As I run almost exclusively in the d20 fantasy sphere of games — Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, d20 Modern — one of the tools that gets used often is a combat grid, whether it is a published or dry-erase footmat, HirstArts tiles of my construction or printed cardstock tiles.
But should you use the grid for social encounters?
You might think the default decision for social encounters is to never use the grid, reasoning that if the players aren’t focused on the table, then they can concentrate on roleplay. And there’s some truth to that. Certainly a majority of social encounters don’t need a footmap.
But I’ve found that there is a good occasion when the grid works:
When the player characters must “work the room,” when a sense of space and knowing where PCs and NPCs are standing in relation to others is key.
Big ballroom parties, a conference of important figures, the prelude to a villain’s showdown are all examples where this might be important.
The main advantage to having a grid in this case is it leaves the door open to combat/skill endeavors, even if the PCs elect not to do so. It’s a signal that all options are available.
If I anticipate a future big boss battle with multiple named NPCs, a social encounter with a grid is a good occasion to preview the miniatures that will be used. So, when those minis are used in a future combat, it may lesson the confusion for the players once they are familiar with a given fig.
The same can be said if the location for the social encounter will be the same set piece used for the boss battle at the end. This gives players a sense of familiar ground, a chance at previewing the landscape and brings more tactics into the adventure.