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