by Mike Shea on 5 October 2015
The following guidelines are intended to help DMs run fluid story-focused "theater of the mind" style battles but still define combat rules enough that players feel empowered and don't have to ask for permission to do awesome things. Consider these guidelines as a test. If you try these rules out at your table, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your experiences.
With the release of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, many DMs have returned to running battles, at least some battles, without the use of a map and miniatures fixed to a 5 foot per square grid. D&D 5e still uses exact measurements for things like movement, range, and the size of area attacks but nearly all of the rules of D&D 5e do describe specific positioning that would require miniatures. Flanking rules, for example, are an optional rule in the Dungeon Master's Guide rather than part of the core rules while a rogue's sneak attack can be done as long as an ally is engaged with the target, something easily described in narrative combat.
For many players and dungeon masters who learned the game during the ages of D&D 3.5 and 4th Edition, running combat without a fixed 5 foot per square grid can be strange and uncomfortable. We're used to understanding the character's exact place in a battle. We're used to trusting the rulebooks more than the judgement of the dungeon master. In 5th edition, the philosophy has returned to one of dungeon master arbitration. Again, this can be an uncomfortable position for both players and DMs. It requires trust, fairness, and a shared goal of building a fun game for everyone at the table.
This guide is intended to help both players and dungeon masters understand how to run D&D combat without the need for a fixed grid or specific distances. Throughout this guide we refer to this style of combat as "narrative combat". It's often referred to as "theater of the mind" but in many cases we can still use maps and minis to represent areas and creatures so everyone at the table can understand what is going on even if we don't need to count off squares or use strange templates to figure out fireball bursts.
This guide is intended to give both players and dungeon masters a clear set of guidelines for running narrative combat.
Once you understand the ideas, you can use this narrative combat reference sheet and hand it out to your players so they understand how this style of narrative combat works.
Why do we bother trying to run narrative combat? Let's look at a few specific reasons.
It's fast. Narrative combat can run really fast. We can squeeze in more small battles into an adventure and not burn an hour on a fight while everyone sets up their minis and worries about their position. Setting up a narrative battle is as easy as yelling "roll for initiative!" You don't have to arrange a big battle area, set up the right monster minis, and position the PCs.
It's cheap. Running narrative combat can save you big bucks since you don't have to invest in a huge collection of miniatures, maps, or 3d terrain pieces. You can use this stuff if you want to, but you don't need to.
Narrative combat flows into the rest of the story. In narrative combat there is no break in the story to set up miniatures or maps. Other than rolling for initiative there might not be any break at all in the pacing of the story. This lets combat, social interaction, and exploration all mingle together into a single flowing adventure.
It's accessible. For players who are visually impared, narrative combat helps make D&D more accessible. Rich descriptions of enemy traits and encounter areas help visually impared players understand what's going on without requiring that everyone else at a table explain it to them.
There are no limits. When you run narrative combat, you have no limit to the size or scope of your environments. Characters can fight on the sides of mile-high waterfalls suspended by vines. They can fight flying on the back of hover disks attacking an airship. They can battle on the back of roaring dragons or from floating earthmotes in the elemental chaos. When you no longer have to worry about building a gridded battle map, you are free to come up with any fantastic location you want.
This style of narrative combat can take on many forms. Sometimes it just DMs and players talking. Other times it has a full array of maps and miniatures on the table.
If a group is already familiar with gridded combat, there are a few ways to ease them into this idea. One way is to continue to use maps and miniatures but forgo the grid and, instead, define larger "zones". Another way is to use it for small battles with circumstances that are easy to describe. A third way is to use it for strange and fantastic circumstances that simply can't be represented with a flat map and miniatures.
Keep in mind and reinforce with your players that this isn't a wholesale replacement for gridded combat. Instead, this is another option to use when a combat scene doesn't fit well into a grid or a battle is intended to run fast. If your group loves gridded combat, consider using this only once in a while when gridded combat simply doesn't work that well.
The section "Table Aids for Narrative Combat" has specific ideas for the types of tools that can aid in narrative combat and help players who tend to prefer the grid understand the intent of these less specific rules.
There is one fundamental rule to good narrative combat:
A player tells a DM what they want to do and the DM tells them how they can do it.
This is basically the same as the core mechanics for D&D overall on page 6 of the Player's Handbook:
In order for this to work, the player has to trust the DM to adjudicate fairly and the DM has maintain that trust by doing so. In general a DM should steer in the PC's favor when handling edge cases as long as it is within reason (for a fantasty action game) and is fair to the capabilities of the other players.
Different situations will call for different rulings. Sometimes a fireball may take out only four kobolds while another time it will take out twenty. A lot of variables can change these guidelines and these changes should be made clear before PCs commit to any given action. If players feel screwed out of their turn because the DM decided their move isn't as affective as they thought, that player won't trust the DM's judgement and won't enjoy narrative combat. In general, during narrative combat, players should have the option of changing their minds.
Just remember the core mechanic of narrative combat: the player describes what they want to do and the DM tells them how they can do it.
Most narrative battles will take place in single small spaces like the room of a dungeon. Others, however, might span across larger areas. In these narrative combat guidelines, we can handle fighting in these larger areas with the use of "zones", an idea inspired by other story-focused RPGs including 13th Age, Numenera, and Fate Core.
Think of a zone as a part of an area roughly forty to fifty feet square. The sizes and boundaries of zones are flexbile so DMs can use them to represent each room in a series of rooms or as different sections of a large outdoor area. Generally speaking, a zone is sized so a PC can get from one zone to another by moving on their turn.
Using zones in narrative combat helps in a few ways:
The DM will want to make it clear what zones are in play during narrative combat. This might be something like the "hall of shattered heroes" and the "bladed throne dias" in a large audience chamber. Most of the time combat will only take place in a single zone but larger battles might have two, three, or even more zones in play depending on how big it is. Running in narrative combat means you can have fun complicated battles such as engaging in combat across multiple decks of a crashing airship.
When a DM builds out a battle area, they think of all the major areas for the battle and define each with a characteristic or feature that may come into play in a battle. These descriptions help clarify one zone from another while also giving players ideas for how they might interact with the area. Here are ten example zone descriptions:
Generating a random Ancient Monument is one easy way to create an interesting feature for zones.
In general, during a turn, a PC or monster can move from one zone to another. They can also move anywhere within a zone, including moving next to an enemy anywhere in the same zone. When moving zone to zone, they can generally go from anywhere in one zone to anywhere in another. If one part of a zone is harder to reach, it should probably be another separate zone. Characters with extra movement can move more than one zone or can move into a zone and back out of it again. While there is no mechanical difference between a fast character (like an elf) and a slow character (like a dwarf), we can still describe how much faster the fast character can get around compared to the slow through colorful narrative and descriptions from both the player and the DM.
Short ranged attacks (up to 30 feet as defined in the Player's Handbook) can hit anyone in the same zone as the attacker. Longer ranged attacks (greater than 30 feet) can generally hit anyone in any zone that the attacker can see. As it is in D&D combat rules, if an enemy is adjacent to a ranged attacker, that ranged attacker attacks at disadvantage.
If someone is engaged in melee with an enemy, they will likely take an opportunity attack if they try to move within a zone or move to a new zone. They're also likely to take an opportunity attack if they try to move to attack another enemy. Narrative circumstances, of course, can change this. If a character has a reach weapon, they can attack a character in melee and not necessarily take an opportunity attack for moving away. If an enemy, however, moves in to attacks them, that benefit is likely lost.
Adjudicating areas of effect requires specific guidelines in narrative combat Many area effect spells have different sizes, shapes, and targets. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, we can group these area effects together to determine how many creatures an area effect actually affects.
There are two questions we must answer when adjudicating an area attack. The first question is "which zone or zones can it affect?" The second question is "how many creatures in those zones can it affect?" To adjudicate area effects, we should ask ourselves and our players the answer to these two questions.
The following table offers guidelines and potential number of targets for area effect spells. The target numbers are based on the guidelines for adjudicating areas of effect on page 249 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
The comparable measurement column gives you an idea what sort of spells fit into which type of area. Once you have a feel for it, you can forget about the specific measurements and start thinking about all area effects as either tiny, small, large, or huge.
|Area||Comparable Measurement||# of Creatures||Affected Zones||Example Spells|
|Tiny Area||Within 5'||2 adj||Within zone||Acid splash|
|Small Area||10' to 15' cube, cone, or cylinder||2||Within zone||Thunder wave, burning hands, darkness, web|
|Large Area||10' to 30' radius or 20' to 60' cone, cube, or cylinder||4||Within zone||Fireball, lightning bolt, darkness, flame strike, ice storm, silence, sleep|
|Huge Area||Larger than 30' radius or 60' cone, cube, or cylinder||12||Within zone and all adjacent zones||Earthquake, circle of death, meteor swarm, sunburst|
|Short Line||Up to 30' length||2||Within zone||Wall of fire|
|Long Line||Greater than 30' length||3||Within zone and one adjacent zone||Lightning bolt, blade barrier|
Typically, determining cover can be difficult in narrative combat. For the sake of simplicity, consider the following guideline:
Assuming a zone has objects that can provide cover, a creature not adjacent to an enemy can take half cover as part of its move action. Three quarters or full cover is very hard to get and is based on the DM's descretion.
In general, half cover is easy to get and any other cover is hard to get.
It is possible to run narrative combat with no physical aids at all. The whole point of narrative combat is to describe the action taking place in a battle. Table aids, however, can help everyone understand what is going on. For players used to gridded combat, the DM may want to ease into narrative combat by using similar encounter battle layouts and ease in to the concepts of abstract distances and zone-focused movement.
3x5 cards are a great way to quickly define zones by writing a zone description on a note card and placing it on the table. If a battle includes multiple zones, you can use one 3x5 card for each zone, each labeled with a zone description, and place it on the table in the layout of the overall encounter area.
Pathfinder Flip Mats by Paizo are one of the best aids for running D&D games. Though gridded by design, it is easy to ignore the grids and use the surface of the poster map to write out all sorts of information such as the names and characteristics of enemies, current damage on those enemies, enemy AC once it's clear the PCs know it, and all sorts of other information. The blank dry-erase poster map is an incredibly useful and versatile tool for running D&D and a great investement.
While not required, miniatures for the PCs can help everyone keep track of the zone in which each PC is located and with whom they are engaged. You don't need miniatures for enemies when running narrative combat, but it can also make it easy to track which monsters are in the battle, which zones they are in, and which monstere are engaged with which PCs. On a dry-erase poster map, you can also write down the name or characteristic of a monster and use that to track the monster as well, though it is harder to show it moving from PC to PC.
One easy layout for keeping track of PCs and monsters is a layout we call the "Final Fantasy Battle" layout. In older Final Fantasy games, combat occurred between a line of PCs on the right side of the screen and a line of monsters on the left side. There was no movement or engagement between PCs and monsters, the PCs simply chose which they would attack and the monsters did the same. We can arrange our own table layout the same way, using miniatures mainly to show who is up front, who is in the back, and who is enaged with who.
When using a dry-erase poster map like this, its important to clarify to your players that there is no fixed distance on the map. As mentioned before, players should tell the DM what they want to do and the DM should tell them how they can do it.
Because we're running an abstract battle, it's important that we avoid taking advantage of the lack of specificity by letting our monsters gang up on the PCs. Good narrative combat will only work in a group if there is trust between players and DMs. We can build up this trust and avoid favoritism by randomly selecting who gets attacked by our enemies. If there isn't a good clear reason why one monster would attack one particular PC, choose the PCs a monster attacks randomly by rolling a die as close to your number of players as possible and having the monster attack that PC. When you roll this way, roll it in the open so all of the players can see why one PC got attacked over another. Sometimes this might mean one PC gets ganged up on, but everyone at the table will know why.
Monsters aren't idiots though. If it's clear that a monster would attack a particular PC, such as one who imposes severe disadvantages when attacking anyone BUT that PC, the monster will clearly do that. Other times intelligent monsters will know to take out enemy spellcasters and healers as quickly as possible.
The main thing is that the players understand why one particular PC was attacked over another. If it doesn't make sense to them, they might feel picked on and begin to lose the trust that is so vital for running good narrative combat.
Narrative combat gives you great freedom to go big with your descriptions of the environment and the battle. These descriptions are also vital to keep the battle interesting when we remove maps and miniatures from the table. Take the time to jot down the most interesting and fantastic features of your combat area. Many times, these features will end up as the description for a zone. Here are some examples:
During the fight, take time to describe the actions monsters take. Ask players for their own descriptions of their actions. Go with the famous "describe your killing blow" to move players from mechanics into storytelling.
Rich and evocative descriptions are the key to making a narrative battle feel as fun and interesting as one with detailed maps, terrain, and miniatures. Give these descriptions the attention they deserve before and during the game.
It's hard to identifying particular enemies in narrative combat if you can't tell one from another. One effective way to identify particular enemies is to ask your players to describe the physical characteristics of the enemy they're targeting. This has many advantages. First, you're opening up the player's imagination and getting it away from simple game mechanics. Second, You're removing the burden from your own shoulders. We DMs have enough to worry about. Third, it helps everyone at the table identify particular enemies without stepping outside of the story. Fourth, it's very easy to do. Just ask them.
When they give you a physical trait, write it down on a 3x5 notecard or on your dry-erase flip mat so everyone can keep track of this newly identified enemy.
These guidelines for narrative combat are just one tool you can use to increase the enjoyment of your D&D game. If you find them useful, use this one page reference for narrative combat and hand it out to your players.
You don't need to use them all the time. Instead, use these guidelines to give yourself options for running fast combat described using in-fiction language to build fun, dynamic, and action packed stories.
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