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Phystus

Go Outside and Play!

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I know last time I promised to talk about how mapping has changed through the years, but I changed my mind. I had nearly completed the article about old-school mapping, but after I re-read it I realized that it wasn’t going to be terribly helpful to most people. Sure, it’s fun to talk about the old days, but if you weren’t a gamer back in the 1970's it just sounds like the blathering of an Old One. So rather than forcing my younger readers to make a Sanity check, I decided to talk about something more timeless, and hopefully more useful - mapping outdoor spaces. Today we’re just going to discuss tactical maps for outdoor fights, and my next post will cover mapping larger areas for other purposes.

In most RPG’s the characters spend a fair amount of time outdoors, whether they’re exploring some unknown planet or simply walking to the pub. And that means there’s the potential for an outdoor fight. It may be a battle with wandering marauders, or an ambush by the cultists the characters are investigating, or just a hungry manticore looking for dinner. Whatever the reason, eventually you’ll need an outdoor map.

Broadly speaking, a battle map of an outdoor space isn’t that different from a battle map of a dungeon or a tavern. The scale will be the same, and there will be features to the landscape that restrict movement, and that provide tactical limitations and opportunities. But the features are very different from an indoor environment, and deserve some discussion. Also, while a dungeon or a building has definite boundaries, an outdoor map generally doesn’t. This forces you to consider just how big you need to make your battle map. My earlier discussion of map size (here) might help guide you on this.

The sorts of features on an outdoor map will obviously vary depending on the terrain. In a forest, the features will include trees, shrubs, downed trees and logs, water courses, quicksand, trails, and perhaps large rocks. In a desert you may have large cactus, mesquite bushes, clumps of prickly pear, sand dunes, and so on. In mountains, you will have trees (diminishing in size and number as elevation rises), shrubs, loose rocks, boulders and ice. Swamps will have many of the same features as forest, plus areas that are completely underwater.

All of these features can be generalized into a few categories, though some features could be listed in more than one category.

First, there are features that restrict movement. This could be anything from vegetation that is difficult to pass through, like cactus or a briar patch, to mud, loose rock or ice that makes for difficult footing. These sort of features still allow limited movement, but are likely to slow a character down considerably, and may present a chance of minor injury.

Next up are features that block movement. These could include cliffs, the trunks of really big trees, major bodies of water, or man-made features like fences or retaining walls. While someone might be able to climb a tree or a wall, or swim across a river, doing so will make them very vulnerable to attack, and probably prevent them from making attacks for a little while.

Then there are facilitators of movement, like roads, trails and bridges. These generally allow movement without penalty, which can be quite helpful, but by encouraging everyone to stay in a predictable place they also facilitate ambushes.

Cover and concealment are also important tactical features. By cover, I mean features that are solid enough to stop an attack, like a boulder or a tree trunk. By concealment, I mean features that would not stop an attack, but do keep an attacker from seeing someone hiding behind the feature. This would include things like bushes. Whether a feature is cover or concealment depends somewhat on what weapons are being used. A tree trunk is definitely cover against a crossbow, but against a plasma rifle it may only be concealment, or it may only provide cover against the first shot.

Any natural terrain type is also likely to have elevation changes, and these can be important tactical features as well. A gentle slope may not matter much, but a steep slope or a cliff can make a huge difference in how a fight would proceed. Most game systems provide some sort of bonus to the holders of the high ground, or a penalty to their opponents. In addition, very steep areas serve to channel movement by making travel in certain directions slow, difficult, or dangerous. Opponents grappling on the edge of a cliff can try to throw one another off, which should make the fight memorable.

I use contour lines, like the ones you would find on a topographic map, to indicate the presence cliffs and slopes on my maps. There’s a good explanation of contour lines on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contour_line if you aren’t familiar with them. For a battle map I normally keep the contour intervals at 1 foot per line, or perhaps at 5 foot per line for really steep terrain.

The lack of a ceiling, along with terrain features that put combatants on different levels, makes an outdoor battle rather likely to become three-dimensional. Whether the combatants are using magic, a jet pack, their own wings, or simply climbing a tree, there’s a lot of ways that some of the participants can end up above everyone else. That isn’t something you see often in a dungeon crawl, and it can give an outdoor fight an interesting twist.

Keeping track of which creatures are up in trees, climbing cliffs or flying was sometimes a bit of a chore in a face-to-face games, but it’s easy to deal with in Fantasy Grounds. By simply adding an effect to the combat tracker of “up a tree” or “flying” or whatever to the appropriate combatants, you’ll get a reminder on their turn that they’re not on the same level as everyone else. If there’s a mechanical advantage (like D&D 3.5's +2 to hit for being on higher ground) you can automatically apply that with an effect as well.

If you actually plan to have a battle in an outdoor location you may want to create a custom map just for that locale. But I also find it helpful to have some more generic outdoor maps. These are handy for random encounters, but they’re also nice to have in case the party decides to do something unexpected, like ambush some mooks in order to get intelligence on the villain’s fortress, or pursue the villain as he flees with his ill-gotten gains.

These “stock footage” maps don’t have to feature stunning artwork, but they should cover a lot of area. My campaign area is largely forested plains and hills, with some farmland, so I have maps of forest with and without roads, trails, and streams, maps of barren hill terrain and a couple maps of farmer’s fields with fences and paths. I have maps of some generic cityscapes as well. In addition, since my setting is in a far-northern climate with significant snowfall, I keep summer and winter versions of most maps. That sounds like a lot of maps, and maybe it is, but I was able to create them a few at a time, as needed, over the course of several years, which took some of the sting out of it.

Another trick I devised to keep the maps fresh was to take one I had used previously and simply rotate it ninety degrees using a graphics program. If any of my players have ever noticed I did that they haven’t said anything.

I’ll leave you with an example of one of my generic maps. This one shows a hillside with rocks, bushes, a path, and contour lines showing elevation. If you look very closely in the upper left corner you will see two black dots to be used to set the grid in FG. As I say, it isn’t great art, but it’s handy to have simple maps like this on hand for impromptu battles.

rocky hillside.jpg

I hope you found this helpful. Next time around I’ll cover mapping larger areas. Hopefully after that I can get back to the story of how our group got back to playing using FG. Until next time, keep your dice hot and thanks for reading!

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Updated August 16th, 2016 at 11:48 by Phystus

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