Is it possible to run Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition without a battlemap?

The push, pull, and slide mechanics immediately come to mind as being difficult to track accurately without a battlemap. Auras are another.

Has anyone come up with a simple solution to narrating these mechanics that your players were happy with? How did you do it, and why do you think it worked? What didn't work?

update: to clarify, when I say without a battlemap, I mean to say using a completely narrative approach.

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Lost Soul on ENWorld wrote up a set of rules he's calling Fiction First. It changes a lot more than just the battlemap, although at a quick glance it's still clearly 4e-related. There's a section in the playtest PDF on skill combat, which is potentially gridless. The other material might or might not be useful to you, depending on how far from 4e you want to drift.

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my god that is an amazing link. I really believe that a form of skill challenges may be key to running 4e gridless. The playtest version of Fiction First appears to be the closest answer to what I've been searching for. Accepted! – Michael Makali'i Fernandez Aug 30 '10 at 10:08
Oh, cool. I'm glad it was of use. – Bryant Aug 30 '10 at 11:56

No, you can't run D&D 4E without a battlemap.

Playing 4E without any kind of map at all using only narrative techniques requires you to ignore half the powers on the character sheet. At that point, you might as well play a different version of D&D.

I know that people are saying that they have actually done it, and this should be enough to prove that it's possible. However, I think that to pull this off, you have to add so many house rules and ignore so many existing rules that it's questionable whether what you're playing is "D&D 4E" anymore.

Let's tackle some of the reasons:

Define "Battlemap" First, I'd argue that, once you draw a zone diagram or start tracking range bands with miniatures or tokens or even words on a piece of paper, you just created a battlemap, albeit a much simplified one. Playing 4E with no map at all means tracking everything important in your heads.

The rest of these reasons concede that a zone map or a range band diagram probably aren't what the original question means by a "battlemap."

Position Without a battlemap, there's no way to accurately track position. A lot of games handle position differently, with zones or range bands, and that's awesome. 4E does a lot more with position that that. There are rules for flanking, areas of effect, line of sight, cover, difficult terrain, and so on -- and these become mere shadows of themselves without a battlemap.

Movement Effects Sure, a range band system lets players push, pull, and slide targets around and track where they end up. Because of the positioning problem, discussed above, however, the main reasons you'd want to push, pull, or slide go away. How do you slide your ally into flanking position?

Areas of Effect Those powers that target a blast or burst now need a new system for determining who can be targeted. How many times in 4E have you held off with some area attack because your fighter was up in the middle of it? That won't happen without the battlemap.

Terrain Terrain makes combat exciting. Having to scale a wall to get at the archers, or avoiding the edge of the lava pit while fighting the ogres that keep pushing you--that's the excitement of D&D combat. While there are likely creative zone solutions for these things, they're often more complex than just using a battlemap.

Tactical Play At its heart, 4E combat is a tactical game. The reward system -- leveling up -- is about choosing new tactical powers for your character to make them more effective in combat. Remove those tactical options, and it's not 4E anymore. Why not use a different ruleset that doesn't require a battlemap?

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+1 for going in depth on why it's not possible. I've run 4e w/o a battlemap several times, and I didn't know/think about range bands at the time. My main hurdle was dealing with movement effects. Those problems you describe are exactly what the sort that kept popping up, but only with the players who were focused on optimizing. They didn't want their build choices to go to waste. The rest of the players were fine with rationalizing the extent of an effect, and making rulings on the spot. I have yet to find/figure out a simple way to deal with move effects that satisfies optimizers. – Michael Makali'i Fernandez Aug 27 '10 at 8:24
Right. You're effectively nerfing characters to avoid playing the game as a tactical challenge. I believe that, in general, people who want to get rid of this aspect of 4e really just want their old D&D back--and should probably not play 4e. Seriously, go play Moldvay red-box D&D again, because it rocks. – Adam Dray Aug 27 '10 at 20:59
I think it is still a possibility. The game just needs a simple solution to deal with forced movement effects. – Michael Makali'i Fernandez Aug 28 '10 at 5:00
And movement. And adjacency. And close bursts. And ... – Adam Dray Aug 29 '10 at 22:25

I would use a range band concept that Classic Traveller had. You have close, short, medium, long, etc. And just adjudicate the push, pull, slide by remembering who in what range band.

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Burning Wheel has range bands as well, if you're looking for a more modern approach (I know nothing about the 'age' of Classic Traveller). – Tobiasopdenbrouw Aug 24 '10 at 7:53
I'm sort of leaning on going with range bands. How does both Classic Traveler, and Burning Wheel handle range bands? I know very little of each other than basics of creating characters. – Michael Makali'i Fernandez Aug 26 '10 at 6:33

Certainly it’s possible—our group tried it as far back as Keep on the Shadowfell. The thing to remember is that groups might not find it optimized for such, mini/marker-less play not being a key design goal of 4e. Markers, bit of paper, and counters work just fine as a substitute, but in my mind that's still a form of minis usage.

You can abstract combat or just describe conditions (which can become quite confusing and unwieldy, especially if you have trouble keeping track of multiple details without visual representation), but for the short time we tried 4e, we found minis with 4e just worked better. It’s perhaps not a matter of “can you?”, but rather “should you?”

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Yes,

STeal the minimat from 3:16 or final fantasy.

It ends up looking something like this after I'm done with it

| Area |

Chose your starting distance (close or just in the area, put your pc's in that catagory and the monsters in the monster box.

Area powers can be used from whereever, and hit the monster box and the flanking box Close powers can be used from close or flanking and hit the monster box and the flanking box

To Flank you need one pc in the flanking box and one pc in the close box.

If a monster or pc gets knocked down put it in the prone box

if the monsters charge or otherwise mess up the battleline, pc's in area are moved to close , and pc's in close and flanking get moved to offside.

It takes 5 movement pts to switch areas and you may move from any area to any other area (excepting monsters)

or you can use your imagination and just imagine what would happen and where people would be if they moved a certain way, whichever is easiest. To the naysayers, I can only say when declarations of a game being one way or the other replaces various people who say its possible and have done it (that's one here), I think the issue is less with the game and more with the people making the declarations.

for those of you who asked, 3:16 is one of those indie type games. Here's a link to a review

http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/13/13991.phtml

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very interesting. What is 3:16. Also, which Final Fantasy? Can you add some links? – Michael Makali'i Fernandez Aug 29 '10 at 9:46

Quinn Murphy later put out another attempt at a grid-less combat system called Threshold:

http://at-will.omnivangelist.net/features/threshold/

From the looks of it, it looks more like the intention he had was that this could be used for some of your fights, but not necessarily all of them. Are you looking to banish away the grid entirely for your game, or use a more narrative equivalent where appropriate?

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I've run two 4e games without a battlemap. In my experience, the way to solve those mechanics lies in excessive description.

I'll give an example. A few weeks ago, my players were up in the mountains. They were camped out in a narrow pass, both to wait out the night and to try to wait out a snowstorm. When they woke up, the storm was still raging, and there was a young white dragon in their path. I described the pass as narrow with high walls, and the dragon was grounded in the storm, so it couldn't use any of its flight tactics. The players quickly backed it up against the canyon wall and kept pushing it back with movement powers so it was limited in its movement. It left them vulnerable since everything was a frontal attack against it, but I was able to keep the narration flowing - "Gunnvor remains centered on top of the oxcart. Collette and Anbaas are to its right and Damien is keeping a steady stream of Eldritch Blasts on its left."

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Any grid-based combat system can be played gridless, if the GM can keep track of it well enough in his head and communicate it well enough to the players.

It's not optimal for some games, and D&D4E is one of those, because many of the rules presume accurate position information, but it can be done, and can be done without ignoring any of the rules... but it may not be worth your while to not use some form of mapping.

And in a dungeon corridor, essentially, most of the time you can just collapse the width to one or two squares and track it mentally along the length alone.

That said, 4E can easily be run with an ungridded map, just by using a ruler and being careful. And minis are totally optional; any markers you care to use will work as well mechanically; the use of minis is for looks, not for mechanics.

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It does make it more difficult, but it can be done. Very similar to mapping out the flow of combat in previous editions. Just use some dice/tokens/scraps-of-paper to stand in for players to give an idea of where everybody is at in battlefield and have characters keep track of auras/effects/etc.

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Isn't that just a cheap battlemap then? – Adam Dray Aug 26 '10 at 21:08
@Adam: it would be a cheap battlemap if you take some paper and draw out the grid to place the dice/tokens on. If you simply use the dice to represent characters and relative positions it helps visualize the flow of combat without being as detailed as using an actual battlemap. – Agent_9191 Aug 27 '10 at 18:38
I think the original question wants to do without any kind of battlemap, even a makeshift one. – Adam Dray Aug 27 '10 at 20:57

I'm sorry, I believe that tactical positioning on a battle map is too deep at the heart of D&D 4E to remove it without substantially altering the game. So basically I agree with Adam Dray.

Counter-question: why do you want to make away with the map? Wouldn't you be happier with some other RPG which is not D&D 4E, then?

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the game math is solid, I love how the skills system works, encounter building is a snap(seriously, you don't even need to prepare encounters, you just need a monster manual and it's a done deal), and the combat is interesting. When we took away the map, we found combat was more immersive, and faster. The players in my group were more involved, attentive, and creative without it. The only problem we could not solve was how to consistently n' fairly deal with forced movement effects. Aura effects were simple, until multiple effects got laid down on the field. spontaneous skill challenges helped – Michael Makali'i Fernandez Aug 28 '10 at 5:06