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Running D&D Combat with an Abstract Battle Map

by Mike on 29 March 2021

We often break up D&D combat into two categories: combat on a 5 foot per square grid (which we'll refer to as "gridded combat"), and running combat with pure narration (often called "theater of the mind").

In reality, there are many forms of combat that sit around and in-between these systems. There's text-based battle maps, zone-based combat, abstract distances like those found in 13th Age, combat using online tools like Roll 20 or Owlbear Rodeo, and combat run on fancy Dwarven Forge terrain. How we run combat can be completely unique to us and this is a powerful feature of D&D. We get to decide with our players how we want to play it.

Today I'm going to offer one of my favorites: the abstract battle map.

The abstract battle map is a rough visualization of what a combat area looks like. We can draw it on a sheet of paper or a dry-erase battle map. We can even represent it in text. We can use tokens or miniatures to represent characters and mosters as we choose, or we can just draw in circles or letters to represent characters and monsters like we're drawing a football play diagram.

The abstract battle map shows important physical features like terrain, hazards, areas that provide cover, and other landmarks. It also shows the loose position of characters and monsters. Unlike gridded combat, the actual distances of the map aren't set in five foot squares. Instead, distances are a loose approximation and the map is mainly there to show relative positions.

We can mix our abstract map with zone-based combat or more loose theater of the mind guidelines. My concept of text-based battle maps is one example of an abstract battle map you can do in a text channel while playing online.

One of the biggest complaints DMs and players describe when discussing running D&D combat in the theater of the mind is a lack of shared understanding of the details of combat between DMs and players. The abstract map helps close that gap and does it without losing the freedom and imagination we enjoy when running combat in the theater of the mind.

The abstract battle map is very flexible. You can do it for ten cents with a sheet of paper and a pencil or for tens of thousands of dollars with a custom gaming table, 3d terrain, and custom miniatures. It fits whatever budget and materials you have for D&D.

And here's a dirty secret for you. The faster, cheaper, and looser the abstract map, the more room it has for our imagination. The more detailed it gets, the less players listen to in-world descriptions and fill in the blanks with their own ideas. They'll rely on the map more and more, forgetting the smell of the caverns or the echoing sounds of a faraway waterfall. Some Xs and Os on a piece of paper helps players understand general positions and their imaginations fill in the other details.

The abstract map is a bridge between full-featured tactical gridded combat and fully narrated theater of the mind combat. It gives our imagination the freedom to build fantastic scenes of high adventure in our head and still offers enough of a representation of the sitiuation so players feel empowered to make meaningful choices.

Add the abstract map to your DM's toolbox.

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