D&D Tabletop Virtual Maps

When I first started running D&D games a while back, I drew battle maps on whiteboards or the grid on the back of wrapping paper. When my group moved to playing virtually due to COVID, I started using maps built into a module a bought for use on Roll20, and I searched the web for maps when I needed to make up an encounter. There are lots of really neat looking maps out there.

I don’t imagine I’ll be playing in person any time soon again, but I’ve seen some neat setups that either project onto a table or that turn a TV or monitor horizontal for the display of vivid maps without all the hassle of drawing maps by hand (which can take some time even if you draw crudely, as I do). I’m not much of a builder but decided on a whim on Saturday to try making a frame to hold an old 27″ monitor I had lying around.

I took some rough measurements and bought some 4″x1″ (so actually more like 3.5″ x .75″) lumber, two 8-footh lengths. I also got some small trim pieces and a sheet of plexiglass cut to the approximate size I figured I’d need. I’m pretty bad at carpentry and so tend to make a rough plan rather than to pretend that I’ll measure or cut very precisely. The end result tends to be crude but mostly serviceable work. Here I’ve marked and begun cutting my frame pieces.

Next, I wanted to sort of route out a couple of slots in one of the boards that’d allow me access to the buttons on the bottom of the monitor and that’d let me feed cords through the frame. I sort of eyeballed it and did some crude routing with a drill and a chisel. I should have measured properly, as my button slot is misaligned by a wide margin. By the time I saw how badly it was misaligned, I had already assembled the frame and slid the monitor into it. I can contort my finger in there and push the power button, but this is not the finest craftsmanship, even by my low standards. I may figure out some sort of button offset gadget I could 3D print to allow me to push buttons inside the frame by pressing buttons on the outside, but it’s a low priority.

In the next shot, I’ve got my frame pieces cut and ready for final sanding. You can see from the knot in the one piece that I’m not super finicky about the look of the wood. I sort of like the knot, actually.

I assembled the frame using wood glue and nails. The black band around the frame in the next photo is this neat clamp my dad got me many years ago that’s designed precisely for holding this sort of thing together while letting the glue dry. Next, I drilled some pilot holes through the plexiglass and the frame. My intent was to both superglue the plexiglass down and nail it in place, with some trim pieces finishing the look and covering some of the monitor’s bezels. I carefully got as far as getting the plexiglass cleaned up and attached to the frame, and I slid the monitor into the frame for a satisfyingly snug fit. Then I cut a piece of wood to hold the monitor into place from behind and screwed that into the sides of the box, long-way (not pictured). When I turned it back over, I found that in spite of my clean-up job, I had managed to get some sawdust between the monitor and the plexiglass — and not just a little. A few specks I could’ve lived with, but it was very noticeable. I tried shop-vacuuming the dust out to no avail, and finally I decided to try carefully prying the plexiglass back up. It cracked as I did so.

So I went back to the hardware store to get more plexiglass. Luckily, they still had the piece they had cut my bit from, so they just cut me a new piece out of it at no additional charge, since I had paid for the whole sheet (I don’t know why they didn’t give me the whole sheet to begin with). I was able to give more precise measurements for the plexiglass this time based on the dimensions of the assembled frame, so I wound up with a better cut than my own prior trim-up job on the the initial plexiglass to make it fit my frame.

In the next shot, you can see that I’ve moved from using an old end table in the garage as a workbench to using the table in our breakfast nook. A little sawdust in the kitchen never hurt anybody. Here I’ve thoroughly cleaned the frame and monitor and plexiglass, re-glued the plexiglass, and have affixed three of the trim pieces using pilot holes and nails. I managed not to crack the plexiglass in spite of hammering nails through the pilot holes. I made the holes about the size of the nail, but not terribly deep, so the nails could slip easily into the holes but still bite into the wood down deep in the frame and hold things together.

And here’s the finished piece, with a little sawdust on the exterior. When I peeled the film off the plexiglass, I was left with a nice clean surface. There’s a gap in the trim on that lower left corner, and the nails don’t look great. I didn’t attend too carefully to spacing of the nails. The slots I hand-routed in the bottom (not pictured here) look a little rough-hewn, but then the whole aesthetic here is pretty rough hewn. I didn’t feel like waiting on stain or varnish, and besides, I didn’t figure I ought to make this thing any more flammable than it already is by adding chemicals to the wood.

The monitor’s bottom bezel (pictured at right here) is wider than the others, and I decided just to live with it, since I thought a uniform trim width was preferable to varying trim widths.

Finally, I plugged the thing in and pulled a map up on it:

You can see that I’ve placed a few of minis on the map too. The idea here is that in the future, I might be able to run a game using Roll20 and show the map here. I can then drag the map around as needed to expose different parts of it within the frame so that we can see big maps without using a lot of table real estate. And they can be vibrant maps that’re much nicer to look at than my crude sketches. I’d like to figure out how to properly go into full-screen mode to get rid of the browser window bits (Roll20 isn’t great for this). But I’ve got lots of time before I’ll feel comfortable playing in person anyway, so there’s time for that yet.