by Mike Shea on 26 March 2018
One of the wonderful things about D&D is how flexible the game is for the different styles of play we bring to our tables. We can see this most clearly in our options for running combat. Some DMs run combat encounters with nothing more than a piece of paper with sketch of a room on it. Others have elaborate 3D models or a virtual tabletop like Roll20 or run combat completely in the theater of our minds. Whatever style we prefer, the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons supports it.
Many online discussions have grouped styles of combat into two: gridded combat, in which combat takes place on a gridded battle map of some sort with each square on the grid representing 5 feet; or "theater of the mind" in which combat takes place completely verbally with the DM describing the situation and the players describing their actions. These are gross abstractions, though, with a huge range of options in between them.
Today we're going to show a third option, one that, according to the 2016 Dungeon Master survey, roughly 20% of DMs already use. We call this the "abstract map" and the concept is relatively simple.
First, for this style of combat, we use some sort of physical map to represent the battle area. This might be a typical dry-erase battle map or a loose sketch on a piece of paper. It might even be an elaborate Dwarven Forge arrangement. It can use our well-loved collection of beautiful miniatures or represent monsters and characters with Starbursts. Our battle maps might use materials that cost as low as a few cents or materials that cost more than a new car. That's up to you, your players, your game, and your budget. Whatever you use, the abstract map style of combat works the same way.
The main difference between an abstract map and a traditional gridded battle map is that distance is not measured in five foot squares. The distances and ranges between things aren't fixed. They're loose. Abstract maps show the relative distances between things and the general physical positioning of characters and monsters. Instead of thinking about five foot squares, we focus on the big picture.
To understand why we might want to abstract distances, please see the Tyranny of the Grid. Much of this article will talk, instead, about how.
Many D&D DMs and players point out that the fifth edition of D&D uses five-foot incremental distances all throughout it; from the distance characters move to the areas of effect for spells and abilities. Unlike 13th Age, Fate Accelerated, or Dungeon World, the distances in D&D are not abstract in the rules.
This is true. However many DMs for decades have played D&D without worrying about those distances when running combat, including many of the current Wizards of the Coast designers who made the fifth edition of D&D. Range and distances can be abstracted in D&D without losing the meaning and purpose of the game. I argue that, when we abstract distances, we focus more on the fantastic heroic action of D&D and less on the minutia.
It's critical that we DMs describe how abstracted combat works with our players before the game begins and get our players' agreement. Our guidelines for theater of the mind combat can aid with this, even though we're not truly using "theater of the mind". Many of these guidelines work well with an abstract battle map. Some of the key points include the following:
Because 5e D&D is a detailed game, there are specific situations that often come up when we're running abstract combat. We'll outline some of the bigger issues here but DMs will have to adjudicate as the game goes on. In general, we should favor the character with our judgment to build trust with the player. When in doubt, ask the other players what seems reasonable. This is a great way to break past the potential competitive nature of DMs and players and bring the group together to tell a fantastic story.
Characters With Extra Movement: A few characters have extra movement speeds such as wood elves, monks, and rogues. When we let anyone move wherever they want, it takes away from the advantages of playing with these characters. What good is it if a monk gains an extra five feet of movement if we're not bothering to play in five foot squares?
First, we have to ask, how important is that extra movement really? Is it the defining characteristic of the character? Does it really make that big a difference even when we do play on a grid? For some, like the monk and rogue, it sure does. They get whole piles of extra movement, not just five feet.
For those characters who get entire extra move actions, we can use a nice simple guideline:
Most characters can move a reasonable distance during their turn. Rogues and monks can move an unreasonable distance.
We can think of distance abstraction as turning five foot squares into fifty foot squares. The game Fate does this with Zones, large areas that make up the physical setting of a scene. In our abstract map, if an area is bigger than a fifty foot square, typical creatures can only move from within one square to another but monks and rogues can move into one big block and back out again. Rogues and monks, with their extra movement, can pretty much decide to go wherever they want.
For an example, we might have a battle on a three-decked ship. Normal characters can move from one deck to another. Monks and rogues can move to any of the three decks from any other deck.
As far as the extra five or ten feet of movement that some characters have over another, we have to ask our players to accept that we're rounding that off in order to focus on the bigger and more heroic elements of the battle. You can also go with one of my favorites: "you would have been ten feet short of your goal but since you're an elf, you made it!" That aways gets a narrowed-eyed harumph.
Areas of Effect: When we put a map down, fill it up with miniatures, and begin to run combat; we're bound to come to the discussion of how many targets—friends or foes—can fit in the area. Our best approach to this is to let the players know up front what they should expect from a spell's area to begin with.
The Dungeon Master's Guide outlines rules for this on page 247. We abstracted this further in our Guidelines for Theater of the Mind Combat into four categories: small bursts (2), large bursts (4), huge bursts (16), and lines (3). That is the minimum number of targets a player should expect they can hit with a spell. Circumstances may let them hit more such as fireballing a huge horde of skeletons in a large cavern or adding four additional targets to a fireball if only they're willing to accept also hitting the front-line fighter and cleric.
Like the rest of this style of combat, how areas of effect work on an abstract map is best handled by discussing it with players before the game begins and then adjudicating it in the player's favor when we can.
Opportunity Attacks and Sentinels: Opportunity attacks actually have a long history with Dungeons & Dragons; both when people played using the "theater of the mind" and when the game focused on a 5 foot per square grid. Arbitrating opportunity attacks actually becomes easier on an abstract map than it does when using purely descriptive "theater of the mind" style because people can see when their character is next to a monster or not.
Movement past enemies might be troublesome but even in an abstract map players and DMs can see when reaching the back row of their enemies might put them near enough to the front row to risk an opportunity attack.
The only main rule we need when considering opportunity attacks while running abstract combat is this one: assume creatures move smartly to avoid opportunity attacks when they can. We, as the DM, should ensure that people don't take surprise opportunity attacks which hurt the credibility of our abstract map. We should tell players when they risk an opportunity attack before they act. The same goes for monsters although many monsters aren't smart enough to know they shouldn't risk an opportunity attack. Players love making them so let's give them a good amount of opportunity attacks.
Likewise, because miniatures will be right next to each other, we know when a feat like sentinel will take place. The specific distance isn't as important as whether or not the minis are up close. In those cases where reach matters, like a sentinel fighter wielding a glaive, we can fall back to the player describing the intent and pose the mini to remind us of that intent.
"Honestly, when I use minis in D&D it's not about tactical combat or clarity of action. It's an excuse to play with toy soldiers."
Our overall goal when using abstract battle maps is to break away from the minutia of miniature wargaming and bring the focus back to the fast action and high adventure of our roleplaying game. Beyond being useful aids to ensure players share a common view of the battle, detailed battle maps and miniatures can be a wonderful rich part of this game we love. By abstracting distances while using physical maps, we can get the best of both worlds: detailed physical battle areas with beautiful miniatures and the high adventure we love best in D&D.
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures, and Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide.