Friday, October 5, 2012

Elevate Your Game – Tracking Airborne Minis

credit: benimoto
credit: benimoto
The third dimension of the battlemat has long been a problem. How do you represent it with minis, other than by holding them up with your hand and making airplane noises?
The first problem is marking which minis are going vertical because they are hovering, levitating, swimming or flying.
The second problem is tracking height or depth. How high is the character or their foe in the air?
The third problem is stacking minis who are in the same vertical space but are at different heights.
Here are several methods for elevating your game into the air, and tracking miniatures on the battlemat that do so. Unfortunately, while some solutions are interesting, short of a crane, there is still no perfect solution. This is disappointing, because the new edition of D&D, for example, recommends you explore three dimensions in combat. Without a good minis solution, I think GMs will continue to make do and put up with a bit of battlemat chaos.

Dr. Wizard’s Elevation Indicator

This game aid is available at Emerald’s Emporium and Paizo’s online store.
dr wizards elevation indicator
An Elevation Indicator is a three inch tall, one inch diameter, plastic rod. It has numbers marked along the side for use with coloured bands you move up and down to indicate height. Place your mini on top of the rod and the rod on your battlemat and you have a flying combatant. You can track fliers thousands of feet in the air this way.
You can get Elevation Extenders for this product, which are plastic bases to optionally make the rod more stable and to hold a larger number of minis – or bigger minis – at the top in flying position.
Conversely, you can use the rod and its bands to show how far a PC is falling into a bottomless pit. :) Hey, it might happen: stealing an idea from a Planescape TSR novel, I once ran a couple sessions where the PCs were falling but could control their lateral movement a bit, and so could fly down and over to things. We had several encounters this way as they met fellow fallers, debris, and interesting situations. The PCs never hit bottom as they came across a dead wizard with teleport in his spell book, which a PC learned and, two weeks later, was able to teleport the group out.
This product is well-crafted. It’s a clear, buffed rod, no sharp edges, and stands well. The numbers are white on a clear plasctic surface, therefore not the easiest to see from certain angles and in certain light. The numbers and the bands do, however, make it easy to track height or depth, so problems #1 and #2 solved well.
Drawbacks are you need one rod for each combatant. The Elevation Indicator also does not solve problem #3: stacked combatants at different heights. The rod is solid and nothing fits below or above it. The extender base, if used, adds stability but uses up neighbouring squares, making those spaces tricky to place minis in at the battlmat level.

Combat Tiers

dnd_minis_combat_tiersWhoa, these things are nice. Combat Tiers from Tinkered Tactics (and also available from Paizo) are multi-tiered plastic platforms, gridded out, with elevation blocks to create different heights. They are clear plastic and feel solid.
My set came with three platforms of different sizes, each big enough to hold large minis and several medium-sized minis. The tiers have good weight and are quite stable. Assembly was easy.
Cons with these are their large footprint. If you have terrain, then the base might not squeeze in well. The square columns used to support the tiers, though, can be used standalone in 1″ grid battlemaps.
They also don’t solve problem #2: tracking height for large heights. The columns are nicely segmented to 1″ / 5′ ratios, but my set’s height maxes out at 16″ / 80′ if all columns are used. This is not an issue for low-flying encounters, such as in caverns or interior spaces with low roofs.
Pros are problem #1: marking who is flying is solved, and problem #3: stacking is partially solved. I guess problem #3 might also be a con, because you can only stack three vertically (unless you get more sets) as my set came with 3 tiers. Potatoe, tomato.
Another pro is the clear base. If you don’t use 3D terrain, then the base should fit easily into your combat areas, and the clear plastic lets you see what you’ve drawn beneath, on your matt. Also good is the large tiers. You can wage limited space close melees on the tiers. The bottom tier is 5 squares by 5 squares, and the other two tiers are 4×4 each.

Pizza stands with straws

Our group shares dinner duties. Each session we take turns feeding the group. The default, and most frequent meal, is pizza. It comes to your door, it’s already sliced, and feeds several easily. :) In the middle of each ‘za is a plastic, three-legged stand designed to prop up the pizza lid during travel so the cheese doesn’t stick to the cardboard. These plastic stands are great for height indicators.
The little “tables” are the perfect size for a mini. They are also very stable. The tables are raised up about an inch or so, so you can place them over terrain and other small combat mat bits.
As an experiment, I attached straws to the legs to elevate the tables about half a foot off the battlemat. This was a miserable failure though, lol. First, the straws were a pain. They were not sturdy.
Second, all they did was provide a little extra vertical space so you could place a mini underneath. Aha! Two stacked minis. Unfortunately, the mini at the bottom was difficult to squeeze between the straw legs, and larger minis would not fit underneath at all.
Pizza stands solve problem #1: who is flying? They don’t solve problems #2 or #3 well: tracking how high and stacking minis vertically.

Dice and large objects

large_diceCurrently, we use big objects in special cases to quickly identify flying or swimming minis. I have some big foamy dice, and there are other items around, including film canisters, empty pill bottles, and candy containers. These work in a snap, but sometimes aren’t suitable for some combat arrangements, such as close quarters fighting.
We also use small dice for flying indicators. I have a bunch of square Vegas d6s. These are the perfect size, are stable, and even have 1-6 numbers for some potential height tracking. Large minis and minis with unusual base shapes don’t sit well on these, though.

Poker chips

Ah yes, sweet sweet poker chips. These things are quickly approaching index cards and Post-It Notes in our games as universal game aids. We use poker chips to track a lot of details, including hit points, conditions, player Pocket Points, ammunition, and durations.
Poker chips are also great elevation markers. Pick a colour to indicate flying or swimming status, and then stack up the same colour to indicate height or depth.
This solves problems #1 and #2, but not #3: vertical stacking.
However, poker chips are cheap, useful for many things, and available at many stores.


There are lots of solutions out there. Of the commercial solutions, Combat Tiers are great, but possibly too bulky for you setup, so Dr. Wizard’s Elevation Indicator might be more to your liking (don’t forget, though, that you can use individual columns from the Tiers for single column elevators).
One snag is the cost. What if you have two or more pockets of swimming or arial combatants far apart from each other? One set of Tiers or one Elevation Indicator won’t solve the whole problem.
The other solutions, pizza stands, poker chips, and dice are cheap and available in multiple quantities (depending on your diet). Having game mastered with all these options, the cheap solutions lack the impact and cool factor of Dr. Wizard’s Elevation Indicator and Combat Tiers. We save those products for the best combats, in the case of multiple arial combats in a single encounter. And we sometimes just use poker chips when we want to be lean and fast.
However, no solution I’ve seen yet solves all three problems: denoting who is flying, marking how high, and having multiple combats stack in vertical space. Perhaps this is a hologram-only solution. :)
For more tips and solutions on elevating your game, read Roleplaying Tips Issue #310 – Airborne Minis Tips.
Over to you now. How do you elevate your game? How do you solve problems #1 – identifying who is flying, #2 – tracking height, and #3 – vertical space and stacking?

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