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Battlemat Alternatives

Sektor asked this question in the Suggestion Pot [1]:

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.

Group Size

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.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Battlemat Alternatives"

#1 Comment By ben robbins On June 3, 2008 @ 4:27 am

Check out Agon. It uses an abstract yet very tactical range band system.


Opponents jockey for position on the battlefield trying to get enemies into the most effective range for their weapons (the swordsman wants to get in close, the archer wants to keep opponents away, etc). Since you can reposition yourself or anyone who rolled lower than you each round (friend or foe) you get some interesting group tactics.

(there’s a sample download on the website with some details on the positioning system)

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On June 3, 2008 @ 5:37 am

When I run something without a map I make heavy use of a set of building blocks and an empty table. I arrange basic shapes with the blocks on the table, or draw them with dry erase on a non gridded laminated piece of large paper (boy did I get some odd looks when I asked the office store to laminate a 2ft by 2ft piece of blank paper). Then I make use of minis, but only for general positioning. It only works when exact distances aren’t important, but it works nicely for people to understand the positioning on the battlefield.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 3, 2008 @ 8:16 am

I’m not sure the battlemat is what makes the game “tactical”. I think it’s the rules and how they’re implemented.

For instance, Savage Worlds uses a battlemat, but combats are much more fluid and dynamic than D&D 3.5. (There’s no ‘five foot shift’, you can move before and after your action, and there’s only one simple AoO rule.)

That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with a crispety-crunchety tactical combat. As a player and a GM, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of the tactical challenge that a well-designed D&D 3.5 combat represents. But at other times, I’ve been frustrated by the limitations (and time sink) within the system.

One huge advantage of a battlemat is character placement. I have run both “haunted house” and “Kobold-infested mine” scenarios that pretty much require continuous tracking of the characters’ locations when outside of combat.

For what it’s worth, a friend runs a game on a gridless mat. They use quarters to measure melee range, and small tape measures if there’s a “in range” question. Apparently it runs really quickly, too…

#4 Comment By Jonathan Drain On June 3, 2008 @ 9:29 am

I was considering the ‘zones’ system for an online game where it’s a lot harder to do a battle mat. You might be adjacent to a creature or distant from it, requiring a move action to switch between either. However, it got complex when dealing with numerous creatures: if I’m distant from the orc and the wizard is distant from me, how close is the wizard to the orc?

You can still use this for a simplified combat system, if you’re willing to accept a Final Fantasy style two-row setup.

I wrote a post in November entitled [3] that discusses a few options.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On June 3, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

Ben: I’m a little interested in Agon and read through to the combat example. Range bands look like another good way to handle relative distances.

John: That sounds like a good method– like sketches, but without the hassles of erasing and the extra clarity of the third dimension due to the blocks.

Telas: The gridless map sounds neat– I’d like to see it in action some time.

JD: The problem you’re talking about is the main drawback to freeform and sketches; zones let you know which room (or room fragment) you’re in, but aren’t specific on where in the room. You’re right that it’s basically impossible to do more precise measuring than “in the same room”– if your system wants more detail, you’ll have work to dredge it up on command.

#6 Comment By Jonathan Drain On June 3, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

Scott: Indeed. The problem I have with freeform is that it leaves ambiguities, such that players can have different images of where everyone is. Like a multiplayer videogame, a kind of de-sync occurs. The most straightforward solution to resolving ambiguity is a central authority, whether that authority is a game board or DM fiat.

The problem with the relative zones I tried was that ambiguity still existed. If A is a move away from B, who is a move away from C, then depending on the real position, A might be adjacent to C or fully two moves away.

#7 Comment By jfall On June 4, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

Hi all,

Just thought I’d chime in, as this is a topic that I’ve agonized over numerous times.

I’m running a C&C game with my daughters (10 and 7) and haven’t used any kind of miniatures or battlemat setup, up until recently. I’ve been engaging them more from the story aspect and it’s worked just fine. Using a map of the room (graph paper) seems to suffice and we haven’t had any issues.

Well this Sunday’s adventure featured a dozen or so brigands and their dogs (3). So I figured that since it’s a pretty hefty number I’d throw the old battlemat down and pull out a bunch of minis. Lo and behold, the game degenerated into paying much more attention to the minis and the map than to what was actually going on.

Granted, these are just little girls, not seasoned RPG vets. But my eldest has been playing RPGs since she was 7 so she’s no newbie. I was truly surprised though at how the minis actually took away from the game.

On the opposite side of that coin though, I was gaming w/ my regular group and we weren’t utilizing minis and one of the guys disengaged from the story for a second to tell a side story to another guy at the table and subsequently got a bit lost… He was really upset when the DM told him that the griffon was right beside his thief. He thought (in his mind’s eye) that he was clear across the barn from him.

That seemed a clear cut case for minis.

So, in order to be a productive contributer to this blog, and not just some kinda story teller wierdo ;-): I have in the past used the old wargaming system. Wherein you use any space you have available for your minis, and either a pre-marked string or a tape measure and just use that for movement, line of site, etc.

It’s fast, and the nice thing about it is that for area of effect spells or explosions, or what have you, you don’t allow the player to “measure” the exact distance… it emulates the chaos of battle pretty closely.

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On June 4, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

I really like JFALL’s idea of having minis and whatnot without a grid. I think I might try that in the future – the system I run doesn’t use grids, but I have trouble keeping all the positions in my head.

One way to get around the “shifts power to the DM” problem with sketches is just to have the paper in the middle of the table, and several pencils. We do that in an Iron Heroes game I play in, and it goes smoothly as long as we all remember which initials we agreed to use for each character.

We actually use graph paper for our sketches, since we do use the grid. It’s like having minis, but cheaper, and with more erasor dust.

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 6, 2008 @ 5:31 am

I want to learn more about zones. What an intriguing concept. I’ll have to check that game out.

#10 Comment By Samgenius On June 8, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

For GMing battles I use a dry erase board it is large so that people can see and I can draw in and spell effects or obsticles. It also allows me to use different colors to designate scenery, party members and allies, and opponents. I also try to leave the upper right free for any effects that require me to keep track of time. It is not acurate acurate (you wont really be measuring things out with a ruler but it gives a good sense of scale and movement. It is rather inexpenbsive two I bought my board for under $10 a couple of years back. I would also suggest you also pick up a dry erase pack that includes extra markers an eraser and a small bottle of dry erase cleaner (red has a tendency to not erase as well as the other colors or if you get lazy and forget to erase the board at the end of the night) .

you can do one of two things to mount your board (use an easel if you need to keep it moble. Or as all the games I play are at my house you can nount it on a wall. (which durring the week holds note like we need eggs. and ‘things to do’

#11 Comment By Omnus On June 10, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

Premade dungeon tiles work well. The ones you can buy are nicely printed and stain-resistant, and easily portable. I’ve seen Logos used (I think they even have an RPG called Brickquest). I shamelessly rob from the Dragons line of Legos for minis. I have a gridded chalk board in my gaming space (if it weren’t in my basement, the chalk dust would be an annoyance, but a Shop-Vac works well for that).

One idea I saw in a game at an old Gen-Con was miniatures with the ribbons for movement and attacks already glued to the underside of the minis. Obviously, only large minis will work well for this (the scenario was one of each chromatic dragon versus one of each metallic dragon in a winner-take-all battle royale. My silver dragon went down to the red dragon, after taking out the green dragon and severely damaging the black. Good times!) though if you crib miniatures from sets with large bases (MageKnight, I’m looking at you!) it probably won’t be a problem.

#12 Comment By evil On March 26, 2010 @ 10:36 am

I’ll throw this suggestion out with a grain of salt….get rid of combat. Now, before everyone goes on the attack, this isn’t to say have a game with no combat, but everyone now and again, especially during random encounters or boss fights, I make up story for the fight, or ask my player characters to make up the story for the fight. If my team runs up against five goblins that will be no problem for them to take out, I let my characters be inventive. They’re supposed to be playing professionals, they should be able to twist the rules a little.

As mentioned above, I also use a dry erase board, as well as a hand crafted table that has a built in grid (hex on one side, square on the other). If you’re handy, this is guaranteed to garner some oooohs and aaahs from players. It may even add a little extra gravitas to the combat.