- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

D&D Burgoo (3.5/Pathfinder): Whiteboard’s growing appeal

I admit it. I’ve resisted using a mounted whiteboard for my game for a long time.

It’s not that I have anything against dry-erase markers. On the contrary, a dry-erase initiative tracker [1] and a basic Flip-Mat [2] brand  5-foot base map are both fine GMing tools that have a place at my table.

(And yes, I realize, they are just smaller versions of the same thing.)

My resistance to the mounted whiteboard was my fear of falling into the trap of becoming what I can only call for lack of a better term, “a chalkboard professor.” You know the type, the teacher who spends the entire class lecture with his nose facing the chalkboard instead of engaging with his students.

I didn’t want to become that GM, the one who spent the session with his back to the players because he was so engrossed — or by necessity, so devoted to making changes onto — the information on the whiteboard. The fun for me is, in part, seeing the  reactions on the other players’ faces as they cope with the challenges being presented to them. The last thing I want was to be a slave to the whiteboard.

An opportunity of scale


My whiteboard drawing skills displayed

But I recently had two occasions for using a whiteboard for good effect. In both instances — the first was for infiltrating a fortress, and the second, for defending a city — I essentially needed a wall-sized battle map that was grander in scale than anything I could reproduce in 5-foot squares on the table.

In fact, as the PC’s progress in level (we’re at Level 10 +), more and more of the challenges are beyond the scope of what fits neatly into 5-foot tactical maps.

Anyone who GMs using the 3.5/Pathfinder rules will have to confront this reality of scale, eventually. The monsters get bigger, the range of effects of great spells becomes grander and the storylines, hopefully, become more epic. While you can still use tactical maps/miniatures in some situations, the fact is, many situations will demand a greater reliance on narrative play. The GM can either embrace this bigness — and use tools such as the whiteboard to represent encounter areas measured in square miles — or shift the scale of the table battlemaps to correspond. Either is a valid approach.

(I am reminded of a beautiful poster map that came in Dungeon 135 [4] depicting the top of the Spire of Long Shadows, the encounter area for the final battle against the 660 hit point wormgod, Kyuss, to conclude the Age of Worms adventure path. But as I looked at it, the only only thing I could think of was: “There is no way one could contain this final battle to a 100-foot diameter circle. This is world-shaking stuff, and this just isn’t big enough!”)

Of course, as a fellow who loves to build terrain out of plaster and paint, this is a tough admission. I want to provide tactical layouts for the players and their figs. In “Back to the Future,” [5] when Doc Brown apologizes to Marty because his magnificent model layout of Hill Valley’s downtown is neither painted or “to scale,” I have to chuckle, because I can identify. But many of these adventures deserve more than a generic tabletop landscape.  A detailed battlemap on whiteboard is a good way to go.

Lessons learned

Split the party?

If you think two rooms stocked with monsters in a dungeon is temptation to split the party, how about a whole city? PCs may well scatter to the four corners of the map. Let them. The trick is to run it as a single encounter, holding to the initiative order, even though they are spread out. Just remember to be true to movement rates over great distances. Help takes a long time to arrive if it’s coming from one end of the battle area to the other.


As an organizational tool, different colored markers can be a big help (especially if the party splits).

Magnetic markers

If your board uses these, I recommend getting some. It beats erasing PC positions if you can just shift them on the board. It also frees the GM from falling into the “chalkboard professor” effect. You move the marker, then turn back to face the table.

Role-play the possibilities

Don’t be afraid to mix in your role-play with your rollplay, whether it’s between or during skirmishes.

How the pros do it

It’s worth noting that Pathfinder RPG designer Jason Bulmahn loves his whiteboard, which figures prominently in his Weekly Grind [6] (there are links to his corresponding Facebook page). I recommend checking it out — both for free adventure material from a prominent designer, but also to marvel at his artistic/mapmaking skills.

What do you think?

So, what’s your experience with the whiteboard? Does it fit with your GMing style? Do you have any recommendations for using the whiteboard more effectively?

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (3.5/Pathfinder): Whiteboard’s growing appeal"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On July 26, 2011 @ 2:09 am

Can you explain some ways this plays out in a future post? Why don’t the PCs stick together, is there some kind of expectation that this is going to be mostly roleplaying and the combat will be survivable alone? Or do you purposely have a ball for the bard, a thieves’ guild for the rogue, and a bar fight for the fighter, and they meet up after they’ve done what you planned?

I think I’d wanna do the city map on something I could bring back out again in the future. Just an easel pad instead of a white board (maybe sticky tack instead of magnetic markers?)

#2 Comment By Necrognomicon On July 26, 2011 @ 7:14 am

[11] – This is not intended for tracking PCs shopping during downtime in the local village and having random encounters. This is for epic scale battles where you are actually using high-level skills/spells at long range. The PCs mentioned are 10+, assuming a Wizard and a Monk at 11th level:

Chain Lightning is long range (400′ + 40’/lvl) 6th level spell. This makes its maximum range at 11th level 840ft.

A Monk at 11th has +30′ to base move, assuming the PC is human, that’s 60′ and a standard action, 120′ using that standard action as another move, or up to 240′ at a full run. (The Monk tops out at +60′ at 18th level)

Consider those distances played out on Chessex mats:
Battlemat is 26″ (130′) x 23.5″ (~120′)
Megamat is 34.5″ (~172′) x 48″ (240′)
Mondomat is 54″ (270′) x 102″ (510′)

Even the ridiculously large Mondomat cannot map an 11th level Monk running in a straight line for 3 rounds (18 seconds). Any Medium creature with a base 30′ move speed can run off the smallest mat by round 2.

None of them come close to being able to mapping both the 11th level Wizard and a target at the maximum distance of his long range spell. A long range spell cast by a lowly 1st level Wizard has a maximum range (440′) greater than the medium-sized mat can accommodate…

#3 Comment By Volcarthe On July 26, 2011 @ 7:35 am

unless it’s in close-range, i usually play loose with combat spacing. hell, if it’s not an important fight, i do the same.

replacing specific battlemat with phrases like “you can get there safely in a turn” or “it would take all of your movement to maneuver to flank” provides what the players need as far as tactics are concerned without needing to worry about counting squares.

as much as i love tactics, putting the unimportant fights into a virtual space speeds things up for me.

#4 Comment By Toldain On July 26, 2011 @ 8:23 am

Your map looks really nice. I would think it adds a lot. Switching to “virtual” movement – as in, “It takes you three rounds” – as a bit of feeling of GM arbitrariness to it, and doesn’t allow for complex interactions between monster movement, player movement and terrain.

It seems to me that a Virtual Game Table shown on a large screen TV might allow similar capabilities, has anybody done much with that?

#5 Comment By Tinimir On July 26, 2011 @ 11:06 am

My group has been doing something similar to this. We use an old hex map on a table with a piece of glass on top. We use sharpie markers to mark on the glass for drawing building landscape, etc. This helps prevent the chalkboard professor effect cause the players sit across the table from me.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 26, 2011 @ 11:25 am

[11] – The “split the party” effect comes from the fact that in a sandbox environment, which is what I try to provide whenever possible, there will be interesting things to do no matter which way you turn. As such, PCs have a tendency to gravitate toward those encounter areas or places of interest that appeal most to them — and the conventional wisdom of not splitting the party gets forgotten. This is good for the GM, because when PCs are isolated, its much easier to do them harm (snicker, snicker). It’s also the result of having many people at our gaming table, as many as 8, as PCs will tend to pair off to investigate (you know, just like in Scooby Do). So, Daphne always gets in trouble and Shag and Scooby always find food while Fred and Velma end up discovering the crucial clue.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On July 26, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

[12] – I usually go with Volcarthe’s method, but I also use a strategic-scale too.

Using the square side of your mat, designate every square as 30 feet instead of 5. Now you have plenty of space to work with and player minis can be walked one square each move instead of six (I usually don’t bother with the Pythagorean correction in large scale unless a player is abusing the diagonals). Chain lightning is now only 13 and a bit squares, and all the 3.5 Player Handbook stuff works as written (allowing for the large scale).

Should anyone get up close and tactical, I shift their action to a smaller map and use the 5-foot scale.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On July 26, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

[11] – Dear Lord, why would anyone want to prolong their company with a bunch of smelly, unwashed adventurers with tastes wildly differing to one’s own?

Why spend time arguing with them over where to go when you could arrange a place and time to meet later, nip off to a better (or worse) class establishment than the group as a whole frequents (the last group I was with insisted on sleeping in a ditch most of the time), get a bath, a hot meal and some quality social company for a few hours?

This is one reason I love the Conan RPG – the rules urge players to spend their loot and the GM to penalize those who resist the urge too often.

As Elan might sing: Split, split, split, split the bickering party! Spend, spend, spend, spend the lovely gold! 8o)

#9 Comment By Volcarthe On July 26, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

oh, and we have done city-wide scenarios before just like you said. The group split off to investigate their respective leads, which did wind up with us all arriving at the same large conflict in the streets. It was a blast, because the players got to see the whole plot slowly piece together from each thing the characters learned until the characters got their “aha!” and all arrived on scene.

and sometimes splitting the party saves everyone time.

#10 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 26, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

[13] – Curious, I understand why you standarize scale at 30 feet — but do all your PCs move at the 30 ft rate? How do you track other movement rates?

#11 Comment By Razjah On July 26, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

[14] – In my experience players try to get themselves up to the normal movment options or better as quickly as they can. Halfling alchemist- boots or stridning and sprining. Halfling Sorcerer- climbed onto the druid’s animal companion. Gnome Druid- wild shaped.

A bead or a token in different colors lets you move it up one suqare and a blue bead means 10 feet left before the next squire. Red mean 20 green is 5. Mix and match for your 15 feet and 25. If it is really close and it is cooler to let the PC/monster hit/reach the enemy/have range then it happens.

#12 Comment By Razjah On July 26, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

[15] – I have no idea how Roxysteve tracks it, this was my own thoughts to your question.

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On July 26, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

[14] – Most of ’em, and if we are talking the need for large scale it really doesn’t matter unless it does, in which case adjustment can be made to progress across the 30ft grid. It isn’t a precise science.

But it usually isn’t a factor. Boosts typically give multiples of the basic move in 3.5-era D20 variants, which translates into full squares an the grid o’ hugeness.

#14 Comment By Roxysteve On July 26, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

[16] – Good enough and spot on with the characters getting “up to speed” bit.

#15 Comment By Necrognomicon On July 26, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

[13] – Um, don’t worry, I know how to scale maps and battles. I don’t use Pythagorean correction either; I use rulers and string and disregard the grid. For me, the grid is just there to make drawing the map easier.

The article assumes the reader is aware of how 3.5e/Pathfinder scales, this knowledge shouldn’t have necessarily been assumed, I was merely providing an example.

Only about a third of the maps intended for adventurers level 10+ in the Age of Worms path are at 5′ anyway, there’s nearly as many at 10′ scale…

#16 Comment By recursive.faults On July 26, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

My thoughts are that if you have enough space for a large whiteboard, you have enough space for a projected map.

I personally hate hand drawing maps. I found myself getting an older (And cheaper) projector and using MapTools for my games.

I’ve run adventures that take place on a single map that span a quarter mile at scale. The players never know, to them they are experiencing vision as only their token has.

I’ve run encounters where the PCs dealt with mounted formations.

Scale and all of that become trivial to deal with, but impressive to experience.

My group really likes the speed and tension that MapTools brings to the game.

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On July 27, 2011 @ 8:29 am

[17] – Not sure I understand your post. My answer wasn’t meant as some sort of attack, merely a demonstration as to how to mitigate the problems you raised as an example, as an example. I was also writing for the benefit of the third parties, as it were. I thought your points were excellent, otherwise I wouldn’t have spent time on them.

#18 Comment By shadowacid On July 27, 2011 @ 9:30 am

We use a 12″x14″ whiteboard for my games along with color fridge magnets to track PC and NPC movement. It seems to work really well for us. We’ve never really been sticklers for movement rates, the GM usually looks at the board and judges whether the PC can move all the way he wants to or not.

I personally prefer that smaller size white board since it doesn’t take up too much table space and can be in the center of things without dominating what people are doing, leaving it as a reference for the action and not becoming the action itself.

I can also put it in my game bag and bring it with me if I have an away game or am running a con game.

#19 Comment By Roxysteve On July 27, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

[18] – Not a bad idea, but a projector will cost many tens of times what a whiteboard does. You might think one of those “cheap” projectors will do the job, but they require such dark conditions to work that you won’t be gaming while they are in use.

Yes, I looked into this, and own a cheap projector.

If you were looking for a more high-tech way of doing the job (as I was once) I’d suggest going for a cheap flatscreen monitor pointed toward the audience in place of a GM screen, or stood off to one side where everyone can see. I’ve seen one mounted on a pole at a con for the same effect.

You could do this for much less than the cost of even the most inexpensive projector that was still a wise buy (and it is easy to throw not inconsiderable sums of hard-earned cash at what turn out to be unwise buys only after hours of mucking about).

Of course, if you prefer to keep the computer out of the game, a whiteboard is still the way to go.

In fact, I have need of a whiteboard in a room in which I can’t use a projector as easily, and answering this post has made me realize that I can pull the trick much more cheaply than I previously thought because the room has a large glass window. I can hang white paper behind the window and draw on the glass with dry-erase.

Thanks, Mr Faults. I owe you one for the train of thought.

#20 Comment By rabalias On July 27, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

I too use a whiteboard for gaming (currently for Dark Heresy), as do many GMs I know. Personally, I use it like a battlemat, but with small counters instead of models.

Good tip on the magnets – I may well invest in a suitably backed whiteboard to make that work – it’s always a bit of a pain to have to huddle around one that I’ve had to keep flat so the counters don’t drop off! Plus my cat might find it harder to mess up magnets. Maybe.

#21 Comment By Necrognomicon On July 28, 2011 @ 4:41 am

[19] – I’m sorry I thought your comment was directed to me, you had replied to my comment and used the pronoun ‘you’.

To clarify my previous response:
I have always had a problem with how 3.5e handles diagonal movement. When one starts applying multipliers, the system’s inaccuracy just increases. I would go so far as to say that it is even more important to apply correction in such cases. Personally, I find the simplest and most accurate solution is to use rulers and string.

#22 Comment By Roxysteve On July 28, 2011 @ 8:52 am

[20] – Sorry for the confusion. It was necessary to speak *to* “you” in order to respond for the benefit of onlookers.

I’ve had others tell me this about the diagonal calculation, but I’ve been able to show that the inaccuracy involved is minimal and worth the bother for all the other stuff you gain by using the grid (solid feel for tactical situation, clear-cut LOS adjudication and so forth).

For those following the discussion but not following the point, a diagonal move should cost a consistent 1.414″ (call it 1.5) on a square grid. After two diagonal moves the math is as close as dammit.

(Historical aside) If you think the 5-10-5-10 pattern is awkward, you should try playing “Snapshot”. In that game it cost 2 points to move orthogonally and three to move diagonally, all to achieve the same effect. My experiences GMing Traveller and using Snapshot to portray large combats made me an instant convert to the 3.5 grid.

Also, I don’t understand the fuss in the community over the diagonals to be honest. For PCs the rate of movement will typically be from 6-12 “movement points”. Marking the square you start from, it should be trivial to trace the path and keep track of the costs. Counting by fives should be a doddle for anyone who can work up their character sheet under 3.5, but I’ve had some otherwise very clever people state with a straight face that keeping track of a 3.5 grid move cost is “hard”. I’ve put it down to laziness in the past, but his discussion has made me wonder.

I tend point out that a hex grid would solve all these issues and be more “realistic” but people get hung up on the fact of the hex sides, and think it somehow constrains movement in an unnatural way that a square grid doesn’t (which ain’t so).

I like grids because they make everything easier at the cost of an unrealistic ability on the part of the characters to gauge (estimated) range.

I also play rulers and protractor games, but I often come to the conclusion that they would be much simpler and less prone to bickering and meta-gamesmanship if they were on a grid of some sort.

Swings and roundabouts.

#23 Comment By Roxysteve On July 28, 2011 @ 8:53 am

“his discussion” should read “this discussion”. Stupid brain.

#24 Comment By Necrognomicon On July 28, 2011 @ 11:51 am

[21] – “I usually don’t bother with the Pythagorean correction in large scale unless a player is abusing the diagonals”

I never intended this discussion to digress into a retread of the diagonal debate. *You* brought up this subject.

I responded with what I see as the easiest solution to the problem. I then had to clarify what I thought was a fairly clear response.

I am truly amazed however, that someone who brought up diagonals and their potential for abuse would then claim a grid is “simpler and less prone to bickering and meta-gamesmanship”.

I’m not clear on how measuring a straight line is more complex and susceptible to the abuse of game mechanics. But whatever, swings and roundabouts as you say…