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You Wanna Fight?

You Wanna Fight?

by Bryan Jonker
Jun 10,2002



Kismet is an Arabic word literally meaning "the will of Allah." It has a foreign, almost artificial-sounding ring to it, like "quiz" or "radar." It's a fun word.

It also has a fun meaning. I was going to write about death in role-playing games. But, I got a few new toys at work: (Flash MX and the new upgrade to PhotoShop), plus the time to learn how to use them. On a personal side, I got Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics, a wonderful read. So, we break new ground - the first Flash column at rpg.net. Let Sandy and aeon know what you think of it. For those who don't have the bandwidth or browsers to view it, or simply hate Flash (that means you, Mr. Nielsen), I wanted to do a print-based column as well. As fitting the new format, I wanted to talk about how to use graphics in fights.

And by "graphics," I mostly refer to a battle map. I have to admit there was a long period of gaming where I did not use a battle map. I would describe a 30x30 room in detail to players, and each person would have a slightly different idea. In most situations, this wasn't an issue. A player would ask about something, ask for more detail, and I would give it. If something were vital for the game, I would emphasize it. Things moved slowly enough where I could correct any inconsistencies.

Combat is different. Small details suddenly became more of an issue. There's immediacy about combat, and if a player acts on a wrong impression, it was more difficult to take back. So, reluctantly, I went to a battle map.

The problem with battle maps, I feared, was I wanted the game to focus on the characters. Using a battle map smacked of moving game pieces on a board, and I didn't want the game to turn into Monopoly. My job as GM would change from plotting to enforcing the "everyone moves six hexes" rule. But, I noticed that players didn't look at the board. They were the characters.

This article talks about how to use the battle board.


McCloud talks about how comics are "a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled, an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm." Simple icons are readily identifiable, while more complex figures (like many hand-painted lead figurines) distance themselves from the players. Some comics (like Tintin and Asterix) use this technique - the main character is simply drawn and the background is rich. As McCloud describes it: "One set of lines to see. Another set of lines to be."

How do you use this technique in game boards? Using this technique, items with importance and "otherworldly significance" should be detailed. Items that represent the characters should be generic. But, it goes beyond that. If a GM pulls out a detailed map, the players think, "oh, this is important." Yes, it's out-of-game knowledge. But, it also serves as a mental soundtrack - something is going to happen.

Dimensional Problems

The battle board has limitations. It is in two dimensions. It is uniform in texture. How do you get extra information on the board? Visual rhetoricians like Edward Tufte have some say in the matter. Color can help a lot - a different marker can denote a warm or cool area, or chain-link fences that can be seen (and shot) through. Before you use this technique, remember that color can create an emotional impact. Red (or what Pantone calls "warm colors") indicates battle or danger (at least in the Western world), green is lively, and blue suggests goodness. Related to color is line thickness and type. Thicker lines are more noticeable and more solid - try to keep all the lines the same thickness unless you mean the thicker lines to mean something.

Another factor is the figure on the battle board. Because most of the action surrounds the figures, it seems intuitive to have the figure contain as much information as possible. One of my friends puts a small ten-sider by each flying figure, marking how high the person is flying (a 1 means the flyer is 10 feet above ground, while a 9 marks 90 feet). A 0 means the flyer is grounded. I abandoned using figurines as enemies. Now, I use six-siders, using the pip to show how wounded the enemy is. A 6 is untouched, and a 1 is dead. And, boy, is it fun to show a monster dead by turning the die to 1 and then announce to the players, "oh, it's still moving towards you."

The swoosh, or the "motion line", in comics is stylized, but it's an attempt to show time in a two-dimensional medium. We have an advantage - we can actually move our figures. But, for fixed movements like guards or cleaning robots, the swooshes can be effective. The GM is freed from moving the same figure over and over again. By creating multiple images, the GM also creates a bit of tension and accentuates the movement in the game.

Props can be used. Legos and building blocks represent walls, and toys can turn into monsters. Pieces of paper (pre-made) can represent fire or flood, and a black piece of construction paper draped over part of the board denotes darkness.

Finally, back to Tufte. White space and contrast is all-important in any type of visual layout. Keep track of how much space the figures take, and make sure your battle map can hold all of them. Don't use light colors on white paper -have the most prominent color be black, dark blue, or dark purple. Similarly, type should be clear. Using the various fantasy fonts is nice and gives some atmosphere, but using a nice Times New Roman type font is good for giving a lot of information quickly and easily.


Tufte also points out that in clear productions, detail is vital in conveying information. A crisp printout can contain a lot of information. The problem with creating these productions is (unless you are much more talented than I) you can do these off-the-cuff.

Prettier productions can be created ahead of time. CAD programs are wonderful in creating maps and getting the scale correct. Campaign Cartographer at profantasy.com is a nice program that can generate maps, using an AutoCAD-like interface. For a less imposing user interface, Visio 2000 has a nice mapmaker, having both outside modern landmarks (roads, churches, schools) and generic shapes (boxes, circles, and lines). Because these maps are computer generated, you can print them out, dispose of them, and then print out another copy. You can also use the layers effect to generate a GM copy and player copy. Other programs that are useful for graphics is PhotoShop, Paint Shop Pro (a cheaper version of PhotoShop), Poser (a 3D application geared for creating people), and Swift 3D (a 3D renderer). More adventurous people can go to Lightwave and Studio 3D Max. Student discounts are useful.

Once you create the map, you can laminate them. Laminating sheets (I use C-Line, which you can get by the 50 count) are fairly cheap and easy to use, and will cover an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper easily. The old adage "measure twice, cut once" applies - don't hesitate in placing the paper on the sticky laminate sheet or bubbles will form and the paper will crease. An Xacto knife and metal ruler will cut the paper and laminating sheet easily, or you can invest in a small paper cutter if you find yourself doing this often. For a long-term sheet, you can laminate paper on both sides, but for most maps, this isn't important.

Markers are important. Of course, don't use permanent markers, or even let them near the battle board. At least one of the players will confuse the permanent markers with the dry-erase markers. Also, check the markers on the battle board before you use them extensively. Some colors will stain - I noticed that the orange markers especially discolor my battle board. Markers may also stain the board if they stay on for more than a day, so make sure you clean off the board after the session is over. A spray bottle with water helps in quickly clearing off the board, plus works wonders in keeping the cats off the table. You can use also guides - rulers and twine to measure distance and cones to measure area effects. By having pre-measured guides, you can speed up play.


Gosh, you read all of this? Especially when you could have watched it through my Flash web page? Some people are so literary.

Anyway, like I said in the introduction, I actually started late in the battle board department. So, I feel I'm not the best person to write about this subject. I'm interested in hearing from others and their ideas (actually, I'm always interested in hearing from others, but this topic especially).

Next week, I deal with Death. I promise.

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker