Monday, January 25, 2010

Battlemats: Bane of the Imagination?

I've been lurking other blogs for a while now, and all the talk about "Old-School" D&D, Grognards and B/X Editions has me thinking. I can't remember how to do combat without a battlemat anymore!

I clearly remember running combat in the good old days, before the invention of battlemats and 3rd edition rules, and there was hardly ever a question about tactics or distances or positioning. But ever since 3rd edition rules came out people, including myself, have come to rely on battlemats more and more. And with that dependancy, I believe, has come the downfall of imagination.

Now, every time a DM says "roll for initiative", the first thing the party says is "clear the table and get the mat!" and then it bogs down into a long, drawn out evening of "Can I shoot that orc with Black Dougal standing in my line of sight?" or "I'm going to move 6 squares, just inside the door so I can shoot my bow but the orc can't get an attack of opportunity."

I don't remember any of those discussions when I was younger. It was a much more evocative description by the DM, because if he wasn't very specific what the layout was, the players wouldn't get the image in their heads and understand what was going on. Granted, this system wasn't perfect and there was always some confusion and questions during the combat, but at least people were still using their imaginations and seeing the scene in front of them rather that seeing a bunch of squares.

Hell, we even had miniatures in those good old days, but we didn't have the big grid to force us into our static little 5' squares. We just sorta set them up on the table in a general idea of where things were and judged from there. Its almost become a totally different game once combat starts now. For half the night you play D&D, but when combat starts suddenly you're playing Warhammer. You have an entire section in the rulebook dedicated to how combat works on a table top format: what cone spells will look like on a grid, what cover looks like on a grid, how minis can move on a grid, how many spaces a large creature occupies on a grid, how far away a giant can hit you from on a grid.

I'm not saying its necessarily worse, but it is certainly more rigid and structured. The more rules you add to a game, the more hard-fast the game play begins. You lose the free-form, free-thinking of a "role-playing" game and create a room full of rules lawyers trying to prove they can do something by citing page 238 of the Dungeon Masters Guide II, paragraph 3 on the right had side, right under the picture example of cover and concealment. What happen to the DM have authority to make decisions in combat based on what he felt was right and would flow the best to keep the game exciting?

It's been so long since I played that way, I really don't think I could run combat without a battlemat anymore. I think part of my imagination was coup-de-graced by Chessex and that damned 24"x36" piece of vinyl.


  1. You're speaking my language.

    I'm torn between the visual interest and accuracy that battlemats and colorful minis provide, and the speed and unfettered imagination of a mini-less combat.

    I prefer the latter, but many swear on the former.

  2. I wish I could remember what it was like to play without a mat. I remember when graph paper was even a luxury let alone a nice vinyl, erasable mat.

  3. Ah well, you see, back in 1979 when I first started playing (my first system was 1e) the group of friends I joined used the cardboard dungeon floor tiles/plans by Games Workshop and of course if you used them, you used figures, which we did. So our use of figures and 'tiles' long predated the advent of 3e.

    I've commented on another blog about this, so I won't dwell on it, but not using figures was asking for trouble as arguments were always going to break out about who was where, who could reach what, what was in the way. Perhaps one day, I'll have to try a figure-less combat just to see what it was like.

    As for battlemats, when my former employer closed offices last October (thanks, Gordon!) I..ahem...liberated a whiteboard and a couple of marker pens and have this in storage for the day when I do a cave-based dungeon and things need drawing out that can't be represented by cardboard squares.

  4. Never used em, for AD&D. I just kept up with where everyone was, in my head. They would ask, when necessary, I would answer and there was no problem. The trick is, never introducing them to that bloody thing. A lost cause, nowadays.

  5. I've been debating using minis in my Swords & Wizardry campaign but I think it would bog things down. We've kept the combat abstract and it's worked fine and the game kept flowing. As fun as it may be I think I'm sticking to using just our imagination.

  6. Never used battlemats but we used minis. Basically as you did, to keep straight who was fighting who and relative positioning. No detailed tactical movement.

  7. I have just started a 4e campaign for my son (two sessions of that sent me screaming for the OSR, but that's another tale). I am somewhat appreciative of the battlemat, but do regret that the game seems to have degenerated into some sort of unholy love child of Heroscape and Magic: the Gathering.

    It takes me forever to set the dang thing up if there is any terrain involved.

    Combat does seem to run more smoothly, once you get it started. But that might have more to do with the more rigid rules concerning what actions can be taken (standard, move, minor, free) than the positioning on the board.

    When we used to play, there was sort of an understood front line, a mid range line and way back / fleeing area. Pretty much anyone could attack anyone if they were in the same area, and ranged attacks could hit the adjacent area. Once you were engaged, you were expected to fight that opponent unless (possibly difficult or dangerous) action was taken to move to another target. It seemed to work fine, although there were some bad arguments from time to time.

    I might try that again to speed things up.


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