I have inherited all of the 4th ed hardcover books from one of my brothers-in-law. I am currently reading and trying to familiarize myself with the new 5th edition and I am really liking it. I had asked a question about 4th ed being backwards-comparable with 5th and I got some very good answers. My new question is about 4th ed. Can 4th ed be played without using tiles and graphs? I realize its centered around this, but I am old school (AD&D in junior high & high school (1980's)) and I like being able to make my own maps & using my & my players' creativity & make our own environments. I'm contemplating selling these books because they aren't really of use to me, but I was hoping to use some of them as source material for 5th ed. Thanks again everyone.
Can 4th ed be played without using tiles and graphs?
Technically yes it is possible, but it is hard work, you need to compensate for a lot of expectations in the game rules that you will be using a battle grid.
For instance, very many game effects are about movement with special restrictions (must move away, must move adjacent to X etc), and their tactical intent is obscured unless you actually play them out exactly as written on a board. Many character and monster powers are made or broken by how they affect movement on a per-square level.
In practice I have found only the most trivial battles in 4E can work without the battle map and using the vanilla rules. Maybe excepting any home-brewed systems that work towards fixing this play style issue in 4E. If you can find one of those systems that is to your taste, then you might get some mileage out of your new rulebooks.
I ran a 4e campaign for almost 2 years at a local game store, and bought bunches of official tile sets without actually using any of them but maybe twice. Tile sets are definitely NOT mandatory.
Some kind of grid and miniatures/tokens, yes, except in the most simple of combat circumstances. If you're rolling initiative, you're going to need a grid.
The combat rules are very strict in their adherence to the grid. Everything is described in terms of the grid instead of actual distances, and many actions and powers don't make sense without the grid. Outside of combat, however, just play like you are used to.
What I ended up doing was getting a large grid mat and just drawing my own maps using wet-erase markers (the right type of markers varies between mat types). I'd draw out what the party could see and what was relevant, using simple lines, maybe a couple different colors, and labeling more complicated objects plainly. Example: For a fight in a forest I just drew bunches of circles at random and wrote 'tree' inside each that was a tree, and 'rock' inside the rocks.
Such a grid mat can run you between $30 and $80, depending on how huge you want it (the smallest was plenty for me), but really, if you're going to be sticking with 4e for a while you'll find it one of the best investments you'll make. If you're just testing it trying to decide if 5e is more your style, I'd recommend going with a giant pad of grid paper from Staples or something. You can draw on it directly, laminate it, or cover it with panes of glass.
All the players need is something that they can use to tell each other apart easily. Players that either have played long-term campaigns before usually like their custom miniature, and new players may also enjoy such things, but for monsters I just used dice. Example: A orc shaman is a d4 set to 1, two orc thugs as d6's set to 2 and 3, several goblins as d8's set to 4-7. I had to keep reminding people what each one was, but each could be clearly identified to track both types and individual hitpoints. A combat round is also not slowed down by players struggling to properly relay their intended targets.