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My group have been using the play test material for D&D Next. Our target play style for combat encounters would be to use battle boards roughly half the time (when there is enough of interest in play that the tactics are fun to play out), and to skip that with faster "cinematic" combat otherwise.

We have not been 100% successful. The problem is the numbers-driven descriptions in the rules. Needing to be "adjacent" (within 5 feet) for abilities such as Protection style fighting, ranged weapon ranges, spell effects and movement speeds are all much easier to resolve on a grid. Running those rules without a board rapidly devolves into sketches with numbers written on them and/or "mother, may I?" style of play because the DM needs to rule who is next to who, and which monsters are in the spell radius. These rulings also quickly get out of sync with player expectations when there is no map and we want to run combats quickly.

It doesn't help that the numbers involved come in pretty much all multiples of the base 5 feet. There is no obvious close/short/medium for effects and ranges. If there were such then I think it would be much easier for the DM to categorise and hand-wave things.

I was hoping that both board-based and no-board style of play would feel equally viable. But the focus on numbers seems to push toward board playing, at least for my group.

We would still like to pay heed to the differences in movement, range, area-of-effect etc of the rules in play. At least in the general sense of creature X is faster than creature Y, or weapon/spell A has better range than weapon/spell B.

Going beyond "just don't sweat the details", how can a group like mine play with the D&D Next rules as written, without a map, but without leaning on the DM to resolve all our questions of "So, am I next to the Paladin?", or "Is it in range?"

Clarifying: "just don't sweat the details" is a welcome approach to solving the problem, but please give some examples of how this works in practice. E.g. which details can be removed and how?

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4 Answers 4

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The key does lie in not sweating the details, but the trick is that which is the least intuitive one: positioning!

Follow three principles and theatre of the mind becomes much easier:

  • Use descriptive detail

    When describing a fight scene, say in general terms where everything is relative to each other. You're not used to giving this detail verbally when your habits are tuned for battle mats, so it will take some practice and effort, but it pays off.

    But most importantly, don't sweat being exact—exact details aren't necessary, and even entire things you miss or forget will get caught by the next two principles.

  • Be generous

    When in doubt, rule in favour of the PCs. They're competent adventurers, right? If the Fighter was obviously moving into position last turn, assume that they didn't make any trivial mistakes about their positioning. Don't be miserly with the numbers either—if they're trying to get between the Wizard and the Orc and they've probably got enough movement to pull it off, then don't try to count exact feet to see whether they made it or fell short by 5 feet.

    Don't sweat exact distances when the intent of the player is plausible to accomplish.

  • Track intent above all

    What are people trying to do on their turn? Focus on that, rather than the bits and bobs of feet, ranges, and areas. Those are tools you can use as rough measures of whether an intent is plausible this round or will take more than one round. By focusing on what people are intending to accomplish with their allotment of time, it's easier to see what's plausible in the theatre of the mind, and you are actually imagining something more interesting. Is imagining 15 feet of movement an event worth spending imaginative brain power rendering in loving detail? Not really. But a careful repositioning to bolster the front rank, or diving away from a lumbering beast, or a steady advance toward the chieftain with deliberate steps bristling with murderous intent—those are worth time imagining.

    So don't sweat the truly small stuff—feet and ranges and positioning in general and some kind of "mental grid". Those are just useful rules of thumb for making reasonable judgements about how people can move around, and trying to re-create the grid in your head is a waste of effort and defeats the purpose.

That's the short, pithy version for how to move from a grid-centric conception of combat to a functional theatre of mind that isn't just "now the grid is in my head and everything is harder, why would anyone do this?" For more nitty-gritty details on implementing a theatre of the mind when you've got a grid-based ruleset, my (and others') answers to these questions should provide:

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+1. This answer is incredible. Tracking Intent is one of the most usefull advices to anyone "gridless". It is also usefull for any game, not just D&D Next –  Thales Sarczuk May 27 at 15:51

When I was running games early on in the playtest there weren't really grid rules exactly, and so we only rarely used the grid trying instead to play theater of the mind combat. We are all 4e players for the most part so this was definitely a rough transition form me as a DM and the players.

Here are some things that helped:

  • Set the stage, and use minis or some kind of token for this. Help people understand positions.

  • Make sure everyone understands relative positions and what it would take to move from position X to position Y.

  • Track engagement. The fighter is in melee with those two orcs, the Rogue is a full round of movement away from them. The Paladin is engaged with the goblins, and is a round away from the orcs and two away from the rogue.

  • Make sure everyone understands the positions on their turns, resort to representative mini combat if needs be.

This is a pretty dramatic adjustment from the always detailed gridded combat from 4e and Next does a mediocre job supporting this. However, it can be done and it can be fun. The important thing to remember is that narrative combat should be for quick fights, if you start to realize your narrating for several seconds every turn it's probably time to draw at least a loose map.

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+1 for tracking engagement; PCs mainly need to know who they're in direct melee in and who they're not, and changing is pretty clear in terms of threats/opportunities. And engagement is largely dictated by those who have the initiative (both in the game rules and the general combat sense). –  mxyzplk May 27 at 14:43

I can only tell you how I've done it in the various Play by post and home games I've played. I've only seen it done this way. I don't know if this counts as "don't sweat the details" or not, but this is how we do it.

  1. Protection fighting style.

    The fighter/paladin says to the DM, If monster X attacks Joe or myself, I will grant disadvantage. The assumption here is that if they are now next to each other, they have now moved next to eachother at the end of the turn. The DM might say, sorry you are engaged with two orcs on the other side of the room, do you want to still do this?

  2. Spells

    I have seen this resolved in two possible ways. 1. Roll a die, and see how many targets are in range of your spell. 2. Tell the DM that you want to target monsters X, Y, Z and you move in position to do so.

  3. General Combat

    Make sure you are clear as to who is fighting who and in what style. Rogue is fighting orc 3 in melee. Fighter is attacking uninjured orc. Ranger is shooting at shaman in the back. For the DM, if a player is outnumbered they should make that clear. "3 skeletons engage Bob, the first swings and misses, the second etc...", then "2 more skeletons fire at Bob, the first shoots and misses."

  4. When exact positioning matters, use a map.

In general, the DM is responsible for knowing, or deciding roughly how far apart people are. They should have a vague idea, that people are within 30 or 60 or 5 feet of each other. It's also ok for the DM to decide these things on the fly, based on what sounds good as long as they remember that once they say someone is 30 feet away, that becomes the fact. It also helps that most fights are assumed to be in a defined room which is Z by Y feet, or a clearing which is a X feet radius area. This helps everyone know how far apart people are. Sometimes when you meet in an open the field, the DM should introduce the fight as.. "You stand against a group of bandits, 60 feet away from you, spread out over about 30 feet across the hill" Or other such measurements to give a vague idea of the fighting area.

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+1 for spell target acquisition, in fact I often make skills or other wizardy things helpful and make them roll that (or Int, say) to help determine how many baddies they can gerrymander into the spell range - e.g. "with that burning hands you can get two, or roll for three (on a crit fail you get the fighter too)..." –  mxyzplk May 27 at 14:44
@mxyzplk: That's a neat suggestion, and very much in line with what I am looking for. It gives the players back some of the risk vs safety management from the movement rules, but without using a grid. –  Neil Slater May 27 at 15:01
Yeah I always ran 2e/3e gridless and "when in doubt, roll" - have them roll for movement, spell placement, etc. and they feel like it's in their hands and not "dammit the GM told me they were too far away just to screw me." –  mxyzplk May 27 at 15:19
@mxyzplk I've always been comfy with theatre of the mind combat, but somehow it's never occurred to me to use rolls/tests/etc for determining those critical turns. I will now! –  SevenSidedDie May 27 at 16:44

My comments were well received enough I thought I'd contribute an answer. I run theater of the mind combat preferentially. I couldn't always get away with it in 3.5/Pathfinder, but in Basic and 2e days I did this exclusively. We are even doing this more in Pathfinder nowadays as we get more and more bored with the tactical tabletop combat. D&D Next/5e is fairly similar to 2e in metaphor so I believe most of these techniques will port well.

Theater of the mind provides quicker and, frankly, more interesting combat scenes - but the primary risk that comes with it is players feeling hosed, that too much of the power is in the GM's hands, and that they keep getting told "No" arbitrarily when they want to reach someone in combat or whatever. This is why D&D had been moving more and more to minis and defined rules in the name of "player empowerment." Here's how to do theater of the mind without reducing player agency.

Put information in your players' hands.

Be clear with your descriptions. For this to work, you have to be clear and the players have to pay attention, or else you get a lot of "well I wouldn't have charged if I had heard there was a chasm between us and then..." Describe the most important elements (obstacles, opponents, how those opponents are armed) and don't be afraid to reiterate it each round.

Even if not using a tactical map, putting a quickie room sketch on a whiteboard or whatever can help a lot - in our Pathfinder games nowadays, "mapping" is just the GM continuing to draw the map on the whiteboard, and rather than use a tactical map we just refer to that and say "I run over near that altar thing..." If pressed we add some X's and O's, football play board style, to show relative force dispositions.

You'll want to be fair and have a clear "take-back" policy for the table in case of mishearing - but it's OK to not be too generous there, as it will encourage people to pay attention. In general, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Put decisions in your players' hands.

Firstly, let them have some discretionary input into the narration. I learned my lesson on this playing Feng Shui, where I learned if the PCs are fighting in a pizza parlor and someone wants to pick up a pizza cutter and slash someone, getting out of the way of that as the GM and letting them declare there's a pizza cutter nearby and use it has a lot of upsides to that. After playing Feng Shui I was so much better as a D&D DM. Let them riff off the environment, only vetoing clear abuse.

You also want to encourage players to explain both what they want to do and "why" - their intent and stakes. "I want to get into flank around the orc with Jethro, and I'm willing to risk an AoO to get there," for example. Similarly, you as the GM want to state options and stakes as well - "You can do that, but there's a chance that you'll fall in that pit." Some quick negotiation and being very specific help here. "I want to swing on the chandelier, and I'm willing to risk a fall," says the player, envisioning a max of 2d6 damage based on the room description they heard, but the GM is thinking 10d6... If you wait till after the slip and fall to have that discussion the player gets irate; if you set the stakes up front everyone's on the same page.

Put outcomes in your players' hands.

Put the outcome in the PC's hands, ideally via a die roll from some attribute of their character. So if they want to know how many creatures they can catch in their Burning Hands spell, you could respond "Two, but you can roll Spellcraft (or Int, or whatever) to try to get three, with the downside that if you fumble you'll burn one of your buddies in melee with them." I use this in naval combat in our current Pathfinder game - when a PC Fireballs the other ship, how the heck do I know where every one of the 30 enemy crewmen are? I say "Roll Spellcraft," and based on the result is how many pirates got fried (generalizing assists and success as a kinda standard "+2 per 5 over" rate helps a lot here).

Same thing with movement. I have all my players convert their movement into an actual "Move bonus", +2 per 5' of movement, so a 30' move is a +12, for example. (Side rant, the conception of movement as fixed when everything else in the system is a variable is one of the greatest missed opportunities in D&D design and all the other games that blindly inherit their metaphor from it.) "I want to get around that orc and flank him with Billy!" "OK, roll Move. You're not even inside the door yet and there's a bunch of other orcs, so I'll call that DC 20, fail means you get to melee but not in flank, fail by 5 means someone AoOs you on the way."

I also used a house rule Luck stat in 2e - see my answer on How to add and use a luck stat? for more - to help determine other elements like "Who's standing on the trapdoor?" Because if a player is rolling for it and/or making risk/reward decisions, then they feel that the outcome is in their hands and not yours.

One last thought - make character options that a PC has paid for worth it. Some options are hard to quantify if not on a battlemat (like the Lunge feat from Pathfinder). As the GM, you basically want to keep stuff like that in mind and give them a benefit for it from time to time. If, for example, you're telling people they can't reach opponents a good bit in battle, and someone has the Lunge feat, turn it into "you reached them!" automatically once every combat when they plead "but... Lunge!" Basically whatever the option is allegedly for, let it do that.

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Thanks @NeilSlater! –  mxyzplk Jun 2 at 23:44

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