7 Tips for Cool DnD Battlemaps

7 Ideas for Designing Fun D&D Battlemaps

So, you need to come up with a map for your next gaming session. But, you feel like your combats have stagnated. So, you’re having some trouble coming up with something.

You’re looking for something to make your D&D combat more interesting.

Hey, we’ve all been there.

I’m there every time I need to prepare for a night. So, to help streamline the creative process, I’ve put together a list of seven D&D battlemap tips.

These tips will help you design fun and interesting environments for your players to kill their enemies in.

In this post we’re gonna cover:

  1. Open Ground
  2. Cover
  3. Elevation
  4. Difficult Terrain
  5. Environmental Hazards
  6. Dynamic Maps
  7. Interactivity

And, how to blend each of these elements to make awesome combat encounters.

Let’s get started.

Open Ground

D&D Battlemap Tips, Open Ground, Drawing of a Mountain and Trees
Open ground is the basis for pretty much any battlemap | Source

First things first, let’s start with open ground.

You need to include some open spaces in your battlemaps. Melee combatants need to maneuver the field to engage their enemies. And, ranged fighters need line of sight for their attacks.

The problem with open ground is it’s the default.

Which makes sense. It’s the easiest terrain feature to deploy and doesn’t take a ton of work. And, it allows free movement for all parties involved.

But, wide open battlemaps can get…boring.

Now, I’m not saying there’s not something evocative and thematic as a showdown in the middle of a field with a thunderstorm raging overhead. Those fights have a place in every game. And, going back to basics is nice especially for non-critical fights.

So, how do you use open areas in your environments?

What I suggest is use open spaces strategically. Break them up with environmental features like large rocks, trees, walls, and elevations.

(And, we’ll address all those later)

You can’t not include open ground in your battlemaps. Any area where player characters, NPCs, and creatures can move without difficulty is an important tactical position. And, it means limiting the capabilities of every character.

Use open ground in your D&D battlemaps to give players (and enemies) options for movement in combat.

Make it desirable. Make it a minor reward for your players. But most importantly; make it fair.

That all being said, open ground means nothing without line of sight blockers.

Which leads us to our next topic; cover.

Cover

D&D Battlemap Tips, Cover, Drawing of Man in a Hole
Give your players (and monsters) cover to hide behind | Source

Page 196 of the Player’s Handbook, or the cover section on DnD Beyond, defines cover as:

"Walls, trees, creatures, and other obstacles can provide cover during combat, making a target more difficult to harm."

Basically, cover is anything between an attacking creature and they’re target. And, the best part is targets behind cover get bonuses against being hit.

There are three types of cover in D&D 5e:

  • Half Cover: +2 to Armor Class and Dexterity saving throws
  • Three-Quarters Cover: +5 to Armor Class and Dexterity saving throws
  • Total Cover: Can’t be directly targeted by spells or attacks

How much cover you have is pretty much up to you as the Dungeon Master. But, if your character’s body is blocked by the prerequisite number, you should get that amount of cover.

Which means if you’re half blocked, they should get half cover and so on.

Remember: with total cover, you can’t be targeted directly. But, if a spell or action doesn’t specify that a target needs to be seen, you can still suffer the effects.

So, as a DM, you’re probably already using cover in your battlemaps. Aside from open space, it’s the easiest thing to add to any map for encouraging tactical thinking.

The question is are you enforcing cover?

Look, it’s easy to forget about it. You’re running every enemy, tracking turn order, maybe you’re trying to track your player’s hit points. Remembering cover is just another thing on top of the pile.

But, your combats benefit from utilizing the full cover system.

Players will start to observe their surroundings for advantageous positions behind line of sight blockers. And, you should do the same with the NPCs.

Now, this might cause combat to crawl. So, you need to encourage movement through other means.

Like open ground, incentivize cover to direct the flow of combat. And, move to take it from your players if they get too comfortable.

One way to implement cover is introduce varying levels of elevation in your battlemaps.

Elevation

D&D Battlemap Tips, Elevation, Drawing of Men Dangling a Man Over a Cliff
Elevation is a great way to make combat more interesting | Source

Personally, this is an easy but underutilized element in a lot of D&D games.

Make or use maps with different levels of elevation. Placing enemies above or below your player characters adds a different dynamic to the combat. Even better, they serve as another obstacle your players need to figure out in order to gain the advantage in combat.

So many maps already have elevation built in. But, it’s easy to forget about it.

Any forest map presents an opportunity to enemies hiding in trees. Any city or town map has buildings to climb on to. Any mountain pass battlemap has chances to perch on a rocky outcrop. But, we as DMs often resort to the same old tactics of ambushing players on the path or in the street.

Use elevation in your battlemaps to add more tension to your combats.

We all know staying above your opponents is the best place to be. The opposite result is often falling into a river of lava while your enemy gloats about having the high ground.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, It's over, Anakin. I have the high ground.
Like this guy (via Giphy)

Any sort of elevation is an advantage over an enemy. And, adding verticality to your battlemaps introduces the threat of fall damage. Which is always fun.

Now, there aren’t any real, mechanical benefits to taking the high ground before an any does in D&D 5e. But, if it’s high enough, elevation can provide cover against enemies below you.

This is the real advantage to adding elevation to your battlemaps.

The trick is you need to make your high points high enough to provide cover. A gentle hill won’t do you much good (as far as cover is concerned). But, a high wall or cliff face can give anyone on top of it half or even three-quarters cover.

Now, you should use less tall terrain features too.

A hill provides opportunities for rolling improvised traps like logs or rocks. Or, a shallow ditch might be just deep enough to let a character lie down out of sight.

These small features add to the aesthetic of the map itself.

The catch with elevated features in your battlemap is it becomes (or might become) an ordeal to get to. Even better is when NPCs and player characters scramble to grab it first. But, more often than not, climbing to a high point involves moving through difficult terrain.

Difficult Terrain

DnD Battlemap Tips, Difficult Terrain, Drawing of a Swamp
Use difficult terrain to encourage tactical thinking | Source

Like elevations, I don’t see a lot of battlemaps using difficult terrain.

Difficult terrain is a good way to control character movement. You can use it in your maps to divide the field into sections. Or, slow down the progress of the player characters and monsters.

So, what is difficult terrain?

Page 182 of the Player’s Handbook, or here on DnD Beyond, defines difficult terrain as:

"…adventurers often face dense forests, deep swamps, rubble-filled ruins, steep mountains, and ice-covered ground–all considered difficult terrain.
You move at half speed in difficult terrain–moving 1 foot in difficult terrain costs 2 feet of speed–so you can cover only half the normal distance in a minute, an hour, or a day."

What does this mean?

In a nutshell, difficult terrain halves your movement speed.

Now, something I’ve noticed about players (and being a player); no one wants to enter difficult terrain. Which makes it easy for you when making your battlemaps to cut off movement without actually denying it.

The best part is difficult terrain is pretty easy to add to almost any map.

You see, anything that impedes movement without stopping it can slow down a character’s movement. Some examples are:

  • Loose gravel
  • Thick underbrush
  • A layer of ice
  • Sharp rocks
  • Rushing water

What I suggest is to think about how hard a terrain feature is to move through. If a character or creature needs to put in reasonable effort to move through a section of the field, it might be difficult terrain.

Also, chances are, you or your players are going to create difficult terrain at some point during your campaign.

There are a few spells that generate difficult terrain. Entangle and Evard’s Black Tentacles are a couple examples of spells that do so. Also, characters might cause it through mundane means like causing a small cave-in or spilling a barrel of oil over the floor.

Caltrops and ball bearings kind of achieve the same effect. They don’t make an area difficult terrain exactly. But, only in that to prevent the negative effects, a character needs to move at half speed. It’s not difficult terrain…but it’s basically difficult terrain.

What it boils down to is, difficult terrain is a great feature for creating complex battlemaps.

Next, let’s move on to making your maps more dangerous.

Environmental Hazards

D&D Battlemap Tips, Environmental Hazards, Drawing of a Geyser
Add some natural and artificial hazards to your battlemaps | Source

Monsters aren’t the only things your players should worry about.

Include environmental hazards to your D&D battlemaps when appropriate. This keeps your players on their toes. Even better, they need to pay attention to their surroundings.

Now, you need to be careful with hazards like this.

Your players need to know the battlefield itself is dangerous. Otherwise, you might run into complaints of tricking your players. And, you could spoil the session.

How you telegraph the dangerous terrain is up to you. Sacrifice an NPC, show the bones of some unfortunate soul, whatever works for you. Just give your players a chance to avoid it.

I’d also suggest using saving throws. This is a good way to let your players know something is coming.

Also, not using them is kind of in poor form.

This all being said; environmental hazards are loads of fun. The best part is it encourages so many things that make D&D 5e combats great.

They encourage movement. They create tension. And, they force players to pay attention.

Dangers can be anything that don’t come from a character. But, they could be the result of a character’s actions. Some examples you can use include:

  • Falling rocks
  • Erupting geysers
  • Rushing water
  • Magical tendrils
  • Pit falls

Remember: environmental hazards don’t need to cause damage.

Most of the time, yeah. The idea is to have another few sources of damage against the player characters and DM-controlled NPCs. But, that doesn’t need to be the case.

Hazards can mean anything that inconveniences or puts characters into less than ideal situations.

This leads us into the next topic; creating dynamic battlemaps.

Dynamic Battlefields

DnD Battlemap Tips, Dynamic Maps, Drawing of a River in a Forest
Changing maps keep your players on their toes | Source

Now we’re getting a little more complicated.

When you can, change the environment of your battlemaps during combat. Altering the board means forcing your players to think on their feet. Even better, they need to pay attention to the game to take advantage of shifting circumstances.

Moving environmental features adds a fun, dynamic level to your battlemaps.

The catch is then keeping track of the terrain. You should determine when they move and how far.

The best part is your moving terrain features can fulfill a lot of different aspects of unique battlemaps.

Want to encourage movement? Slide the players somewhere else. Want to create cover? Have a rock wall erupt from the ground. Want to cause damage? Drop the ground out from underneath the characters.

There’s also something thematic about moving terrain.

Imagine the party fighting in an area with floating platforms. The platforms drift around above and below the characters. What’s accessible one round might not be the next.

It doesn’t need to be magical either.

Fighting atop multiple moving carriages (one thing I really want to use) or hopping from boat to boat in a rushing river are a couple of more mundane settings.

Moving terrain means approaching a fight in new and unique ways.

Now, you shouldn’t use this all the time. While it’s tons of fun, generates tension, and encourages unique thinking, it’s a lot to take in. Too much and your players might get bored. It loses it’s novelty.

But, if you do use every now and then, and each time it’s a little different, your players will love it.

Which brings us to the last topic; interactivity.

Interactivity

D&D Battlemap Tips, Interactivity, Drawing of a Woman Shoving a Man into a Barrel
Add interactive elements to your maps | Source

This is idea lets you ensure each battlemap has a unique, interesting feature.

Include a level of interactivity in your battlemaps. Give your players things to manipulate that alter the conditions of the combat. Or, play with their actions to give your encounters a feeling of dynamism.

Letting your players play with and interact with your map opens up more action options for your players.

A false wall, a lever to a trap door, a log poised for pushing; these are all ways to work interactivity into your maps and encourage your players to consider different tactics. And, this shift in perception means more exciting and memorable combat encounters.

But, you don’t need to craft specific things for this.

Use your player’s actions to alter the field. Show them they can still interact with their surroundings without directly doing so. A fireball sets a bunch of nearby crates ablaze, the Barbarian’s critical miss cuts down a nearby tree, show the party that surrounding trees are climbable.

Your players can interact with almost any battlemap. Let them.

Encourage creative thinking in your players by letting them play on around the board. They’ll probably come up with some crazy solutions you never would’ve thought of. They usually outnumber you, after all.

And, those crazy moments when they do something unexpected and it works are the times you’ll all remember for years.

 

So, these were seven D&D battlemap tips for making your combat encounters awesome.

  1. Open ground is the basis for every battlemap, so start there
  2. Use cover and line-of-sight blockers to encourage tactical thinking
  3. Incorporate elevation to add further complexity to your maps
  4. Slow down movement with difficult terrain
  5. Add greater danger with environmental hazards to keep everyone on their toes
  6. Change your battlemaps during combat for dynamic environments
  7. Let your players interact with your map

One final tip; don’t feel like you need to use all of these on every map.

Using all of these all at once might actually make them less fun. Too much going on and your players can’t accurately plan. And, it means more to track during the encounter.

Do what feels right for the combat. Or, play around and make a couple wild encounters.

Which of these ideas are you going to play around with? Let me know with a comment. Also, if you want to get more ideas and thoughts on all things D&D, subscribe to my newsletter, The Respite Times.

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