by Mike Shea on 27 February 2017
There is no wrong way to play Dungeons & Dragons. If you and your players are having fun, you're playing D&D the right way. Every article, every idea, every tip, and every tool here at Sly Flourish is written to help you make your own game better. None of the ideas I post here are intended to come across as the "right way" to play D&D. We begin with our past understandings, try out some new things, and tune our understandings based on the results.
According to 2016 D&D dungeon master survey, of the 6,600 respondents to the survey on the question of preferred combat type, 63% answered 5' gridded combat, 19% answered abstract maps (a topic we will cover another time), and 18% answered theater of the mind.
I have two intentions for this article. First, I want to make my case for the advantages of narrative "theater of the mind" combat. Second, I want to convince you to try running combat in the theater of the mind, not all the time but once in a while, and add that style of combat to your DM's toolbox.
I do not expect that you, or any DM, will throw out two thousand miniatures, scores of battle maps, and a truckload of Dwarven Forge. I certainly don't plan to.
I do hope, however, that some DMs will take a break from the gridded map once in a while and run a small battle, maybe a bigger battle, and maybe a great big battle, without worrying about every five foot square.
This article isn't about how to run combat in the theater of the mind. For that, we have Sly Flourish's Guide to Narrative "Theater of the Mind" Combat and the one-page printable summary. This article is about why we want to run narrative combat.
Let's begin by looking at some of the advantages of running combat in the theater of the mind.
When we're playing D&D, we're playing a game of high fantasy. We're building stories of magic and monsters and adventure. We're imagining epic battles between gods and demons. When we get caught in the minutia of 5 foot squares, we can lose that excitement. We can lose the momentum. Battles feel less like the epic paintings we see in the artwork of our books and feel more like a slow chess match between the DM and the player.
High fantasy isn't about pulling out a bent wire coathanger and seeing how many goblins we can squeeze into a fireball if we cast it just right. High fantasy is yelling out "I cast fireball!" and the DM saying "Your fireball explodes, sending the bodyparts of nine goblins splashing against the stone walls!"
This is a game of high adventure and fantastic storytelling. Gridded combat can pull us out of those stories and turn D&D into a board game.
Putting out a battle map, setting out all the minis, and drawing out the room all takes time. Moving miniatures around, watching other people move miniatures around, and getting involved in lengthy conversations about whether someone is behind half cover or three quarters cover when standing at the corner of a wall; all of that takes time. Taking time is fine when it adds to the enjoyment of the game but not everyone might enjoy the time it takes a wizard to figure out how to get all four fire giants into the blast radius of his cone of cold.
Running combat on a grid will often take more time than running combat vocally. In narrative combat, the DM describes the situation, the player describes their actions, the dice determine the results. It can't get much faster than that.
Switching from exploration and interaction to combat is usually a jarring experience. When that battle mat hits the table and the minis start marching across, we know what's supposed to happen. Discussions between characters and NPCs usually ceases. Trickery and subterfuge to try to avoid the fight usually ends.
When using narrative combat, we run combat the same way we run conversations with NPCs or exploring old ruins; we describe it verbally. This means we can have a perfectly smooth story that flows between interaction, exploration, combat, and back again without breaking the flow and pace of the story to pull out a big battle map and sort through plastic boxes full of miniatures.
According to the 2016 D&D DM Survey, 49% of DMs spend between 30 minutes and an hour designing combat encounters per session. In one such example, Merric Blackman of Merric's Musings made the following statement in his article On Collecting Minis:
It did make me wonder about my use of miniatures in D&D. The fact is that I own a lot of miniatures — somewhere upwards of 3,000 — and if I want to field an orc army for the player characters to face, I can do that. There's just a basic problem with that: it requires me to find that orc army first. Once you have so many miniatures (and I've been buying the plastic D&D ones since 2003), you need to find the ones you need. It takes time. For me to get the minis out for a 4-hour session can easily take an hour or more.
Getting maps and miniatures ready for a game takes time. In some cases it can take the most amount of time of any preparation activity. That time might be better spent on other parts of the game, such as integrating in the backgrounds of the characters, preparing some secrets, thinking through the eyes of our villains, or actually reading that adventure we bought cover to cover.
When we spend the time to prepare a battle map, set it up, and pick out all those miniatures that Merric was talking about; we now have an investment in that battle. We want to run it. We don't want to have wasted all that time setting up a big battle only to have the characters avoid it with a few lucky stealth checks.
In addition, we're not likely to let the story get away from us if our expectation is to plop down miniatures and draw out a map for every fight. Sometimes fights take place in some weird location we weren't ready for. Sometimes half the group is in a fight while the other half is still dining with the king.
When we run narrative combat, we don't need to worry about where the story goes. Regardless of where they are or what happens to be going on, we can easily pivot our plans and go where the story goes.
Because we have no initial preparation investment and no worry about the time it takes to draw out and set up a big fight, we're a lot less likely to worry when things go off the rails and into interesting and uncharted territory.
How do you run a gridded battle on an airship that's breaking in half and falling down to earth? How do you draw out a map of a battle taking place hanging from vines on the edge of a thousand-foot-high waterfall? How do you handle a battle against two hundred skeletons?
Not every battle takes place in a nice easy-to-draw flat 2d plane with perfectly aligned five foot squares and a reasonable number of monsters. Running narrative combat lets us run battles in any environment and in any situation we, and our players, can imagine. We're no longer shackled to whatever we can describe in nicely aligned five foot blocks. Now we can describe battles on top of ancient crumbling war machines or floating on magical disks above the city of Sharn.
When we pull out that big gridded battle map and start getting tactical, the DM often ceases to be a facilitator for fantastic stories and becomes an opponent of the players. This completely changes the dynamics of the game. Instead of working together to build a story, we have opponents at the table; not just on the table. Players may begin to feel like the DM is working against them. Combat becomes a competition between players and DMs instead of a scene. For DM's this is, most of the time, a losing battle. If it feels like a competition, we're the ones who get stomped in nearly every fight. That can break us down after a while.
DMs are also more likely to worry about ensuring that the battle is a challenge if we're running on the grid, because what's the point of a grid if the characters are just going to stomp through the bad guys. But sometimes that stomping is great fun and a solid piece of the story.
When we run combat in the theater of the mind, we're not adversaries anymore. We're still telling a story and the adversaries are just characters whose eyes we sometimes look through. We're not competing because we're building the whole world, not just moving miniatures around on a board.
Gridded combat doesn't have to cost much more than the $12 for an awesome Pathfinder Flip Mat but this starts a slippery slope. Next thing you know we might have dropped $120 on a set of flat plastic miniatures but maybe you want some 3d miniatures instead so you get in on one of those great Reaper Kickstarters. That normal battlemap isn't so bad but wouldn't a few pre-drawn battlemaps be cooler? What about some of that awesome Dwarven Forge terrain?
Wait a minute, did we just spend the price of a car on 3D terrain? I thought this hobby was supposed to be cheap!
Running combat in the theater of the mind gives us an unlimited special effects budget for zero dollars. Whatever we can describe, we can run. We don't need to have a collection of two thousand miniatures and a storage container full of Dwarven Forge. We can just grab our book, some pencils and paper, and some dice and run some high adventure.
There's a freedom that we find when we're able to just grab our core books, an adventure, some notes, and our dice and run a full D&D game without worrying at all about whether we drew out the right map or have the right miniatures for a game. We worry less about the unexpected. We care less when the story gets away from us. We're back to letting D&D carry us away instead of locking us down into a mesh of 1 inch spaces.
I don't expect that the D&D community will toss aside thirty years of maps, miniatures, and terrain and all start exploding with colorful narrative battles. I know I'll still be running gridded combat quite a bit.
I hope, however, that you might give theater of the mind combat a try and see how it feels. If you're new to the game, this is a great way to keep your D&D investment low and still bring the awe and wonder of this limitless game to you and your players.
If I've convinced you to give combat in the theater of the mind a try, check out Sly Flourish's Guide to Narrative "Theater of the Mind" Combat and download and print out the one-page guide to share and discuss with your players.
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.