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We play D&D 5e over Discord, using voice and chat channels, and use D&D Beyond for character sheets and most die-rolling.

It generally works great, but sometimes combats lag, reasons for which the GM and I have discussed privately. There are numerous factors, some of which may be discussed with the group as a whole.

One issue, though, is that players clearly have problems visualizing the combat, with who is where, and frequently ask questions about the general scene. ("How far away did you say they were?") Some of that is probably unavoidable, but perhaps there are ways to help players visualize things that will help speed up combat.

We specifically don't want to get super-tactical. We've tried using Roll20 to host combat maps and icons, and things slow down even more, as we get very fiddly with measurements and such, plus it requires more prep than the GM wants to do.

A possible solution might be some sort of shared electronic whiteboard that would allow the GM quickly draw diagrams, perhaps of the general battlefield. Back when we played in person sometimes sketching on a physical whiteboard was a quick way to communicate without descending into grid-based measurement.

That might not be the only solution, so I want to keep the question open-ended.

My question is, have you had this problem and how did you solve it?

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I use a simple shared visualization of general location

I'm a huge fan of imagination and using theatre of the mind, but as you've noted it's incredibly hard for everyone to remember where they are and where others are in the scene.

Awhile ago, I had read through the 13th age rules and particularly liked how combat distances were handle. I took those ideas and drew up a quick and dirty system to help visualize what's going on at a very high level.

Turned out the quick system was a great solution for my group!

My approach to this begins with my interpretation of Theatre of the Mind. For me, this gives everyone an opportunity for increased narration without having to track specific battlemap positioning thereby opening up imagination with what's happening in the encounter itself

My experience has born this true, which is why I keep using it. When we go into this, the players seem to get more into the action and less into 'positioning'. This provides a strong inclination for working through strategies via narration rather than strategies via mechanical positioning.

It also means that players know where we are and they can introduce elements to the scene in their descriptions. If it's going too far, I'll say something - but generally I haven't seen any issues. This freedom to use their imagination results in much more interesting combats for my tables.

To do this, I separate out positioning into 4 basic elements:

  • Melee
  • Step outside Melee
  • Double move/ranged positioning
  • Interactions

We typically use Foundry for our virtual play and I just drew circles and labelled each circle with each of the above. PCs and NPCs start in whatever positions make sense for what kicked off combat. Often times, that's everyone in melee and then folks to start to move around.

But the joy of this is that's usable pretty much anywhere you can draw circles and write words. Please choose your media appropriately and legally.

The Buckets

Before I get into explaining the buckets, let me state that these are very soft buckets. They generally can work with most situations, but as a DM, I need to be aware of things that players may do that need special dispensation and then apply it accordingly.

Melee

Kind of a catch-all here for anyone in melee range. This may create a situation where you've got a LOT of characters in one place. If you use the optional advantage rules (such as flanking), you may need to think about when to apply them and when not to in what seems fair. Of course, explaining why you are giving or not giving advantage is something that you should be explicit about to the group.

Step Outside Melee

This one is a bit more confusing. It's generally for anywhere from 5' outside melee to 30ish'. Basically anyone can still be caught back up in melee by a quick movement either back in or being chased back in. If you need to group people within melee to subgroups, that's fine. Key here is using these simple circles to make it clear where everyone is from a relative standpoint.

Double Move/ Ranged

Here is the place for being way outside melee. This may be for ranged characters to do their damage or simply someone trying to stay out of the fracas. It will take a double move to get here unless magic or some other ability is used.

I currently have a character who is a Tabaxi and accounting for some of their special movement is a consideration I need to make at times. But it's always a discussion with the player(s).

Interactions

This last bucket is for things beyond combat. Maybe they need to be rescuing someone. Or trying to figure out a puzzle. Or really anything else that's not part of the combat, but is part of the encounter that characters need to be participating in. I don't always use this circle, but it's a nice extra one to help remind players that KILL 'EM ALL isn't always the solution.

How I do this in practice

Visually, I've taken a very simple approach to this. I took an existing map we were using and just drew four circles on it and labeled them. At the start of combat, I'll place the tokens we have in each circle where it makes sense to begin.

I also like to keep the buckets large enough visually so I can use the interior space to create subgroups. There may be melee combatants who are not close to other melee combatants, and this gives me the freedom keep them separated. I can also place tokens either on the near edge or the far edge from the previous circle to help remind me if someone is trying to get away to double-move/ranged or if they're just a step out.

Image of VTT with buckets shown as circles and labelled

VTT and other platforms

Pretty much any VTT can likely do this, but really any place you can draw circles and put labels and 'tokens' of some sort to move around is all you need. You could even do a screenshare on discord with a spreadsheet and use the columns as the buckets. Even MS Paint would be a fine solution!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack Yeah, we have circles on the VTT we use. I think we have a game tonight, we'll get a screen shot for you. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 18, 2022 at 19:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have seen this recommended a lot and I think it does increase combat speed, but at the cost of more tactical play. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Feb 18, 2022 at 23:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I added more to cover my approach to ToTM and tactical play. I haven't seen any issues or drop-off (instead, the opposite!) I'd suggest trying it out rather than assuming it will cost in tactical play. My hunch is, like me, you'll find your players doing more than they would on a battlemap because they get to be a part of the storytelling. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Feb 18, 2022 at 23:18
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Not the only way, but how I do this

As a DM I find it important to understand the logistical side of an encounter, and I also know that I can't rely on my players, because ... players.

So I track position, along with everything else, and then I narrate it and 'reset the scene' every time I move to a new player on their turn.

Example:

Jack it is your turn, you have just witnessed 30ft away the dragon swipe its claws and knock Sheila unconscious, the dragon itself is now 45ft away from you but the cultist minions are all within 30ft of you, and of each other.

I track this in the same place I track initiative (I basically have a list with a few columns including character name, conditions, HP, position and other notes) so it is really easy to see.

Example:

Jack ¦ 30/45hp ¦ Concentrating on slow ¦ in the doorway 30ft from nearest cultist

And then when someone asks a question such as "how many can I hit with fireball" I make sure I know the answer, and that I answer quickly.

Basically it boils down to: The DM needs to know, remember, remind and answer quickly.

Honestly I have never had a DM who handles it the same way as I do, but I have been frustrated at other DM's when they try theatre of the mind specifically because of the issues you raise, making me 100% sure that my method solves the problems, even if I do accept that there are other methods.

Sources:

I learned the setting the scene technique from The Angry GM (caution, language) and find this article, and the entire site tbh a really amazing resource.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you find that constantly repeating the scene info for each player to be burdensome/slow? Or does it speed up because players don't always need it - in which case do you ever have issues where they didn't need it, but then it turns out they did :) To be clear: is your method entirely tracked by the DM and only shared with the players orally? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Feb 19, 2022 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I initially found it slow, but it is second nature now. Even if the players don't need it I still do it, and I do the same out of combat again "you are in a lavish dining room, Sarah is checking behind the paintings for a safe, what are you doing?". Takes no real time once you get used to it \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Feb 19, 2022 at 15:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm guessing the players don't find it slow as well :) Do they ever say you can skip it? Do you? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Feb 19, 2022 at 21:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Never had a complaint or been asked to skip. Honestly it only takes a few seconds, I am quick at it, minimal words and only focussed on what matters. I would likely skip it if I knew I had a very attentive player that didn't need it, but mostly I don't \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Feb 19, 2022 at 22:03
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I like to use Roll20 as virtual whiteboard.

My personal preference is to create a blank white page in Roll20, shut off the gridlines, and use the provided drawing tools to sketch out a battlefield the same way I would if I were at home with a battlemat. (While the grid is technically still there but hidden, I'll intentionally mis-size my map with relation to the grid just to make the ruler tools fail. Muahahaha.)

I'll lay out tokens for the approximate locations of the monsters and PCs, but it's very handwavy and vague positioning. Keeping the grid off is a big help in keeping the fiddly tactics to a minimum.

Key to this is I as DM will keep describing the scene the way I did for total Theater of the Mind mode; the tabletop just acts as a way to keep everyone on the same page. If anyone starts trying to measure exact distances for, say, movement range or blast radius, I just tell them "Don't worry about it, you can make it" or "These three guys will be in range, those two won't" without using the board as if it's showing exact positions.

It seems to work for me, I hope it might help with your group. If the group already knows the tool, they should be able to use the helpful bits without getting bogged down too much. I really appreciate being able to give tokens HP totals that are hidden from the players but easily visible to me (and quickly adjust them by just typing in "-6" or whatever), and I think the shared virtual dice are really nice to have.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great, thank you, I'll definitely consider. When I was GM'ing for approximately this same group a few campaigns ago we used Roll20. I remember it as labor-intensive to get custom-made maps lined up and way too fiddly, but maybe if as you suggest I turn off the grid, that is a possibility. I also remember Roll20 as being maddeningly quirky . . . all of a sudden something simple just wouldn't work, really destroying the flow. But maybe it's better and maybe sticking to something simple would be useful. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Feb 18, 2022 at 22:34
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The drawing is more important than it being interactive

If you want to go simple, I recommend not using any kind of digital whiteboard - instead use a physical one. Several brands (including official D&D) make foldable dry-erase boards which are printed with squares, or if the grid will slow you down even without the tactical tools, you can get a small cheap blank whiteboard from an office supplies store. Get narrow-tipped whiteboard/dry-erase markers as the standard ones are too chunky for small whiteboards. (The kind that come in boardgames like Railroad Ink are perfect.)

Drawing on the board with a live webcam pointed at it, or even just dropping photos of it each round into a dedicated Discord channel, works great. You can do this with pencil and paper in a pinch, too, though it’s not as easy to update when things change.

I‘ve tried all of the above, and found even the worst, quick drawing of the layout of a room or battlefield helps players to follow verbal descriptions of the action. Another benefit of this is that if you ever play in person you can use the same method!

This sort of visual representation is also really fast to clarify (you can redraw something, or add little annotations or symbols or letters - whatever works best for your group), or create something from nothing on the fly for an unplanned encounter.

Any online whiteboard is much harder to draw on unless you’re well-practiced in drawing with a mouse, or have a tablet you can use instead. That said, if you’re okay with that kind of drawing, another low tech solution is just to draw in a full screen drawing app of your choice, and share your screen via Discord.

If you want really simple map and token stuff, I can also recommend looking at Owlbear Rodeo. It’s a really no-frills way to share a background image and icons you and others can move around; nothing too fancy (no rulers etc) and usable with minimal prep, though you’ll probably want at least a very vague drawing as the background to show features of the terrain. I’ve found it pretty great though one caveat is that it is designed for mouse (or equivalent) input - it doesn’t work great on touchscreen devices.

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