When it comes to tabletop RPGs the gaming surfaces are often an afterthought for most beginners. They’re perfectly happy to use any table surface for their game. While this might work a little while, eventually, there will come a time when you want to add more to the game.
I wanted to start with a quick list of the best options I’m aware of and what I use personally. So let’s start with a picture of my current set up and I’ll go through the components:
I’m very happy with this setup. It works perfectly for me. It’s also portable to a degree since I can lift up the frame and put it on a different desk.
Let’s go through the components:
- Simple empty desktop – Just your basic flat table. Nothing fancy, maybe you put your miniatures on it and leave the rest to your imagination. Perfectly fine to start! For me personally, I now have 3 of these desks. In various sizes. It’s simple, sturdy, and looks good. I use them for a painting table, display table and one for my airbrush set up.
- Battle Mats and Grids: This is where I’m at currently. I got the 2 foot by 3 foot laminated mat and I’m very happy with it! I put that down on one of my tables and it just ups things to another level. They are dual-sided so you can do dungeon terrain or a beach or some forest. Add in some scatter terrain and you’re good!
- Picture Frame: I really love this part of the setup. You get a 2 x 3 frame with a cardboard back and clear acrylic face. The above battle mat fits in perfectly and you can swap them out with ease. This is sturdy enough to put everything you need on it. Scatter terrain, miniatures, model trees… the whole bit.
- Scatter Terrain: Of course you can put whatever you like on yours, for mine I have Sacrificial Rocks by Battlefield in a Box. These are fantastic pieces. High quality, good weight and feel to them. I also have these Trees by Woodland Scenics in the background which I love. Excellent size and very simple to put up.
Put all those together and you have a great gaming surface that is both portable and sturdy! I love it and I think you’ll be pleased.
Dungeon Tiles: A bit more advanced if you do it yourself, but certainly a great project to tackle. You can also buy these in varying levels of quality. I found some cheap ones here on Amazon and then you have the really good stuff from the folks at Dwarven Forge.
Now, I don’t personally have these yet, but it’s on my short “To Do” list. I have the XPS Styrofoam here, I just need a few more items and I’ll give it a go. I’ll be using Black Magic Craft’s channel as my guide:
If you’re looking to save a few bucks.. having a desk that you restore yourself can take a major cost off the table. Now the desk I use is very simple, sturdy and effective, but it costs $100 bucks.
Here, I talk about even more great desk options.
If you don’t already have a desk and need something new, and don’t want to drop $100.00 on one, I would suggest looking into restoring something you find locally. Craigslist, eBay, wherever. Check out this video by Brent over at Goobertown Hobbies for an example of what I mean:
Now on the other end of the spectrum… if you have a lot to spend on this hobby then there is always… the Ultimate Gaming Table. This is for the no-compromise crowd 🙂
With all that said, we’ll take a closer look at DIY, Gaming Mats and more here:
The DIY Method for Tabletop Gaming Surfaces
The most common option for most beginners is to DIY their tabletop gaming surfaces. They might start out by using cans or paper tubes to make up hills, mountains or other terrains that their characters are going to trudge through.
More enthusiastic players often opt to get felt in different colors like green, brown, gray or even white to signify grasslands, deserts, mountain areas or snowy fields. DIY options can also include spray painting the felt to the desired color so that you’re able to make the setting match.
For beginners, this is the best alternative especially, if they are playing tabletop RPGs. If you haven’t decided that this is a hobby you want to commit to, it makes sense to not spend more money on a professional quality tabletop gaming surface.
Pros and Cons of DIY Tabletop Gaming Surfaces
DIY methods are preferred by many. Even the most seasoned players of tabletop RPGs will often handcraft custom tabletops for their gameplay. You’ll see that many players will usually opt to design their own surfaces which can either be used for all their games or only limited for one.
However, it’s not all good as making tabletop gaming surfaces from scratch can be challenging. Don’t listen to all the glowing reviews as this option does come with its own pros and cons.
Pros of DIY for Tabletop Gaming Surfaces
The following are some of the major pros associated with this option:
- You can make the surface according to your wants.
- It’s cheaper than buying a surface mat which can be costly.
- You can try making 3D surfaces with raised areas or shallow areas for hills and ponds.
- Different textures can be combined to make interesting surfaces.
Cons of DIY for Tabletop Gaming Surfaces
The following are the major cons that you can face with this option:
- The costs can add up for DIY surfaces – Materials like felt, insulation foam, neoprene rubber, paint, etc can be costly and subject to availability.
- Mistakes can ruin the whole surface which means getting more materials.
- You could make something which is too big and not portable.
- It can take a lot of time to DIY your own custom tabletop gaming surface. Some can take weeks before they are ready for use.
As you can see, there are some pros and cons associated with the DIY option. However, if this doesn’t phase you then it’s a great idea to make your own. With complete control over everything, you can let your imagination take over and create the best tabletop gaming surfaces!
Buying Tabletop Gaming Mats
The other option that players can opt for is buying tabletop gaming mats. While in the past, players had to rely solely on the DIY method, today, you can find plenty of gaming mats for any kind of terrain you have in mind.
These are made from quality materials, such as foam or silicone padding or are made entirely from neoprene rubber. It gives for a smoother playing surface and a good cushion for your characters. These can be found in varying degrees of hardness and softness as well.
The best part is that they can be found in any size for almost any terrain. They’re also printed with high-quality graphics which saves you a lot of work. These are a quick fix and not as labor-intensive as DIY surfaces will be.
Pros and Cons of Tabletop Gaming Mats
With their growing popularity, you might be tempted to get pre-made tabletop gaming surfaces. Their variety has grown and today, you can find them for almost any terrain type, story setting and more.
However, much like with DIY tabletop gaming surfaces, these mats have their own pros and cons. You should take them into consideration before you opt to buy one.
Pros of Tabletop Gaming Mats
The following are the major pros associated with tabletop gaming mats:
- Available in a wide variety of terrain designs, colors and materials and sizes which makes them perfect for use with other games.
- Inexpensive compared to more elaborate custom-made surfaces which can be very costly.
- Very portable – some can even be rolled up and come with carrying cases which can make it easier to carry them.
- No wastage of time – you don’t have to make them or wait for the paint to dry. You can start using them immediately.
Cons of Tabletop Gaming Mats
The following are some of the major cons you can face tabletop gaming mats:
- Only available in 2D designs – mountains and ponds might be printed on the mats but there are no elevated or dipped points in it.
- It can be costly for beginners – good tabletop gaming mats can start at $35+. If you already spent $40 on the tabletop RPG, spending an additional $35 to $50 on the mat might be unfeasible.
- Low-quality printing can mean that after a few uses, your mat can become faded or become scratched up.
- Improper storage can contribute to ruining the graphics of the tabletop gaming mats.
Picking the Perfect Size
One area where you can face confusion is in determining the size of the tabletop gaming surface that you need for your game. This is a factor you need to consider whether you are going to DIY or buy a gaming mat. Gaming mats and tabletops come in a lot of different sizes and it can be tempting to go for the biggest ones.
However, these do cost more so be careful about the kind of mats you pick. The favorite and most common sizes that you can get are:
6 x 4 Mats
These mats are for use with big games that usually have war-based stories and require a lot of space for your armies to battle. Big games that need 6 x 4 mats include Kings of War or Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. Generally, you won’t need such big mats.
4 x 4 Mats
For smaller, skirmish based games you should opt for these mats. These games are war or fighting based but don’t need you to have giant troops or armies. They have small groups of fighters in them.
Games that you can use 4 x 4 mats for include Malifaux. These can also be played on a 3 x 3 square, depending upon your storyline.
3 x 3 Mats
These are for smaller games where you don’t have large hordes or armies to think of. These can also be perfect for games where you have models and interaction with the environment but not to such a large extent as others. However, these mats can also be used for medium-sized games as well, based on the storyline of your game.
Most players like to have one or two sizes of mats that they can use as needed for their game. If you’re not sure about which mat size is perfect for you, try to borrow a gaming mat from a friend.
This will give you an idea about the size which matches your playing style so you don’t end up buying the wrong one.
The Best Materials for Gaming Mats
Printed gaming mats can be found in a number of different materials. The two major kinds which are extremely popular are made from the following materials:
Neoprene Gaming Mats
These have a thickness and texture which is very similar to a mousepad. It will have the same rubber base and a cloth layer added on top.
However, gaming mats are thinner than most mousepads. Normally, these are printed only on one side but there are variations being made now.
It is possible to find neoprene gaming mats that have printing on both sides, giving you more flexibility in surface choices. However, opting for regular printing will give you a mat that has a better grip on the surface because of the expose rubber bottom.
Vinyl Gaming Mats
These mat types are newer in the market but they are beginning to become more popular. These are printed on a vinyl base, similar to what you would see with a vinyl banner. Luckily, the printing quality is finer and more refined.
These mats differ from neoprene ones in thickness as they are thinner. This also makes them more affordable than neoprene mats. Additionally, these mats offer flexibility since they allow you to draw or write on them with wet-dry erase markers.
The one major downside is that this mat type is not as common as the other kinds that you will find in the market. This makes availability an issue.
So, if you’re looking for a good tabletop gaming surface, picking between these two materials is a good idea. Additionally, DIY-ing might be a great idea but if you don’t have the time, space or energy to make one on your own, these are your best bet!