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I think the title says it all. Let's say you're mastering a game without the benefit of miniatures, maps, or any kind of physical representation of the environment. How would you keep track of details like line-of-sight, ranged attack viability, and all the other small nuances which go with creating a "believable-enough" environment in which your PCs live and thrive?

(I admit that @LoganMacRae, who is my own DM, is an inspiration for this question. He does this with panache, and in my one-off, I feel like I have some mighty big shoes to fill!)

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For a game like D&D, which it sounds like you're playing, keeping track of that stuff is linked to keeping track of the declared and implicit intentions of the characters.

There's a bit of give-and-take to this; a sort of jostling about as everyone gets on the same page for what's happening fictionally. You might start saying, "So the orcs start taking aim at Mr Wizard, who's out in the open—" and Mr Wizard's player interrupts to say, "No! I would have gotten into cover. I'm a squishy wizard, I wouldn't be exposing myself for no good reason." In that case, make a judgement call: If the wizard was just casting a big flashy spell, or was just wandering about inspecting the dungeon walls and was surprised, then too bad, they're exposed. If there's no reason to gainsay the player, though, be generous and let them be in cover.

With practice you'll build up a repertoire of default assumptions about cover and positioning in general. If PCs or enemies aren't trying to get into cover, then they're in line-of-sight unless it's obvious that they're around a corner and completely out of sight. If they had previously described themselves as closing ranks, then only the front-most PCs will be in line-of-sight. If it's a running fight through a forest, instead of thinking about specific trees you might give everyone a flat 1/2 cover, unless they run into a clearing or suddenly run straight into an enemy.

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+1 for negotiating a reasonable interpretation. And remember: The player character who opens the door gets the biggest dose of radiation. –  GMJoe Jun 18 '12 at 7:09

It depends on how much dice rolling you're willing to do.

One option is to simply give every monster or PC a "line-of-sight" percentile chance; any time someone attempts to spot, shoot at, or otherwise acquire line-of-sight in a fight, you just roll the percentile to decide if they can catch sight of them in the confusion of battle. Depending on how the battle works out, you might assign higher values for some characters or monsters than in others--if it's a revolutionary war campaign, for example, and everyone's marching in nice straight lines, everyone should have like a 95% chance of line-of-sight. If it's a fantasy game and the party is getting ambushed by goblins in the woods, well, then line of sight might be more like 20% for the goblin archers, 35% for the goblins charging the PCs, and 50% for the PCs themselves.

The problem with this is that it A) requires a lot more dice rolling and B) can be fairly arbitrary. I personally like keeping the amount of dice bouncing to a minimum, so I have another method that I use.

For every encounter I put together, I just assign each monster a few "miss points" that I can spend as the course of battle requires. For each time I need a monster to lose line-of-sight for a particular character (and the reverse, if you're so inclined!), I just mark off one more miss points until finally it's entirely out of miss points and the PC has finally figured out where it is. The key to this system isn't to use them at your discretion, not the PC's. It's also important not to give it a mechanical representation--or tell the players what you're doing.

The whole point of this alternate method is to keep the GM's bookkeeping headaches to a minimum. That doesn't work so well if you start attaching mechanical rules to it. Defined rules open the possibility of metagame exploitation (where one player might say "I try to spot the goblin" as a free action every freaking round). At some level, the GM needs to just exercise good judgment to keep the story progressing.

An even less complex method, by the way, is to simply make a decision on the spot. That works if you are pretty good at remembering that the purpose of an encounter is to challenge the players, not kill their characters off.

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I've found that even not using a map, having a whiteboard helps in these situations. I bought a small magnetic one at Staples, and some magnetic tokens. At the time when this becomes really relevant, I just sketch a quick outline of a map- nothing major, and put a token for the pc group and a token for the npcs. As people break off, I'll put other tokens down, but for most cases, I only end up using 2-4 tokens- not tactical combat by any means, but it gives a frame of reference, and a quick way to determine line of site without being too arbitrary.

In most combat situations, I don't need it- and I try to do it on the fly in most cases, as resorting to this does take you out of the moment a bit. But having that option has helped in several cases.

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I'd use hiding rules. In AD&D that would be a hide in shadows roll for the thief to not be in line of sight, in d20, anybody could attempt a sneak check, or perhaps an acrobatics or tumbling check to see if they can get behind cover of some sort, and appropriately hide themselves.

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Would the check be for the chance to declare that cover is available, or to use pre-established cover? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 18 '11 at 5:35
    
Would depend on the system and what the conventions are. Donjon would be to declare cover, D&D to use established cover. –  migo Mar 18 '11 at 6:13
    
Mmm, in this narrative sense, I'd recommend using Donjon conventions, that way everyone's buying into the environment. A skill check to use established cover feels a bit steep. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 18 '11 at 9:34
    
I guess it depends on what we're talking about for line of sight. If you're avoiding an attack roll, then you'd get whatever the cover bonuses are, but if you're avoiding something where they just have to see you, I think making a check is reasonable. –  migo Mar 18 '11 at 10:05

You can abstract the ranges to a simple line, and track them with numbers such as:

Joe 32yd
Fred 45yd
monsters -10yd
Hallway branches at 0.

This is my normal mode in dungeon corridors and road battles. Each round, as characters act, I adjust the ranges to some reference point.

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I think the best answer to this question depends on how strictly you're defining " any kind of physical representation of the environment", and what the needs of your system are.

If you mean no to-scale physical representations of the environment, there's a number of systems with excellent abstract-location systems; I'm personally partial to the one found in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3, but I've also seen good systems for this in Diaspora and a specialized set of rules for a chase in the second Pathfinder adventure path, and I know that (many) others exist.

If you mean nothing but words, things get somewhat trickier, and the system suddenly becomes very important. The two biggest obstacles for these are always going to be adjucating line of sight (including cover), adjucating area of effects, and adjucating the positioning of static or location-specific effects (flanking and Stinking Cloud come to mind).

The importance of AoEs and placable static effects is going to vary by system and player preference; it would probably be a good move to strongly suggest to players that they not load up on fireball spells or frag grenades if they can reasonably expect that they'll be Complicated, which is basically unavoidable without visual aids.

The other significant thing you can do here is (assuming you're the DM) minimize the amount of those factors that come into play. (Again, this is somewhat system-specific; "there aren't a lot of low things that provide cover" is less significant in D&D than it is in Dark Heresy.) Ten-food-wide corridors are convenient for more than just mapping.

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Liberal use of the "Survival" skill or your preferred system's equivalent. I endorse broadening its scope to "using your environment to your greatest advantage," which includes finding cover and breaking line of sight. As an added benefit, it enhances a skill that soldier-types often have anyway for characterization purposes.

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Just go with what seem reasonable. If gut instinct is too wobbly and inconclusive for you, you could work up a simple system of agility or perception rolls to determine if Character A has line of sight on Monster X, or if Character B is in range of Monster Y's breath weapon, and so on.

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Burning Wheel generalizes these kinds of issues quite elegantly in a "positioning test" which then becomes one phase of the combat sequence. Opponents need to determine their tactical position against each other on a regular basis, and the benefits of their success or failure at this test accrue against the actions they take later in the round. In this way, it's sort of like testing "initiative" at the top of the round.

I would be tempted to do something similar in a game with no map reference; every so often have an opposed skill challenge of some sort that maps onto the notion of positional advantage.

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Not all RPGs work like D&D. The best you can do is to choose a game which does not rely on wargame-like details such as line-of-sight or movement-per-round. First couple examples off the top of my head:

Storming the Wizard's Tower (by Vincent Baker, still in development, unfinished, play at your own risk), which is basically "D&D done a different way", abstracts advantageous positioning and battlefield stunts into a supplementary die roll, leaving players the freedom to describe the battlefield in detail.

Anima Prime (by Christian Griffen, available free as a playtest release, but still very solid) is all about flashy moves and interacting with the environment in cinematic battles, but abstracts maneuvering into changing dice pools. Describing your actions with great flare is the heart of the game.

Beast Hunters (by Christian and Lisa Griffen, available for sale or as a free SRD) is the immediate precursor to Anima Prime and it clearly shows that such a line of thought also works for more gritty, down-to-earth battles, and not just for uber-cinematic superhero showdowns.

And all of the above are fantasy games with heroic PCs, monsters and lots of fights. Should you be out for a real change in pace and tone, instead, the possibilities are (literally) thousands.

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