SARN-FU 2: Why You Should Drop the Battlemat

This is a follow-up to the blog on SARN-FU that I posted several months ago. If you are not familiar with SARN-FU, please read that blog before continuing with this one. (I have also amended that blog to add a useful fold-out rule sheet.)

In my first blog I explained how to use SARN-FU, but many people were wondering why one should use SARN-FU. This blog attempts to explain why a DM – even one who uses battlemats – may decide to use SARN-FU. These reasons are presented in no particular order:

Old School Feel

For many people who cut their teeth on Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the presumption that gaming groups will be using a battlemat with one-inch squares representing five-foot increments grates people the wrong way. Sure, D&D evolved from tabletop wargames that measure things in inches (and 1st edition gave spell ranges in inches, which represented ten feet at the time), but most people, in my experience, did not use miniatures when playing AD&D. Instead, things were handled narratively and because most player strategies did not revolve around five-foot increments, this sort of improvisational play was easy to accommodate.

This is not to say people did not have physical representations of the battle. Most people had scratchpads of the dungeon, and used pencil tics to mark where the various adventurers and enemies were located. However, with the amount of mobility characters experience in 4e, such a sheet of graph papers would quickly become worn out from erasures and re-erasures.

4e, for better and worse, encourages a very rigid strategy depending on knowing precisely where each character is in relationship to every other character. Many AD&D’ers wish they could recapture the old school feel. SARN-FU allows you to recapture a bit of that abstraction without switching editions.

Split the Party

Sometimes a party may want to handle several goals at once. Sometimes a DM may want to give a party a dilemma in choosing amongst several problems. The rogue needs to steal the gem while the fighter and wizard retreat down the hall to distract some goblins. Or perhaps the party is involved in a war, where the paladin leads troops on the vanguard, while the warlock rains fire from the back lines and the cleric races from one flank to the other, offering blessings and healing. These scenarios are too large to fit on a battlemat. Moreover, they may involve more NPCs than the DM cares to track. A narrative approach, using SARN-FU as the engine, allows the DM to involve characters in a massive donnybrook.

SARN-FU allows the players more latitude in situations where their characters need to accomplish several goals that are not proximate to one another.

The Chase

Imagine chariots racing through the winding streets of a city, crashing through the carts of vendors and scattering pedestrians while the drivers desperately fend off masked villains leaping from rooftops to kill them. Representing such a fight with a battlemat would be very difficult. The chariots will likely run the full length of the table in a round or two. Chariots might separate so they both could not be on the same battlemat and then turn and careen to meet again later in the battle. The DM could narrate the action, evoking the feeling of a dramatic violent chase through city streets better than can be represented on a single battlemat.

SARN-FU allows you to run a fast-moving battle that is not limited to the extents of a single battlemat.

Quick Battles

Setting up a battle often takes time. You have to draw out the walls and other terrain features, or set up the dungeon tiles or other 3-D representations, and position all the minis, before initiative is even rolled. Sometimes, combat is unexpected. Maybe the players surprise the DM by attacking the thief the DM had thought the players were only going to question. Maybe the story involves the players attacking a small force of guards that the DM anticipates the players will quickly overwhelm. In these situations, the battle might last shorter than the time it takes to set up the battlemat.

SARN-FU allows you to run a quick adventure without spending time setting up the game board.

Three-Dimensional Battles

Three-dimensional fighting is not easy to accomplish with a two-dimensional battlemat. Altitude is difficult to represent, and if multiple players have means of flying, or if everybody is flying or swimming, the battlement quickly approaches a state of inutility. With SARN-FU, you describe the action narratively, supplementing the description with some quick sketches, if needed.

SARN-FU allows you to run an adventure underwater, in the Astral Sea, or in the sky.

Read the entire series on SARN-FU:
SARN-FU 1: How to SARN-FU
SARN-FU 2: Why to SARN-FU
SARN-FU 3: Knots in the Fray

See more at Unearthed Arcana!

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