There are two main ways that you can play Dungeons and Dragons, and they primarily resolve around combat. Do you do combat in theater of the mind or do you have a battle map with minis? There are some people that are going to prefer it either way, but that’s spoiling the ending of the article.
Theater of the Mind
With Theater of the Mind, the combat takes place in the peoples heads. If Jane’s Dwarf is charging the Vampire on the far side of the room, there’s nothing physical to represent you getting closer together, you are all just picturing what is looks like in your heads. The chandelier and balcony that might be in the room are also these concepts floating around. And if you need there to be two chandeliers instead of one, you can change that up on the fly.
That’s one of the big advantages of theater of the mind, if the player wants there to be a giant pile of straw beneath the edge of the loft in the barn, there totally can be. If the bad guys are in a tough spot, can they cut a rope and ride up to the ceiling as a chandelier drops to the ground? You better believe they can do that. Your combat on a mountain can have everything that you want it to have, even surfing down an avalanche fighting the bad guys as you go until the avalanche peters out.
The downside to this is always, the question, are they in range? I really want to cast fireball, are the bad guys in range, how about for magic missile, how about for acid spray? Or someone having a different idea of what it looks like on the battlefield than you do. It’s something that as players and DM’s you have to be flexible and ready to describe what you see the battle looking like so that everyone can get on the same page.
Mini Combat/Tactical Combat
This type of combat takes place on a battle grid/battle map with minis of the monsters and the players so that they know where they are. Basically everything in the room is drawn out on the board. When you are planning out your attacks, you know where everyone is and can discuss strategy more so than you would in theater of the mind because the map is laid out in front of you.
The main advantage to this is that everyone knows precisely where everything is and how close they are to everyone. If they want to cast fireball, the player can see how many monsters they can catch in the blast. Everything in the room is also there so you can describe your actions more clearly if you aren’t great at remembering the details of what the place looked like or aren’t great at adding things on the fly, so it can help spark creativity that way.
The downside is that there are clearly drawn limits on the board. The hayloft that is partly over the barn is hard to have because you can’t see what’s under the hayloft. If there’s only one chandelier on the map, there’s one chandelier on the map. So nothing can be abstracted and if someone wants to try to do something, say run across a table and take a flying dive at a bad guy, it might take them a couple of rounds because that’s what the grids say, so you lose some of the cool moments of the DM being able to say, “You do that, give me a dexterity check to see how it goes.”
Which is Better?
So, I said that either of them is fine at the start of the article, and after writing out my thoughts, I agree with myself still. Either of them is fine, it depends on the group and it depends on the situation. I personally primarily run theater of the mind because I don’t have to come up with anything extra. If there needs to be a combat because someone slapped the king, there’s no rushing to draw a battle map, the combat can just start. However, at the end of Season One of Dungeons and Flagons, we used a battle map and tactical combat. So I can make it work both ways. If I were to suggest something, I’d suggest doing primarily theater of the mind with a little tactical combat thrown in.
The reason I say that is because that makes your big boss battles feel more special. You have this visual aspect that makes that battle feel unique and special as the story winds down. But it also takes a lot of work off of the DM’s plate by having most of it being theater of the mind. When you are drawing a map or building terrain and buying minis it can take a lot of time, a lot of money, or both. Or, in my case, it can take a fair amount of artistic skill that I don’t have (yet).
But it really does come down to your group, maybe your group would have too much trouble wrapping their head around distances in combat if it’s all theater of the mind. I’ve been trying, as I play to set it up better where things are either in range or they aren’t, not to break it down into how many feet someone is away, because that means a whole lot more mental math for me, and I do enough math in real life as it is. Abstracting those things out can bug some players though, so be careful while doing that and know your group.
Do you have a preferred way of combat in D&D? Do you prefer it to be tactical or theater of the mind?
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