While gamers love traditional, dungeon-type maps, they are certainly not the only possible graphics options.  Background images, area maps, and player handouts can enhance any gaming experience.  Online virtual tabletops (VTT’s) make including these types of images easier than ever.  And they won’t eat up a dime of printer ink.  If you are not an online GM, you can still present these types of images to your players through a laptop screen or tablet.  Here are some thoughts on each type of image and how they enhance play.


Background Imageswaterfall_entrance

Remember Colorforms?  A box of Colorforms gave you a background, clingy plastic people, props, and the opportunity to tell your own story (that last part sound familiar?)  Background images in your game can do the same thing.  You might use a long shot background image (say of a volcano or an island) to set the scene or the mood.  Leave it up on the screen for roleplaying or other non-tactical encounters.


Close up images such as the dragon tomb entrance shown can be used for combat situations.  They let players to see things a little closer to how we interact with the world every day.  However, a GM will have to estimate distances, if that is needed for your game.


Area Mapsmap_bohdmalsmall

Area maps can be uploaded to a VTT and then expanded to whatever size you need.  It offers a few advantages.  Players can wander wherever they choose or the story leads them.  This increases player choice (always a good thing).  It can also serve as a combat map, if you blow up the map large enough.  For example, it took me an hour or so to create the map shown below, and we got about 3-4 hours of play on it.  Keep the area the map covers to a manageable level, though.  If you try to cover an entire kingdom, you won’t be able to use it as a playmat.


Obviously these kind of maps are more suited to narrative style combat rather than gridded combat.  However, you can easily include another map for any particular encounter.  For example, you might want to create a small dungeon map if players wish to explore the hill on the right side of the map.  It is only generally indicated.


Player Handouts

Some VTT’s offer a spot to load player handouts.  The GM may even be able to take control of the screen, and show these to the players at a particular moment. They will also be available to players at all times (even between sessions) for general reference.  Here are some thoughts on things to include in that section.

  • Area maps – Even if you are using an area map as your background, it may help players see the “big picture” if they can access the entire map at any time.
  • Continental or world maps – These would be great to remind players where they have been in your world.
  • Scrolls, letters, or transmissions – I played in a game where they GM read a long riddle-poem to us.  It would have been nice to have that available as we searched for clues to its meaning.  If desired, a GM can even make it look like old paper using a graphics program.
  • House rules or important meta-game information – While not an image, we keep a chart of “Sessions to level up” in our handouts to remind everyone of where we are.
  • Images of important NPC’s – Imagine a recurring villain’s image just sitting on the side of the screen, taunting players at each session. Also, imagine how satisfied they will feel the night that they finally defeat the villain and you remove his portrait.


What are your thoughts on non-traditional maps?  What other kind of images might work as psuedo-maps?  Share your thoughts below.



John Fredericks

About  John Fredericks

In the early 1980's, John was given the Moldvay Red Box set as a birthday gift. The Blue Expert set soon followed and the mania has yet to subside. Over the years, he has played and GMed various flavors of D&D, Star Trek, Star Wars and the odd superhero game. Most of his recent GMing has been online using virtual tabletops.

While not a current photo, John assures you that he has never looked better. Sad, but true.

He is the sole proprieter of Sharp Mountain Games on drivethrurpg.com.

4 Responses to THE ONLINE TABLETOP: Non-Traditional Maps

  1. Sometimes verticle maps have a place especially for multi-level locations like dungeons or towers. Think of it like a Mario game with a sideways view (rather than top down) allowing you to view the horizontal and verticle, but not depth. There’s a recently posted cliffside monastery illustrative map on my G+ community that emulate the cliff temples of China, that use this style.

    As in your area map example, I often create isometric maps which allow you to see walls under a roof. I do this for village/town maps, and regional maps. While I’ve seen dungeons depicted this way, its not useful for miniatures or use of tokens, but can give you a much better understanding of the height of walls and rooms and changes in depth from one area to another. Isometric maps are bit trickier to create compared to more typical top down maps. The last published map I used in this style was for the mostly verticle dungeons in Up from Darkness, a one-shot module for the Kaidan setting of Japanese horror. Since many areas of the dungeon are featured as verticle shafts, it is easier to convey the idea of that in an isometric map.

  2. John Fredericks

    I haven’t tried isometric maps much, though I’d really like to do more with that. It’s sorta 2.5 D. Any hints on getting started on an isometric map?

  3. There is such a thing as isometric grid paper.

    Otherwise layout your elements as if being done from a complete top down map. Then rotate the map 45 degrees and reduce the map vertically by 57.7 percent. Isometric maps basically has the x and y axis at 30° from the horizontal, so a cube looks like a perfect hexagon with 120° interior angles.

    I cheat, when I do isometric maps, I create simple 3D models then render the image in isometric view, then use the rendered image as a reference to hand-draw it – I let the 3D app do the angles for me.

  4. John Fredericks

    Thanks GameprinterI wouldn’t have known the 57.7 % for the vertical.

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