For years, I have seen posts on the forums where people discuss the differences between using miniatures on a battle mat vs. not using anything. I have always skipped past these as they tend to be nothing more than two factions telling each other how they are playing the game wrong.
With all the discussion recently, as to what should be included in 5e, this topic has come up with a vengeance.
If the forums are to be believed, there are a vast number of groups that are vehemently opposed to “gridded combat”. First off, I’m amazed that this approach would bother anyone. It seems to me to be the most natural method to use (probably because that’s what I’m used to). Secondly, I’m amazed that this opposition to grids is so widespread. Outside of the forums, I have never met a single person who felt that way. Therefore, I assumed that it was simply a very vocal minority. But all the discussions lately have me wondering if that minority may be larger than I assumed.
Our group has always used miniatures on a grid of some sort. Initially, we had a 3′ diameter round board with a black and green grid of 1″ squares painted on it. Later I switched to a 3′ x 4′ rubber Chessex battle mat, while a friend went to a 2′ x 6′ gridded sheet with a Plexiglas cover over it that we could draw on.
Whatever we used, it was simply a grid that sat on top of the table we were already sitting at. We used miniatures to represent our characters. The DM brought out minis for the key encounters, but most of the time we just used dice for monsters (different colored dice numbered 1-6 allow for vast armies if need be) . This made it easy to identify which creature you were referring to. “8 points on blue 4” is quick and easy.
I wouldn’t describe what we did as “tactical play”. We simply used miniatures to help us all visualize the encounter. We did define marching order and positions for sleeping in the wilderness, and where we all were before bashing down a door, so technically you could call it “tactical”. But we weren’t bogged down with specific rules for counting squares or measuring distances with rulers. The grid simply helped us see where everyone was and allowed us to move through encounters more quickly.
As I said earlier, I have never met anyone who didn’t play with some sort of grid. So I am completely unfamiliar with how, or why, you would do this. If you are already sitting around a table anyway, placing a grid on the table doesn’t seem like it could be an inconvenience. So, I really can’t fathom what complaint people might have.
On the other hand, if a group has a bunch of armchairs and couches around the periphery of a room, and everyone lounges apart from each other, there is no central table and therefore a grid would be impractical. But do people really play that way? You’re further apart which makes it more difficult to hear each other and passing notes becomes more difficult. You can’t whisper to each other, show each other something on your character sheet, or share food. This may be more comfortable (depending on the furniture), but it doesn’t seem practical to me.
Now what if your groups likes to use tactics during combat. It’s rather hard not to (at least to some extent) and still be effective. Thieves need to get behind the opponent to make a backstab, two characters need to be at opposite sides of an opponent to gain flanking advantage, You need to know where you are in relation to the dragon in order to avoid the tail slap. If you aren’t using a grid, everyone is bound to have a different idea as to where their character is in relation to everything else and thereby what options the character has available. Without having seen such a system in play, I can only imagine that it must be very chaotic and disorganized.
Recent editions have focused more and more on how terrain affects combat. If you don’t know where the terrain is, how can it affect combat? In addition to fixed terrain features, what about spells that have persistent effects? Like terrain, these effects occupy certain squares (and may even move). Without a grid, either the character has quite an advantage (simply saying she avoids the difficult terrain or squares containing adverse effects) or the monsters have a similar advantage (DM says you failed to avoid it). With a grid, there is no question as to whether certain squares may be avoided or not. Beyond that, there is a certain strategy in where you cast a spell for optimum effect. How do you determine where that spot is without a grid?
What truly amazes me is that in 4e, terrain effects and tactical play are stressed, more so than in any other version, yet the advocates for gridless combat seem to be increasing within their ranks. The two ideologies seem at odds. I truly am curious as to how they make it all work.