Sektor asked this question in the Suggestion Pot:
I was wondering what alternatives exist for the battlemat, preferably without the miniatures and other small things that my players love to fiddle around with (all the while not paying attention to the game), but at the same time as clear and unambiguous during a complex combat situation. Right now, I use the excellent MapTool from RPTools (rptools.net) in a server-client setting, but not everyone will want to whip up an intra-network while at the gaming table. Are there any other possibilities?
I’ve listed a few ideas below– if you have other solutions, please contribute them in comments.
The most radical option is to provide no map at all. Describe the scene as clearly as possible– if you have only a PC or two, you can describe it from their point of view instead of trying to give them a “big picture”. Often this will result in a more immersive scene than a battlemat, because everything is related from the viewpoint of the character rather than a god’s eye view.
This works best in systems with streamlined or universal resolution. For example, I’m currently producing a Primetime Adventures game where everything is resolved in one draw of the cards. There’s no need to care about range or even specific maneuvers– whoever narrates will describe the whole combat: closing, shooting, dodging, punching, and all the rest. On the other hand, if your game spends lots of time describing the advantages of relative positions and lovingly detailing angles of attack, you might feel you’re missing out on the system’s strengths by abandoning the grid for freeform.
Zones are a concept I first encountered in Spirit of the Century, though the idea sounded familiar when I first heard it. Zones are a lot like a boardgame like Risk or Clue– instead of having exact distances and equal squares or hexes, you have regions. In Risk, your regions are Kamchatka and Irkutsk, while in your fight the regions might be “South End of the Dining Room”, “North End of the Dining Room”, “Bathrooms”, and “Hallway”. Instead of tracking precise distances (Fred is 6.2 meters from Samantha), distance is determined by the Zone a character is in.
In the above example, you might say characters can attack people in the same zone with fists or hand-to-hand weapons, a zone away with thrown weapons, while anything further requires a gun. Similarly, you might allow a character to talk to a character in the same zone, but note that being heard in another zone requires shouting. This system is more abstract than hexes, but still establishes distances and locations clearly.
Byran ran a game of Saga Star Wars and quickly realized that the long ranges on the weapons made specific locations and positioning less important. We started with a battlemat and experimented with freeform discussion, but found that zones made a great compromise. It was a little tricky to convert distances and locations from the listed squares– occasionally we wanted more specificity (since the source rules were smaller scale), but that was rare. An important step in implementing zones was deciding how many move actions it took to cross each zone.
The Spirit of the Century book has additional details for implementing Zones. One cool element it expands on are borders between zones– like crossing chain link fences or pushing through closed doors.
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, however much you’d prefer not to bog things down in a tactical grid. A quick sketch on a whiteboard (or a sheet of paper) is often enough to establish relative positions, convey a clear idea of relative locations and available cover, and note where the bad guys lurk.
The drawback to sketches is updating– if you draw lines for movement each round, it can be distracting to distinguish between where people have been and where they are now. Erasing and redrawing character locations is tedious but often works better. Because it’s written down, people will tend to assume that it’s to scale– or at least close enough for planning– no matter how clearly you warn them. This system also tends to keep the pen in the GM’s hand, which may seem to reduce the player’s role in movement and ranges. Instead of just moving your character X squares, moving requires asking the GM if the action is possible, which shifts power back to the GM.
Depending on the number of players involved in a scene, some options work better than others. Freeform descriptions work great when you’re describing the combat from the point of view of one character… everything can be described from the character’s perspective, which can be a great aid to immersion. It gets a little trickier with two or three characters; when they’re close one set of descriptions works well, but otherwise it can be confusing to describe how “you’re six feet from the Vampire, Susan is ten feet away, and Gene is fifteen feet”, particularly if you then have to give relative distances to other NPCs.
Sketches often come into play once there are two or more characters on each side of the battle. Sketches work well for quickly determining relative positions, but are cumbersome if lots of people are moving around during the fight. It also adds to GM overhead, since every move has to bounce through the GM to determine the distance.
Zones are the most formal alternative to a grid. Zones sacrifice some of the immersion of freeform and might be too abstract for players used to specific positioning. It can also artificially remove tactical considerations– for example, it doesn’t model keeping the wizard at the center of the party for safety. Zones do scale up very well as you add combatants. Mass combat and flowchart based movement are good candidates for zones.