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Combat: To Map, or Not to Map?

A deceptively simple question: Do you use tactical maps and minis (or counters, etc.) for combat, or not?

And is your choice at all influenced by whether or not the system you’re using recommends mapping out your combats?

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#1 Comment By drow On April 25, 2007 @ 7:49 am

yes, no. i started using maps and minis because some melees were getting too confusing for anyone to entirely keep track of.

#2 Comment By katre On April 25, 2007 @ 8:09 am

It all depends on the system. D&D, for example, has highly tactical combat system, with lots of optional that are based significantly on position (attacks of opportunity, charging/trampling, flanking, cover, etc). The DM can give some of this information to players, but it’s more elegant to use a map.

Other systems, however, are much less tactical in combat. In the 7th Sea campaign I’m currently in, for example, the usual course of combat is a player asking the GM “Am I close enough to X to hit him?”, followed by a simple yes/no, and then the attack roll. In this case, the tactical options are so few that mapping isn’t really worth it.

#3 Comment By Ian On April 25, 2007 @ 8:51 am

Depends on the system. I won’t run D&D without a map and I’m very anal about accurate placement and movement on it, since D&D is so mini-centric.

Of course, a while back I ran a Mutants & Masterminds game specifically so I wouldn’t have to use a map. Sadly, the cretins I game with didn’t like the system and that game died…

#4 Comment By brcarl On April 25, 2007 @ 9:56 am

I’m only playing D&D 3.5e right now, and thus minis are a must IMHO.

On a slightly unrelated note, I’ve got a few nibbles on my offer to try TSoY and/or True 20 on some “off night.” Should be interesting to see if we need minis for those.

#5 Comment By Peter On April 25, 2007 @ 10:04 am

I play d&d without mini’s. I may draw a schetch it things get to hectic during the battle.

#6 Comment By Frank Filz On April 25, 2007 @ 10:06 am

I use a map for almost any combat in a game that features tactical round by round combat. I really started the first time I ran D&D at a convention and some of the players had dominoes that they used to lay out dungeons, though I had used miniatures and battle mats before then (even resorting to a chess board at one time).

I would only not use at least a rough map for games that truly don’t require it like Dogs in the Vinyard.

It’s worth noting that I’m a visual person, and having a map makes things a lot easier for me. Abstract verbal description makes it very hard for me, and if the game is being run without some very clear mechanic that identifies what actions and responses are possible, I may well get lost. Dogs works for me because the dice mechanic makes it clear who gets to act when, and what their options are. The one time I played Fudge (as opposed to the one time I ran it – where I did use visuals to lay out scenes), was disastrous, in part because without a map and clear turns or anything, my supposedly competant character did nothing – because my quiet self couldn’t get words in edgewise.

I’m very skeptical of a system like Burning Wheel really working for me because it has a lot of detail but no visual representation of the combat.


#7 Comment By Crazy Jerome On April 25, 2007 @ 10:26 am

Simple answer: I use everything from a full-blown, accurate, tactical map to nothing. And I do mean everything, with the various middle grounds well represented as well. I do this within a single session, pretty much regardless of the game system. (We’ll, I’ve never used prepainted terrain or such like wargamers sometimes use, but I would if I had the budget or patience to make ’em.)

More nuanced answer: I can hold a complete map in my head. I’m very spatially aware. My players trust me to do this. So they either see it on the ground or just ask me–doesn’t matter. Our criteria for pulling out a map or not is more a question of convenience than anything else. Toddler running around loose? No map. Someone wants to play with Lego figures? Map. And so forth.

#8 Comment By Mark On April 25, 2007 @ 10:30 am

We use a whiteboard and indelible markers, laid out flat on the middle of the table.

This is for complicated combats in D&D. -Our DM also keeps track of initiatives and HPs of the PCs on it at the same time.

#9 Comment By Pellanor On April 25, 2007 @ 10:41 am

Every since we started playing a lot of DnD 3.X we use a map most of the time.

Some games don’t need a map, such as Zero or Palladium, but generally I find that the tactical options in those games are so much lower that they’re not as fun (despite how cool the setting may be). Also there are some times in DnD when we don’t use a map. For example, in a recent session the PCs were assaulting the captain of the guard who was sitting behind the desk in his office. The combat consisted of them knocking him off his chair (trip), then keeping him down while pummelling him.

For a map, we have a whiteboard with a grid on it. We then use different coloured markers for different things. That allows us to get some somewhat multilevelled maps going.

#10 Comment By Stephen Ward On April 25, 2007 @ 11:05 am

I had never been a fan of battle grids in my games, primarily because of the cost. After playing D&D with grids, however, I don’t think I’d ever go back. Fantasy and imagination are one thing, but I find that visual aids help tremendously to bring the action into perspective.

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On April 25, 2007 @ 11:12 am

I’ve gotten used to mini’s, and I have a transparent hex grid that i sometimes lay down over a “battle field”.

I find that they are nice to keep players with a tactical sense of where they are, and who is doing what. The dungeon tiles set that wizards released is a great thing, and I’m working on finding ways to integrate a computer into the equation.

For my part Mini’s tend to make combat situations better, but aren’t necessary.

#12 Comment By Dylan Zimmerman On April 25, 2007 @ 1:37 pm

I use a map/minis/counters/some sort of visual representation when I think it’s going to be necessary. It can be nice, especially when playing a caster, to know how far apart people are so you can avoid killing the rest of your party with an ill-placed fireball.

I also use it to try to avoid misinterpretations of my descriptions. When a player says “What do you mean I can’t move that far?”, that’s usually a sign of some problem with the description. It’s more often than not my fault, so I try to avoid it, plain and simple :).

#13 Comment By Russell On April 25, 2007 @ 1:57 pm

Right now, I mostly play D&D 3.5. I use a map when the combat is going to be complicated, but not if spacing is relatively simple or the fight will be short. If I start without a map, and the players start asking questions about who is where, we’ll draw a map. On the other hand, I try to avoid spending more time setting up the map than the fight will take. I’ve also run D&D games for groups that dislike battle mats, and haven’t had any real problems with improvising relative positions. In my usual group, the battlemat is always laid out: it makes a great table cloth, very resistant to soda stains.

#14 Comment By empty_other On April 26, 2007 @ 3:08 am

I play DnD and I use maps. Not only combat-maps, but city-maps and region-maps. Not only makes it combat easier, but i also enjoy making said maps. Whenever they do something totally unexpected (or if i am running the session on the fly), i have a few pre-made generic areas. Or use a white sheet with crude drawings on them.
Once (when we was less experienced in RP) we tried the no-map thing in belief that it was more “pro”. Total chaos. Seems everyone of my group are “visual” persons. Cant cope with descriptions.

#15 Comment By Martin On April 26, 2007 @ 8:48 am

It’s been interesting to read all of your responses so far — thanks for taking the time to comment!

For my part, I was sketching out maps before D&D 3.x, but that was what prompted me to make the switch to full-out tactical maps and counters.

While that’s my default now, I won’t do it for games that don’t really seem to need it. If an RPG focuses less on combat, I don’t tend to bother with maps. If the system suggests them, I take that into account.

#16 Comment By Jeff Rients On April 26, 2007 @ 10:00 am

I use minis for 3.x D&D, Savage Worlds, and not much else. In general I prefer more abstracted, non-mapped combat taking place entirely in the imagination of the participants. But I also love toys and crunchy positional-based tactics, so I make some exceptions.

#17 Comment By Bryan On April 26, 2007 @ 11:02 am

I use ad hoc freehanded whiteboard maps for my space campaign, since firearm engagement ranges are usually too far to fit on a 1 hex = 1 yard map of reasonable size, and detailed tactical movement isn’t usually important for a firefight (unless you’re running a SWAT team/MOUT sort of game).

The “map” for the combat in the last session was a side-view cross-section of the apartment building staircase they were fighting in, with stick figures instead of circles to represent the combatants.

If I were to run a pre-gunpowder, melee-heavy game (fantasy or historical), I would probably use a hex-based battle board.

#18 Comment By John Gallagher On April 27, 2007 @ 6:16 am

Like Katre, above, I run 7th Sea, and I try to stay away from battle maps as much as possible. It’s a very freewheeling, cinematic style of combat system, where the players are encouraged to add to the environment, as long as they look swashbuckly doing it. So a player wouldn’t say, “Is there a beer mug for me to throw?” Instead, the player says, “I pick up the beer mug on the next table and fling it at the idiot harrassing the bar maid.” Having a battle mat would limit that kind of dramatic, flashy action, because, what if there’s not a table indicated on the mat? The player wouldn’t even think to pick up a mug. I agree, there are games that require minis. I just don’t play them often.

#19 Comment By Toombs On April 27, 2007 @ 11:50 pm

I’m running a lot of Cthulhu these days, and I don’t use maps at all–I think that maps would actually take away from the game, as I work a lot with encounters (and combat especially) being overwhelming, terrifying, and out of control.

A map draws players into a tactical ‘god’s eye view’ of the world which I find can work against immersion into what their character is actually feeling/seeing in that moment–and that immersion is what I work so hard to evoke.

I’d go so far as to say that maps may actually be a handicap to horror gaming.