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I'm busting out some basic D&D for some my gaming group. We primarily play pathfinder. Playing without a tactical map and figures is going to be a shock to all of us. My main questions are how movement is handled without a map or figure? I simply don't understand how to make all this work. Do I simply just make it up? How is distanced done? I'm the DM for this session. I'm completely flabbergasted...lol.


marked as duplicate by mxyzplk Feb 4 '15 at 0:49

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Which edition? There are at least 2 games now being identified as "Basic D&D" are you talking about 5e? Or the classic version? \$\endgroup\$ – wax eagle Jul 19 '14 at 19:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just cause you don't have a grid map, doesn't mean you can't mark locations in a sketch. Also, the basic rules do allow for a map of you wish to use one \$\endgroup\$ – GMNoob Jul 19 '14 at 20:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @chuck 5e can and does work with a map grid, all powers listed are in 5ft increments 5ft = 1sq. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 19 '14 at 22:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMNoob I'm concerned about the tag edit of adding [dnd-5e] - did the author say they were playing that? (It looks like there might be some comments that have disappeared.) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 23 '14 at 23:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Since the OP never returned to clarify that point (they haven't been seen since four days after posting this), it may never be properly fixable. Since it's highly unlikely that they were going from PF to Basic D&D (1981/3), closing it as a duplicate of a Basic D&D (5e) question is probably the safest bet. It's also most likely to help future searchers. I agree it's distasteful though. :| \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 4 '15 at 3:42

Yes, you simply make it up. The trick is that you not only have to make it all up but keep it consistent and communicate it all clearly to your players. They have to be able to visualize the whole setup of a scene: where everyone is, what objects are there, what opportunities and/or hindrances those objects (may) present to them, what they see, what they hear, smell, and so on (because visually hidden stuff might be hinted at by the other senses, obviously.)

Of course, at the same time, you have to keep it balanced to avoid bogging down your game with listing countless irrelevant details. You'll have to establish a common understanding with the party, learn what your players know about the setting (or its inspiring real-life era and setting), and bring everyone to an equal level... so that when you say "it's an average innhouse" everyone knows what that implies in your world (a stove or two? a fireplace? a bar, or proper tables, or just barrels cut in half, turned upside down for both tables and seating? a few waitresses? barmaids? an innkeeper? lots of large windows, or just a few holes in a several feet wide wall?) ...and so on. Do draw their attention to what's important, what's unusual, sum everything else up, and allow player input based on assumed information (for example, if you haven't mentioned that there's a cellar, but someone assumes there's one, because all the inns they've ever visited had one, let this inn have one as well, and the next time when there isn't one, mention that explicitly.)

Imagine the scene, and communicate it briefly and effectively. If necessary, update your players round by round about the meaningful and important changes taking place -- again, briefly (in a short sentence or two) and effectively. Use your descriptions to establish mood as well -- as that may even influence combat.


If the encounter is to be (a) long enough and (b) where positioning matters, then we draw a crude sketch of the location map on a single sheet of papers, and mark the players/npcs with single letters there, updating it with pencil and eraser.

Otherwise, just keep in mind some distances - often, the only thing that matters is the separation "he's next to me/I can reach him in a move action/In range for ranged attack/far away", and people can do that in their heads. Sometimes there will be disagreements where one player imagines X to be in range and GM thinks it out of range, but just make a decision and don't waste time and emotions on such cases.


My key advice is: over-describe. Anticipate player questions, and always give them options in your answers.

For example: "Can I cross the cave and reach the kobold with one move?"

Bad answer: "No."

Acceptable answer: "Only if you run, which will mean some penalties."

Best answer: "Only if you run, but the wrecked altar would be a good place to duck for cover after a standard move."

Be very forgiving with movement rates. Seriously, don't sweat the last ten feet. No-one is going to care if the PC or the monster moved a few feet more than they should have.

Describe with relative locations, not distances. "You're in melee range of this monster"..."You're far away from the lever on the wall".

Always give the players the best case answer. Again, anticipate what they're actually thinking. "How many orcs can I hit with my Burning Hands?"..."If you move out from behind the rock, all of them. If you stay put, probably only about half."


Squares are measured in 5ft, so you give your players the distance between them and their opponents. Then based off that you determine if they can reach their opponents in one round or two, and if they can make full round attack actions or not. Then allow the players to specify any sort of combat positioning they wish to take, such as flanking, cornering, or maneuvering away from other opponents.

Think of the encounter as very two dimensional, just let the players choose how they wish to divide themselves up among their opponents. It actually helps speed combat up and puts more focus on role playing and player involvement.


In general, when running without tabletop (or whiteboard) combat maps...

First, I describe terrain.
Next, I make certain I know where the PC's and Badguys are.
I then describe which features the PC's are near and the visible badguys are near.
I also then keep track of progress by distances, making stuff up on the fly as needed.

As an example, the simplest case - a hallway fight. I look at the dungeon map; it's a 5' wide hall. I ask the party for party order. In a 5' hall, logic says one swung or two pokey weapons up front; Poles and spells from the second; spells from the 3rd back. Once I know who's where, it's a matter of keeping track of distances.

I also tend to get into ceiling height issues with bows when doing this. A bowman can't conveniently shoot over the front rank. (An 8' ceiling limits arrows to about 120' from a front rank human.)

In a more open case — a room with nothing but the badguys — I let the players pick line abreast, possibly in 2 ranks. And as badguys enter the fray, I loosely track left-to-right positions.

In a more complex fight, I may have a copy of the map, and mark in pencil who is where, and then describe. Yeah, it's kind of cheating, but it makes life easier.


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