a bad way can take up precious game time, distract players and disrupt game flow.Here is a combination that I have had excellent recent success with.

Maybe it will suit your group:

  • At my local stationery store I purchased a large pad of graph paper (roughly 3 feet by 4 feet, for under $10CAN). This pad was originally intended for use on an easel for business presentations, but the squares are 1? x 1?–perfect for figs!
  • I also purchased a box of 64 Crayola crayons. Many colours, cheap and a lot of fun to use!
  • We set the pad on the table top and use metal figs with 1? bases (see Tip #5 below on bases). The players use the same figs each session and I can now quickly identify who is who without having to ask the players any more.
  • For most outside (and some inside) encounters that will likely involve combat or tactical decisions, I give the crayons to the players and they draw the area out for me, while I make last minute preparations for the encounter.Having the players draw the encounter map saves lots of game time and they always draw a better and more detailed map than I would have done.After the players are finished drawing I quickly review the map and make any final changes and additions.
  • For inside encounters, I draw the maps. And I draw them as the PCs explore, up to the limits of their vision.
  • By using paper and crayons, we end up creating permanent, colourful maps that we can reuse should the characters return.
  • On the down side, when I draw the map, the characters have 100% accurate information. I feel though, it’s worth sacrificing that small point in favour of the huge gains in game play and figure play.(Even without figs I tend to draw the players’ maps to save time and keep the story flowing.)
  • Players are allowed to make notes on the map paper, for current or future reference. And not just for things like room contents, discovered traps, clues, etc. But for personal info, on the map in front of where they sit, for things like NPC names, current wounds, reminders, etc. The pad is big enough to accommodate.
  • Last session I named the map, which the players thought was a nice touch.

Here are some other mapping method examples:

  • Vinyl mats (highly recommended!)
  • square or hex grid, numbered or not
  • compatible with erasable markers (avoid the colours red, yellow, orange and brown for markers though, as I’ve found those stain the mats if left on for too long)
  • more info at:– our sponsor has Chessex mats pre-ordered for when Chessex delivers them to the entire industry in March/April (they make them in batches); they can take pre-orders from you, and are giving a 10% discount to subscribers: Go to Game Accessories/Game Accessories. Email me for the special 10% discount code you need when ordering (just a special discount for you, I make no money or commission on your order): [email protected]
  • Scaled maps printed from mapping software (see Issue #60)
  • Any old sheet of paper and a quick sketch; not to scale and figs are for vague representation only.
  • Dry erase board
    • some readers have carved a grid into theirs and others have used permanent markers to create a grid, if desired.
  • Pre-made or template maps on paper, covered by acetate or plastic which is usable with non-permanent markers. Some readers store their maps in a binder and flip to a template when they need it. See Tip #7.
  • A large roll of newsprint paper that you can just feed along and draw on; rewind to visit earlier maps.
  • Tiles that are laid down as the area is explored
    • tiles are available commercially
    • create a copy of your map and cut it up
    • reader tip from Nobody: “One trick we’ve found useful is to use two sets of dominos. One black and one white. Our hex map works out that one domino fits a length of ten feet (two hexes on our map). It makes mapping go faster. The black dominos work for walls and the white ones we stand on end to use as doors.

Some mapping method factors:

  • Scale: is it necessary to draw a large, to-scale map that fits your figs, or can you get away with a smaller, more abstract map?
  • Encounter by encounter map method vs. continuous map method: using any of the above mapping materials, you have the option of drawing maps for each important individual encounter at a time, or, like my example at the beginning of this tip, you can draw out a whole area in a large continuous map (using large paper or several small sheets of paper linked together)
  • Permanent or temporary: Will you need those maps again? We employ both in my group: the large paper pad for permanent maps and two Chessex mats for temporary illustration.

Finally, a quick tip on using large paper pads or the vinyl mats. They are easily stored by rolling them up after a game session and bound with a rubber band or put into a map container. They will curl though, after resting in a rolled- up position.

So, try to roll your maps up with the map side facing out. This means that, next session, your maps will curl down instead of up. This makes a huge playability difference!

Give Your Figs Sturdy Bases

Figures or tokens that fall over at the slightest bump become difficult to use.

Try to glue or fasten tipsy figs to a sturdy base:

  • Cardboard
  • Coins
  • Plastic bases from Games Workshop (I recently bought 50 for $8.00CAN)
  • 1? ceramic tiles

Some bases are too light for top-heavy figs. Try filling the base with glue (if possible) or gluing pennies to the underside to provide extra stability.

Lay Your Large Maps Out Before The Session Begins

It’s a lot easier to push stuff out of the way on the game table to clear a spot on the map than it is to pick it all up while the mat or pad is being placed on the table top.So, before the game table gets cluttered, put your large mats and maps down first. There will be far less game disruption that way.

Graphic of section divider

Create House Rules On Mapping & Figures Etiquette

Depending on the quirks and preferences of you and your players, you may need to lay down some basic house rules when using figures.This is also a good way to counteract some of Cons you noted from Tip #1.Example house rules to ease play:

  • Players should not touch/move other players’ figs (or throw dice at them, lol)
  • Maps and mats cannot be drawn, written or doodled upon by players unless OK’d by the GM
  • Before action resolution, the GM should verify with all players that their figs are properly placed (prevents a lot of bickering)
  • Figures not in use should be removed from the map surface
  • Players should not modify the map without the GM’s permission
  • Players should not touch opponent figures
  • If players paint their figures, they should lacquer them to prevent chipping/damage (reduces player anxiety during use)

Pre-Draw Maps & Create Templates To Speed Play

Drawing up as many maps and map templates that you can before play can save a lot of game time:

  • Planned encounter areas (i.e. small area, ruins, dungeon level, important castle areas…)
  • Random wilderness areas (forest clearings, typical camp areas, river & bridge crossings, mountainous path…)
  • Urban areas (inn, tavern, shop, warehouse, temple, jail, street corner, pier…)
  • Rural areas (village square, meeting hall, farm house…)

And I’ve used various methods to gradually reveal pre-drawn maps in the past:

  • I used post-it notes to hide sections
  • Cut a hole into a piece of black construction paper and moved it over the map
  • Folded maps that are unfolded during play (also helps to cut flaps in certain areas)
  • A reader, Aegeri, cuts his maps up and pops them down when major sections are explored

Use A Raised Platform At The Table For Figs

My group discovered this by accident a few sessions ago. We took a piece of plywood and set it atop a small box on the game table. This allowed us to put our maps and figs on one “level” while our notes, sheets and dice could still remain on the table “level”.Once we were done with the figs for the time being we just picked up the plywood and set it aside.Just be careful not to hit the raised level hard or it will fall over. It’s worth the risk for our group though, as it nearly doubles our playing area.

Use String To Measure Distances

If you’re not partial to playing with grids on your fig maps, try using string to quickly measure distances.Cut off a 2? piece of string and put a mark at every inch with a pen or felt marker. String is great for measuring tricky routes or winding paths that characters will want to make. Just lay the string down along the path and tally the marks.And feel free to use tape to label sections of your string (i.e. every 5?, 10 marks, etc.).

Here’s a similar tip

From Mike T.

“With miniatures I had some pre-made spell ranges cut out of cardboard paper for things like fireball and cone of cold, two spells I knew my party had, to make figuring out which critters were affected easy…”