Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Tiles vs. Whiteboard, the battle continues!

Big, isn't it?
It took me a while to come around to tile-sets. I've drawn my battle-mats for years on a large, chunky, 1-inch gridded dry-erase whiteboard, because this gives me ultimate flexibility over layout. Not only can I can whack out an encounter in just a couple of minutes, but I can change scenery on the fly, add decals and annotations, draw pretty pictures... whatever I want. The group can also use it for buff/debuff tracking, Initiative, and all that good stuff. It's powerful, and with just a few simple colours, looks pretty nice on the table as well.

Not one of my best, but shows the whiteboard in use
Two things happened to make me try dungeon tiles. First, my whiteboard is getting old. The grid is now all-but impossible to see, and the surface is stained with the ghostly remains of old encounters where we accidentally used permanent ink or where the colour has worked itself into flaws on the surface. Finding a whiteboard with the same features at a reasonable price has proved hilariously difficult. I wish I'd bought five of them a decade ago instead of just the one which has done such sterling service since then.

Second, I actually started paying attention to what Wizards was producing instead of assuming that my twenty-five year-old memory of flimsy cardboard tiles with scuffed corners and dodgy artwork still represented the norm. After buying a set of Wizards of the Coast's Sinister Woods, that old memory was laid to rest straight away. The tiles were stocky and durable, and the art was terrific. Similar dip-tests into the Paizo product line were no less promising.

Since then, I've used them on-and-off alongside my faithful old whiteboard. They're not dry-erasable, so they make it hard to draw unique and encounter-specific objects onto the play space (as opposed to, for example, Paizo's Gamemastery Map Packs, which are dry-erase but not as durable), but for generic and reconfigurable settings such as the random overgrown ruin, the forest glade, the ancient temple, and so-on, they add cool and welcome variety to the proceedings.

To really be useful to me, though, as a complete replacement for my whiteboard, dungeon tiles of any kind will need to pass the following litmus tests:

They need to be cheap, plentiful, and varied. Much of Wizards of the Coast's old line is now out-of-print but still readily available on eBay, and in any case has now been assimilated by the new "Master" tiles range. Paizo and other vendors still have well-stocked online stores. So, no problems there.

They need to be durable. I need to be able to stack them in a box, pile them on the floor, and throw them around the room. The Wizards sets, old and new alike, are the gold-standard here; the Gamemastery products lag behind slightly, but have other advantages to make up for it. Looks like we're set here as well.

I need to be able to quickly assemble a complex encounter on-the-fly. This is where tiles' versatility starts to work against them. Storing and organising stacks and stacks of the things so that you can quickly find what you need is a real problem, and the danger is that you resort to something dull and uninspiring on the table just to keep the game moving. I can translate a map from adventure to whiteboard in a minute or two... I need to find a way to catalogue my tiles to achieve the same with them.

I need to be able to customise the battle-mat without damaging the tiles. This is the real biggie. Whiteboard battle-mats have infinite flexibility, and every one of them can be unique; tiled battle-mats will always look somewhat homogenous. What I can't do at all on the Wizards tiles is draw that glyph trap, or that crack in the wall, or that gutter full of fire, or in fact any feature which is not served by the tiles I have on-hand. One solution here will be thick-stock dry-erase transparencies, cut into various sizes and available on-hand to lay down on the tiles and draw over. I'll be trying that experiment as soon as I've found a suitable material. (The Paizo map-packs, by the way, don't suffer from this problem: they're smaller, more specific and much less interchangeable, but they're glossy and dry-erase out of the box.)

So with all that said, on to a mini review of Wizards' Master Set: The City, which is part of the latest line of dungeon tiles from the publishers of D&D. I bought this sizable box because I don't have any urban tiles at all... and also because I wanted to see how the new sets compared to the old ones (now defunct).

I was pretty blown away, I have to say. The set was more expensive than its predecessors, but it comes packaged in a bullet-proof cardboard box of the kind you'd expect to contain a whole campaign setting. I was dubious that it would be filled entirely with tiles (which would have been astonishing value), but pleased to find it was at least half-filled with tiles, measuring about twice as many as you'd find in the old packages. This turned out to be a storage consideration: when popped, the tiles easily fill the entire box.

Other than that, the quality of the artwork and the variety of tiles, including street, plaza, house interiors, sewers, and a welcome selection of carts, horses, statuary, pipes, etc., is excellent. I would have to say the set represents good value for money.

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