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Mapping Combats: A Balancing Act

Some gamers like battles that involve battlemaps, minis and precise movement.

Other gamers prefer battles to be largely descriptive, with the GM keeping track of positions.

Many gamers fall somewhere in between — perhaps leaning towards a loose map of the combat area that isn’t used for hex-by-hex tactical movement.

So how do you balance those preferences at the gaming table?

By taking these four things into account, in this order of importance: system, necessity, your preference, your players’ preferences.

The first factor is the game itself. It’s tough to run D&D 3.x, for example, without a battlemap and minis or counters, although there are plenty of folks who’d argue differently. Other RPGs place much less emphasis on tactical details — generally, the lighter the rules system the less likely you are to need a detailed battlemap. So whether you follow the lead provided by your game of choice or buck the trend and run it differently, the system is still the first consideration.

The second consideration is necessity: Does the specific combat you’re about to run need a high level of detail, or will it benefit more from a lighter approach? If having a fun battle means you need to change up the way you normally handle things, then so be it — the outcome is the important part.

In third place is your personal preference. As the GM, you have more to do at the table than any individual player, and you have the benefit of knowing what you’re going for in any given battle — what kind of feel the combat will have, how it fits into the overall story, etc. This is one case where I would argue that your preferences as the GM are just plain more important than the preferences of your players.

Lastly, you should take your players’ tastes into account. If you like loose, sketchy combats and all of your players like crunchy, tactical combat, you’re probably running the wrong RPG [1]. If your group has mixed preferences, try to strike a balance that gives everyone at the table at least some of what they want out of combat.

Do you agree with my take on these four factors, and with their order of importance? Oddly enough, the order they wound up in isn’t the order I expected when I started writing this post — but once I got rolling, it fell into place this way. Are there factors missing, or other considerations that should be taken into account?

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#1 Comment By John Arcadian On October 9, 2007 @ 8:40 am

I think you’ve got the order nailed. System and necessity are the most important, because it determines what rules are necessary when it comes to combat. I would never imagine taking a 5 foot step in shadowrun, but I couldn’t live without it in DND3x. A mat can be good if you’ve got to determine who is in position to threaten what, but if the rules say that movement from one target to another isn’t wrought with penalties then it doesn’t matter that much.

I think a lot of GM and Player preferences get left out when thinking about system though. I think few GMs will go against a system that requires heavily tactical combat, even if it fits their group style more. They’d be more likely to switch gaming systems than want to deal with the inconsistencies brought up by modifying a game system. A special power of a character that helped with movement would feel wasted if the movement wasn’t being measured.

For my own mapping I tend to clear space on a table and run with minis, but no battle mat. I also tend to use the large pads of paper to draw out an area, but do it without a mat. By the way, lamination is your friend as we found out over the weekend. Your standard office store/copy center can do large size lamination fairly cheap. It makes a really nice drawable surface that can use

#2 Comment By Telas On October 9, 2007 @ 9:20 am

I completely agree with the last paragraph. When I read the lead-in, I thought you had the order wrong (preference > rules). But once I read under the fold, it makes sense, although certain situations may call for minor changes.

I’ve run encounters without maps/minis, such as an open-ground encounter with a single foe. I’ve also run entire adventures, such as the house in ‘U1: Sininster Secret of Saltmarsh’, which pretty much require full-time mapping. (This is one of those exceptions – no matter what system you’re running, you’ll probably need to track PC locations.)

#3 Comment By Frank Filz On October 9, 2007 @ 10:11 am

Given that priorities always allow negotiating with lower priorities, I would say the order is:

GM preference first (if the GM hates a style, there’s no sense in him GMing the game), then player preference, then finally system.

But that’s given the caveat that GMs and players choose systems that actually provide mechanics that support the way they want to play. Hate gridded boardgame-like combat? Don’t play D&D 3.5. Need a map and miniatures and importance of position? Don’t play Dogs in the Vinyard (and maybe not Burning Wheel or Riddle of Steel, both of which provide crunchy combat systems that don’t map to miniatures or boardgame style play).

Of course as Telas mentions, sometimes you can relax the rules of a boardgamey/minatures gamey combat system if the situation is simple enough. Other times, even with a very abstract combat system, a map would still be helpfull for showing where folks are (though I can’t see that you would ever really need a map for Dogs in the Vinyard other than for color, but a loose tactical map might help visualize a complex Burning Wheel or Riddle of Steel combat and allow for better judging of how multiple combatants interract – both systems handle one-on-one combats best, and get a little dodgy if you can’t break a more complex combat into clear one-on-ones).


#4 Comment By Clayton On October 9, 2007 @ 11:21 am

I play 3.5 DND, and I dont mind the battle map. I also like to use a “dungeon map” battle map, which covers both the combat, as well as any use of traps i have. I like to place traps in odd places, at intersections, and other things such as that.

For example, I recently had a room that was 20ft by 15 feet, and the 5 foot wide area around the edge was safe, but step into the center bit and get zapped by lightning that would jump between poles. I made sure that my players showed me on my map where they moved step by step so I could keep track and see if they would step in the center. Never did 😛

#5 Comment By darelf On October 9, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

In our current D&D 3.5 campaign I do not use battle-maps. It would ruin the feel of what we are trying to do.

In a recent superhero game, we used battle-maps because it was a very tactical, semi-military setting.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the system (that is, the rules). This has everything to do with the genre of the game. And by “genre” I don’t mean fantasy vs. superhero… I mean gritty vs. storybook.

In fact, in general I disagree with the entire list. System/necessity/GM/player. None of that has any impact on whether we use maps in any given RPG. System probably has the least impact. The one that comes closest to the reality of how we make a choice is what you call “necessity”.

So imagine a post-apocalypse military action game as opposed to a high fantasy Conan-type game. The former simply cannot be run without maps and grids and counting every bullet, while the latter would lose everything good about it if you tried to shoehorn battle-maps into it.

It has to do with what *game* you are playing, not what *system* or set of rules you are playing with. The *system* has an impact of exactly zero on whether I use battle-maps in a particular game or campaign.

#6 Comment By Frank Filz On October 9, 2007 @ 1:59 pm


That can only be true if you ignore aspects of the system. How do you judge things like attacks of opportunity and flanking without the battlemap?


#7 Comment By darelf On October 9, 2007 @ 2:42 pm

We seem to do really well. This campaign has 8 players and we still manage to all have the scene in our heads. Things like whether you get an AOO or make an adjustment to flank, etc. are dictated by the scene.

To try to explain a little bit: if we think that ought to be the case, then it is the case. So, if the barbarian charged the demon, who is medium size, and the druid is already fighting him, then it’s pretty obvious that the druid could make a 5-foot adjustment to gain flanking on his turn. If, OTOH, he is a large creature that is 10 feet wide, it would take a couple of turns to gain flanking ( assuming the thing didn’t try to prevent it ).

It all depends on the description, which is paramount in this particular game. (not D&D, I mean the actual game we are playing using the D&D rules)

#8 Comment By Frank Filz On October 9, 2007 @ 4:32 pm


I see that you are prioritizing based on GM/player preference, which is exactly what I said is the primary case. Sure, your preference is based on genre, but it’s still your preference in how to express that genre. As to the importance of system, well, it may be a minor change, but you are changing the D&D 3.5 system by not using a grid. Sure, in many cases, there may not be a practical difference in a combat run by a grid or not, but my experience with 3.0/3.5 (via Arcana Unearthed/Evolved – which uses essentially the same combat rules wrto the grid) is that not infrequently does the actual grid matter. Someone manages to take advantage of the grid to make an unexpected maneuver, either to get an unexpected attack, or to deny an attack.

But I suspect that for your Conan style game, you would truly be better off with a different system, one that had a combat system not burdened with grid based mechanics.

I also have to say that the few times I have played in a game where position mechanically mattered at all in combat and no grid was used, that I regularly felt that my actions were less effective. The worst case also didn’t use any kind of turn order, so not only was my location irrelevant, I got timewarped.

Now maybe the problems I’ve seen are more related to abstracting things so much that time doesn’t matter either, allowing players to be left out of the action.

On the other hand, when I played Dogs in the Vinyard, I had no problems participating in combat (conflicts) with no diagram, map, or any visual representation. But then DitV gives no mechanical advantage to position. Mechanical advantage is entirely in the dice you roll. Now narration and the shared imaginary space do matter, but a player can’t be totally disempowered because of a difference of perception (though it is entirely possible to have BS called on your raise of tripping your opponent because the previous narration had you out of position to do so, but then you just have to come up with different narration for your stunning raise of an 18, you don’t lose the opportunity to use that 18 just because people don’t think a trip makes sense).

And I guess that’s how I characterize the difference. Playing D&D 3.5 by (all) the rules, complete with grid, I know if I can trip the opponent or not. I don’t have to depend on whether or not we agree on who is where (and on the flip side, the GM can move the opponent such that I can’t trip it).


#9 Comment By Frank Filz On October 9, 2007 @ 4:54 pm

I should add that I’ve started to take a pretty strict view of what constitutes changing the rules, and when changing the rules means you aren’t playing the same game any more. This attitude is just my version of “System Does Matter.”

One way to think about it is can a player who has played the game system you claim to be running play in your game without having to re-learn the game? With abstract combat in D&D 3.5, someone not used to how you run it would likely have a steep learning curve. Now, you may help that person, but still they are learning a new game. The same player joining a different game that uses the D&D 3.5 rules as written, complete with grid will (assuming his previous group also played by the rules as written) be able to jump right in, or at least come up to speed much quicker (since of course any text is subject to interpretation, so not all people WILL play exactly the same way, and there may be campaign options that change things up enough to confuse a new player). Even a few minor changes (perhaps such as the reach of a particular weapon) can be easily absorbed.

Of course there always are things not specified by the rules that will differ from group to group (or even game to game within the same group). In fact, I think that there must be stuff not specified by the rules to make the game an RPG. And then the question is, if you make such a decision differently than Gary Gygax would, are you still playing AD&D? I guess so long as you are applying the mechanics in the text in such a way that an observer can say “You are playing by the rules as I read them.” or “I can see how you could interpret rule 5 that way, ok, I’d prefer it the other way, but it’s your game.” or “You read that rule wrong, it should be this way.” and you change the rule, then you’re probably playing the same game.

So again, the way I see it:

GM/player preference drives choice of system which drives whether (and when) a grid is necessary. Realizing also that GM preference trumps player preference to the extent that a GM won’t run a game that has more disadvantages to them (such as disliking the rules or genre) than the play group provides advantages (i.e., I’ll compromise so that we can have a play group, but if I hate Call of Cthulhu, and the only available players won’t play anything else, I just won’t play). Also realizing that GM/player preferences may be reflected in changes to the game mechanics.


#10 Comment By darelf On October 10, 2007 @ 11:41 am

The implication in all of that is that a particular group, or a particular individual prefers one or the other.

What I’m saying is, I certainly don’t prefer one or the other, and the rest of the group has expressed that they don’t prefer one or the other.

What we prefer is having a good time with a particular game session. If that means using a map during one session and not using it during the next, then that’s what we do.

That’s why I said that the most closely resembling item on the list was “Necessity”.

Now for other groups, other individuals, they may very well prefer to play with a map during every combat, and play game systems that give lots of support for this ( such as D&D, or HERO ). If that’s their preference, that’s awesome. Go to it! I am not trying to project our way of determining what game system to use for a particular session on other people. I am relating how a single small group of people make these decisions.

We may even be unusual in that regard.

I think there are quite a few more reasons that people do any particular thing in games than any of us are willing to enumerate.

#11 Comment By Martin On October 15, 2007 @ 7:48 am

I hadn’t considered groups where some folks (or everyone, as with darelf’s group) have no real preference between crunchy/mapped and lighter/not mapped. In that case (which I think is decidedly unusual: most gamers I know have a preference), I’d hazard that the list would go look like this:

1. System
2. Necessity
3. Variety

When preferences aren’t a factor, it seems like a mix of different approaches would be enjoyable for everyone. Does that fit your group, darelf?