Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different options for drawing maps — both tactical (for combat using minis, counters, etc.) and overview (world maps and the like). The three options below are the ones that have worked the best for me — and if they’re new to you, so much the better!
For tactical mapping, these puppies simply can’t be beat. Tact-Tiles are light grey squares of plastic with a dry-erase surface (which I much prefer to wet-erase, because wet-erase tends to stain), and they have a 1″ square grid already in place. Each each is shaped a bit like a puzzle piece, and they interlock accordingly — which is the really cool part.
You can lay out several tiles, draw up your map — and then when the action moves, you can erase a tile you no longer need, pop it out, move it to the new area, and continue the map. After using these, I can’t imagine going back to regular battle mats.
They’re a bit expensive (about $42 for the basic 9-tile set), but they’re compact, durable and quite versatile. You can check them out on the BC Products website. I went with the expanded 12-tile kit, and I love it.
Graph Paper Rolls
For locations you think the PCs will visit more than once, it’s nice to have a permanent map that you can use again. Big rolls of graph paper are my favorite option for this by far. The ones I use are about 3′ wide and 50′ long, with a 1″ square grid.
These are great because you can unroll as much as you need, and tape pieces together to make wider maps — but unlike pads of graph paper, if you just need a little piece, you can have a little piece. For my last campaign, I kept all of my maps in a roll, and just weighted the corners when I needed to re-use one of them.
You can also combine the permanence of a paper map with the versatility of an erasable one — by throwing a piece of plexiglass (or even glass) over the top of your map. Most plexiglass will take dry-erase markers; for glass, grease pencils (sometimes called “China markers”) work quite well.
This kind of paper also doesn’t tend to be that pricey — the EAI Education website, for example, sells 100′ rolls of the stuff for about $20 (although I’ve never ordered from them).
Dungeon Crafter is a freeware mapping program aimed primarily at fantasy, but with support for other genres as well. It’s a very simple little program — nowhere near as in-depth as Campaign Cartographer or Dundjinni, but then again: it’s free! On top of that, sometimes in-depth isn’t the way to go — if you need a way to draw fairly attractive maps quickly, Dungeon Crafter does the trick.
Dungeon Crafter’s interface is pretty intuitive — it works by laying pieces in or along tiles: floor sections, walls, doors, dungeon dressing (pools of blood, etc.) and other items. If you scale up your map later (say, to your set of Tact-Tiles!), the grid comes in handy; it’s also nice for quickly figuring out distances.
There’s also a user community for Dungeon Crafter, which is a good source of custom tilesets — particularly those for genres other than fantasy.