Comments on 5e: The Grid

Again, this is simply a repost of an off-the-cuff rant to a blog entry at WOTC. Read it first, or this replay makes no sense.

An interesting fantasy, and I don’t mean the kind with elves. Now, let’s discuss how gridless combat really works, based on 34 years of actual play experience.

DM: The orcs charge around the corner! One attacks you, the others charge by to get the wizard!

Fighter: Like hell, I’m going to stop one with my axe!

DM: You can’t, they’re too far from you.

Fighter: You said this was a 10 foot corridor. My axe is five feet long. There’s no way I can’t get a swing at one of them!

DM: Sigh, fine. Uhm… the one on the right or on the left?

Fighter: I dunno, does it matter? Right. I roll a 19, I’m going to guess that hits, and, crap, 4 damage.

DM: OK, one of the orcs is wounded, they attack the wizard now.

Wizard: Can I cast a spell before they get here?

DM: Uhm… let’s see… they have a move of 6.. and you said you were “hanging back”… how far back, exactly, were you hanging?

Wizard (after doing some quick math in his head): Uhm… forty feet.

DM (eying him suspiciously): Well, then I guess you can get off a spell…

Wizard: Cool, I cast magic missile!

DM: At which orc?

Wizard: Uh… the wounded one. I roll…a 2. Smeg.

DM: OK, he’s still up.

Thief: I backstab him!

DM: You can’t.

Thief: Why?

DM: Because the wounded one is on the left and you’re sneaking in the shadows on the right.

Thief: Nuh-uh! I crossed over behind the wizard while he was casting. So I’m on the right.

DM: But the you’re in front of him, not behind him. You can’t backstab from the front. That’s why it’s a backstab.

Thief: Wait, wouldn’t he have to turn to look at the wizard who just magic missiled him?

Fighter: Hey, do I get a turn here? I’m going to charge the one that’s wounded. Death to the orcs!

DM: OK, as you turn to charge, the other orc, the one you’ve all been ignoring, attacks you from behind. +4 to attack! He hits, 12 damage!

Fighter: No way, I’d have backed away carefully and not let him do that!

DM: You’re going to back away carefully AND charge?

Fighter: I’m fourth level! Now, where’s the orc I’m trying to kill?

DM: He’s on the right… no… wait… I marked down the damage on two different orcs… uhm… which one was hit by the magic missile again?

And so it goes, in the REAL world. This is why I try to avoid any RPG without a tactical map (My systems of choice are GURPS, Hero, and D&D 3.x/PF/4e), and why when my group plays WOD or M&M, we *add* a tactical map, just so we always know where everyone is.

To elaborate: If there’s any possibility of conflict, confusion, or questions about “Can X do Y before A can do B?”, I really want the positions of characters marked as clearly as possible. The fact is, people imagine scenes differently, and fill in details based on their own expectations and assumptions which might not be shared by the entire group. Even something as simple as a barroom conversation turning into a barroom brawl can drag the game to a crawl when you try to establish where everyone was when the gameplay shifted from “roleplaying general milling around the area” to “Get to drawing, Screen Monkey!” (In other words, “We are about to engage in combat, oh respected Game Master. Please, draw us a tactical map of the region, so we may best engage in the enemy with full knowledge of our surroundings and his position.”)

“Theater Of The Mind” (Isn’t that White Wolf’s trademarked line of “Stand around in black clothes playing rock-paper-scissors” games?) works best if you’re into “telling a story”. It’s much less useful if you want to “find out what happens”, which is my preferred style of play. Contrary to what a lot of people like to assume or imply, disputes between the DM and players over the positioning of monsters, the relationship of various entities in space and time (and relative dimensions in space), whether or not you were standing in the area of the fireball, etc, are not necessarily due to immaturity, munchkinism, or competitiveness, but simply that people all have their own unique internal maps of the world, and in a complex conflict — anything worth playing out by the rules, as opposed to just saying, “Look, these guys aren’t remotely a threat, you have them at your mercy inside of 5 seconds” — you will have far too many factors to easily keep straight. It’s very easy for one player to not have heard another player say he’s moving across the room, thus placing him in the path of the first player’s lightning bolt, shotgun blast, or grenade. If one hobgoblin is knocked prone, it’s easy to say, “I attack the one on the ground”, but if there’s two of them, you need some other qualifier (“Uhm… the one on the ground who looks more wounded…”) and it quickly scales up from there. Within a player’s mind, often consumed with trying to juggle awareness of what everyone else is doing (pretty much the same, in a major battle, as trying to play mental chess), the distinction between “I plan to walk over there” and “I told the DM I walked over there” is easy to blur; likewise, “I run next to the orc” might imply a completely different orc to the DM and to you, and so on. The potential for conflict and confusion is high. I mean, as my players will be happy to attest, even with the aid of miniatures and a grid, I often mix up which figure has the Ongoing 5 (save ends) and which is Dazed Until The End Of The Next Turn. Now, you might reply, “Well, that’s what happens when you’ve got all those rules and conditions and powers. Keep things simple!” Just one problem — simple is boring. Calling one sack of hit point an “orc” and another sack of hit points with exactly the same combat abilities, except one spot higher on the attack chart, a “hobgoblin” is boring, boring, boring. I like my monsters and NPCs to have the same array of potential abilities as the PCs.

Obviously, if 5e is going to try to make the “one hour adventure” a design goal — and they are — they’re going to default to very simple monsters and very basic fights and tactics, leaving anything more complex than “I swing!” up to the judgment of the DM, which basically means pixelbitching until you find out what he expects you to do. I hope that the initial rules include grid based combat as a “core module”, though. If I have to wait six months or a year to get a combat system that is more than “Hey, everyone, let’s make up a fun story about how we killed some orcs”, that’s six months to a year I won’t be playing D&D, which kind of makes the idea of “unifying the base” an abject failure. So, here’s hoping they don’t do that.


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7 Responses to Comments on 5e: The Grid

  1. So… I just wrote you a long response, which WordPress then ate because it had a Captcha error…

    And of course, I trusted the machine and didn’t copy it first and so lost everything I wrote.

    Suffice it to say… I enjoy reading your blog (no sarcasm at all in this) because it reminds me that there are people out there who have radically different ideas about gaming from me and play in a radically different style.

    I agree with you that Wizards is likely going to fail in their D&D for Everybody approach. I disagree with just about everything else in this post. But it’s entirely too exhausting to try and recreate that response right now… maybe I’ll try again later.


  2. Lizard says:

    I feel your pain, re:Losing messages. I’ve developed a habit of Ctrl-a, Ctrl-c, notedpad, ctrl-v for any long post before I press “Send”. If it’s not a capcha error, it’s an internet glitch, timeout because I spent an hour writing the message (and the Internet assumes a ten minute attention span, at best), etc.

    I’d love a “D&D for everyone”; I love scalable systems, in general, where I can have as much or as little detail in an area as possible. I just have trouble seeing it work in D&D, especially with combat. How do you make a monster which challenges characters built using 1e/Basic methods (“I’m a fighter. I roll to hit. The end.”) AND which challenges someone built using 3e/4e methods? (“I’m a Two-Weapon Fighter (Mercenary Template) with Improved Critical, Bleeding Critical, four different Combat Tricks, and 5 Proficiency Points I can use to add special features to each of my attacks.” (I am making up some of these mechanics, but you get the idea.)) A lot of the rogue’s abilities in 3e, for example, dealt with avoiding AOOs; remove the grid, and those abilities might as well be “Improved Flower Arranging”. So, then, what does the rogue get in compensation, assuming that the class was balanced in part due to those abilities, which he now never gets? About the only thing I can think of is trying to tie class abilities, feats, or powers to the “modules” that use them, so “If you’re using tactical combat, rogues get +4 vs. opportunity attacks”, which is the sort of thing that works when the game is small (initial core release) but explodes to a nightmare of complexity when more modules are added, even worse if the modules are fine-grained — maybe you want a hex grid for movement but no AOOs, or you don’t use a grid, but have a simplified abstraction for AOOs (“Anytime someone moves past an armed combatant, that combatant can make a melee attack. In addition, the DM may rule some actions are complex or distracting enough (such as rooting through a bag for spell components, or trying to bandage a fallen ally) that an adjacent enemy can swing at the character as he performs the action.”)

    I won’t say it’s *impossible*. I will say, “It’s difficult, and the usual end result of trying to please everybody is pleasing nobody.”

    One thing which has occurred to me is that, to a certain extent, there’s only two real editions of D&D: 1974-1999, and 2000-Present. Those editions, other than sharing some very basic terms and a few conceptual similarities, are very different in mechanics and game philosophy, and trying to hammer them together into one unified edition is like trying to jam a square peg into you can’t make it drink.

    No, that’s not a typo.

    • Yeah, it sucks to lose a post. I usually do copy them when I’m on blogger but that’s the first one I’ve ever had eaten by WordPress. I’ll do it everywhere now.

      I agree with you – not Impossible but highly unlikely/improbable. I mean, just looking at something as simple as your point here… your groups ADD the grid to games that specifically don’t use it (M&M, WoD) and I do everything I can to take it out whenever possible. We’d have an awkward time gaming at the same table with a set of rules trying to accomodate us both.

      I think the points you make in your comment are spot on too. It’s not just “grid vs. no-grid” but also all the little rules that spawn from grid/no-grid. It really is like your final statement — square peg, no drink.

      As someone who has been around D&D a long time too though, I think 4E and 3/3.5 are conceptually different enough to say that they don’t fall in with each other as much as OD&D,1E, early 2E do. I’d say that late 2E was conceptually already thinking a little like 3E (I’m talking about Kits, Skills&Powers, etc.)

  3. Pingback: 5E, Friday, Fundamental Disagreement… « The Rhetorical Gamer

  4. I join among those that have lost a post ๐Ÿ˜› I tried to send from my mobile, but I just keep getting captcha error, and I don’t seem able to copy the text to clipboard from this textarea. So, I’ll just write it again here.

    I kind of missed those games you described ๐Ÿ™‚ on the other hand, I played such games mainly in very small groups and lead by a very good gm.

    I used to have an in-between option in my earlier 3E and Star Wars games, which worked really well. I used miniatures on tabletop but without the grid, using approximate distances, sometimes measuring with a side of a card. It worked really well in rpg’s (but I hate measuring in miniature games), and I tended to be generous towards pc’s, rounding distances a bit so player’s charge isn’t declined because the target is 1/3″ too far etc.

    But my 4E group insisted on grid because of the very mechanical nature of the game, and after using grid since beginning of 4E I’m afraid I can’t go back to gridless, even if I wanted to. I’m currently using Savage Worlds which has solid tabletop mechanics but without a grid, but I’m so used to grid I’m converting distances into squares – thankfully the game uses inches to measure distances so it’s almost automatic.

    But I still think gridless map would work better for a roleplaying game. Even if the combat is tactical, it’s not competitive like in rpg’s, and a gamemaster should be able to be a fair referee for unclear situations.

  5. Banesfinger says:

    One small thing to add to the ‘grids or no grids’ debate:


    Don’t forget the love that these little plastic figures bring. Some players/DMs love to show-off their mini’s. Some love to make the scale sets/terrain. Well painted mini’s and terrain are always appreciated, as much for their aesthetic value as their tactical value.

  6. Andas says:

    I am more in the use figures as representation catagory – although we had to use a grid in some of the games. One of the gamers had an imagination problem. He imagined that he was everywhere at once ๐Ÿ™‚

    Every one I know stopped playing D&D when it went to 4E. My first reaction was “They are trying to make it into a tabletop MMO” It really didn’t appeal to us.

    Pathfinder is ok, but I pine for the days of more imagination. The GM makes all the difference and the current ones are a little young yet ๐Ÿ™‚

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