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I am DMing a new 4e group, and I am interested in approaching the game as a "theater of the mind" style combat rather than the traditional grid format.

We are locked into doing D&D 4e because of the resources my players have available, but I believe they will be open to an approach that follows the spirit, rather than the letter, of the combat rules.

What can I, as a DM, do to make theater of the mind combat engaging and reasonably consistent with the 4e rules set? I am open to suggestions and techniques from other systems as long as I can put them into a D&D game without breaking the core mechanic of dice roll + bonuses vs. check number.

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I urge you to not do this. The beauty and fun of 4e is in the tactical combat. The rest of 4e is sufficiently abstracted that... um... there's no point to playing the game if you're not going to play the game. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 26 '13 at 3:28
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Nothing on the table is correct. The Acquisitions Inc session from PAX (youtube.com/watch?v=S8Ra1ecLhtI) is the kind of thing I had in mind--all combat described narratively and imagined rather than using a grid, miniatures, etc. –  philosophyguy Sep 27 '13 at 0:30
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When you say, "We are locked into doing D&D 4e because of the resources my players have available", what does that actually mean? –  SevenSidedDie Oct 7 '13 at 23:54
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@philosophyguy they are running 5th/D&D Next for that PAX game. Its been in public playtest for the last year or so. You can download it for free and easily run it in theater of the mind. Also, try the same page tool to make sure your players and you are on the same page (You may really prefer a more narrative or fast and loose game whereas they may want something with a lot of rules crunch). bankuei.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/the-same-page-tool –  Joshua Aslan Smith Oct 8 '13 at 5:07
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Ah. There are lots of games that are even more free than "free bag of books". If the central feature of the bag of books doesn't suit the group, it's worth considering that you're not hostage to the free bag of books, because there are $0 alternatives. Upwards of 90% of non-4e games are designed for theatre of the mind. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 8 '13 at 14:13
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D&D 4th edition is a tactical, combat-focused RPG...

The whole of 4th edition ruleset by and large is devoted to the balance and intricacies of tactical, grid-based combat. There are exceptions, such as rules for skill challenges and other Role Play aspects of the game (vs. roll play). To both maximize the benefits of 4th edition and actually run it correctly you need to run combats on a grid of 1" squares. Every single player attack and ability is based around this precept.

Lastly, the example you gave in comments, The PAX celebrity game, was run this year using 5th edition/D&D Next rules (which you and your players can download for free!). D&D Next is focused on trying to incorporate aspects from all previous D&D editions into one, harmonious and equally customizable edition. D&D Next works very well for theater of the mind.

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I am DMing a new 4e group, and I am interested in approaching the game as a "theater of the mind" style combat rather than the traditional grid format.

So. A few thoughts. Like a lot of the other answers, comments, yes, 4E without the grid is stripping a major feature of the game out.

The other major question that comes up is "new group" - new to 4E? New socially - have you guys played together before, have you run for them before? Or like, simply a new campaign? Have you already spoken with them about your idea of removing a major part of what makes 4E, 4E?

If I were playing with people fluent in the 4E system, who I've played with before, and this is what the group wanted, then we could actually even consider this. If they're not fluent in the system, it's going to be a lot of work on their part having to learn 4E, then try to learn what powers will actually be useful in a non-grid game. If we're not all familiar with each other as a play group, stripping out major rules seems like a huge jump on top of getting to know each other.

Let's assume you actually have cleared ALL of those hurdles. Ok. Here's what happens next:

Design each encounter with environment bits

A great number of the powers work in positioning opponents, positioning yourself, etc. to set up either flanking positions or to force opponent's into damaging/dangerous areas. This means you're going to want to have a variety of objects/things which can be thrown, knocked over, would hurt to get pushed into (pushed off of, etc.).

Be aware that a "Square" = 5 feet. So if you put things too far apart, people cannot use them.

Go to page 42 in the DMG. Write down some of the damage and condition effects some of these things have.

For myself? I'd have to draw a simple sketch to keep track of where everything is at least.

Declare positions, every turn, every round

Now, for players to make useful, meaningful choices using the powers they have, they will need to have enough information about where everything is. How far away things are, the monsters, etc.

You will have to declare this, to each player, at the beginning of each of their turns.

"Oh, well, I should just explain it once and they should remember." Nope! The fun of D&D is danger and adventure, not playing Memory. If you expect them to hold it in their heads while the turns go around the table, you will quickly find three things:

  1. They will forget and either start making bad decisions based on incorrect information/assumptions

  2. They will end up asking you the above information, over and over, so you might as well declare it each round anyway.

  3. They will default to the most simplest powers/least strategic choices because that's the only thing they can remember will work.

Does this seem like a lot of work? Yes, it is. Removing the grid either means you take the role of the grid, and have to explain things over and over, or you ignore 60-70% of the powers and meaningful choices built into 4E.

Literally at every point, the question becomes, "Why play 4E D&D instead of something else?"

Options

Find out what your group wants. If your group really wants gridless play, I suggest using a game that works better without a grid. If they really want 4E, odds are pretty damn good they also want to play with a grid.

Other, free options:

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You may want to consider how 13th Age (a branch in the D&D family) handles positioning in combat. It is assumed that the position of each combatant to be fluid, and they are all at a relative distance from each other.

  • There are three type of ranges in 13th Age, relatively to each other : far-away, nearby and engaged.
  • Engaged targets are in melee range; a nearby distance requires 1 Move action, a faraway distance requires 2 Move actions.
  • Position is described as such "You are faraway to the Goblin Shaman" or "You are nearby the Half Orc commander". So if someone is engaged with the Goblin Shaman, you are considered to be faraway to that guy as well. Everything is relative.
  • You can use a reference on the map for distance. "The bridge is nearby you, and those orcs are faraway from the bridge"
  • Characters which are more or less near each other are considered to be in a group. Powers that have an AOE effect will say something along the effect of "Targets 1d4 creatures in a group."
  • 13th Age doesn't worry about exact range and such, a lot of it is up to what "feels" right at the table.

Using these guide-lines, here is how I will interpret 4E's ranges/area of effect.

  • Adjacent square in 4E meant 'Engaged'
  • Range up to 15 means 'Nearby'
  • Range up to 30 means 'Faraway'
  • Blast means "Engaged foes"
  • Burst can mean "foes in a group nearby you" or "Foes in a group faraway from you", depending on the range

There are no rules for zone per-se, but what I did was to place a token on the board, and say, "Anyone nearby (or in engage range with) this token is considered to be in this zone."

Alas, there are no rules for shifting/sliding, though you can introduce a new position that is half of nearby (or "immediate"), if you wish. Walls are trickier to emulate though.

If you are interested, check out the section on position in the Combat chapter from the 13th Age SRD for more details.

Here are some example powers using 13th Age's positioning system:

Passing Attack Encounter, Martial, Weapon Standard Action Melee Weapon Primary Target: One creature Attack: Strength vs. AC Hit: 1[W] + Strength modifier, and you pops free of the engaged foe and may move to engage a new foe very close to you (half of nearby range maximum). Make a secondary attack.

*Shake it Off Encounter, Martial Minor Action Target: 1 nearby ally Effect: The target makes a saving throw with a power bonus equal to your Charisma modifier.

Fireball Daily, Arcane, Fire, Implement Standard Target: 1d4+1 nearby or faraway creatures in a group Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex Hit: 3d6 + Intelligence modifier fire damage Miss: Half damage

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