I’ve played a lot of D&D lately. But even when using rules prone to design iteration, one thing has remained constant throughout: When I swing my axe at a goblin neck, the goblin’s going down if I hit.
That’s true whether the fight occurs in the theater of the mind (TotM), in TotM with the aid of scratch paper to show general position, in a hybrid TotM-minis system, or with minis on a grid.
As was pointed out by my previous blog about the grid vs. imagination and the discussions it engendered, the system surrounding my goblin combat can dramatically change many other elements of the fight. The foremost difference is the amount of table time the fight takes to resolve overall, and the amount of tactical decision-making the environment provides my axe-wielding goblin killer.
The tension between these two elements is real, and it can’t be swept under the rug. Narratively speaking, sometimes it’s simply too much effort to break out the minis and gridded terrain map to deal with two goblin guards at a cave mouth. The “story” of the situation isn’t really about tactics, unless the DM specifically changes the encounter to make it so. Indeed, two guards at a doorway (and other “low power” encounters) are precisely the sort of encounters that grid-only combat tends to weed out of the game. Because the DM and adventure designer know it’s not worth the effort to break out minis for a simple interaction with two goblin guards (or even five goblin guards), the encounter either goes away entirely, or it faces pressure to become part of some other, larger encounter. This means that players, when they see minis on the table, always know it’s going to be some kind of fight, regardless of anything else.
Other times, the story is about tactics. I do want to exactly know where the vampire lord is in relation to the acid pit, the windows through which afternoon sunlight slashes, the vampire’s dominated spell-casting thralls, and her various spawn slinking through an advancing line of rolling mist. Pushing or being pushed 5 feet can make the difference between winning and losing this fight, depending on whether I’ve been pushed into the acid, or if I can push the vampire into the sunlight.
Based on the poll we conducted on my last grid-focused blog, a majority of you agrees that different encounters have different needs when it comes to encounter rules. That’s cool, because we feel the same way. Assuming we move forward with this line of thinking, we’ll end up with a core conflict resolution system that can encompass both TotM and the grid. Imagine a combat system not too different from previous editions that relied almost solely on the use of the grid, but tweaked so that it works seamlessly for those fights where minis are not used or expected.
This means, to answer one line of questions raised in the grid discussions, that switching between TotM and the grid must be easy and seamless, both for groups that prefer to switch between modes, and for groups who want to primarily stick to one or the other conflict resolution system. It’s not our job to pick a winner or loser in any sort of false “grid vs. TotM” contest, and thereby create a sub-group of D&D players who don’t have the rules support they deserve. Instead, it’s our job to create a straightforward environment where both styles of play prosper and can be used.
For instance, if a fighter uses an ability that seems to make sense on the grid, we should design that same ability to also be useful in the TotM. In a fight that takes place next to a curtain of green slime, even in TotM, it’s not as important how far I can push a foe with an ability as it is important that I can push a foe at all. If my “hack and shove maneuver” results in the goblin stumbling backward, then, regardless of distance in feet or whether this happens on the grid or in the players’ imaginations, the goblin has just discovered that green slime is not its friend.