Grid vs no-grid

This morning I read an article from one of my favourite gaming blogs, SlyFlourish. It is called The Tyranny of the Grid. Basically the author explains how a dependence on using a grid and miniatures can seriously limit the fun of RPGs. Specifically, it argues that an over reliance on grids can inhibit creativity and excitement.

It’s worth reading, but I wanted to address a few of the author’s points:

  • Antagonism: I also agree that using a grid can increase the feeling of antagonism between the players and the GM. I’ve experienced this first hand, actually. It’s as if moving miniatures around a few dungeon tiles taps into a primordial memory of war games. It’s weird
  • Cost: it’s very true that once you start buying things to support grid play, you can get really carried away. I followed Sly Flourish’s advice to get a Paizo flip-mat (they’re really great, actually), but once I finally acquired one I suddenly “needed” others for more varied colours/textures. The same with miniatures/tokens. I got one box set on Kijiji and then I found myself scouring the web for other packs of Pathfinder Pawns. It was harder than I thought to stop!
  • Scope: grids can also limit the scope of battle scenes. It’s as if once the GM draws out the exact dimensions of the cave or room, it can appear a lot smaller or less impressive to the players. They also feel more limited by what is drawn (or not drawn), reducing their perception of what is possible. That’s why I think you need to keep it partially abstract.
  • Railroading: this is a big one. If the GM has already drawn out, or acquired a set of miniatures and buildings to represent a special encounter, odds are that this GM will really want the players to go there. They are more likely to railroad the players. I’ve witnessed this as well (and I’ve been guilty of it!). So don’t spend too much time or resources on planning out an encounter because the players might not even go there!

On the other hand, a roughly drawn out scene with a few pawns to generally represent the  locations of various characters and objects can really help players visualise what is going on. I’d argue that it can make scenes more memorable and immersive.

So I will explain how I do a bit of both: a mix of theatre of the mind and gridding:

  • I use Paizo flip maps, which allow wet or dry erase markers. I only draw out a location if it is required in the game, never in advance (that’s what my GM notes are for). If the players engage a situation leading to a conflict (or straight out battle), I can whip up something quickly.
  • I use Pathfinder Pawns to show where everyone is in relation to each other. I don’t bother measuring 5-foot increments, though. They’re more for general guidance, not strict adherence.
  • I’ll use 4×6 note cards to represent special “zones” or objects of interest by writing things down on them (eg.: “fire”, “cart”).

I’ve found that this flexible use of physical elements at the table helps players visualise, strategize and focus on the encounter. Sly Flourish makes some great points, but I argue that some visual representation of encounter details has more benefits than drawbacks.

NOTE: the featured image includes photos that are not mine; I just hastily Photoshopped them together.

Useful links:

Some simple D&D 5e house rules

Most of these I came up with while running a successful year-long campaign:

Average Damage

Instead of rolling damage dice, I just use the average value listed in the Monster Manual. This has a few benefits: it’s faster, still within the rules and players don’t usually care at all. Critical hit? Use average damage plus a die roll. Or just double that average damage value.

Adjusting Monster HP

To make a monster easier to kill (eg: to make a band of mooks, portray a wounded or weakened foe, to speed up a lagging encounter or to lower the difficulty setting if the PCs are having lots of bad luck), give the monster its minimum possible HP. To make a tougher monster, go maximum (or close to it).

Diversify monsters by re-skinning

Use the stats of something simulating the effects that you like and change the descriptions. Change fire breath to death ray or cold resistance to poison resistance. I’ve re-skinned a giant aquatic psychic sea monster into a sentient evil tree and no one noticed.

Players reward Inspiration

Takes some extra work away from the GM who usually has enough to worry about already. Also, the GM gets to avoid giving the appearance of playing “favorites”.

Critical hit damage

Try this: apply maximum damage of that weapon plus another dice roll. So, for example, a short sword would deal 6 + d6 damage (not counting ability score bonuses). Makes each critical hit feel rewarding.

Extra effort

Player fails a skill check. Let them take a level of exhaustion to get a solid pass to represent tremendous effort or strain.

Featured image: Pillars of Pentegram by Larry Elmore

Why I prefer the term “Referee”

No it doesn’t have anything to do with hockey.

There are many terms out there in this hobby. Here are the ones that I know of:

  • Dungeon Master
  • Game Master
  • Storyteller
  • Narrator
  • MC (master of ceremonies)
  • Referee

I’ve chosen Referee to describe myself in this role. The reason?

Dungeon or Game Master implies, well mastery over the players. That my fellow gamers are my subordinates. I don’t feel that way and don’t want them to either.

Storyteller or Narrator implies that the story belongs to me; that I’m the one telling the tale. I don’t like this because roleplaying games should create a story organically through play. An RPG should not have a pre-written script or plot, in my opinion.

Referee sounds best to me because it implies impartiality or neutrality. I’m there just to say what happens when the player characters react or interact with the things that are presented to them. It doesn’t imply a position of dominance nor the pretentiousness of a story teller.

And that’s why!

As you were.