To Grid or Not to Grid
‘Tactics’ has meant different things over the years in the context of fantasy RPG’s. In first and second edition Dungeons and Dragons, tactics meant techniques and abilities, and were fairly rudimentary, getting a few bumps from various splatbooks and later with the Skills & Powers books. In versions 3.0 to Pathfinder, however, tactics became more closely associated with tactical movement, movement on a grid, and it became fairly critical: flanking, five-foot-steps, attacks of opportunity, and templated spell effect areas could all mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield.
I remember starting to play 3.0 many years ago now and thinking, “Man, this combat is almost like playing an additional game or mini-game” which shows what a break it was from older editions. It was thrilling at the time, but as time has gone on, the pros and cons of the grid weigh on me as a player, but even more so as a GM.
This came into sharper focus recently with our trial run of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set. We played with very vague illustrations of the rooms we were in, didn’t count squares, and approximated distances. The game flowed well, played quickly, and we didn’t run into any problems. Players continuously improvised and thought outside of the box, trying to obtain ‘advantage’, where two dice are rolled taking the higher result (a primary 5E mechanic).
By contrast, the following week we returned to our Reign of Winter game where we encountered creatures that could create a cage of bones over the players with a touch attack. The grid lead to accurate depictions of positioning, but as a result, a horrible slog ensued where players couldn’t act effectively due to the specificity with which we were able to chart their positions, many of them being out of reach of their opponents and of other players.
Some of my players hate the grid. Kevin, for instance, and increasingly, Michael, find it frustrating. We’ve played a fair amount of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and reversion to the grid has always been a mistake in that. DCC plays fast and loose, with crazy things happening all the time, and counting squares runs afoul of it’s old school roots and free wheeling ‘sure, try it’ attitude. Accordingly, they don’t recommend it.
Really, any time you’re counting squares (especially Pathfinder’s diagonal movement rules) you’ve stopped the creative flow of the game and the action, and have approached minutia that is probably not enhancing the actual play of the game.
That said, sometimes you want something technical. Sometimes being a few inches outside of that explosive radius is a high-five inducing event. The grid keeps things fair, for both GM and player, and that can be important with the right group (and even more important with the WRONG group).
So I decided to try 5th edition with various gridded and non-gridded play areas to see how the party responded. At the table, we had old and new players, and players that were both for and against gridded combat. The results were interesting.
THEATER OF THE MIND
First, I ran a session with no map. Just words. This is commonly called “Theater of the Mind” and worked well enough. Play was quick, but in the end fairly featureless. For whatever reason, players didn’t seem to put much into the attacks or the environment that brought anything new to the game. I think, in some games, like DCC, you might see Deed Dice rolled that create critical hit scenarios that add flavor, but for the vast majority of games, TOTM combats really reflect the skill and energy of both GM and player. The more player’s or Game Masters drop the ball, the less engaging that combat is going to be.
I wanted to use maps or illustrations in my games to supplement game play, and avoid a lot of repeated questions about positioning. So, for the next encounter, I used a grid in form of Dwarven Forge game tiles.
If you haven’t been fortunately enough to get in on Dwarven Forge’s Kickstarters , you can still pick them up at their company store. They are beautiful. Perhaps their biggest shortcoming in my mind is they have partial squares against the walls, which make spacing a little vague, upon occasion, but that worked for the experiment.
Players were pleased to see the high-detail mapping, but quickly became constrained by the nature of the gridding. Bottlenecks occurred frequently, and play slowed down significantly. Further, players stopped jockeying for advantage and improvising, and fell back into the rather stolid roles of ‘move and attack’. It drained something out of it, despite the verisimilitude of the map dungeon dressing.
Ironically, I should note, that the bottlenecking served to help the party tactically. Tactics sometimes help the character but detract from the player’s experience, which arguably is a lot more important.
PRINTED – NOT TO SCALE
Third, I used a printed map, but not to scale:
I found a few interesting things in this scenario. My map had a grid, but I told the players it was not to scale (being 10 foot squares) and to disregard it. Despite that, players still tried to force themselves to the grid. Combats began to feel tight, despite there being plenty of room, and other distances got confused as players tried to leap over 20 foot chasms before remembering the distances involved.
Perhaps the worst part of this was a final confrontation with a dragon. Players became lazy with positioning their miniatures. When the dragon turned to use its breath weapon, revisionist history began to play a role:
“I wasn’t standing there, I was behind it”
“I would have been around the corner”
“I’m too far away”
I had to play evil GM (the “Dog” as we call it) and explain that based on their descriptions of their actions, these players were within the deadly area of this blast. Some players took it in stride, others grumbled a bit. I appreciated their frustration, as things got murky on this particular battlefield.
QUICK SKETCH ON TACT-TILES
Lastly, combat took place on set of Tact-tiles, with crappy hand drawn maps by me:
These expensive little guys have been in my collection for about a decade, and despite the upfront costs, they’re the best thing going. You’ve just missed the kickstarter, but hopefully they will have fixed their supply issues and be back on the market soon.
Strangely, this hand drawn map did the trick. Noting that everything was only approximately to scale, we quickly worked to move miniatures without counting squares but being fair and mindful of the speed limitations of the character. As GM, I attempted to err on the side that permitted the character to make the most of their turn, within reason, and sometimes adding complications along the way.
5E’s greatest strength will likely prove to be the advantage/disadvantage mechanic replacing a lot of detailed hand-wringing rules that discourage improvisation in the interest of fairness. If the halfling wants to dash over the slick cobblestones to dive into range to throw his dagger, 5E lets that dramatic scene happen, and as GM all I have to do to comb in the complexity of that is to have them roll with disadvantage. It’s a signficant penalty, but not insurmountable, and a hell of a lot better than saying, “No. You double move and that’s it”.
There was enough accountability with my crappy hand drawn map that if there was an area of effect ability in play, the square counting got a lot more precise, with ties going to the player where a close call was concerned. No one had difficulty with the rulings, and the game continued quickly.
Your mileage may vary, but I saw merit in both systems at their appointed times. A lot of this depends on your group: A Good or fair GM might be trusted by his players to do everything in the theater of the mind, with not even so much as a map or sketch to give players an idea of what was going on. This can be excellent in more routine or featureless situations where players don’t need to know ranges, tactics are simple, and game play more fast and loose, but falls short where terrain features a large role in combat, or where positioning and visualization of the flow of combat is highly relevant to the outcome.
Off-scale maps seemed to create more of a problem than they solved. Unless the map is to such a scale that players can’t try to position themselves on it with any relevance, I think it’s to be avoided. Best to show a small scale map and then ‘explode’ the scene into something tactical when necessary.
My vague map seemed to work the best for this group, but I think probably with other groups or more technical situations, this could be problematic as well. If it really comes down to a game of inches, GM and player alike are going to feel either guilty or cheated if a fireball catches the character and roasts them to ashes based on a flimsy or hypothetical map or position.
My solution is this: Map as little as necessary, but with precision for critical combats. Positions where combats are melee only and non spell effects or powers that relate to range are good for loose maps where position isn’t key. You may still run into problems now and again, but the time you save and flexibility you pick up from that fast and dirty map is going to be worth it 9 times out of 10.
If instead you’ve got a boss-fight, a fight where terrain plays an interesting role, or where flanking and areas of effect are going to be repeatedly relevant, draw it to scale and play it to scale. This requires a little foresight, but speed of play is key to keeping people entertained, and precision and tactics become highly relevant and add to the game where the single combat or combatant are the focus and potential endgame.
Future expansions of 5E have been rumored to contain additional tactical combat rules. If so, you’ll be able to choose how that game, at least, gets played. We’d love to hear your thoughts about whether you prefer the grid or not, and why. Let us know, and maybe I’ll try that out with my poor poison-cloud-choked adventuring group in a few weeks.