Thursday, April 23, 2009

Make your own glass RPG map top

I'm about to start a new D&D campaign.  I wanted to be prepared, and have a good solution to one of the problems of running the game: how to represent the game map.

Here are some of the issues I wanted to resolve:
  • work with pre-printed D&D maps
  • work with pre-printed D&D dungeon tiles
  • prevent tiles and maps from moving around and becoming misaligned
  • stop spills, snack related damage and enthusiastic play from damaging maps and tiles
  • mark up map details over those pre-printed items without damage
  • have a grid available for impromptu free-form maps and buildings
  • be able to "game off the edge" when tiles or maps run out
I had thought of laminating the maps, but the tiles don't suit that approach at all.

Glass seemed like a great idea, after seeing a friends glass kitchen table top with a map of the world underneath it.

But I knew the glass would need to be small enough to easily lift with one hand, and slide maps and tiles in and out during gaming.

Spec point one:  glass 800mm x 600mm or 24" x 32" in size.  

This is a good manageable size.  The glass should be 5mm thick float glass, with a beveled edge.

The bevel makes the edges of the glass a bit stronger and less likely to damage fingers and hands whilst in use.  If in doubt ask the glass supplier for "furniture glass", or "glass suitable for a coffee table top".

Such a bit of glass is likely to set you back $70AUD (around $50US at the time of writing) but you might be lucky and get an off-cut if you visit the factory.

The other issue was how to "game off the edge" - a standard D&D 1 x 1 inch grid was needed on the glass to extend over the whole surface of the glass.

I researched a number of ways to mark up the glass.  

Glass-workers use diamond and other hardened tools to cut fine scratches into glass, but the glass is weakened and much more likely to break.  In fact this is the idea of most of these tools.

Glass companies offer a range of decorative glass and can print a design onto the glass.  Also there are various types of printed film.  Most of these options looked far too expensive.

Spec point two: Sakura Solid Paint markers, ordered from Graffonline.  

I got two, just because the minimum for delivery was $10, all up it was $18AUD for two markers delivered and they turned up a few days later.

The markers are like a soft crayon made of paint: they make an instant line, and don't dry out like felt tips.  

One problem I hadn't anticipated is that the marker paint gets on the straight edge.

Apparently it can be easily removed with the alcohol based cleaner.

Like a crayon the line is hard to control, but I wasn't too worried about that for my first go-around.  I have plenty of marker left, so I plan to clean off the glass and do it over sometime with a practiced hand and a bit more time to spend.

I'm pretty happy with the results (top picture) even tho' the lines are pretty rough.  The painted lines are durable and dry enough after only 20 minutes that I can put the glass lines-side-down without the paint coming off. 

Marking up the glass with dry erase (whiteboard) markers is easy - that's the "house" that the miniatures in the bottom-right hand corner of the picture are in.  The dry-erase markers wipe off clean from the glass.

Since the paint is on the underside of the glass, marking and erasing does not affect the painted grid.

I think I hit most of my requirements, but I'll post back here with how it goes in the front line duty of my campaign.


  1. First run for the glass map top was last night. The D&D party had a random encounter and I didn't wind up using any tiles or pre-printed maps.

    The glass performed very well as far as the squares went. I had some pre-drawn scenery elements (trees and bushes) that I dropped onto the glass and it worked fine as a surface.

    In hind-sight I should have lifted up the glass but in the pace of the game I didn't take the time out to do that. Given that with a 5 player game encounters last at least an hour, I think two minutes to lift and reposition the glass is negligible, so I will do that next time.

    One suggestion I received was to find small rubber feet for the glass so that I could slide stuff under without lifting it. Its a good idea, and would work well for the pre-printed maps, but for tiles and the scenery not so much.

    The main issue that cropped up was poor performance from a set of whiteboard markers I had. Two fine point markers that I used in the pictures above seemed to work OK. The set was a bit old, but worked fine writing on plastic laminate.

    Might try to buy some more dry-erase markers and try to get some with good color density.

  2. All very D.I.Y.

    Or you can go buy:

    Have a look at the description of the "Layer Cake" design....

  3. Wow that table is indeed very cool. Alas, shipping to Australia is not an option so we will have to persevere with our DIY solutions although the table design is pretty inspiring: I really like the idea of grid being separate from the drawing surface.


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