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When I first started playing D&D, my DM did not use battlemaps or miniatures to describe combat. Everything was described to us, and questions to the DM were part and parcel of the experience, such as:

  • "Do I have Line of Sight? Can I take a Move action and get Line of Sight this turn if I [jump into the trees/move to the left/run forward]?"
  • "Who is [enemy] facing? That means I can Sneak Attack!"
  • "What would provide cover? Trees, rocks, tables?

I've used this style of combat for all the games I've run myself since, but I've been thinking about using a battlemap, since the players of my current game are prone to thinking about complex battlefield strategy.

What are the pros/cons of using miniatures, as opposed to a narrative-style combat system?

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What rules are you playing? –  Iain M Norman Aug 20 '10 at 14:18
    
Currently 4e, though I first learned in 3.5e. This question can also be used for most pen-and-paper systems, I believe. –  Logan MacRae Aug 20 '10 at 14:21
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15 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

If combat is a more minor element of your adventures then using narrative combat can keep the game flowing in the same manner as other types of encounters rather than switching to a separate type of "mini game". If combat is the major element of your game the greater tactical options of using miniatures can be more enjoyable to a lot of players.

It really depends on what aspects of the game you and your group find the most important.

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May I suggest a third way: a scribbled pencil map with player characters marked on as letters? You show just enough to allow the players to remember where things are but no so much that it turns into a miniatures game.

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This was my approach for a few years, and it worked very well. Sometimes we'd use a whiteboard so we could move the markings around, but we only did it once in a while, not constantly, and there was no measurement involved. –  rjbs May 4 '11 at 23:25
    
this is what I do as well. –  antony.trupe Jun 30 '12 at 3:49
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The pros are that most people are visual people. If they can see the miniatures and terrain (even if it's just drawn) it gives them a better idea of what they're up against and it eliminates confusion. As a player I might have a different idea of what a corridor looks like vs. what a teammate thinks ... with miniatures and a battlemat it's pretty obvious.

Miniatures also add a unique look and feel to the game, moving your characters, making tactical decisions and just visual appeal.

The cons are mostly cost related in my opinion. The battlemat costs some money and miniatures cost money. My recommendations are to buy a "factory 2nd" battlemat from Chessex if they still sell them .... Factory 2nd's are battlemats that didn't live up to the company quality process but are still mostly viable mats. For instance, my battlemat has a slightly faded hex grid on other side (printing machine must have run out of ink) ... but it's still a good map and I got it for a good discount.

As far as miniatures go I just buy the cheapest of the lot, some miniatures go for as little as $0.50 a pop .... so buy $20 worth and just label them on the battlemat or on their stand so the players know what is what.

Good Luck !

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Pros:

  • no arguments about where something is
  • no confusion based on differing visions of the world
  • if you use 3d terrain and so forth, it can be very evocative
  • easier/quicker to do crunchy strategy

Cons:

  • time consuming to set 'em up
  • can definitely hamper player creativity -- "if it's not on the map it doesn't exist"
  • same goes for GM creativity
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It also breaks immersion. You go from a free-form narrative game into a heavily-rules-crunchy combat. Yes, combat is normally crunchy, but the miniatures make it even more so. –  Paul Marshall Jun 29 '12 at 1:15
    
@PaulMarshall: That can go either way depending on the people involved. Bryant's answer mentioned the possibility of 3d terrain, etc. making map-based combat very "evocative", but, for many people, "evocative" is practically a synonym for "immersive". –  Dave Sherohman Jun 30 '12 at 13:03
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Pros of minatures.

  • Easy to pick up for people who play board games / war games.
  • Good for people who are "visual learners"
  • Gives the DM a view of the state as well.
  • Makes for clarity on positions (with narrative I get a lot of "No I was over there", etc)

Cons of minatures.

  • Have to lug around and setup maps and miniatures.
  • Can lead to nitpicking and hesitation.
  • Can be slower because of the need to move minis around.
  • More constrained: can't do non-euclidean(term?) spaces, etc.
  • Can encourage players to be more "wargamy" when that is not the prefered style of play.
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I've done combat encounters using wacky space rules, like 4D navigable space (I built a bunch of the combat grids and placed them out in rows and columns, and they'd just move their figures between the grids the same way they move between normal spaces), I did one encounter with a toroidal navigable space, and using different rules to determine combat range (all the spaces next to walls are all adjacent for purposes of attack range). Using a minis on a grid can make it a lot easier to understand the actual spacial rules, so they can actually be used by the players to their advantage. –  AJMansfield May 19 '13 at 19:24
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Bryant lays out the pro and cons very well. I will add there is no "right" way of doing this. On one hand there is the pure verbal approach on the other hand there is the person with racks of dwarven forge style layouts. The key is to find what mix works for you.

I always been a miniature based GM from the early days of AD&D 1st edition. I find the elaborate Dwarven Forge style setup to be to time consuming (as well as expensive). Given my style of running sandbox campaigns I don't really know what situation the players will run into.

So what I focused was building up kits and bags of stuff. For example one section of my tray is a filled with stuff I can use to populate an interior of a tavern. I use dry erase mats. I collect battle maps that are easily adaptable to a variety of locales (crossroads, wooded glen, arena, etc).

When I game I can put together a reasonably evocative setup in two to four minutes by selecting and drawing my props. I also merged my verbal description with my setup so I am pointing out various points of interest to the players as they "look" around. For me it is a time saving over the pure verbal approach.

My props, and miniatures are all in organizers like the kinds you get for sorting bolts, or from Jo-ann Fabric for organizing beads and small jewelry.

Your method may lead more to verbal then me or more towards miniatures. Either practice, be aware of what your are doing, and change things when they don't work.

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Oh, I like the prop approach a lot. Thank you! –  Bryant Aug 20 '10 at 15:00
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Good stuff. I too tend to have a lot of "bits" that I can use to mock up the scene. –  Wilmanric Aug 20 '10 at 22:17
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It depends on the game (and system) involved. Dungeons and Dragons specifically has been engineered for use with a map over the course of the past several editions. As a result, things like opportunity and area attacks are almost impossible to fairly adjudicate without a map to rely on.

A friend of mine had this to say about a D&D (3.5) game without the use of a map:

"Attacks of opportunity suck; the monsters ALWAYS get them, and the players NEVER do. Because the battlefield only exists in the gamemaster's head, the monsters are always positioned just right and the players just wrong.

[...]

'I take my free five-foot step away.' Every turn begins with 'I take my free five-foot step away to try to get away from their opportunity attacks.'"

For games with simpler combat systems, narrative combat can be much more successful. There are far fewer instances where location is critically important. Especially if the system emphasizes ranged combat.

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A GM with sufficiently practiced communication skills may be able to provide enough information for players to get a firm enough grasp of the battlefield that they can, in fact, plan Attacks of Opportunity. Not all GMs have that level of ability, however. –  GMJoe Jun 28 '12 at 3:50
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I'm currently running a old-school Basic/Advanced D&D game and we are using a battlemat with miniatures and paper counters. I think everybody in our group is on board with this as it reduces questions about who is where, what does the room look like, etc. during combat. I think it depends on your players...if they are more tactically oriented, maybe a battlemat/minatures work better. If they like describing what they do in more abstract terms, you can probably get away with just narrative.

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Miniatures and related props can be valuable aids to visualization, crucial in some cases (e.g. LoS determination).

The obvious pitfall is the reversal of focus, when the miniatures become the game and the roleplaying becomes secondary.

Valuable aids, yes. The be-all and end-all? Beware. :(

(Edit): And yes, mine IS an old-school attitude, obviously. ;>

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I, as a GM, use miniatures. It really helps players to see the NPC's they are interacting with. However it has to be balanced and I (as the GM, may have to use minis more than once) have to keep the NP Characters different, and thus the interactions different. As i said i prefer minis but it's still a lot of work.

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When I don't have a lot of actors involved in a scene (as in a PC or two vs a couple baddies), I find it best to work without a map. It's much more fluid. However, for larger conflicts or conflicts that may have confusing terrain, I find it best to have at least some representation to avoid confusion.

My favorite map system ever came out of the Marvel Superheroes game from the 80s. The map was drawn in larger "areas". It assumed that people would be moving around so they were able to interact in their area. I've used this a lot in the past. It makes map making extremely easy, and it gives players (and the DM) an idea of where everyone is without constraining things too much.

Example of Area Map

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Diaspora uses areas (called "zones") in a similar way. The bonus is being able to manage combat verbally, while still allowing for meaningful tactical play. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 4 '10 at 19:31
    
The link is broken... –  AJMansfield May 19 '13 at 19:25
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I've always used a combination of the two ideas. The miniatures give you a layout of the area and what you can 'see' and remember that especially in castles or caves if there is a long corridor leading to a large room don't set up the large room until the players get there. If it's an impossible view for the character, the player shouldn't see it either. Makes for some interesting battles. Like if a bandit runs into the large room and around the corner the players should not see where he goes.

but there still has to be some story telling involved (and if you are good at multi tasking you can tell the story while setting up the rest of the room as the player comes around the corner as well.) Give them the overview of what they see as you are placing the pieces. This helps keep things semi fluid with the obvious break in action.

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Different approaches which make for very different games. In this thread Adam Dray explains why D&D 4E is all about miniatures on a grid. In this thread, I list a few example games which do it a different way.

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Pros:

  • easier adjudication of LOS, visibility, ranges
  • visual appeal
  • ease of description of physical environment

Cons

  • expense of minis
  • potential for turning combat into nearly pure boadgame mode
  • space requirement for setup and storage
  • weight of gear to take to game (if not host)
  • near requirement to play around a table

Frequent but not universal issues:

  • tendency to let the map and minis describe the environment
  • tendency to fidget with minis and scenery
  • failure to show posture sometimes leads to forgetting positioning elements
  • marker smudging on hands, sheets, other surfaces

Generally, I think the advantages are slightly outweighed, but I do use battlemaps when it makes combat work better... that's not always, but for larger battles, it's often worth it.

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The biggest advantage I'd see to using a narrative description is that as long as something sounds plausible you can let it happen. If the miniatures are laid out, and you have powers that affect more than one square there becomes a challenge of not damaging your allies. With a narrative system you can assume that even if your initiative times are off, everyone is continuing to move and cooperate.

Miniatures might be less of a problem in this aspect if a system that isn't explicitly relying on miniatures is used. If position is more abstract, so you can just see who is closer to whom, to have some idea of how it's playing out, you can probably just go ahead and do what you want to do without interfering with someone else's plans.

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