There was a time when I never used miniatures in my gaming. This was for three reasons: they were expensive, they needed painting (which I wasn’t very good at doing), and I didn’t have any, anyway. Then a friend bequeathed me his Cardboard Heroes collection (Paper miniatures from Steve Jackson Games) and little by little, they began to seep into my games. Genre was largely irrelevant – I would quite happily use a character to represent an Orc one week and a supervillain the next.
Most of these encounters took place on a plain white hexgrid, or no hexgrid at all. Measurements were mostly by eye, though a plastic ruler might be used to determine whether a character’s line of sight was blocked. This gave the advantage of having no fixed scale, or – more to the point – of being able to use whatever scale was most useful for the encounter. Some printed map-pages got added to the mix, starting with some that I had from Marvel Superheroes modules, and supplemented by some from The Lord Of The Rings. The whole thing was very make-do, but it worked.
Over time, I developed a repertoire of techniques for extending the functionality of the collection. I’ll come back to that point in a moment.
Then collectable miniatures games came along. I never had the money to invest in them, but one of my friends did, and he started wheeling out his collection when a miniature was called for. Unless they were facing something unusual for which he knew he had both the figure and where it was in his collection, the PCs were represented by chosen figures from his collection while we continued to use the Cardboard Heroes for the villains and monsters.
With the figures came tiled battlemaps.
In the early days, there weren’t very many of these, and almost universally, they were fantasy/D&D oriented. This is not a problem when that’s what you’re playing, but is a little more problematic when you’re doing superheroes on a space station or a mad scientist’s lair. But we found that a number of the techniques that I had developed, mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, worked a treat to dress up and extend the usefulness of the battlemaps.
These were followed by dungeon tiles. Another friend amassed a substantial collection of these which he loaned to the cause of a better game, and they have become the mainstay of the miniature representation of my game worlds – but not always used in the most obvious manner, and still supplemented by the old techniques.
In this article, I’m going to share some of those techniques with you, and vastly increase the scope of what you can depict on your battlemaps. Some of these may be obvious, some may never have occurred to you. They come in two categories: Found Objects, and Made Objects.
I’m always on the lookout for objects which have a particular shape that can be used to represent something on the battlemap. I haven’t used all the following, but here are some of the most useful ideas:
1. Paperbacks & CD/DVD cases
These are a great way to add elevation to your map. Paperbacks are often uniform in dimensions other than thickness (though this is less true now than it used to be) and cut flush to the edges. CD & DVD cases are more uniform in size in all dimensions but aren’t completely flush. Place some tiles on the top and – if necessary – stand some more up, leaning against the sides. Use a little Blu-Tack to anchor them if you feel that necessary. Using a couple of small tiles stacked to a height half that of the ‘shelf’ constructed in this manner makes a great 3-D staircase. See also “cardboard steps” under ‘made objects’, below.
2. Tissue Boxes (unopened)
When you need a little more height, these can be useful, used in the same way as paperbacks and CD/DVD cases.
3. Tissue Boxes (opened)
I’ve only used this trick once. I built up the battlemap so that the whole thing was flush in height with the opened tissue box, and made sure to put a tile over the opening. When a PC stepped on the centre of the box, I removed the tile and pushed the miniature half-way through the opening as a dramatic representation of the quicksand he had stepped into. It would also work great for a pit, pushing the mini all the way into the box.
Thick clouds or spiderwebs can be simulated very effectively simply by dropping a tissue over the top of the miniature; the softness of the tissue means that it will roughly conform to the shape of the victim. You can even poke an arm out through the tissue paper for additional realism and shock value. But there are even more effective techniques in the “made objects” section that I would use in preference – unless I wanted a particularly thick effect, in which case I would use cotton wool if I had it – and tissue if I didn’t.
5. Electric Motor innards
I pulled the rotor out of the electric motor from an old toy. Including the shaft, it’s about an inch-and-a-half long. I actually grabbed it because the shape reminded me of a sci-fi spacecraft. I’ve used this to represent everything from a weird gadget to a diesel generator to a nuclear bomb in games.
6. Cheap Takeaway Containers
These often have slightly oblique sides. Turning one upside down and placing tiles against the sides looks great. Alternatively, cover one in a brown gift-wrap or aluminium (“aluminum”) foil to represent a bunker or a large sci-fi machine, respectively.
7. Salad Bowl and/or Colander
Domed structures are common in sci-fi. Taking a large salad bowl and inverting it gives you something that’s close enough to a 3D representation of one. An inverted colander gives a slightly smaller example. You can also use a large salad bowl, right-way-up, to represent a crater, especially if you sticky-tape some heavy cloth around the edges to form a skirt (stuff the hollow with old scrunched-up newspaper or something). Build up the region around the outside in height using the paperback trick so that the bottom of the crater is below “ground level”. Ten minutes work produces unbelievable realism.
8. Strainer or small Tupperware/plastic bowl
The fact that these are translucent or see-through and come in various shapes and sizes makes them great for representing force-fields when inverted. They can also be used as sci-fi “set dressing”, missile silo hatches, or petrochemical tank farms in a refinery.
9. Measuring Cups
These are cheap, come in various sizes, and usually will sit flat on the battlemap when inverted. They are just the right size to represent various small vehicles, especially in a sci-fi game environment. Alternatively, use them right-way-up and you can fit the minis representing the passengers actually inside the container.
10. Spray Cans
Tall cylindrical shapes. Great for sci-fi furniture, missiles, and rockets. Less often useful but still occasionally warranted as stone columns.
11. Soft Drink Cans
Not quite as tall, but about the same size in diameter, you can alternate with spray cans to form crenellations. Build up the area behind them using DVD box sets standing on their sides or a tissue paper box on paperbacks and you can have minis stand “behind” the crenellations and look down on the battlemap.
12. Spray Can Lids
The lids on their own, inverted, are useful for sci-fi furniture. And you can stack one on top of a mini to represent a character flying overhead.
13. Gummy Snakes
When you really want a snake to look like a snake, use a snake! Bonus: you can eat them afterwards.
14. Jelly Babies
When you have to depict fourty cryogenic sleeper capsules, jelly babies work a treat. Bonus: a snack at the end of play!
15. Blu-Tack and string/colored cotton/wool
A few small blobs of Blu-Tack can be used to affix string or died cotton to the battlemap, permitting the outlining of various strange shapes and persistent effects like electric-eye beams. Throw in some slight 3D work on the “walls” using the techniques suggested above and you can set up a high-tech laser security system. By holding down one end and picking up the other, you can also simulate a laser firing at random. It adds a whole new layer of verisimilitude far in excess of the effort involved.
Taking this a step higher, string can be used to depict electrical cables, fire hoses, and the like. If you’re careful (to make sure that it can be cleaned off afterwards), you can even attach one end to the hand of the miniature “character” wielding the hose.
16. Tiddlywinks counters
Place these on the map board in random positions before the players arrive to simulate land mines. Take a couple of photos from various positions, then remove the counters. When the PCs step in a location that the photo shows used to have a tiddlywinks counter, the mine goes off – put the counter back on the board. Faster, easier, and far more graphic than anything else you can do.
17. Glass Ball
A few years ago, I bought a glass sculpture at a street fair. It has colored glass “streaks” through it but is mostly transparent. I’ve used it several times as a game prop for a crystal ball, and on one occasion used it to represent a dimensional portal on the battlemap.
18. Unusual small electric torches
I have a couple of these. One has a triangular shape, another has rounded edges, a third is all soft curves. They all make great sci-fi vehicles and stage dressings.
19. Abstract-print wallpaper, kitchen-counter surfaces, and gift paper
There are times when I want to depict a strange surface that the battlemaps don’t provide. A sheet of one of these with an appropriate pattern/color/texture can work a treat. Black for deep space; Blue for the ocean; and so on.
20. Adult workman’s boots
Put these on the battlemap to represent the feet of a really BIG opponent and watch your players’ eyes pop. Heck, one is probably enough! But it also works to represent the full “miniature” of a creature when you don’t have one that’s the right size, or the foot of a giant statue. Blue-tack a cutout illustration to each side for additional verisimilitude. If Ragnerok had ever been played out in my superhero campaign rather than occurring between campaigns set in the same game world, I would have used this technique, or something like it, to depict Fenris.
21. Children’s gumshoes
For something in-between a large mini and the BIG boot, use a child’s boot.
22. Artist’s Dummies
A further step down in size are poseable artist’s dummies. I have a pair about 10″ tall. These can be expensive, but I got them for their intended purpose – this function is an added bonus.
23. A long purple or black cotton sock
I’ll use something to wedge open the mouth of the sock without obstructing that mouth – a frame made from paddle pop sticks broken in half and held with Blu-Tack and sticky-tape will do, but I tend to use an egg-ring. The result is a purple worm big enough to actually swallow minis whole and that looks a bit wormlike. Don’t use ankle-high socks for the purpose, the proportions are wrong.
24. Plastic Toys – Dinosaurs
It doesn’t matter too much if these are to the right scale or not. They are close enough, and dinosaurs came in all sorts of sizes anyway.
25. Plastic Toys – Military Vehicles
On the other hand, there are a number of tanks and jeeps that are fairly close to the right scale out there, and quite cheap.
26. Toy Aircraft
It’s so much easier to describe an aerobatic maneuver using one of these as a model. Scale doesn’t matter – the ones I have are about 5 inches across and from WWI.
27. Sculptures & Unusual Cigarette Lighters
I have a small sculpture of a Horus head (about an inch-and-a-quarter tall). I have a sculpted cigarette lighter in the shape of a dragon about 8 inches long. The first screams “Ancient Egypt” as soon as you plonk it down. The second screams “trouble”. I’m always on the lookout for this sort of thing.
28. Blister Packs of Batteries
When you put these down on the battlemap, you get a row of cylindrical shapes about 8′ long (in scale), perfect for LPG gas tanks, modern missiles, etc. Vary the battery size to alter the dimensions of the “tanks”. Bonus: you get to use the batteries afterwards.
29. Large Screwdrivers
Something else that I’ve used to represent alien tech are screwdrivers. I’ve also sticky-taped a matchbox to the blade end to form something rather like a largish cannon. Or tell the players to ignore the shaft and blade and just use the handles to represent bigger storage tanks.
30. Boardgame Boards
There are times when a boardgame board makes the perfect replacement for a battlemap because of what is depicted on it. I’d love to get my hands on a couple of Robo Rally tiles for factories, for example.
31. Boardgame figures/counters
The more modern the game, the more likely it is that these will have a shape that can be used as a miniature. But I have a game from about 15 years ago (I forget the name) that used miniature tanks and army vehicles in different colors, only about 1/6 of an inch long, that work wonderfully as a rat horde, or the little bots from Star Wars. Whenever you find a boardgame at a Garage Sale, it’s always worth a look, and asking yourself “what could I use these for?”.
32. Large Post-it notes
This doesn’t always work perfectly. Covering the parts of the battlemap that the PCs can’t see preserves the mystery of what you’ve emplaced there. If one character has better vision than the rest, you can lift the non-adhesive flap to give them a sneak preview while concealing the contents from other players with a hand, clipboard, or whatever.
33. Toothpicks & Blu-Tack
These make great spears. The Blu-Tack lets them stand upright at an angle for added realism.
34. Aluminium Foil (“Aluminum Foil” in the US)
You can make all sorts of things out of this just by folding it, and alter the appearance of a lot of things by covering them with it. Take advantage of these facts. Heck, scrunching it up into boulders is worth thinking about and about as easy as it gets.
Some GMs may be reluctant to risk damaging their Dungeon Tiles and battlemaps with Blu-Tack. If you’re one of them (and I am, because I don’t own most of them), cover them in a little cling-wrap first.
36. Plastic Fan
I have a plastic battery-operated 3-bladed fan. It stands about 8″ tall. Which makes it close to the perfect scale for a ship’s propeller.
37. DVD Towers
These can serve as anything tall and cylindrical, from a lighthouse to a nuclear power-plant cooling tower. They are often stackable for extra height. Gift-wrap them with the pattern on the inside if you want opaque white.
Most of the found objects are usable “as-is” with little or no prep-time. But there are a few objects that require more prep.
38. Conical Jelly Containers
Over the last decade or so, Asian jellies have become commonly available in many supermarkets here in Australia. Some varieties come in lovely conical containers, each holding one mouthful or so of jelly. Wash them out afterwards and spray-paint them to create sci-fi window dressing, space capsules, or even generators. I once visited the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Plant (a school excursion) and the visible part of the generators were cones about this size rising from the floor).
Another method I’ve used to represent a dimensional portal is a matchbox with holes cut in front and back, and the whole thing wrapped in Aluminium (“Aluminum”) Foil.
40. Old Circuit Boards
These frequently have all sorts of wonderful electronic components on one side to use as “furniture”. The problem is that the other side, which has wonderful high-tech “patterns” on it, also has protruding wires that can be quite sharp and can damage tiles or battlemaps. Solve this by cutting a 1/4″ (1 cm) sheet of foam to the right dimensions and placing it underneath the board. You will also want to remove any wires or cables leading away from the circuit board.
If all you want is the “high-tech surface” of the underside of the device, use a soldering iron and pair of pliers to remove all the electronic components from the other side.
PS: You can get a great “fusion reactor” by finding an old-style TV and extracting the yoke (goes around the picture tube). Leave the wires attached to the yoke (cut them from the far end if you have to). Then stick the thing face-down on the game-board, with the “cables” running off the game-board.
41. Cardboard Steps
It can be useful to cut up an old, heavy-cardboard box into 1″ x 1″ and 1″ x 2″ shapes. You can then stack several of these, holding them together with sticky-tape, to create steps of any required thickness, or arena-like seating, or whatever.
42. Gift-wrap Excerpts
Some gift-wrap has sparkles and fireworks. Other gift-wrap has long streamers or ribbons. Cut these out and use them to represent special effects on the Battlemap.
43. Paper Clouds
I’ve lost count of the number of ways I’ve used these. Torn by hand in a pinch, they have since served as everything from a small pond to a petrol spill to radioactive cloud to trees (actually, that was what they were originally created for). They are just a more-or-less round shape, with somewhat-puffy protrusions, like a thought-bubble, in various sizes. Remember, meaning is whatever you assign. Paper and scissors does the job.
44. Plain-Lace Clouds
But an even better solution for some effects is to get some plain, unpatterned white lace, and cut it into rough circles of various sizes, and then given the “bulbous edges”. That’s because this stuff is semi-see-through, so you can drop it over the minis and still see what’s beneath.
Bonus: they also work very well for swarms of insects!
45. Patterned-Lace Spiderwebs
A similar approach using patterned-lace gives really incredible-looking giant-spider webs. WAY better than simply using tissues.
46. Patterned-Lace Trees
Take some of your spiderwebs and spray-paint them, or soak them in food coloring, or coat them in acrylic paint and water – not so thick that they become too stiff and have the stuff flake off onto the battlemaps. Heck, even washing them in warm water which contains the innards of water-soluble texta will do. The objective is to stain them green – you can then use them to depict trees.
47. Patterned-Lace Ice
Similarly, do some in a sky blue and you’ll get “cracked ice”. Maybe hand-coloring a patch in the centre to represent a hole in the ice.
48. Patterned-Lace Pits
The same technique applied to black lace gives very realistic Pits. Instead of putting the pit under the character, drop it over the top of the mini to show that he’s “in the pit”. You’ll have to explain it to your PCs the first time; after that, the simple act of dropping a “pit” onto someone should tell its own story.
49. Paper Dragons
On one occasion, I needed a large Chinese dragon. So I drew a crude one (outline only) that I could drop on the map-board and cut it out. If I were doing it again, I would then slice it across the flat “mini” at major joints in the neck, tail, & wings so that I could articulate it. I’d also use some cardboard instead of paper and try to find some suitable texture or gift-wrap to glue on it for more realism. Add some Blu-Tack holding a bead or two for the eyes, and you’d have something that could be reused time and time again. Store it in a sandwich bag to keep the pieces in one place.
I’ve also made paper rivers, jungle vines, rope bridges, And hovercraft.
50. Lightning effect, various lengths
Get a sheet of paper and lightly draw some sort of rough lightning bolt from one corner to another, no more than about 1/4″ thick. Trace the outline in a light blue texta. Cut it out, and then cut to various lengths. Do the same thing on the leftover paper until you can’t get any more from it. You should easily be able to make 100′ worth of lightning bolt in fifteen minutes.
The advantage of this is that it preserves the visibility of whatever the details are on the underlying battlemap.
Do the same thing with different colored texta for variations and other special effects. Use brightly-colored cardboard for still more variations. Fluero Yellow works especially well, but you will need a red texta not a blue one.
51. Fireballs from Gift-wrap & Red- or Yellow- tinted translucent contact plastic
Some gift-wrap has nice abstract patterns on it, but it’s rarely the right color for a fireball. So cover it in tinted contact plastic. Then cut out circles of different diameters, using salad bowls, plates, etc to get a round shape.
As a variation: Sandwich some patterned white lace between two layers of tinted contact plastic, glue side inward.
Five-to-ten minutes work gets you some custom fireballs that you can simply drape over “ground zero” without removing the miniatures.
52. Pipes from gummy snake and plastic straw segments
Plastic straws have been used to simulate pipes in models for decades. This often involves a lot of careful cutting and gluing to create bends in the “pipes”. You can do the same thing far more quickly by stretching an inch-long segment of a gummy snake until it’s just thin enough to fit into the end of the straw segments. Hint – stretch the snake before cutting the segments, it’s a lot easier.
In the old days, I might have used the runners from Airfix model kits – used to hold cast components together and left over after assembly of a model – for the same purpose. Easy to work with, but they still would have needed gluing. The only advantage would have been relative solidity and rigidity.
A lot of everyday objects have simple “primitive” shapes that can be used to represent all sorts of things on the game board. Heck, I once used a wall thermometer to represent the business end of a particle accelerator. When you have to represent a location or environment that doesn’t quite fit anything you’ve got in the form of a battlemap, or when elevation is going to be especially important, think outside the box – and then look around you. You might be surprised at what you find.
What is Blu-Tack?
At the last possible minute, I realized that Blu-Tack might be named something else in some countries. While a brand name, it has been generalized to a whole range of similar silly-putty type temporary adhesives here in Australia. So I thought I had better throw in an explanatory note, just in case. And if there’s anything else you don’t recognize, feel free to ask me.