I don’t think there is a debate as more of persona/ gaming preference when it comes to how a playgroup plays Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve known playgroups that have exclusively played with miniatures and detailed-drawn battle maps, I started playing D&D and other RPGs largely in the Theater of Mind approach, which is narrative depictions of actions, characters, details, and scenes. In some instances (specifically myself but I know of others as well) that use both methodologies to great effect. Most games that deal with miniatures eventually go into a theater of mind depiction for events and story.
Storytelling in any RPG, regardless of sytsem, is designed to a cooperative effort built on a social contract with the gamers and the gamemaster. Everyone takes part in telling the story, most systems have a method of conflict resolutions (particularly combat encounters) where the players roll against opposed thresholds to generate an outcome. Combat in any tabletop roleplaying system is the make-it-or-break-it tipping point for players. Some systems have such convoluted combat systems that it can take hours for an encounter to be resolved. This makes combat carry the burden to be seamless and effortless (not referring to the difficulty but to execution). A clunky system often will cause distraction or boredom in players, it may even frustrate gamemaster (and trust me, it will happen); eventually the players get annoyed or frustrated enough to completely abandon the game all together. I’ve personally seen that happen to groups.
Combat should flow as easily before and after where the players never lose their sense of immersion that typically occurs in a well done roleplaying story narrative. In this stage, the typical question for most gamemasters becomes: “Do I use a battle grid for our combat, or do I do it all in narrative?”
Let’s take a look at some pros and cons between the two.
Theater of Mind Combat
- No needed equipment
- Great opportunity to utilize player’s imagination
- Less rule-centric in resolutions
- Improves immersion experience
- Quicker pacing/flow
- Difficulty with visualization of actions or effects
- Less-rule centric/vagueness
- Heightened use of details/narrative
- Potential loss of immersion
Let’s talk about the pros and cons of the Theater of Mind based combat scenarios. There is great appeal to not using a grid during combat encounters, there is no need to purchase miniatures for all your players or the larger investment of owning monster miniatures as well. That has been one detractor for many prospective gamemasters and sometimes players. Granted, there are plenty of cost-effective methods to replicate the miniatures experience for combat (see NewDM’s tutorial for printed tokens for your games or check out user slamdrive’s portrait tokens). So in the event that you have players or even gamemasters what generate a rather complex combat scenario, it might be better to utilize miniatures and a battle map in order for the players to tactically coordinate their efforts. There are arguments for whether this would cause a breakdown in immersion and that solely is dependent on the gamemaster and their style of narration.
Sometimes using the narrative to drive the combat encounters gives the players the opportunity to be creative and descriptive with their actions and flourishes, but it can often cause conflicts with either the rules or become difficult to describe in simpler terms. The benefit of a narrative-driven combat encounter is that the flow can be quicker and generally creates an illusion of a fluid experience. Combat resolution is often seen more lax with narrative combat encounters as opposed to grid based combat, granted there are exceptions to the rule. I’ve had and seen theater of mind combat be very detail-oriented in order for certain resolutions to be resolved properly, which personally is a GM being a monstrous jerk, and then I’ve seen GMs who are so lax that they let whatever convoluted player idea comes to mind follow through. Now granted there needs to be a balance, I never would say focus on either encounter type as the sole method, granted I’ve played games that only went one direction, but honestly it helps to mix it up every once and a while for your players.
For example, I’ve had my players think the narrative combats to be less “important” or “dangerous” than the grid based ones, but often times they found themselves closer to death with higher stakes in narrative combat than in grid encounters. But there are also grid encounters they have undergone which were both a mix of medium to deadly difficulties. The truth is that all encounters should have a merit of stakes or danger, that’s the point of having an encounter, when conflicts need a resolution. There are social encounters, skill encounters, and obviously combat encounters. The combat encounters can be both orally-driven and be grid focused as well. The entire exercise is to raise the imaginations of your players to visualize the struggles of their characters while in the midst of heroic deeds.
I have a mini-campaign going on for one of my friends and all of our combat encounters are entirely done theater of mind, the structure was allow new players to become comfortable with playing Dungeons & Dragons and be use to a sandbox-out-of-the-box sort of mentality. Granted the players have played video games and are use to roleplaying games in that fashion, but only recently have they begun the wondrous realization that most roleplaying games are only limited by the imagination of the players. Another mini-campaign I run utilizes grids and battlemaps, solely due to the heightened level of exploration that particular story arc and adventure entails.
It’s all about balance, it’s good once in a while to not use a grid for combat encounters, and other times it’s necessary to use a grid, especially for adventures that might perhaps be heavy on exploration and dungeon delving. Sometimes it’s not necessary at all and everything can be done through narration and descriptions. It comes down to understanding your players’ needs and expectations, along with you (as a gamemaster) and your expectations. Communication of these expectations reduces anxiety and stress when a combat scenario arises, a negative combat experience (not including the death of characters) has led to the short-term entry to the wondrous experience of tabletop roleplaying.