Exceeded the limits of TotM

I ran this last season of Encounters (actually each season of encounters where it's been an option) with the playtest rules.  Since there's a strong emphasis on TotM in 5e development, I've run 'em all in that style.

TotM is nothing new to me, I ran many games that way in the 80s and 90s, mostly due to play-space constraints as a kid or college student.  It works better with some systems than others, but it can be done in any, and I've run very successful combats w/o any play surface, even when the system was tightly coupled to grid or hex.  

The last encounter of this season was simply too much for TotM.  Yes, I could, and did, keep track of all 15 enemies and my 4 remaining players, and their position in the 3-tiered chamber.  I've been doing this a long time, I was up to the challenge.

But, I had to explain the whole tableau to each player, on each of their turns, every time - sometimes repeatedly.  The combat /really/ dragged as a result.  


On the flip side, having gotten back into the swing of running minor encounters w/o a map in Encounters, I've taken to running the occasional, minor combat that way in 4e.  We're talking well below-level combats, like an equal number of minions, thrown in the middle of a skill challenge or to top off or set up a mostly-RP session.

 

 

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We play at a local game store - which adds to the problem. Many people doing different things all at once. Other games in progress etc.

I don't know if things would be that much different in a more controlled setting, but in the 'Game Store' environment - TotM is really challenged, it's hard to make yourself heard to begin with, there's lots of distractions too.

Another problem with TotM is that many of the people I see playing are just so used to game mats/maps and Mini's that they have a hard time without them.

The last game I ran I used a blank mapboard and mini's but I tried to emphasize that it was only for illustration and not to get too hung up on movement rates and ranges... It seemed to be a good compromise between an real TotM situation and a more structured Miniatures Skirmish Game feeling.     
I agree big set pieces with lots of creatures, terrain and effects are not always suited for theater of the mind playstyle.

Yan
Montréal, Canada
@Plaguescarred on twitter

I agree with the issue with ToTM. I end up using a map and placing the minis in relative positions. Without it would require too much re-explaining.

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I agree that TotM can be a challenging play style to manage during large combat scenarios, but I believe that the quality of game justifies the challenges.

I have found that miniatures, even their very presence, or the vaguest notion of a battlemat, lets player's minds slip from the images that a DM so artfully crafts. Players needn't imagine the territory; it's laid out before them. They needn't stare that hulking, snarling beast in its bulging, bloodshot eyes; it's plastic fascimile neatly conforms to 1" gridlines. Ultimately, in my experience, minis detract from the experience.

Now, I'm currently struggling to find a way to manage TotM with large encounters, because as you all pointed out, it doesn't suit it very well. Its hard to describe a dynamic environment with such accuracy that players can maintain a continous awareness of it.

My greatest success has been identifying enemies by using distinguishing features. "The scarred orc stumbles backward as his two broken-toothed companions rush to his aid" sort of thing. It works out alright, and helps players to keep track of enemies, especially when I use these enemies as reference points, a la "a small group of five huddle around the scarred one, while the cyclopic orc slowly stomps toward you".

This, I feel, forces players to be mindful of what is where, rather than passively accepting the position of a mini. Of course, the efficacy of this technique depends entirely on what type of game the players prefer. As we all know, it's impossible to force players to conform to a style they just don't enjoy. 
I think I am missing something here. I played and dm’d during the 70’s - 90’s ( or as I think of them the dark age).

the story concepts were great. The support materials sucked.


you really want to do away with maps and minis?


is it because you dont want to pay for the support materials or is it some sort of lifestyle choice?


we have great maps and minis available to the gaming world. Why not use them In 5e? 
I think I am missing something here. I played and dm’d during the 70’s - 90’s ( or as I think of them the dark age).

the story concepts were great. The support materials sucked.


you really want to do away with maps and minis?


is it because you dont want to pay for the support materials or is it some sort of lifestyle choice?


we have great maps and minis available to the gaming world. Why not use them In 5e? 



I started back in 70's too... the players would use graph paper and pencil to map the dungeon. We'd use cutting boards on the kitchen table to represent rooms and salt/pepper shakers for the players and monsters...

What aarocars is getting at is a phenomenon that I'm seeing with people who started with Pathfinder or 4e. Once the battlemat and minis come out it goes from a role-playing game to a miniatures skirmish game. People counting squares to locate spell effects, calculating movement rates, asking if moving through this square 'provokes'.

Now, I know that D&D started with 'Chainmail' which WAS a set of combat rules for Medieval Miniatures with a Fantasy supplement. So, Minis have always been part of the D&D experience. But for at least the first 5 or 6 years that I played back in 1975 on... I didn't even own a mini - and neither did any of my friends who played. The game felt very different in those days.       

you really want to do away with maps and minis?



Certainly not! I only hope to see 5E embrace TotM as much as 4E embraced miniatures and battlemats. Ideally, 5E adventures would be similar to Trail of Cthulhu's Pulp/Purist game styles, supporting both modes of play.

is it because you dont want to pay for the support materials or is it some sort of lifestyle choice?



Well, partially. Miniatures are expensive. I know, I have hundreds. I also have a couple of vinyl battlemats (expensive) in addition to maps and mats from published settings. At one point, these were integral to my DMing style. As Kazadvorn observed, I started D&D with 4E, and was dependent on using these ancillary tools. I found in myself, and my players, an overreliance on the minis themselves, which stifled virtually all role-play. So, in short, I wouldn't call it a lifestyle choice at all, but simply a preference. They're costly, and for me, add very little to the game.

I'm certainly not suggesting that minis or mats be eradicated, just that I would like to see 5E give equal focus to TotM.

The main weakness of "theatre of the mind" is that it's all in YOUR mind, and transferring that to your players minds is a difficult task. "A picture is worth a thousand words"

Battlegrids have been an expected part of D&D since first edition; this is not a "new" 4th edition requirement. You don't have to spend a million dollars on stuff; using Lego minifigures or even army men is fine, and as long as you describe what's happening to the players, it'll be fine. 

Here's my suggestion.

1. Leave the table empty while doing roleplaying at the inn or palace or wherever.
2. When exploration happens, draw a map as the players move along--this will help your players focus on what you are telling them, rather than looking all over the map for where they think the treasure is.
3. Finally, when combat happens, DESCRIBE THE ROOM TO THE PLAYERS BEFORE YOU TELL THEM THAT THERE ARE MONSTERS. Anything you say after "orc" will be ignored. Just rely on map in front of the players; the 'feel' can be established by how you describe combat, but your players really need to be able to SEE things for when it comes down to "can I hit that guy or is he behind the wall."
The main weakness of "theatre of the mind" is that it's all in YOUR mind, and transferring that to your players minds is a difficult task.



It is, and it's an equally difficult task is keeping role-play immersive and meaningful during mini-based combat.

Of course, I'm not eschewing any visual aid; I use pre-made maps, hand-drafted maps, sketches of items or important geographic features, etc; I just choose not to use battlemats. As I mentioned before, during small-scale combat (4-8 by my definition), I can easily say "the scarred orc leaps behind a decaying stone wall for cover", and players will note that. Again, as I said, this works with my players; I don't expect this to be the norm for other groups.

Battlegrids have been an expected part of D&D since first edition; this is not a "new" 4th edition requirement.



Yes, I'm aware of this, but having spent time DMing 2E games, there is a difference in the level of support for battlegrids. After all, the 2E rules only delve into battlegrids in a Player's Option supplement.

TotM is a challenge for me, and it certainly has its weakness. That's why I prefer it though. When crafted properly, painting the vivid image is a much better picture, and effectively conveys those thousand words.

For the record, though, your suggestion sounds like a very effective compromise between TotM driven role-play and mini-oriented combat. If I ever run a game for players who prefer battlegrids, I'll definitely use these guidelines. Thanks!
I have dm'd since 1e. I have done years of ToTM and use it occassionally in my 4e encounters games for the small stuff.

i can understand the desire to have non-map play as an option but we do have access to great support materials now. i dont think there should be a prescribed way to play but rather the game should be flexible enough to support all styles.

my fear is that the hasbro clowns will eliminate tactcal maps (both large and small scale) as they did with the baldur's gate module. This looks like a cost cutting move to me. I think this will ultimately result in making the 4e players 'free-agents'. Some will continue to 5e while others will goto competing systems. i dont think there is a real solution to this quandry but the end result of 5e may be that hasbro's market share actualll decreases as a result. At least in the short term. Hasbro hasn't impressed me much with their marketing of 5e thus far.

I have dm'd since 1e. I have done years of ToTM and use it occassionally in my 4e encounters games for the small stuff.

i can understand the desire to have non-map play as an option but we do have access to great support materials now. i dont think there should be a prescribed way to play but rather the game should be flexible enough to support all styles.

my fear is that the hasbro clowns will eliminate tactcal maps (both large and small scale) as they did with the baldur's gate module. This looks like a cost cutting move to me. I think this will ultimately result in making the 4e players 'free-agents'. Some will continue to 5e while others will goto competing systems. i dont think there is a real solution to this quandry but the end result of 5e may be that hasbro's market share actualll decreases as a result. At least in the short term. Hasbro hasn't impressed me much with their marketing of 5e thus far.



Everything I've heard has suggested that the basic game will not require maps, but that it will be supported. I've seen nothing that makes me believe it won't be included. Personally I prefer TotM, but I think battlemat rules should be included as an optional system within the core rulebooks. Preferably the PHB.

Regarding marketing, they haven't even started promoting it. We're playtesting a game that may be a year or more away from release. They don't know the final form yet, so they haven't begun a marketing campaign. I'm sure hasbro will hype Next to the point of tedium when the time comes.
I agree big set pieces with lots of creatures, terrain and effects are not always suited for theater of the mind playstyle.

Thanks man.  I kind of felt retarded not knowing what "Totm" meant.... hahaha.  Theatre of the mind.  got it.  :-)
The main weakness of "theatre of the mind" is that it's all in YOUR mind, and transferring that to your players minds is a difficult task. "A picture is worth a thousand words"

Battlegrids have been an expected part of D&D since first edition; this is not a "new" 4th edition requirement. You don't have to spend a million dollars on stuff; using Lego minifigures or even army men is fine, and as long as you describe what's happening to the players, it'll be fine. 

Here's my suggestion.

1. Leave the table empty while doing roleplaying at the inn or palace or wherever.
2. When exploration happens, draw a map as the players move along--this will help your players focus on what you are telling them, rather than looking all over the map for where they think the treasure is.
3. Finally, when combat happens, DESCRIBE THE ROOM TO THE PLAYERS BEFORE YOU TELL THEM THAT THERE ARE MONSTERS. Anything you say after "orc" will be ignored. Just rely on map in front of the players; the 'feel' can be established by how you describe combat, but your players really need to be able to SEE things for when it comes down to "can I hit that guy or is he behind the wall."



I had never thought about that. That really good advice.

Big Model: Creative Agenda
Love 4e? Concerned about its future? join the Old Guard of 4th Edition
Reality Refracted: Social Contracts

My blog of random stuff 

Dreaming the Impossible Dream
Imagine a world where the first-time D&D player rolls stats, picks a race, picks a class, picks an alignment, and buys gear to create a character. Imagine if an experienced player, maybe the person helping our theoretical player learn the ropes, could also make a character by rolling ability scores and picking a race, class, feat, skills, class features, spells or powers, and so on. Those two players used different paths to build characters, but the system design allows them to play at the same table. -Mearl

"It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the publick to be the most anxious for its welfare." - Edmund Burke