Your Battlemap is Too Small and Boring and You Should Feel Bad

Do you find that your combats feel claustrophobic? Do your encounters seem eternally enclosed – a dull series of clashes where warriors quickly close the distance and smash each other until a winner is decided by who rolled the most dice? It may be because your battlemap is too small (and boring… and you should feel bad!). But don’t worry. It’s an easy fix.


Many tabletop RPG’s (even the ones that don’t revolve around an actual analog table) employ a visual aid when running combat – the battlemap. It takes many forms: the big sheet of paper, the dry-erase board, the wet-erase board, the wet-erase board that won’t erase that one annoying mark anymore, the chalkboard, the resin-cast dungeon, the cardboard tileset, the foam-board battlefield, the projected image on the wall, the smart TV screen, or the ethereal digital map floating through the internet. This is the stage upon which warfare is played out and it’s limited size changes how you play, even if you aren’t aware of it.

Many battlemaps are sized to fit on a table. Why? Tradition, that’s why! Gamers have been employing card tables, coffee tables, and dining room tables for so many decades that the tabletop itself has become part of the definition that delineates TTRPG’s from their videogame or live-action counterparts. Even in the electronic sphere, most digital battlemaps tend to occupy the same relative dimensions as an analog map that would fit on your table. Again, tradition plays a role, but so do rules systems.


Most combat mechanics in TTRPG’s are written in such a way that we must assume the authors envisioned a standard battle as one that takes place in a single area about the size of a castle courtyard, a hotel lobby, a town plaza, a forest clearing, or an even smaller locale like a dungeon corridor, city alleyway, or the classic 15ft. x 15ft. room (with an orc and a treasure chest). Almost every pre-written adventure will have a good amount of these because it’s the kind of map that fits easily on a printed page. Many game designers expect a party of protagonists to start relatively close together with the enemy near enough that the two sides can run towards each other and engage in close combat (usually melee or hand-to-hand combat) in a fairly short period of time. It’s what we see in canned adventures, it’s what we see in movies, and it makes sense – it gets everybody right into the thick of the fight, quickly.  But if it’s the only thing you use, it’s restrictive.

Other rules seem to limit us to a smaller battlefield, depending on what game system you’re using. Think about movement and maneuver mechanics – does using your action to move give you a greater statistical advantage than simply attacking over and over and over again? For many rules sets, the answer is no – the economy of action dictates that whoever throws the most successful punches (assuming damage is relatively equal) wins. And what about attacks of opportunity or other kinds of “punishments” that occur when you try to move past a foe or disengage quickly to reposition? If maneuvers can’t give you some kind of advantage that’s almost as good as an attack, then why would a player bother to use them?


By sticking to the table-sized battlemap and rules that favor it, gaming groups sometimes limit themselves to boring battles. Chases, running battles, flying battles, falling battles, and high-speed vehicle combat are difficult if you’ve committed to a single, 2D grid of 50×50 five-foot squares. Sniper shootouts, archery exchanges, artillery bombardments, and other long-range fighting can make amazing scenes, but not for the characters who are specialized in melee and can’t hit anything more than a few steps away. And GM’s won’t be able to include stranger scenarios like fast-teleporting opponents, dungeon speed-runs, or multi-location fights if they only have their play area set up for a single room at a time.

The first step is to change your battlemap. For physical maps, find something bigger if you can, or change the scale and use smaller minis/tokens. For battles that will move across an area, don’t draw anything in a fixed position, use fewer set-pieces (like trees) so that you can move everything easier when the field of focus shifts, and try to keep the motion going in a single direction to keep it easy. You can put pieces of clear plastic over your map and carefully slide everything all at once to simulate movement, too. For digital maps, look for gridless terrain that you can overlay with whatever scale grid you need, or stick maps together with a paint program to make a super-map that you can zoom in and out of, as needed. And don’t forget, you can always ditch the map completely and use a theater of the mind technique – just be sure to use plenty of details about relative position in your descriptions and maybe keep some notes to avoid confusion.

If the rules continue to get in the way of your cool, long-range battles with lots of motion, change them up. Ditch the harsh penalties for attempting to maneuver and grant bonuses for those warriors who can out-pace their stationary adversaries. Increase the value of things like flanking bonuses if you want your players to work together on taking down foes and change the pre-set ranges or range penalties of weapons if you want to adjust the effective distance of a fight. And if you are stuck with a few players who don’t have anything to do during the long range battle, give them a side-goal to keep them busy: fight off the waves of one-hit-kill minions before they reach the spellcasters, fetch and reload ammo, or protect allies against return fire.

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