Cinematic Combat: How to Move on from the Battle Grid

Did you know battle grids, battle maps, tiles and minis are optional in D&D 5th edition?

That’s right, D&D has no assumed battle grid.  For lots of players transitioning from 4e to 5e, it may come as a surprise.  It has to some of my players who “got use to” the minis and maps that 4e essentially required due to 4e’s over-the-top combat complexity, duration and focus.

D&D’s balance of combat and storytelling is finally back in 5th edition, so you don’t need maps and minis anymore.  In my group, with this year’s brand new Eberron campaign, I committed to using a mix of grid maps, tiles, minis, graph paper, basic sketches and pure narrative combat in an attempt to move away from the battle grid.

Completing phasing out (my massive collection of) minis and grids has the benefit of saving time I’d much rather spend on developing adventures and the campaign, and studying characters closely as they’re created and as they level to better immerse PCs in the game and story.  See, players don’t realize how time-consuming campaign prep can be for many DMs, never mind all that extra time you might need to set aside for “logistics” like finding the right maps, tiles and minis to use each session.

Meanwhile, what does a player truly have to do to prepare for every single session?  That’s right, update your character sheet – sometimes, as not every session means a significant character update.  Read or review the rules that apply to your character.  That’s it.

So far, my mixed presentation approach has had some good and bad.  Combat lovers and power gamers weaned (unfortunately) on 4e, tend to struggle more.  Poor listening skills and attention spans become obvious.  Visual learning techniques and presentation options are the most comfortable.  The complaints I heard related to this last session were the loudest, unfortunately, now eight sessions into our new campaign.

Complaints, reasonable and otherwise, I’m sticking with my original plan, made clear before we started to everyone: there will be a mix of presentation styles.  This way it’s less jarring for the grid and minis-lovers, and offers a variety of gameplay presentation, which includes saving me significant setup time.

Now that said, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to execution by both DM and players.  How can you ease the transition away from pure grid and minis play?

Highly visual players must make more of an effort to listen, take more mental or physical notes, and not think every unsure or hostile situation needs a combat grid and minis.  Many situations don’t, especially ones with a smaller number of creatures.

Also, story immersion, pacing and creativity is often killed by needless or needlessly complex battle maps and minis presentations, as the assumption is “what we see on the grid is all that exists.”  Grids and minis also put a 3rd person perspective front and center, rather than a more personal, more storytelling-oriented 1st person perspective.

How many times have you stared at your minis and focused on nothing else?  Missed anything important the DM said during said minis-based brain-absorption?

DMs burned out by 4e’s intense grid play simply need to tell players what to expect presentation-wise up front.

Not every player is aware 5e assumes no default combat grid.  Just as important, DMs need to improve how they describe the environment and relative positioning when not using a grid.  You’ll want to use classic teaching techniques, like repetition and prefacing important narration or descriptions with a simple “This is important,” “You might want to listen very closely now,” or “You may want to write this down.”

In gridless combat, you’ll want to help the PCs quickly understand whether something is in close, medium or long range so you or they can quickly translate to their movement speeds, spell and weapon ranges, number of targets they can reach or affect, and so on.  Most combats don’t need a lot of precision, so practice using the previous language and encourage players to ask simple questions that help gather essential combat facts.

For example, when not using grids, tell players to ask you if it’s unclear if something is within range, but otherwise help them realize something is or isn’t in range on their turn.  Tell them to ask things like “How many goblins can my fireball burn to death?” or “Can I reach the prisoner’s cage if I run?”  At the same time, include similar context in your descriptions of the environment as DM.  Say, “The prisoner’s cage is far on the other side of the room – you’d have to run to get there quickly,” rather than “There’s a prison cage on the north wall.”  Help them speed up their decision making by couching your narration and description of the environment with clues or direct information about distances to features and targets.

If gridless, narrative combat is uncomfortable at first, give it time – you and the players simply need more patience and practice!  So don’t get discouraged or frustrated.  It’s really about finding descriptive narration and questioning styles that work for you and your playgroup.

Ultimately, the DM is the PCs’ eyes and ears, so help them see and hear as best you can, and ask them to ask you questions when what they see or hear isn’t clear.  Despite strong visual cues, battle maps and minis have significant drawbacks, so be open to expanding your DMing storytelling and presentation skills – and help and encourage players to expand along with you.

Like this article?  You might also like Chasing the DM’s D&D’s Theatre of the Mind.

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