Sunday, April 15, 2012

Making Some Observations on Bruce Cordell's Latest Post - Imagination, the Grid, and Points Between

There is little to pick nits from in this post, but it does give some idea of the possible direction(s) D&D Next may take when it comes to resolving combat.  Original article is here
When I first started playing D&D oh so many years ago, fights with monsters played out entirely in the Theater of the Mind (TotM). A typical fight went something like so:
Me: “I listen at the door.”
DM: “All’s quiet.”
Me: “Great. I push it open, sword ready.”
JD: “My wizard is right behind Bruce!”
DM: “The room is L-shaped—20 feet wide. Some trash lies along the walls and . . . there’s a wooden chest lying on its side, half splintered, like someone dropped it. Coins are visible through the cracked lid.”
Me: “We enter, but we’re ready for a trap. No one leaves treasure just lying around.”
DM: “Nothing happens.”
Me: “Fine. I kick the chest with my boot.”
DM: “The lid comes off completely. Gold coins spill everywhere!”
Me: “Well, I guess we shouldn’t look a gift horse in—”
DM: “Around the corner of the room come four orcs! ‘Surface dwellers! Kill them! Cut them to mincemeat! Pound them to hamburger!’ they yell. The first two catch you by surprise and attack. [The DM rolls dice.] One misses. One rolls a 17 and hits you for 5 points of damage! The other two go around you and charge the wizard.”
Me: “By Moradin’s tangled beard! I attack the closest one. [I roll dice.] An 18!”
DM: “You hit. How much damage?”
Me: “Six points.”
 DM: “That’s enough. You cut it in half.”
[The fight continues until all four orcs are dead, and the poor wizard behind me is unconscious.]
(This to me is what D&D combat is all about.  Bruce may call it The Theater of the Mind, but I think it's as magical as any Wizard's spell.  It also is the path they will need to choose if they want to get any sort of complete game playing notched within an hour's worth of game time.  Not that I personally think an hour is doable, especially with the BS sessions that come included with every gaming session - a two hour block would have been more realistic in my mind)
Over time, our D&D fights grew more complex, perhaps featuring more than one kind of monster, and with monsters arrayed in different areas across a larger location. In such instances, the DM would sometimes sketch out the battle on a piece of scratch paper and update it as the fight progressed.
(which is about how far my group progressed while playing AD&D 2e, with the possible exception of using miniatures to show the parties marching order / formation)
Of course, as subscribers of Dragon magazine, we were keenly aware of all the amazing miniatures that other people painted and used in their games. (I learned I really couldn't paint miniatures for shit.  these days, my 44 year old eyes can't see details enough to come close to my previous paining skill, which as I said, wasn't worth shit ;) Eventually we gathered enough miniatures (or, failing that, a square of paper with a name and a facing arrow on it) to track position on the tabletop instead of using sketches.
And so it went . . .
With the launch of 3rd Edition, miniatures became a more expected part of the D&D game experience. This experience was only solidified in 4th Edition, where every fight was assumed to occur on a battle grid, and where tracking every space a character could move and every kind of action a character could take was important in determining success or failure in a fight. (rpg, war-game or board game?  sometimes I can't tell what 4e's primary roll is)
Each of these methods has its pros and cons—more than I can list here (which doesn’t mean it isn’t an important pro or con, only that I have limited space). (as this is a blog post on WotC's webspace, shouldt Bruce have unlimited space with which to post?  just curious about this.)  But here’s a broad overview:
TotM is quick! Fights happen quickly, and adventurers move steadily through the adventure, exploring many more rooms, having many more NPC encounters, and concluding many more fights than a D&D game that relies solely on grid-based tactical encounters. The downside is that TotM can be confusing, and sometimes the players and DM have different views on the positions of all those involved, which isn’t ideal.  (it may occasionally be confusing, but is it worth the time consumption and distraction to aim for perfection?  for me, constant use of a battle grid takes me out of the role playing aspect of the game and moves it more to a wargaming or board gaming experience.  Is that what we want with the Next, or any edition, of D&D?)
Roughly sketching the positions of combatants on scratch paper (or a whiteboard, if you’re lucky) has the advantage of being fairly quick, while giving players a reasonable idea of who’s where and what the environment looks like.  (this is a fine compromise, so long as we aren't breaking out the blast templates and bringing out the rules lawyers to the table.  personally, I like white boards, and I'm hoping for a G+ Hangout app that includes such)
Using minis to track general position allows players both to identify with a mini of their own character and get a better three-dimensional sense of their character’s surroundings. (key word is "general" - any more precise than that and we start losing the sense of it being an RPG)
Finally, using precise tactical rules and a well-drawn grid gives characters an exact understanding of where their characters stand, where each monster and hazard in the environment is situated, and how their movement and special abilities will interact. Of course, tactical fights on a grid take far longer than fights using TotM, and when all conflict is relegated to the grid, a night of play might see you through only a single combat before it’s time to end. (Bruce just described 4e, didn't he?  Yep, that's the type of game I want to play, an encounter a night.  Move my miniatures, grab advantage, use my blast templates, daily and encounter powers, everyone gets magic - i mean, "powers".  That isn't an role playing game - it's a board game with role playing trappings.  That's my opinion and I'm sticking with it)
That’s the general overview. But here’s the thing: is it important that every fight in an ongoing D&D game use exactly the same format for every encounter? Or should the game rules encourage the DM to set up a particular encounter using the method most appropriate to resolving it, whether that be TotM, the tactical grid and its associated rules, or points between?  (the variable method is going to lead to upset players, especially when they can use one method or another to their advantage, and the DM decides to use a non-adventagious method.  Players do tend to seek out every advantage they can make for themselves)


  1. It's also going to piss off all those who spent thousands of dollars on miniatures, only to be told now that they should leave them on the shelf 2/3's of the time.

  2. Yes.. Yes he did describe a 4e fight.. one encounter a night.. and sometimes we had to roll the fight to the next session..

  3. Almost any system designed primarily around ToM automatically allows a grid to be used as well. You can use a grid with Holmes Basic, for example, without requiring anything in the rules to be written specifically for it.

    This whole "issue" is a non-issue; design a system around ToM and the grid takes care of itself.

    The Dungeon Crawl Classics system, to use an excellent recent example, works equally well with both, and even allows you to push a goblin around (or take your axe to its neck!).

  4. I've been of the mind that miniatures should enhance the gameplay experience, not take it over.

    The current game I play in unfortunately relies far too much on miniatures, as far as to make dungeon exploration into a "Move five feet, check for traps, draw next section of room, move five feet, check for traps, draw next section of room" snoozefest.

    I find it helps players know what's going on with a bunch of beads and coins (or miniatures) on the table representing friend and foe so that everyone knows who's within arm's reach and who's surrounded by enemies. That said, I can't imagine playing something like 3e or 4e without miniatures when the system is so focused on them.


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