This GM Is Burned Out On The Grid

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1021

It is amazing how RPGs can flex to accommodate our GMing preferences and style.

A game like Monopoly allows little difference each play.

But our beloved RPGs are marvellous in how many ways we can tweak and adapt them to match our individual and changing notions of what’s fun.

For example, RPT GM Jorge Gonzalez Martin asks about my combat preferences:

Hi Johnn,

How do you run combats? How do you feel about theatre of the mind game style? What style of game do you prefer — theatre of the mind or grid and minis?

I’m asking because I had a situation on my table. Basically, a riot among players. So I decided to disband one of the gaming groups.

I used to run theatre of the mind adventures, but started to use minis about a few years ago when I started to DM D&D 4E.

After quite some time I just got tired of running combats with miniatures. I felt it changed the game into a board game and it didn’t feel like role playing game anymore.

The game became tactical and the combats became slower. I even tried to set a time limit to solve this problem but that didn’t work.

The DM burden increased a lot!

It also encouraged the mentality of, “It has a mini and stats so we must kill it.”

The distraction on the game table increased a lot since the players had to wait for other players turn to end.

It forced me to use suboptimal tactics with monsters to give the players a chance to win.

I do like the use of minis but just didn’t enjoy the game in the same way anymore. Since for me at least it feels like a completely different game.

There’s lots to unpack there, and I feel badly for you Jorge that you had to disband a gaming group because of differences over style and preferences.

Today I want to focus on your combat questions.

Let’s first talk about driving carts with square wheels.

Choose Your Cart Well

For my D&D 5E campaign I prefer minis and grid. This setup eliminates so much confusion and visually conveys so much information it saves us a ton of time.

For other games, I am ok with theatre of the mind or grid.

It comes down to game system and player preferences.

If a game system is all about positioning and distance (cover, cones and lines, movement rates, opportunity attacks, terrain modifiers) I lean towards minis and grid.

If character and foe abilities and modifiers are about combat tactics, I lean towards minis and grid.

For example, take the default D&D 5E character sheet and highlight in yellow the parts that relate to tactical combat.

You pretty much get a yellow character sheet when done. The first page, at least.

Bucking a game system and making something that works against its design purpose should be a flag that you’ll have friction if you go against the design.

Fortunately, 5E supports theatre of the mind because you can ignore, change, and add rules for that mode of play without causing cracks in the core game.

But you mentioned 4E. And other games support minis and grid the same way. And I’d say if you have to hack something a great deal to make it fit, you are putting square wheels on your cart.

Find a game more suited to your vision — designed similar to your play style and GM philosophy from core outward — to experience smoother play, less work, and greater player synch.

Roleplaying is a Choice

You can roleplay in any game. Players bark as they move their doggie, make stepping motions with the shoe, or say “choo choo choo” with the train as they play Monopoly.

I believe grid and minis does not stop roleplay or limit it. Talk with your players about this.

My group, for example, does not assume a mini on the table means the NPC is a foe or should be attacked. It’s all in how you position and roleplay the NPCs, not whether they get a mini or not.

Grid and minis does not slow play down. Having a smooth initiative system, players paying attention and being ready for their turn, and understanding the rules are key drivers of round length in real time.

Designing combat missions instead of grinds, ending combats with roleplay instead of the last hit point, and creating dangerous combat locations will make your fights a lot shorter.

Good combat descriptions, creating foes with missions of their own, and designing foes with personality and aversion to pain and death will help you roleplay a lot more during melees.

Developing cool strategies and tactics before the session, mastering the rules to make foes more lethal, and taking advantage of location factors help you become the Sun Tzu of war and an amazing general for your factions and foes.

All these things are in your control and do not depend on minis and grid.

Talk With Your Players

You mentioned constraining foes to give players a chance to win.

You also mention distracted players taking too much time on their turns because they went into tactical mode.

What you want out of the game must overlap a lot with what players want.

Please have a chat with your remaining group(s). Come prepared to share what you love most about RPGs and what makes sessions fun for you.

Ask your players what parts of the game they like most, what they want to see more of, and what they want to see less of.

This chat, while possibly uncomfortable at first, will pay you more dividends than any Community Chance card ever will. Please have this conversation.

I agree that adding complexity to a game will slow it down. If you want combats to be fast affairs that do not dominate character sheets or player thinking, ensure your game system and house rules are congruent with this philosophy. And check your players feel the same.

Minis and grid fights can be very fast when you have designed them to be so and put a bit of effort into combat management.

Combats can have much drama and exciting stakes built into key rolls and outcomes when approached like a design and storytelling challenge for yourself, grid or no grid.

It’s Your Move

In my Hobo Prince campaign I will have both types of combats.

Now that the game has left the dungeon and switched back to sandbox mode, we’ll decide whether each fight needs the grid.

The Hobos can blast cities apart now if they want. Beating weaker foes in a world where most foes are weaker now means they must be more strategic.

An easy combat means theatre of the mind and done in minutes. While exciting, there will be consequences with faction alliances and villain responses.

Tough combats from Spikes of Danger or strong faction responses means minis and grid where my combat design hypotheses meet creative player tactics.

At this point you’d probably expect me to advertise my Faster Combat course. I’ve put it on hiatus, actually.

If you’re an existing Faster Combat member you have continued full access. I recommend refreshing yourself on the Visual Initiative lesson, and the Combat Design section for more details and ideas on what I’ve recommended Jorge consider.

Faster Combat will become part of a bigger adventure design and GMing course I’m working on. I’ve got an expanded table of contents built out for Faster Combat II that’ll dig a lot deeper into combat design, strategy, and storytelling.

Meantime though, Jorge, I advise stepping back a bit and thinking more holistically about your campaigns. If you are tired of grid combats, switch your games up. Be sure you don’t invalidate the design of characters or foil the preferences of your players. Have that chat.

Hopefully these tips help a little. Please let me know how it goes, Jorge.