A few weeks back, a DnD Next blog came out about ToTM (Theatre of the Mind) vs Grid based combat. A follow-up came out recently. Boy have these articles stimulated some internet inches (yards…) of comment! Its clear from the commentary that there is definitely a focus on coping with both these styles (and hybrid styles) in the new rules, which is good. Hopefully we’ll find out how very soon…
As I’ve mentioned before, my current DMing is almost totally in the ‘Grid’ camp as that’s what my kids enjoy with D&D combat, and that’s fine as far as I’m concerned. In the D&D (Basic D&D,1e and 2e) campaigns of my youth however, ToTM was more common, with a sketch map used for bigger combats. I was probably more likely to use a map if the combat was outside, where ranged weapons and character movement were more important (there’s only so many tactical moves you can use in a 10′ corridor…).
I fully support the design goal that DnD Next needs to support the range of options – but what gets me is the concept that this was not the case in any version of D&D. I mean, take a look at this from the Moldvay ‘Red Book’:
This is clearly a rule that lends itself to the use of miniatures and a map/grid. As in fact the rule-book states (p B26):
USING FIGURES: Miniature figures are useful during combat for both the DM and the players, so that they may “see” what is happening. If miniatures are not being used, theDM should draw on a piece of paper, or use something (dice work nicely) to represent the characters in place of miniature figures.
Note you don’t have to use miniatures or a grid – but in my opinion with a rule like this that is clearly based on spatial conditions, if you don’t use them, you’re hand-waving the rule i.e. making a judgement as to which of the dragon’s enemies are caught in the breath weapon area of effect! I not saying this is a wrong way to play, but it clearly goes against applying the rule precisely.
(As an aside, why didn’t we use minis and a grid more extensively back then? Well I think one answer is that back in early 1980s, we didn’t have access to the computer tools to produce great maps and tokens like we can today, and access to colour printers was unheard of… plus the fact that I lived in New Zealand, where getting hold of minis meant expensive postage and import duty – i.e. out of the range of a teenager!!)
So fast forward then to 4E, and in my opinion the situation is exactly the same. Although character powers and monster stats are more codified than they were in earlier editions in terms of grid usage, they can still be applied to ToTM type combats. For example, take a (common) power which allows you to ‘shift’ after an attack. This has a clearly defined grid-based mechanic associated with it, but it’s also a narrative point meant to reflect a nimble attack: “I dance in, strike with my dagger, and then swiftly leap back the orc can slash at me.” ‘Push’, ‘Pull’ type powers , or ones that apply a condition (Knock Prone…) are all just as applicable in a narrative style combat.
I agree that the way the rules are written imply the use of a grid and miniatures, but there is nothing that prevents you playing your combats in the way your group want to … and in my experience that holds true for all editions!
Dnd Next Playtest eve…
In any case, some of the speculation around this will vanish tomorrow when we (the general public) get our hands on the first public playtest materials. From the little tidbits of information and rumour flying around, it seems this initial release will seem a lot like Basic D&D, even having ‘Caves of Chaos’ as the playtest scenario!
I’m really looking forward to seeing this, and playing it through with my kids – they have taken to 4E D&D really well, and we’ve had a blast with that edition, so it will be very interesting to see how this goes.
However, I must admit that I’m not much looking forward to reading the comments boards in the wake of this. Tbh, I’m sick of the self-centred viewpoints that appear with alarming regularity (“If it doesn’t do X, I’m not interested…”) – can I remind people that every group plays D&D in the way that suits them, and the rules should allow for this. However, we can’t expect this initial playtest to cover everything – its simply going to be the core of a system which can grow elegantly (we hope…) to encompass the full range. So lets all keep that in mind and concentrate on giving constructive feedback on what’s there, not on what’s not …
Happy DnD Next Gaming!