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.