Sunday, October 23, 2011

ditchin' the minis

Gameblog reader Brandon writes in with a question:
I wonder if you could perhaps offer some advice ... about dealing with combat without minis and squared-off maps. For someone who's been "in the game", if only barely, for as long as I have, I've GMed very little and I hate managing exacting maps, measures, and minis, but I'm just not confident enough to generalize that stuff and feel like I'm being "fair" to the players. So I always feel like my options are jumping out of a plane without a parachute or spend so much time on mediocre combat maps that I've got no energy for making up FUN stuff for the players to do.
This is an interesting topic to me, as I play quite a few games that have rules for tactical displays yet I don't use one most of the time.  And lately I've been musing over giving 3e a second try, but I'm not sure I want to break out the battlemats and figures to do so.  Here are my thoughts, perhaps others will chime in.

Advise players that you don't use a tactical display.

Communication with players is always important, especially regarding your house rules.  In games with point builds or feat-picking some folks will get sore if they think they lacked crucial info about how you run your game. That being said, don't actively discourage them from buying or picking anything but the most tactically intensive options, because...

Your players' choices tell you what is important to them, respect that.

Let's say that one of your players in a new 3.x game takes Combat Reflexes, a feat designed to give you extra Attacks of Opportunity, despite knowing that you don't use a combat grid. You need to make sure that there are opportunities for this PC to use that feat. A mass of suicide bomber kobolds try bum rush past the front line to blow up the mages?  A great time to use some Combat Reflexes to stop those little mofos.  In general, you should lean towards allowing these tricks rather than forbidding them.  If a player asks "Can I take a 5 foot step and full attack?" your default answer should be yes.  Sometimes you'll have a perfectly good reason why they can't use their tactical advantages, but I feel like you should give the PCs the benefit of the doubt when the situation is ambiguous.  Or at least allow a die roll.  (E.g. "Roll d10.  That's how far you are from the foe in feet.") After all, you can always add a few more bad guys to the adventure to offset this advantage.

Develop some rules of thumb for area affect attacks

In my games flaming oil will hit d4 foes in most situations.  Last session one of the werewolves was smack dab in the midst of the party (it tore through the door-opener and leaped into the room) while its two were-buddies followed in more slowly.  The next round I ruled that no single Molotov could hit all three without endangering the party, so the oil-lobber targeted just the other two.  On the other hand, one well-placed flask has ignited an entire pack of giant rats.

Using the principle outlined above, I generally assume that fireball or lightning bolt is going to be able to target a crapload of foes.  I actually map out these particular attacks on my dungeon maps (I use the 33 10' cubes rule for fireballs, which is fun on a bun), but you can just as easily make up things like "This is a big room, but there are a LOT of ghouls in here.  Roll 1d6 for the number of ghouls not caught in the blast."  Or you can just pencil in your rulebook "Fireballs affect 2d6+6 targets."

Don't sweat it if things get crazy

Let go of the idea that your brain has to perfectly emulate the rules as written for the tactical display.  Once you give up on that impossibility you can start to have fun doing this.  Instead of asking yourself "How should the tactical rules apply here?" consider some alternative questions like "What makes most sense in this situation?" or "What would be the funnest or stupidest thing to happen?"  And do your best not to look up fiddly little rules in play.  A snap decision like "You have a 4 in 6 chance of pushing the orc jester into the scorpion pit" trumps even 30 seconds spent looking up the pushing rules.

Enforcing the written rules is a small part of being a good DM.  In my experience the players will respect that you want to keep the game moving as long as they are convinced you are not an adversarial DM.  I can smile while giving my players all sorts of bad news.  And they don't blink when I run roughshod over their notions of how D&D works.  How can I get away with this?  Because they trust that I'm there to have a good time with them, not against them.  Show that you will call things done the middle, but will give them every chance when you're in a grey area.  Let them use and abuse the tricks on their character sheets and the crazy plans they come up with.  Then when you kill them they'll understand that it wasn't anything personal.


  1. Since I run my games on Skype (yeah, for some reason my players aren't eager to switch to Google+) I've found it easier not to use miniatures or even online game table software.

    Once or twice in really complex situations, I've gathered dice together on my desk to roughly simulate the situation, tilted my computer's camera down and explained the tactical situation to my players. I do also keep track of what's going on, more or less, by grouping the dice that track the monsters' hit points according to which PC they are attacking and by having a rough idea where in a room things are happening.

    I suppose that might be kind of a middle-of-the-road approach. On the one hand, I do usually know where the PCs and NPCs are in a fight, on the other hand, we're not measuring inches or squares or even worrying about movement rates unless one side starts chasing the other. I figure in a wild, crazy fight, most characters can probably get to the other side of a room within a minute if they try hard enough, so anything less than that should probably be kosher.

  2. This bit of commentary is one of the main reasons I continue to entertain the idea that someday I'll play a game you run, despite really disliking many of the systems you use.

    You're consistent in letting your players know that it's your game, but that you want to have fun too.

  3. Jeff--
    I often roll my (admittedly eviscerated) version of Type III without minis.

    A sketch or some pennies on the table usually does it when tactics are importanr.

  4. As Zak has already suggested, I am expecting to have to occasionally illustrate basic details to help set the scene, but all my previous attempts at mapping for minis has been disastrously time consuming for minimal returns. I'm planning on starting with 2-3 hour games with friends who, like me, don't have a lot of time, so I'm hoping playing off the cuff a little more and being more lenient with combat details will provide some help.

  5. You could always use 'stances' to determine where characters are in relation to the monsters. In the gaming rules I'm reading at the moment, PCs choose a stance at the beginning of each round, Forward, Open, Defensive, or Rearward (for missiles); something like that could help players visualise where they are, and help a less experienced DM make appropriate rulings.

  6. In practice, I find that there are only five different distances that matter in 3.x D&D. These can be adjucated without a grid (using only minis or tokens or pennies on the table) or purely by description (but you have to keep things in your head). Sketching helps.

    1. Adjacent: I can hit you with my sword.
    2. 5ft away: I can hit you with my spear.
    3. Close (30 ft. or less away): close spells work at this distance. The rogue can use his ranged sneak attack. Point Blank etc work at this distance. Most characters can move this distance in one move action.
    4. Far (up to 100 ft.): far spells, most ranged weapons.
    5. Further than far: longest range spells, range increment penalties for bows etc.

    Every time distance comes up, judge it to be within one of these steps, based on previous action, positioning, movement, etc. It's not perfectly by-the-book but functional.

  7. Anonymous8:01 AM

    I use a dry erase board to keep people appraised of their surroundings, and that works really well. I also have the luxury of gaming in person.

    I have recently discovered Old School Hack, which divides areas up into "arenas" which is a highly precise term for "a kind of place to fight that is different than places around it." That idea can be adapted for other settings as is useful.

    It is free to move around in your arena, but costs an action to move to another one.

  8. Great advice. For my next game, I'm planning using mini's with a gridless mapping just give the players a general idea where everything is. I've just seen folks spend too much time debating exact movements and spell area effects.

  9. The "say yes" bit is especially important for players who are used to tactical play. If they feel like not using maps is just screwing them out of using their abilities to the fullest, they'll never warm to it.

    Of course, some players really like that tactical style of play (me, for one) and will never really be happy without a battle map unless the system itself does not reward tactical play. If i'm playing AD&D through 3.x i want a map. If i'm playing basic or an indie game i don't miss it so much. (Before the OSR fans jump on me, note that OSR play usually rewards strategic play, not tactical.)

    If i'm playing 4th i'm wishing i had just re-up'ed my WoW sub instead - at least that includes a full 3d world and soundtrack. There IS such a thing as too much of a good thing.

  10. As a DM I love minis and battlemats (and I'm DMing S&W right now).
    Never had any problem with that and my players seem to like it as much as me.
    In conjunction with encumbrance rules this gives fighters and clerics a reason NOT to buy plate mail as soon as they can.

  11. When not using minis, I find I tend to imagine the area at full size around us. I’ll gesture towards where PCs, opponents, and terrain are as if I’m standing amidst the fray.

    One thing I try to do is to get the players to tell me their intention rather than just what they do. It’s much easier and helps prevent conflicting assumptions. Heck, that’s even true when I’m using minis.

  12. I'll echo Gregor's comment of boiling ranges down to the essentials.

    As long as you keep the players appraised of their relative distances to enemies it works pretty decently. I'd still suggest a sheet of graph paper to scribble out locations of characters at the start of combat and after key points.