In Pathfinder and similar versions of D&D, there is a lot more miniatures/tactical map dependence than in earlier versions (and in most other RPGs). I am interested in reducing the dependence on miniatures (and by this I mean tokens, M&Ms, or whatever other stand-ins) and tactical maps/battlemats and using a more narrative combat model like one would use in D&D 2e, or FATE, or most other games.

What specific rules will be most problematic and what's a good way to mod them to work well in a narrative combat environment? For example, flanking and rogue sneak attacks are very fiddly and positioning-dependent, what's a good way to handle that without totally nerfing rogues? An example of a fix to this might be "Acrobatics check vs opponent CMD to get into flanking position." Attacks of opportunity - many cases work fine without positioning but some need it.

I hate to have to say it out loud, but I am not interested in responses about how one should not do this, or it's impossible, or whatever. Please answer on topic. Only constructive fixes to the reasonably small number of hard problems. If you haven't done narrative combat and so don't understand how you'd do this at all, it's probably best to sit back and listen instead of answering.

Why do this? There's an interesting section in the Feng Shui rulebook, written by veteran game designer Robin Laws, that explains that using a map brings players out of the imaginary world into a representative one, and that it also locks down the perception of the area the fight is in, disallowing a lot of minor narrative liberty you may want to take, if that's your deal. Greg Stolze cites that essay as influential on his game design as well.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A design goal of D&D 3e was to make it agnostic to narrative or grid-based play. 3.5e explicitly (for better or worse) emphasised grid-based combat. Looking at the changes between the editions might be enlightening. (I'd make this an answer if I had those diffs handy. Someone else might.) \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17, 2011 at 8:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I don't think there are any relevant rule diffs from 3e to 3.5e. That's the funny thing about it. 3e has positional flanking and AoOs. But in that book, they said "we are narrative or grid agnostic." In 3.5e, they have what are pretty much exactly the same rules, but said "buy our minis!" It wasn't a rules change but an attitude change as best as I can tell - there are rules diffs but none that change the amount of need/lack of need for grids (you could argue they just learned over time that their new rules needed a grid more than they thought...) \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Feb 17, 2011 at 14:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie, @mxyzplk The difference seems to be more in terms of how the rules are expressed than the rules themselves. IIRC, 3.5 started listing things in terms of squares, while 3e tried to list actual distance. \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Feb 17, 2011 at 16:34

5 Answers 5


Monte Cook made it a point to design 3e to be agnostic about using miniatures—groups could use them if they preferred, and groups that didn't could play just fine too. He wrote an article about it ages ago: "Running a 3E Game Without Miniatures". The 3.5e update moved much more strongly toward "you should use miniatures" than 3e did, but the basic techniques he outlines for managing miniature-less combats still apply. (I'd say they even still apply to 4e with some careful thought about the tactical needs of that system, but that's not a can I'll open.)

The quick summary is that there are four features of combat that have to be handled differently when minis aren't giving them to you "for free":

  • Attacks of Opportunity
  • Flanking
  • Range
  • Line of Sight

(I'd argue that the fifth is a clear, shared understanding of the environment in which combat takes place.)

To play without miniatures, just be mindful in your descriptions about how these features of combat are either in play or not. The thorniest, Attacks of Opportunity, is handled like this in the article:

When in doubt, give both NPCs and PCs the benefit of the doubt. If a fighter backs up (a 5-foot step) away from the bugbear he's fighting to drink a cure moderate wounds potion, don't worry about whether he backed into the threatened area of the bugbear fighting his friend. He didn't.

This method takes a bit of an adjustment from players and DMs both. To manage these narratively the GM has to describe the surroundings clearly, filling in blanks as they're discovered, and be ready to resolve ambiguities generously. The GM has to keep track of the position of the PCs and the intentions of the players so that actions can be resolved smoothly.

Players, for their part, have to become more descriptive too. No longer is it enough to think tactically in silence and then move a miniature to the perfect square—now players have to describe what their character does and to what purpose, and the more descriptive they are, the more obvious it is what their PC will be a position to try in reaction to the next unexpected turn of events occurs.

One objection players can have about playing without miniatures is that it robs them of the ability to play tactically. Not so! The difference is only that instead of moving a piece of plastic into position to take advantage of some tactical rule like AoO, you are setting your character up to take advantage of the rule by verbally manœuvering them. All the articles examples are about narrating how advantage is about to be gained. For AoOs, the article gives the example:

"I'm going to stand right by the door so that if anyone runs through it I'll get a free attack as they go by." Now it's not 100 percent important where the character is standing. You just simply know that if someone runs through the doorway, they get whacked.

For flanking:

"The dire rat moves around to flank you with the dire rat you're already fighting," you say. It doesn't matter where exactly everyone's standing – just that the character is being flanked by two rats.

For line of sight:

"I move until I can see the hobgoblin in the next room and fire my crossbow." All the adjudication you need to make is whether this is a 5-foot step or a move action, and that's just a judgment call.

The DM can set up tactical situations this way too. The examples for handling range are both examples of the DM creating situations that constrain what the players can do—at least until they take action to change the situation to their advantage:

"The orc archers are two range increments away."

"The two medusas are too far apart to catch in a lightning bolt."

By moving to tactical description of combat, players and DM take the work that miniatures were doing and put that job on their own narrations of the action. The benefit is a more imaginatively-rich experience of combats. In my own games I've used both miniatures and narrative combat, depending on my preferences for particular encounters, and the end effect is that months and years after the game the fights that are remembered in more detail and as most exciting by the players and myself are the ones done narratively.

And example is from a Savage Worlds game I ran. The PCs were sneaking up at night on a group of cultists who'd kidnapped a baron and made camp in a long-grassed field. Instead of setting up the grid when the PCs surprised the first sentry, I ran the fight with the sentries narratively. It was tense and exciting as the players tried to silence the sentries before they called for help. The sentries taken care of they snuck up on the camp and attacked, for which I used the grid. That was tactically interesting, but much less narratively engaging. The net result is that the fight with the sentries is the part of that encounter that the players reminisce about—it was simply more memorable, and what GM doesn't want their games to be remembered fondly?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great, thanks, that's a good find. I've started running combats without a battlemat in my Pathfinder game, and it allows them to range all over, be more flexible... No worrying about going "off the map." And you get to focus on your mind's eye and not $50 in plastic. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Feb 19, 2011 at 16:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Games I've played with a narrative combat tend to be more of a dialog between the player and GM regarding their turn. "I'd like to move so I can get all the goblins in my cone of cold." "Sorry, there isn't a good place for that. You could get 7 of them?" "Ok" I've found that all the players tended to try and do things more like a person and less like a character. They come up with interesting and dynamic actions that they wouldn't even think about if they were restrained in a grid. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aaron
    Mar 17, 2011 at 22:10

You can do it in 3.5, but it will require you to be skilled at painting a good verbal picture. You'll have to be able to describe to your players the distances involved, keep track of where each of them is (at least in relation to each other & your antagonists), and mentally model the actions your players describe.

You'll need to use rule 0. The players will have to ask you 'can I get into a flanking position on a thug?' and things of that sort.

Frankly, this would likely be best done in an Oriental Adventures type setting, or something martial-arts-heavy, as those styles tend to lend themselves to high-energy, cinematic combats (along the lines of games such as Exalted).

In short: yes, but you won't be able to do it with rules lawyers at your table, because you'll have to play fast & dirty with the tactical movement.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh, sure. Well, that's the good thing, since I play all those other games where combat is always narrative, I am used to needing to paint the verbal picture, it's D&D that makes me lazy in this regard so part of my goal here is to keep that from happening. I had one (Savage Worlds, oddly) GM that would just put out a battle mat and a bunch of (unrepresentative) minis and then stare at us like we should know what's going on. We had to prompt him over and over for basic scene-setting. I don't want to become that guy. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Feb 17, 2011 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh, and I guess I would hope that all D&D combat would be high energy and cinematic... "Slow slog as design goal" makes me sad. "Jump 30 feet through the air and no-shadow kick him" and "run up to the guy and stick him" should both flow fast and exciting. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Feb 17, 2011 at 14:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ What I like to do is co-opt something from Exalted for my games: stunt dice. I give my players a + to hit and a + to damage if they give a good, cinematic description. Alternatively, if they describe it well, I'll let them inflict additional effects (though I do this rarely). \$\endgroup\$
    – Jeff
    Feb 17, 2011 at 14:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the rules lawyer note. If you've got one of them in your group, you're in for a long, long night \$\endgroup\$
    – BBlake
    Feb 17, 2011 at 15:42

For the majority of my games we never used mats for figures. I had a general idea of the location and layout and I described it to the players. Positions were generalized and always relative to the target. "You're two moves away from the archer" "Can I hit the lich?" "Not quite, you'll have to charge". If there was any complicated layouts, I drew it out on some paper so they'd have a better idea of where they could be. For rogues, area-effects, or anything that had to deal with positioning, I just hand-waved it away. If the rogue was fighting someone with a buddy, he could flank. If he wanted to leave that guy and go stab another guy? Acrobatics. When the wizard cast fireball, I guesstimated how many would be in the blast zone.

There were a couple of issues, like when I described the wagon as being 20' from the goblins and the wizard mistook the radius of fireball for it's diameter. That would have been more apparent on a mat, but it was funny enough, and not game-threatening.

It'll really chafe rule-lawyers, but you have to remember that it's a game. You play it for fun.

This completely falls apart in 4th edition though, so don't try it there.


The most problematic rules are like you said with the Rogue's Sneak Attack damage, I also can see certain issues when you're trying to figure out certain later game spells that define dimensions in cones and lines. Possibly also with judging touch abilities with certain classes. I like the idea of not using a map...and I'm thinking of only using maps with large scale fights, but here's some suggestions: For the rogue's sneak attack...the rogue in general use to be more of a one good shot kind of class...so perhaps just allow the first strike by a rogue be a sneak attack. And then perhaps have them announce that they are flanking with the fighter in the group so you can track that they are both targeting the same creature.

Just the big thing is have the players constantly explain what they're doing.

Attacks of opportunity are easier cause you can just say that when an enemy is engaged with one of the characters if they do anything but try to shift(five-foot adjust) themselves they get an attack of opportunity.

Take LOTS of notes.

In the end I don't really worry about a lot of those situational type of attacks.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, the sneak attack is my biggest concern, just because the 3e rogue is so built around that - for other situations, missing an AoO here or there isn't a big deal, but the rogue depend on that position to not just be doing 1d6 damage or whatever. And yes, I think a side benefit of this will be the players learning to describe their characters and their interaction with the game world "more and better." \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Feb 17, 2011 at 14:04

After reading Monte Cook's blog post, I posted the following on my blog:

  • Split the fight up into little groups, usually such that it’s a n:1 situation unless people are fighting back-to-back.
  • No attacks of opportunity against spell casters and archers unless you’re in difficult terrain or fighting foes with reach. You can always do a five foot step into safety.
  • Moving to another group provokes attacks of opportunity from the guys you’re leaving.
  • If you stick to your group, you can do full attacks.
  • If you’re alone in your group against two or more, you’re flanked.
  • You only get cover from ranged attacks if you’re flanked.
  • Don’t ignore “into melee” for ranged attacks.
  • Ignore movement speed unless you’re chasing fugitives.

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