The Easily Lost Explorer’s Guide to Dungeon Crawling

Now Communicate All That To Your Players

The latest D&D Next blog post by Bruce Cordell covers one of the oft-pointed to dealbreakers for many in D&D 4e: the use of the combat grid. This is actually only one piece of a whole topic about spacial thinking.

Bear with me here: if we all had perfect spacial thinking and effective communication skills, we wouldn’t need a battle grid in combat. The DM could describe the dimensions and shape of a room in the dungeon, as well as relative positions of inhabitants and features. We could just describe how far we’re going, all adjust our mental pictures appropriately, and voila: the entire time to set up a battle would be the time we need to talk about it.

Unfortunately, we don’t all have that. Some of us are terrible at it (me) while others of us are really good at it. In order to make it function at its best though, we have to ALL be reasonably good at it in the same game. Usually this is not the case: you have varying levels of spacial aptitude among the players at an RPG table, and definitely varying degrees of communication skills. In D&D, this has classically been addressed by one of the following styles:

  • The battle grid, where everybody can see a birds-eye view of the entire battle, and can always determine exact distances and sizes.
  • Rough battle grid (RBG) that does use a map and minis/tokens, but is less concerned with measuring distances and more simply about rough positions.
  • “Theater of the Mind” (ToTM) as discussed by Bruce Cordell, where distances aren’t as important and everyone roughly imagines relative positions. (Notice there’s only one exact distance given in Bruce’s example in the size of the room.)
  • A fourth style that I’ll call “Blueprints of the Mind” (BotM) that uses exact distances but does not represent them in the real (OOC) world, and is entirely reliant upon the DM to communicate where everything is.

(There is at least one other style in other RPGs I’ve played, which I’ll address later.)

Theater of the Mind, in 3D

Now, as someone with terrible, terrible direction sense, I tend to prefer one of the first two in D&D. The battle grid means that we’re all automatically on the same page. If I lay out a room as a DM, you can see how big it is without any negotiating. If I’m a player, I can easily look down and pre-plan what I’m going to do (and more importantly, get excited about what my character will do next turn) without having to wait and get a recap. The only delay tends to be working out fiddly things like line-of-sight. RBG operates largely the same way, though there’s a bit more clarification often involved.

ToTM can be OK, but also problematic. With situation that cares about relative positioning –  “Can I my barbarian charge him? Is he in range of my bow? Can I aim this Cone of Cold to hit all of them?” – it becomes messier. Because I know I’m not going to be able to track where everything is, I have to wait until it’s my turn and get a recap. This sometimes leads to embarrassing situations where I’m not sure if there are goblins still attacking my face or not until it’s my turn. In other situations, I prefer the ToTM. In fact, in many other RPGs I play, this is the only way I’ll play because it just doesn’t matter who is where, and decisions are made based on what would make sense in a story.

BotM is my least favorite, as you might be able to tell, and I think it’s more common than people give it credit for. In this style, I completely check out when it’s not my turn because it just feels punishing and frustrating when I try to listen to everything that’s going on and I still can’t form a mental picture. Sometimes, it’s even worse when it feels like a math problem: “two golems are equidistant from each other in a 50 foot square room. One of them charges 30 feet to the wizard on your left. Assuming a halfling’s speed, can your rogue reach the other golem before he pulls the lever that drops the lava on the rest of the group?” It sounds extreme, but I’ve found that’s often the case when a very spacial thinker runs a game without a grid. While I cannot picture distances in my head, I’m sure there are folks out there that can’t help but describe things in terms of feet (and sometimes, horrifyingly enough, yards).

Stop And Ask That Pit Trap For Directions

These situations don’t just apply to combat mapping either. Take ye olde dungeone crawle. Mapping the dungeon is treated like another job you must perform like party caller or healer or stableboy. Only, in the case of dungeon mapping, it’s entirely based on player skill, so your illiterate barbarian with a 6 wisdom could be better at it than the 18 intelligence wizard.

So you have your dungeon cartographer, and the DM can describe the hallways that snake off 20 feet to the north and 30 feet to the south, then curve at a 45 degree angle for 40 feet, and so on. The cartographer listens intently and sketches it out as we go, making the player be in charge of trying to draw floor plans only by talking to a partner, like some kind of party game. Mess up, or misinterpret, and everything could be off. This is sometimes fun, for like the first time it happens, and other times, feels like you just programmed your Robo Rally robot to walk off a cliff repeatedly. Likewise, you miss all the possibly fun connections that are had by exploring a dungeon and seeing where the things wrap around, or connect in interesting ways.

Even assuming that you’re doing it perfectly, the mapping is done by one player, who has the best sense of what’s going on. The two players sitting next to her can see the map and weigh in on informed decisions about where to go next. Sitting anywhere else at the table? “Uh, left is always good.” Certainly a good cartographer will show it to other players when needed, but by and large, exploring a dungeon is the province of the one player who really understands what’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE exploring in D&D. I love those “aha” moments where you figure out where there has to be a secret door because of the way things connect. That’s just what makes me sad about the style of play, since I don’t get to really participate. And trust me, you do NOT want me doing the mapping.

3d6+12 Feet Converted To Metric

All this is what lead me yesterday to declare, on the internet of all places, the following statement, in reaction to my friend Trevor stating that you need to know whether a range is in squares or feet:

I actually find feet similarly worthless in a gridless situation. Either you’re measuring exacts or not. Melee/Close/Medium/Far etc. would be fine, or some kind of zoning method.

Exact distances (like 30 feet, or my more hated 3e spell alternative, 30+2 feet per level) get you into the BotM framework. A spell tells you how far it works, and NEVER EVER goes beyond that. If you need to hit the dragon with an acid arrow but it’s 31 feet away, you’re out of luck (and if your DM isn’t out to hose you at every turn, he might even tell you before you waste the spell.) In more situations, we fudge it anyway, which TotM and RBG both live in the “fudge it/negotiate it” zone of play.

What I’m ultimately saying is that specifying exact distances in play, unless you’re using a battle grid or something similar, punish people like me, and there are more than us than you might think that are just playing along. It’s one of those things that has been a part of the game for so long it’s easy to just accept it. However, I do think there are solutions out there that can help everyone.

Virtual Matrix-Esque Worlds For Every Game Table

One alternative I floated, specifically in the context of D&D, is the idea of fuzzy ranges. That is, the range of distances is described by a rough description, like I described above: melee, close, medium, far. I can only attack in melee at melee range. My bow can hit anything I can see within far range. The cone of cold blasts everything close. You can still attach real world distances to them in the rules (close goes from 6-30 feet, medium from 31 to 100, etc.) so as to support battle grid usage. Additionally, and this is the important part, the abstract nature needs to be represented by the rules. Instead of relying on having an omniscient placement of a fireball because the spell description tells me it branches out to exactly 30 squares, it instead would say something like: “hits everything with close range of each other, up to 6 targets. You may designate a target you’re trying to avoid hitting and that target receives a +5 to their saving throw versus the effect.” Or: “Any character may try to run with an Endurance check to increase the distance of their run from close to medium. Halflings and dwarves have tiny legs and so get a -2 penalty to their check.” And so on. Those are just examples that might not work in play, but hopefully you get the idea.

Another alternative, as I alluded to earlier, is to take the approach that FATE and other games have done, which is create abstract “zones” of battle that only care about what area you are in, not exactly where you’re standing. So you might be in the ogre room zone, able to attack anything in melee in that zone, or attack with a longer range weapon into that zone or the hallway zone adjacent, but not the otyugh trash pile adjacent to that around the corner. Movement is listed in things like “1 zone.” And so on.

In both cases, you still have rules about distances, and you’re still going for the same effects that you’ve always had in D&D. It’s just thinking about them in a different way, and supporting them through the system instead of relying on DMs and players to be good at estimating distances. Heck, I couldn’t even tell you the size of the room I’m in right now, and I come to it every week day.

Ultimately, I think my point is that looking at the issue of just battle grid vs. not battle grid will leave us with the same issues, conflicts, and style preferences that lead us down the winding road in the first place from Chainmail to whatever comes next. Thinking about WHY we have these issues- like being unable to picture a battle in my head- and less about one style versus the other could bear some fruit in a solution that will work for everyone playing.

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About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Good stuff.

    What I think is important is that we get some sort of *visual* representation in the game. People focus a lot on the spatial bits, but any reasonable system for visualization (including much of what you already describe) should work.

    The most important aspect is to have the proper hooks for imaginative processes (of all types) to engage it.

  2. I think this article sets up a false dichotomy. There are plenty of ways of describing a battle scene and I don’t see people playing Pulp type games having issues without using grids. But back to the false dichotomy…

    Other ways of detailing game space are:
    – using a tape measure
    – using hex spacing instead of grids
    – using a diagram that doesn’t include units

    All of these work too. Grids are just one way to control a battle space and they are not especially… special at doing it. I think if we take our heads out of the D&D 3.5+ mindset we would see that grids actually suck in quite a few different ways.

    I have tailored my game to use a measurement system, so its quick and there isn’t issues with moving diagonally.

  3. Are you saying my article uses a false dichtomy, or Bruce’s does? Because I lay out at least 5 options. “Grid” is a catchall for exact representations and would cover things like using a tape measure or hexes. And I have the exact same issues with hexes and trying to imagine physical space as squares.

  4. we always used grids going back to 1e so guess what my opinion is. i hope they dont use gridless core as an excuse for really dumbed down and basic combat but i bet they will bc thats what cordell did when he was 10. meanwhile the straight up votes for gridless only are like 14% of all respondents. glad they are designing the core based on such an overwhelming subset of players

  5. I’ve debated for a long time trying to run a one-off game using the 40k wargame movement rules (possibly even using our 40k miniatures). I fear it would slow combat down a lot, as everyone has to break out their tape measures, but I still want to give it a try sometime.

    This article also showed me how I could have made the last encounter I ran for our home group better. They were situated in the ruins of an old gladiatorial arena fighting off several enemies, but they hardly used any of the room available. Using a battle grid made this very apparent, and had I gone the TotM route, it would have been less apparent or non-existent (I find TotM encounters tend to have more movement). Plus it would have made the enemies burrowing through the sand a little more difficult to track, thus making them more frightening, as was intended.

    It would definitely be nice if the base game included support for more relative positioning like you describe. Having abilities/movement described as melee/close/medium/far alongside, or with a conversion to, the battlegrid dimensions would be great.

  6. I’m on the opposite side of the fence. As somebody with excellent spatial thinking, direction sense, and spatial memory, I can follow every square of a battlefield even in a ToTM situation. It can be very frustrating to me when other players need the setup re-explained to them during their turn, but I just bite my lip and exercise patience. Next time we play I will suggest using fuzzy distances so maybe players can remember their current situation.

    Maybe a d6 to indicate what their status is. 1 is melee, 2 is right behind melee, 3 is the back of the group, 4 is in ranged distance but otherwise away from the fight, 5 is away from ranged attacks but visible, and 6 is out of the fight/hiding/fleeing or otherwise out of the fight. It takes a move action to change your number to any other number.

  7. Nice article Dave.

    I’ve learned that I am just a very visual person. You can describe a room to me in as much detail as you want, as many times as you want and I’ll very rarely get a very good idea of the layout. But if you take 20 seconds to draw 5 squiggly lines on a mat/paper/whatever it will click in my mind almost immediately.

  8. If I weren’t on hiatus, I think I would have gone to a tape measure approach. To speed things up I planned to have preset strings for common distances. (I was running starship troopers) In my case, base movement, jump jet movement, and rifle range.

  9. One of the things about the tape measure approach that interests me is trying to convert the other wargame aspects of 40k to the roleplay game. Scatter die and aoe templates, primarily.

  10. My gaming group was discussing this the other night. We thought it could work to have something similar to what you described, which in turn reflect the language of games like Guild Wars. You would have terms like Adjacent, Close, Medium, Long, and Distant. When playing grid-less, these are descriptive loose terms. “Yeah, we can consider that guy adjacent. She can attack him.”

    When playing on a grid, we would use the specified distances. Adjacent is 1 square (or 5 feet), Close might be within 5 squares, etc. Powers or spells would have these ranges. So, in TotM I cast magic missile and I can hit long range, which might mean “that tower over there”. But on a grid I can hit 100′.

    When it comes to spatial arrangements, I think this just needs DM guidance. As long as we are DMing and playing for fun, and that goal is really clear, a good time should be had. Yeah, I might not remember if I’m fighting two or three orcs… the DM might not either… but if we aim for fun it should work fine. Flexibility is key here. When I played AD&D we used minis for that… plunk them on graph paper haphazardly to show 3 orcs on you and 2 on me. That sort of loose stuff. But, another play group might find that unnecessary. If the goal of fun is clear, it should work out.

  11. Thanks for reframing this issue, Dave. You bring up points I can’t believe I haven’t heard yet. Genius.

  12. This is basically what I’m saying, but not as politely or something. Here was my take on it:,_mistrust,_and_points_between

    We use a grid in my games, but you know what I’ve found? Even on a grid, exact distances rarely matter. Most of the time, things you expect to be in range ARE in range for either movement or attack. If we never counted anything, most of the time we’d be close enough. Sometimes, if a player is taking too long counting squares, I’ll just let them have it. It’s not worth the delay. The same often goes for cover: I just eyeball it.

    Not that I’m advocating gridless play for everyone, but it’s nice when everyone trusts everyone else enough to not have to measure everything.

    I like the FATE system, but most combats I’ve run have only involved one zone or the zones were clearly separated & ranged attacks were blocked.

  13. I’m a die-hard grid gamer (been using them 2e), and like Froth, I’ve been worried my way of playing won’t be supported by the core 5e. However, I really like the approach that you lay out here and I hope WOTC uses something like this. It supports multiple styles of play without the need for additional ‘modules’. The other thing I really like is that this approach allows for DMs to switch between TOTM and gridded play within the same session seamlessly, without having to cart out a different set of rules (or confusing the players), as fits the in-game situation. For example: the PCs are on a pirate ship attacking an enemy vessel. Their exact position on the ship isn’t that important so I use a TOTM style. Later in the session, the players are exploring an island ruin, full of traps and blowgun toting goblins, so I switch to the gridded battlemat for a more tactical experience. Your approach gives both situations full support, with players understanding their positioning in both.

  14. I wrote a longer and less useful article on this same topic at .

    (Oh, in the PF megadungeon game we’re in, we have a mapper who likes it, because that’s the kind of guy he is, and it’s wonderful that we can do as you say… see where we haven’t explored and ferret out secrets by studying the map. It makes the dungeon feel like a real place which exists, and not as a stage in which we move from Encounter A to Encounter B.)

  15. I use a tape measure (like in WHFB).

  16. Dave – I really liked this. I’m running games exclusively on skype now, and we are somewhere between ToTM and BoTM territory. It can be frustrating for me and the players, but over time we have developed / negotiated our own standards and measures (some very similar to what you described, i.e. close, medium, far range). I hope that the designers of 5E leave room for those of us who can no longer gather around a grid.

    PS – followed the link in your bio to the page about your father. A very toughtful account of his life, he must have been an interesting guy.

  17. Thank you for making this post. I too am not good at spatial thinking without some kind of visual reference. The reason I hate combat grids is because of the exact distance problem. I hate them even more when player feats or “powers” require me to keep track of exact distances within a round, not just from one round to another. (In 4e’s defense, my reading of the 3.5e intial rulebooks is that a combat grid is “strongly recommended”!)

    I like the example from FATE (I arrived at the same idea based on Risk and Axis and Allies) of just dividing an area into combat zones and not worrying about position within a zone. I think that alone would help speed up combat (which is one of the stated goals of 5e)


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