Visualising Combat in Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons was originally published as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures”. The use of miniature figures was mandatory, right? Well, even in the very early days, Gary Gygax was playing the game without miniatures. In fact, there weren’t all that many rules in the early D&D that actually required the use of miniatures; nothing like the rules of 3E and 4E, which presumed the use of a grid.

So, D&D can be played with or without miniatures. In fact, the new Starter Set doesn’t come with miniatures or tokens at all.

How does combat work without miniatures? The phrase we use to describe this type of play is “Theatre of the Mind”, and it’s worth looking at how combat works with miniatures first.

Note that although I’ll be using the word “miniatures” a lot, there’s nothing stopping you using any sort of physical representation for the characters and monsters. I’ve used coins, glass beads, bits of paper, lego pieces and chess pieces instead of miniatures. You can use whatever works for you, especially as amassing a good miniatures collection takes a lot of time and money.

Grid-based Combat

In grid-based combat, each miniature is placed on a battlemat, typically divided into 1 inch squares. Man-sized creatures fill a single square (1″x1″), Large creatures fill more space, typically 2″x2″ (Large) or 3″x3″ (Huge).

Each 1 inch square corresponds to a 5 foot by 5 foot (5′ x 5′) area in the game world. Occasionally, a distance like 30 feet is instead described as 6 squares.

Moving diagonally often causes a few problems – if you count each diagonal as 1 square, a character can travel further on the diagonal than straight ahead! For simplicity’s sake, both 4E and 5E default to this behaviour if you use a grid, but 3E counted each square as 1.5, rounded down. Thus a character with a 20 feet movement rate (4 squares) could only travel 3 squares diagonally.

The chief advantage grid-based combat has is precise positioning. When a wizard casts a fireball, it is easy to count squares from the blast point and work out which creatures are affected by the blast. Grid-based combat also allows for easy calculation of whether the flanking bonus applies – in both 3E and 4E, if two characters are on either side of a figure, they gain combat advantage against the figure, which gives a bonus to hit and allows some special abilities, such as sneak attack to work. You will notice that no such system exists in the new Dungeons & Dragons! Instead, sneak attack merely checks if an ally is adjacent to the opponent you’re sneak attacking!

The main disadvantages for grid-based combat are due to the extra detail it provides; it can slow things down, especially when characters are trying to best position themselves on the grid. I don’t feel it deals with large creatures very well, making them entirely too bulky – I preferred the 1″ bases of tall large creatures such as Ogres in 3rd Edition.

Both 3E and 4E do not actually have facing as part of the game; they assume that characters are constantly looking around themselves at threats. In certain forms of miniature combat, the way your miniature faces is the way your character is facing, allowing opponents to sneak up behind you. Can you turn in response? It was that problem that flanking was created to solve, but some may find it an unsatisfactory solution.

Just a note: one of the best investments you can make if playing grid-based combat is a quality battlemat – an erasable mat marked in 1″ squares which you can draw on with a dry erase marker. The one I use is the Basic Flipmat from Paizo; it’s a really great product. The really nice 3D Dungeon Tiles in the picture are from Dwarven Forge; they’re quite expensive.

Tabletop-based Combat

If you’ve ever seen a tabletop miniature game being played, such as Warhammer or Warmachine, you will notice that there is no grid. Instead, miniatures can stand in any position on the tabletop and rulers and tape measures are used to determine how far they can move.

Spell-effects tend to be template-based: pieces of paper, cardboard or plastic, cut into the shape that the spell affects, as measuring with a tape measure tends to be rather tricky.

This is the style of miniature play from which D&D is derived. How many characters can attack the monster? It’s how many can fit around it!

The advantage of this style of running combat is that, for the most part, it’s easier to move and arrange yourselves around monsters and have unusual terrain shapes – 1″ grids do tend to cause a few problems with diagonals and curves! However, it can get a little frustrating working out the corner cases: Am I moving too far? Is that fireball hitting the thief or not? Generally, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem in D&D…

The Tabletop of the Mind

Once you remove the miniatures (or tokens or pawns or whatever else you use), you move into running D&D in a style that is called “Theatre of the Mind”. And there are a couple of ways of running it. In my 3E or 4E games, I commonly used a method where there was still a grid-based representation of the combat, but it was all in my mind. My job as the DM was to describe it to the players and move them around the mind-grid in response to their actions.

There’s nothing particularly hard about this; it’s far easier than doing “blind chess” where you can’t see the board, as there are far fewer pieces involved. If you have a couple of dozen combatants, it will probably be easier to bring out the miniatures, but most combats won’t be that difficult.

When I run games using this style, the players’ jobs are to tell me in general terms what they want to do. “I want to hide!” “I want to run behind the ogre and attack him”. I’m not trying to trap them; I’ll tell them if they can or can’t do the action. “Yes, there’s a barrel nearby you can hide behind.” “There’s another ogre in the way, but if you take two rounds, you can do it then. Do you still want to do it?”

The great advantage of this style is that it really frees up the characters to do inventive actions. “I swing from the chandelier onto the ogre’s back!” You do need to describe things well, though.

The drawback, of course, is that the players might be imagining something entirely different from the situation you are! This can lead to great frustration at the table, and I know several players who much, much prefer to use some form of physical representation. (Sketching out the situation on a piece of paper from time to time can help a lot).

An Abstract Combat

The final method I use from time to time does away with precise positioning. There isn’t a tabletop, imagined or otherwise. Instead the combatants are described purely in relationship to how far they are away from each other, with the ranges basically being “Extreme Range”, “Long Range”, “Medium Range”, “Short Range” and “In Melee”.

A character can move between two range bands by using his normal movement, and can travel an extra band by dashing. So, if the group begin at Long Range, they can advance to Short Range if all they do is Move and Dash… meanwhile, the opponents can move closer as well, bringing them into Melee.

Characters in melee can strike opposition targets also in melee pretty much at will. Occasionally, I use a rule from AD&D which states that characters in melee choose their targets randomly, which evokes the chaotic nature of melee with combatants moving around all the time. Abilities like Sneak Attack, which require an ally adjacent to your opponent, are just allowed to occur if you still have another friend in the battle.

The basic rules for firing into melee sadly do not permit you to hit your allies. (In AD&D, you randomly selected which combatant – from either side – you actually attacked!) Instead I’d just apply the general +2 AC bonus for cover; the target likely has it from something!

Leaving the melee will provoke Opportunity Attacks unless disengage is used, and – in general – I wouldn’t allow a monster to break through the melee to engage spell-casters at the back unless the fighters have gone down or it’s a particularly wide open area.

To work out how spell-casting ranges work, Short is about 30′ or less, Medium is about 60′, Long is about 90-100′, and Extreme is anything you like above that.

Determining which monsters or characters are affected by spell effects like fireball is a lot trickier, and is the main problem with this form of combat. In general, at those points I try to make up a number that seems good based on the description of the combat. The goblins are spread out over a large area twice the area of the fireball? Then it hits half of them. The ogres are all clumped together in the front line with the rogue behind them? You can hit them all – and the thief! This is the most challenging part of running combat this way, and it’s something that you only get better at with experience. In general, I try to be generous to the players, without allowing them to always affect all the monsters.

In this mode of combat, the description of what is going on becomes a lot more important. It’s very easy to just devolve to “I hit for 15 damage” or “I miss”, but if you can describe what’s going on with more detail – “The orc screams in pain as you slash its chest.” “You duck and weave and the Ogre gets even angrier as he just… can’t… hit… you!” – then you can create some very memorable games. That said, it’s quite fine when learning the rules to just describe the basics. Or sometimes, I find that the mechanics of combat are far more interesting than any description we might use.

The advantage of this mode is that it requires nothing more than description, and it can really vividly bring the combats to life. The drawback is that, without precise positioning, there are combat abilities that just don’t work that well (shoving monsters about, for instance) and the trouble caused by area effects is a major consideration.

Concluding Comments

I’ve described four methods of running D&D combat above, with or without miniatures. Which do I use in my games? All of them! Not often all in the same session, but it’s certainly not uncommon for a group of characters fighting a lone ogre to not need miniatures at all, whilst when they end up being ambushed by goblins and bugbears, I break out the miniatures so that everyone has a clearer view of what is going on.

The main thing to understand about D&D combat is that it’s meant to be fun. Find out which method of play works best for you and your players, and use it. You get better with experience, and there are always new tricks to learn. Play the game, and enjoy yourselves!

About MerricB

Merric Blackman is a 40-something Australian who is fascinated by games: Role-playing games, board games and war games in particular. He writes about his experiences playing them and occasionally reviews something that has taken his fancy. He has also been known to read works of fiction.
This entry was posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design, Play Advice. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Visualising Combat in Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Izzy says:

    I started playing with AD&D. It was all theatre of the mind. Unfortunately, it really made it us vs the DM. If we didn’t describe exactly and unambiguously what we were doing, where we were, and what our reactions were, the DM would be sure to exploit it against us.

    Tactical combat (or grid-based combat, if you will) has a tremendous advantage. The distances are exact (well, within the limitations of a grid system). The positioning is known. Objects in the battle field are known (for example trees or barrels to hide behind).

    Additionally, some folk are better at envisioning the battle field than others.

    That said, the square grid is problematic. Beyond 4e and 5e’s square circles (that is a 20-ft radius blast hits a cube rather than a sphere), the diagonal movement solution in 3.5/pathfinder still feels inadequate. What really would have fixed this would be an evolution from a square grid to a hexagonal grid. Unfortunately, 5e didn’t see this solution either.


    • merricb says:

      The major problem with a hexagonal grid (which I love from BattleTech and my hex’n’counter wargames) actually comes from the fact so much play is in Dungeons! When you have rectangular walls and corridors, the square grid is easier than the hexagonal grid. One of my battlemats is hexes on one side and squares on the other, though I must admit I don’t use the hexes much.


      • What needs to happen is a major publisher designing maps using off-set squares, which have the best of both hex-based and squared-based grids. I’ve read–somewhere–that this really isn’t the best solution, but I like it. However, the only published piece using this design I’ve run across has been the field/board for Hasbro’s Battleball.


      • merricb says:

        I’ve seen offset squares from time to time in one product or another, although (of course) nothing comes to mind at the moment. They do handle some things a lot better, though you still get the problem of half-squares in a rectangular dungeon. And they’re really not that great for 10′ wide corridors!


  2. technotrooper says:

    Great article, Merric. I have been a little unclear how TotM combat works and you made this very clear–although I still prefer the use of miniatures. Thanks!


  3. Ibkevg says:

    I really like your suggestion to use all of the different methods. Allows you to streamline parts of the adventure that aren’t that important to the story for example, but also introduces some variety to the style of combat which should help people avoid becoming too rigid in their approach. So maybe the inventiveness seen with the gridless style will spill over into the mini/grid style.


  4. Tyler says:

    Love this article. Thank you. I’ve only been playing for just over a year and am DMing my first session Saturday. I’ve the 5e DMG and it says 1″ squares now equal 10′. This is breaking my mind on how that is exactly suppose to work for characters have a speed of 35 and an average sized creature occupying a 10′ square seems odd to me. Any advice? Just break it down to 5′ and scale the map up appropriately?


    • merricb says:

      G’day, Tyler!

      The “1 square=10 feet” (note it’s not “1 inch square=10 feet”) is a mapping convention for dungeons that dates from the earliest days of D&D. It’s done that way to easily represent the dungeon in an adventure. When you draw out a battle mat for your players, you still use the “1 inch square = 5 feet” scale – just doubling the dimensions of the dungeon map. (Check the rules for tactical maps on page 250 of the DMG).

      Note also that you can use the “1 square = 5 feet” when mapping the dungeon; the DMG does suggest this if you use miniatures a lot (page 102 of the DMG). In general, the bigger the dungeon, the more I prefer the “1 square=10 feet” for the purpose of the dungeon key.



  5. Rick says:

    I know this is old, but wanted to add my 2c. We use miniatures and use grids, but kind of without using the grids. We don’t worry about moving exactly 5feet per square and so on. It’s kind of Theatre of the Mind style but we just move our figures as far as the DM allows. If he says it’s too far thats ok, we just move our minis closer. The advantage is we’re not limited by rule limitations that stop that spectacular move. So if the wizard wants to charge in and do a spectacular thunderwave spell in the middle of the baddies, he can do it if the DM thinks it’s great for the story, without trying and realising he’s out by 5ft. It suits our style of play perfectly.


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