I find that a great amount of immersion can be gained by introducing some kind of 3D mapping element to the game. In this video, I talk about a few cheap and simple 3D mapping options that you can use to build maps on the fly. Since not everyone can check out a video at work or on their phones, here is a brief transcription of the video with some screenshots.

Why 3D

3D mapping brings the action of the game off of the paper and into the physical space that you and your players are interacting with. It engages the players and makes one more physical element for them to interact with. While big fancy and epic physical scenery (like the kind you find in wargaming terrain) is awesome, it doesn’t need to be that complex or dedicated use. You can do it cheap, easy, reusable, and reconfigurable. Here’s how.


Wooden Building Blocks

The blocks from wooden building block games, otherwise known as Jenga, are great to use for mapping. They are easy to move about, great to transport, and if you go for the off brand at a dollar store or cheap store, you can get about 60 to 80 for 3 or 4 bucks, like this giant bucketfull.


For under 15 bucks, you can keep building all night without having to undo sections of the map.

Painted Wooden Building Blocks

With just a bit more work, you can really make these blocks stand out. Coat the blocks with a simple can of grey (or any other color) spray paint and you can draw patterns on it with a sharpie or thin brush. Suddenly, you’ve got dungeon walls that add a layer of depth to the terrain and your game.




Do them in beige or white for modern games, draw different patterns or cover them in silver for futuristic games and you’ve got a whole arsenal of walls for any scenario. The beauty of this method is that you can paint specific things on them for one night’s worth of gaming. Since it is so cheap and doesn’t take a lot of time, you won’t feel bad drawing one with specific things that might not be used again.



1 Inch Tiles

Wooden building blocks, painted or unpainted, are a great tool, but here is another one I recently discovered. Most hardware stores sell 1 inch tile in sheets of about 1 foot by 1 foot. These are small durable tiles that are easy to peel off of their backing and use as pre-gridded floors.  You can get them in many colors and thicknesses, and they run about 6 to 10 dollars per square foot.


You can keep the sheets whole and put index cards, printed walls, etc. inbetween the cracks and build dungeons instantly as well. It is just another way to use them, and it makes for an incredibly configurable option. TileSheet

The best thing about these methods, to me, is that they are incredibly portable. Throw a bunch of blocks and tiles it into a small box and you can carry an entire 3d mapping system with you anywhere you go.


As I said before, doing things like this is great because they bring it off the paper. Your players will be more engaged, more interactive, and more immersed into the game. Hopefully these techniques help. Drop your thoughts in our comments. We’d love to hear about your tools for 3D mapping or your thoughts on how to improve this technique.

12 replies
  1. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    I’ve used Heroscape terrain for mapping on the fly. It worked pretty well, especially when mixed with a hex map.

    For this , I really liked the bathroom one inch tiles for a customizable dungeon that works very well with minis and won’t get adjusted too much with someone banging into the table.

  2. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Razjah – The heroscape stuff is nice for outdoor terrain and doing tactical games like 4e. I’ve done height differences with those and it worked well.

    With this video, I almost went into a process where you cut the wooden building blocks in half and can use them for smaller spaces or to build terrain. I’ve got a bunch of those painted green that work well for it, just like the 1 inch tiles. The benefit of the tiles, like you mention, is that their weight makes them harder to shift about by chance.

  3. Troy E. Taylor
    Troy E. Taylor says:

    I love the portability / storage factor of the wood blocks, John. They’re not too much more difficult to organize than cardstock tiles. Really great instructional video.

  4. rednightmare
    rednightmare says:

    I’ve worked in a hardware store for 4 years, how could I have not noticed the bathroom tile usage. I now want to combine the two to make both floors and walls for my next campaign.

  5. atomicpenguin12
    atomicpenguin12 says:

    I’m very interested in these methods you talk about for mapping, but I already own a battle mat. What are the pros and cons for using these techniques versus a standard battle mat?

  6. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Troy E. Taylor – Thanks Troy. These are nothing compared to the awesome scenery you’ve made. (http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/troys-crock-pot-building-terrain-with-one-tile-mold-part-4)
    I’ve got my set of molds and want to do more with soon.

    @Vantage – It’s a small touch that adds a lot of utility. If you take more time with it than I did for the video (or the other group of blocks I’ve made int eh past), then you can get a lot of awesome results.

    @rednightmare – They work brilliantly together. If you’ve got access to a tile cutter (and your hands are steady) you can buy one big tile for about 3 bucks and cut out your own 1 inch tiles. That takes a little bit of work though.

    @atomicpenguin12 – A battlemat is great, and I’ve used them extensively. I’ve used it less and moved to this method a few years ago because there are some definite benefits to me. I usually use a battlemat for the grid, then use the blocks for walls. That lets me build a 3D environment to surround the minis but not have to worry about constantly erasing and drawing new stuff. It’s quicker to build the blocks up than to do the drawing. Also, it makes it more tactile and easy to rearrange. If I have to redraw a room because someone went running back to it, I can do it in a different section with a quick rearrangement of blocks. If I’m going to a convention or running at a friend’s house, then I just cart some of the blocks along and use those to build the walls or outlines of the area. If the game isn’t too tactical, then it works fine. I can also build height differences by stacking blocks or turning them into towers, as you can see here:

    This works well for me, but that doesn’t mean it works well for everyone. It adds something to my games to have 3D environments, but it isn’t necessary by any means.

  7. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    Simple, cheap, and easy. (Kinda like me when I was single…)

    Excellent article.

  8. Throst
    Throst says:

    A few guys from my group are getting together this weekend to do this for use in our D&D Next game. Everyone agreed it’s a brilliant idea. Thanks, John!

  9. Alex Slizza
    Alex Slizza says:

    Hi John. Where did you find the discount, off brand Jenga blocks? Do you recall what brand they were or what they were called? I’m having trouble finding them. Thanks.

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