When I first started playing D&D oh so many years ago, fights with monsters played out entirely in the Theater of the Mind (TotM). A typical fight went something like so:
Me: “I listen at the door.”
DM: “All’s quiet.”
Me: “Great. I push it open, sword ready.”
JD: “My wizard is right behind Bruce!”
DM: “The room is L-shaped—20 feet wide. Some trash lies along the walls and . . . there’s a wooden chest lying on its side, half splintered, like someone dropped it. Coins are visible through the cracked lid.”
Me: “We enter, but we’re ready for a trap. No one leaves treasure just lying around.”
DM: “Nothing happens.”
Me: “Fine. I kick the chest with my boot.”
DM: “The lid comes off completely. Gold coins spill everywhere!”
Me: “Well, I guess we shouldn’t look a gift horse in—”
DM: “Around the corner of the room come four orcs! ‘Surface dwellers! Kill them! Cut them to mincemeat! Pound them to hamburger!’ they yell. The first two catch you by surprise and attack. [The DM rolls dice.] One misses. One rolls a 17 and hits you for 5 points of damage! The other two go around you and charge the wizard.”
Me: “By Moradin’s tangled beard! I attack the closest one. [I roll dice.] An 18!”
DM: “You hit. How much damage?”
Me: “Six points.”
DM: “That’s enough. You cut it in half.”
[The fight continues until all four orcs are dead, and the poor wizard behind me is unconscious.]
Over time, our D&D fights grew more complex, perhaps featuring more than one kind of monster, and with monsters arrayed in different areas across a larger location. In such instances, the DM would sometimes sketch out the battle on a piece of scratch paper and update it as the fight progressed.
Of course, as subscribers of Dragon magazine, we were keenly aware of all the amazing miniatures that other people painted and used in their games. Eventually we gathered enough miniatures (or, failing that, a square of paper with a name and a facing arrow on it) to track position on the tabletop instead of using sketches.
And so it went . . .
With the launch of 3rd Edition, miniatures became a more expected part of the D&D game experience. This experience was only solidified in 4th Edition, where every fight was assumed to occur on a battle grid, and where tracking every space a character could move and every kind of action a character could take was important in determining success or failure in a fight.
Each of these methods has its pros and cons—more than I can list here (which doesn’t mean it isn’t an important pro or con, only that I have limited space). But here’s a broad overview:
TotM is quick! Fights happen quickly, and adventurers move steadily through the adventure, exploring many more rooms, having many more NPC encounters, and concluding many more fights than a D&D game that relies solely on grid-based tactical encounters. The downside is that TotM can be confusing, and sometimes the players and DM have different views on the positions of all those involved, which isn’t ideal.
Roughly sketching the positions of combatants on scratch paper (or a whiteboard, if you’re lucky) has the advantage of being fairly quick, while giving players a reasonable idea of who’s where and what the environment looks like.
Using minis to track general position allows players both to identify with a mini of their own character and get a better three-dimensional sense of their character’s surroundings.
Finally, using precise tactical rules and a well-drawn grid gives characters an exact understanding of where their characters stand, where each monster and hazard in the environment is situated, and how their movement and special abilities will interact. Of course, tactical fights on a grid take far longer than fights using TotM, and when all conflict is relegated to the grid, a night of play might see you through only a single combat before it’s time to end.
That’s the general overview. But here’s the thing: is it important that every fight in an ongoing D&D game use exactly the same format for every encounter? Or should the game rules encourage the DM to set up a particular encounter using the method most appropriate to resolving it, whether that be TotM, the tactical grid and its associated rules, or points between?