by Mike Shea on 3 February 2008
When I played D&D back in college, we used to draw out what was going on on a sheet of paper. We'd argue about whether one could flank a dragon in a small room or whether the fighter could get past the wizard who, for whatever reason, managed to squeeze up front in a tight corridor. It left a lot to the imagination and, for the most part, it worked. A lot of players and DMs still prefer to play this way.
Now manufacturing technology has gotten cheaper and Wizards of the Coast, the corporation behind Dungeons and Dragons, sells a lot of tabletop accessories one can use in their game. D&D Miniatures are one of these. Gone are the days of being forced to paint lead miniatures in order to have something that could reasonably pass for a dwarf. Now one can amass a collection of thousands of plastic pre-painted miniatures and the only worry is how much a Pit Fiend goes for on Ebay.
Likewise, there are a lot of options for tabletop battle maps as well. Wet and dry erase grids are the most popular choice. The DM draws the scene and the players decide where they go. It's cheap, easy, and flexible, but it lacks some of the detail that really draws people into the game.
A couple of years back Wizards released the Fantastic Location map packs which contained four large poster battle maps for D&D and D&D miniatures. They look beautiful, are easy to set up, and only cost about $10 to $15 for the four maps. They lacked a lot of flexibility, though, since they didn't ever match a pre-printed adventure and players would soon become bored of the same Keep of Fallen Kings over and over. Unfortunately, these map packs are no longer being produced.
Later, Wizards released D&D Dungeon Tiles. Dungeon tiles are sets of high quality modular card board pieces that can be set up any way one wishes to arrange a dungeon. While there is an overland dungeon tile set, it doesn't quite work as well as some of the overland maps that fit the requirement for large open spaces. There are six such sets of Dungeon Tiles available now, although the first is now out of print.
I've purchased every one of the dungeon tile sets but I rarely used them. They required a lot of set up time, I would have to set them up again at the table, and they had a tendency of slipping around as players played on them. They worked well when you needed a small room or a tavern but large dungeons were too hard to set up.
This weekend, however, I learned a trick. I bought a big sheet of black poster board and some sticky poster putty. Sitting at my dining room table, I was able to set up three 30" by 40" dungeons and two 40" by 60" dungeons in about 20 minutes each. I posted pictures of my dungeons to my D&D Flickr album. With the putty, the dungeons held together just fine and will stay that way during play. Revealing a map a section at a time becomes a little trickier, but so what.
Today I ran out to Borders to purchase Dire Tombs, the latest set of dungeon tiles. After opening them and building my first dungeon with them, they became my favorite of all the sets. Unlike most of the other sets, Dire Tombs includes a lot of big rooms and hallways instead of a multitude of smaller corridors or slivers of rooms that must be pieced together. The previous set, Lost Caverns of the Underdark, was all slivers of halls instead of large rooms and made it a lot harder to build a good dungeon. Not so with Dire Tombs.
Dire Tombs also has a unique color, more of a tan than gray, which will make for a distinctive dungeon but might make it harder to integrate with other sets. For this reason, I'll be purchasing two sets so I can, when I need to, build a huge ancient tomb style dungeon without having to dig into mis-colored pieces.
All of the pieces in Dire Tombs are directly usable. My first dungeon ended up using every single piece included with the set. This wasn't the case with any of the other tile sets I had.
My biggest complaint with the Dungeon Tiles, D&D Miniatures, and D&D adventures is that they aren't tied together. Flipping through Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, it is clear that, as big as my collection is, I do not have the miniatures nor the maps to build out the dungeons in the book the way they are presented. Adventures published by Wizards should make it clear which dungeon tiles and which miniatures could be used in the adventure. They shouldn't be required, but it seems foolish not to tie the products together so players like me will buy the whole set in order to have a fast, fun, and good looking game. Perhaps in the future Wizards will learn to do this.
For $10, Dire Tombs is a good buy. It is worth considering, however, that one should really have two sets to be sure the have enough pieces and the only effective way I have found of using them is to use the putty and poster board which can end up costing another $25 to $40. Still, once it is all set, these tiles can build an excellent playable dungeon that isn't too hard to set up and your players will love delving through.
I highly recommend the Dire Tombs D&D Dungeon Tiles accessory.