Bursting the Grid Bubble

Role-playing gamers, generally speaking, fall into two categories: those who prefer to play using miniatures and battlemats, and those who don’t. Some folks favour the idea of running most combats using the Power of Imagination alone, but breaking out the minis or tokens for the more complex and/or climactic battles where miniatures add a level of showmanship to the game.

That’s good in theory, but when sat around the table and playing it’s a bit of a faf. Everything slows to a crawl while you clear a space on the table for just that one combat, set up the minis, ask the players to get their figures out, one player has always forgotten his so uses a Kuo-Toa mini as a substitute, set the minis in place, wait for the gamer who nipped to the toilet while the table was cleared and the other one who is updating Facebook on his phone and…..

You get the idea. By the time everything is set up, the encounter could have been played through using imagination. The game has broken pace. Is it really worth it?

Ah! Say the battlemat fans. Using minis is more tactical. It’s a more accurate experience with less room for error and doubt. That is a Good Thing.

This is where the bubble bursts. They’re wrong.

Using a battlemat is far LESS accurate than using imagination, because being in combat is full of just that level of error and doubt. History is full of tales of highly skilled warriors and soldiers who became disoriented in combat and barely knew whether the guy next to him was friend or foe. There are no accurate measurements, much less a grid, in battle.

The Fog of War begins at the tip of your nose and everything beyond that is chaos and blood. Warriors in battle don’t know that the Orcs are exactly 40′ away from them and just standing their waiting to be charged. At that distance, those orcs are little more than peripheral blobs. What matters is anything entering your personal space with intent to harm.

Using imaginative play, the player might say “Are those Orcs close enough to charge?” and the GM reply “You think so, but they’ve spotted you and look set to run at you as well. Meet in the middle and whoever hits gets +1d6 damage.” That’s an on-the-fly rules call which reflects the fluid nature of battle. Using a battlemat the very idea of allowing simultaneous movement is anathema.

When the battle is all in the mind there is room for doubt, and that more accurately reflects the uncertainty of the battlefield. Yes, you could argue that battlemat play is more tactical, but only if you’ve never played in a session where “In your head” gamers pull such stunts as:

  • Sending an Illusion of a Rogue up ahead to scout for an ambush while the real Rogue follows on in the shadows, ready to pounce
  • Tripwire + Portable Hole = instant trap!
  • Fire a grappling hook & line at a Beholder with the other end tied to a boulder perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. One good push by the fighter, and…..

This is great tactical play at work! Those are just a few examples, all from my own game sessions. I would argue that while any of these could happen in a battlemat session, it’s extremely rare that they do. The battlemat stifles the very creativity which the game relies on to thrive.

Battlemats and minis come from the wargame hobby where the player is a hypothetical General with a high vantage point over the whole battlefield1 and Fog of War is conveniently ignored (by most rules sets, at least). In Role-playing games the hero is not a General but a soldier in the midst of the conflict where his viewpoint is far more limited. Battlemats confuse the two. In my opinion, that’s to the detriment of the game.

What do you think? Which is more tactical and “realistic”? Battlemats, or imagination?

  1. And going further back from Chess, but that is a political simulator rather than a battle engine. But I digress.

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9 Responses

  1. Joshua says:

    I agree. It’s really, really hard to maintain an “in your head” image of what your character is seeing when you’re looking down on your character and the battlefield from the outside. Most players don’t even seem to try.

  2. No thanks. I prefer my minis & grid. And you are exagerrating the time that is needed to prepare a grided combat. It’s takes no more than to make a good description and I do it while I put tiles on the table building battlemap. “So here is the big hall you’ve just entered through this door. On the far end there is a dais with a two big statues of armed warriors. Before it stands a low altar. Huge stone gates are seen on the right wall. Two armored warriors stand guard near them. A priest is preparing the alter to some kind of ceremony and a couple of servants are cleaning the statues”. That’s it. A description and battlemap done at once.

  3. burnedfx says:

    Greywulf,

    I agree with most of what you said, but I agree with Snarls on one point.
    I think focusing on the time spent to set up minis detracts from your point.

    I enjoy playing Advanced Heroquest with my girls from time to time. I also have a ridiculous amount of Warhammer miniatures for playing a “General with a high vantage point” games.

    I’ve never used minis for D&D (Well, there was that 4E encounters thing *shudder*).

    I love my minis games, but keep them out of my RPGs.

    Now, do I have a problem with people like Snarls who love to use them? Nah. He’s having fun and that’s part of his game.

    However, your best point is shedding light on the false dichotomy that using minis somehow equates to using tactics, while not using minis somehow allows none.

    One of the cringe worthy things talked about in regards to 5E is “It can be tactical or abstract!”

    What utter garbage to proliferate that lie.

    Thanks for your post.

  4. Edward says:

    I started with quick sketch maps showing each battle area and the participants and those worked fine. Now I have a battle map with hexes and squares and (paper) miniatures. Both work fine for me. But having no visual representation doesn’t work for me as DM or player. As a player it’s like being blindfolded–I have no idea where the hell anyone or anything is. As a DM I keep having to re-explain what’s going on and generally have to use so many hand gestures that I might as well just do a quick sketch map.
    Player 1: “I charge the archers on the left”
    GM: “Umm, they’re up on the balcony”
    Player 1: “What balcony?”
    GM: “I said there was a balcony”
    Player 2: “I thought the balcony was on the right, above the door”
    Player 3: “Wait aren’t there three doors?”
    GM: “No, just the two: the one you came in and the one on the right”
    Player 3: “But you said they came in and charged straight at us, which would put a door straight across the room. If it was on the right they couldn’t charge straight because that would be on an angle”
    Player 2: “So is there a balcony on the right or not?”
    GM: “Okay, okay, look I’ll describe the room again…”
    Having no visual representation sucks.

  5. MadZab says:

    I am a no-gridmap player but occasionally use rough sketches of the room or area to show the players what exactly I mean with my description. This levies the necessity for accurate description while remaining sketchy enough on details such as distance (I don’t draw at any specific scale) and exact details of the room (which is due to my lack of drawing skills. Also this allows players to add details by themselves like “I grab the chandelier that is -of course- hanging off the ceiling!”).

    Speaking of scale: I think more fantasy roleplaying worlds should do maps that are inaccurate like medieval maps tended to (very much) be. I recently posted a map on my blog but with the specific warning that this map is not to scale and may contain huge inaccuracies regarding sizes of continents, lands, and distances. This makes the world permutable for play while at the same time granting the players a certain level of overview…

    When asked “Gridmap or Fantasy” I’ll ditch the gridmap. Even the table-top wargames I used to play didn’t have hexes and required some guessworks when it came to ranges (before you measured wether you’d hit).

  6. Philo Pharynx says:

    “The battlemat stifles the very creativity which the game relies on to thrive.” You are so right. We battlemat people are unable to be creative at all. Seeing the terrain out on the field never inspires people to make use of it. Thank you for teaching me what a drone I am. I realize I was mistaken when I though I was having fun. I am ashamed of the horrible ways I have been doing harm to the roleplaying community. I will now stop playing roleplaying games and stick with watching sports.

    • greywulf says:

      Stifle, definition: To keep in or hold back; repress.

      Battlemats don’t make you a drone or mean you’re not having fun at all. Far from it, and that isn’t what I am saying at all. Nor do I say you’re harming the community either. Sheesh.

      Sure, battlemats can inspire you to make use of what you see and that’s great. They do limit you by what you see on them though; the battlemat is replacing your mind’s eye. If that works for you, great. Sometimes, it works for me too.

      What I am saying is that people who claim that battlemats are “more tactical” and “more realistic” than playing using imagination alone are in error. Nothing more, and nothing less.

  7. I’ve used both. A combat I know will take a matter of minutes I’ll run via the Theatre of the Mind, while a longer combat gets played out on the tiles/battleboard/whatever. Of course, most of the players in my group paint miniatures and those battles are what allow us to show off paint jobs. :-)

  8. EverKang says:

    The grid combat is fun, though I prefer just rough maps myself, just for the general layout. In my M&M game, I don’t use one at all unless the adventure includes it. (As freelancer Jack Norris has said, speaking to those who insist on detailed tactical combat in a supers context, “So does your battlemap include like, the moon?”) Grid-based, tactical play does model combat, to be sure, but in a way that allows for a kind of surrogate play. You aren’t really making the same conscious moves or choices someone would make in those situations (not that you could), but you are playing an interesting game that maps many of the imagined factors in a skirmish (armor and weapon selection, terrain, flanking) to at least some of the things that might occur on the battlefield (forced movement, status conditions, death). In that way, you can feel like you, the player, actually accomplished something. :) Which you did, of course. I appreciate it for what it is, but your point that we shouldn’t harbor illusions is well taken.

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