by Mike Shea on 16 March 2015
At the Pax East 2015 Acquisitions Incorporated D&D game, master dungeon master, Chris Perkins, used an unexpected system for his tactical depiction of the Acquisitions Incorporated base of operations in Baldur's Gate. He took fifteen pieces of paper, each of them labeled with a name and an interesting trait, and laid the out in a 4x4 grid. The result was a mosaic of rooms with evocative descriptions written right on them that the players could use to describe their locations.
For those who have played Fate Core and Fate Accelerated, this concept was quite familiar. In Fate terms, each one of those pieces of paper is a "zone". Each description is an "aspect" of that zone that a character might "invoke" to do something cool. This is a great lightweight way to let the narrative carry the game forward and not get bogged down with squares of movement, blast areas, and tactical targeting.
We've discussed running narrative combat in Dungeons and Dragons before. D&D rules, as written, put the DM on the spot to arbitrate actions described in the rules with exact distances. If a fireball has a 20' radius and lands in a battle with five PCs battling ten orcs, how do we determine who it hits without a grid and miniatures? Page 249 of the Dungeon Master's Guide has one of the few rules for arbitrating abstract distances in combat with the "Targets in Areas of Effect" section. This painfully short section gives us equations to determine how many targets various areas of effect will hit. But this rule alone isn't enough to run fast narrative combat without a grid.
Luckily, Fate's system of zones and movement translates well into 5e D&D as we saw with Perkins's Acquisitions Incorporated game. In Fate, a zone is a loosely defined area. Characters can engage in melee combat with other characters in a zone, can move anywhere in a zone they want, and can move from one zone to an adjacent zone. In D&D, we might think of a zone as an area roughly 30 feet by 30 feet and define it with an evocative description. A large room might contain multiple zones, each with their own description. For example, we might have a space defined with a "arcane-glyphed entryway", a "hall of ancient spiked armor", and an "raised platform supporting a throne of fire".
When we're running narrative combat, we might put down some 3x5 cards that describe each of the zones in a room. Players can describe which zone they're characters are in and can move from one zone to another with a move action. Ranged attacks might let them attack from one zone to another. If they want to do a melee attack, they must move into the same zone as their target. If they cast an area attack, they can affect a number of creatures within a zone as defined by page 249 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Sometimes that attack might only hit creatures in their zone, such as with burning hands. Other times it might be to another zone such as with fireball. Some spells like cone of cold or lightning bolt might hit creatures across two zones. The question really is "does it make sense"? That question alone gives the DM and players what they need to adjudicate actions.
Here are some thoughts about how spells would work with zones:
If you want some better house rules to change up how spells and area effects work in D&D, take a look at the combat abstraction rules in 13th Age. Beyond being a fantastic RPG in its own right, 13th Age is built to work as a set of house rules for other d20 games and its method of choosing targets in bursts and blasts transports well into the more rigid D&D 5th edition rules. Many of 13th Age's spells have targeting descriptions that work well in narrative D&D.
The advantage of playing with zones is that you can run an entire battle in narrative with nouns and verbs that make sense and are easy to see even if the materials you use to run the battle are abstract.
Fate gives us another tool we can add to our D&D combat encounters that makes every battle interesting and unique. Fate Core and Fate Accelerated includes a mechanic called "aspects" which define people, places, and things. Characters can "invoke" these aspects to do awesome shit. These one or two word definitions give players hooks to use as they describe their character's options.
When we think about using zones in abstract combat, we can give these zones interesting aspects. Our players can then get an idea what the place looks like, where they are in it, and how their character can interact in the zone.
Here's an example. The party has just entered the throne room of a dastardly necromancer. We define the throne room in two zones. The first zone we'll call the "Platform of the Skull Throne". The second zone in this large chamber is the "Hall of Crumbling Pillars". These names give players an image of the room and also something they can interact with. We might mention that our necromancer seems to be gaining energy from the Skull Throne giving him advantage on attack rolls. Now the players know they must disrupt that throne to remove this effect.
Note that these aspects don't have any mechanics built into them but we and our players can likely figure out ways to use them in a fight. With just a description players can come up with some creative ways to use them to change up a fight. Simple aspects for zones are easy to come up with and open up lots of options for improvisation at the table. This is the core idea of the lazy dungeon master.
Many times improvised actions could result in rewarding advantage and disadvantage. There is, however, one final reward we might bestow the creative player who finds interesting ways to invoke these zone aspects.
In Fate, you gain Fate points by putting your character in a bit of trouble or complicating your character's life. D&D's Inspiration mechanic is very similar to these Fate points. To reinforce improvised play, we can reward Inspiration when players choose to think past their character sheet and do something creative with the aspect of a zone.
For groups used to gridded combat, moving to narrative combat can be a bit of a shock and may be frustrating. It helps to describe and codify the system you plan to use to run narrative combat so players don't feel like you're just making shit up as you play. These Fate concepts, when explained to players, give them a good way to understand how their characters can act in a battle and what they can do while they fight.
You also don't have to do them all the time. Maybe you have your big set-piece fights for boss encounters but occasionally use this zone-based narrative combat system for smaller encounters. Like every rule you find, take this concept and stick it in your tool belt to run the best game you can.