Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Off the Grid

I have a love/hate thing going with tactical movement, minis, and play mats.  When 3.0 first came out, I was actually pretty excited to having minis more integrated into the play experience.  I thought that adding tactical movement, rules governing movement and positioning, and the like really added something to the game that had not previously been emphasized, that being actual tactics.

After reading way too many novels about heroes spinning around and looking for the perfect spot to stand to defeat their opponent, maneuvering for the high ground, fighting back to back, and flanking opponents, I was thrilled that you could actually do these things in game.

Years later, I'm less enamored of the idea.  It was fun for me, but it also created a lot of rules that I'm not sure needed to be invented in order to make sure that the concept of representational combat was fully integrated into the ruleset.

The more I thought about it, the more some of my best free form GM moments came from not having a grid and minis to show exactly where everything was.  Heck, the d20 tendency to have different sized creatures take up a standardized square actually turns rooms that would be, in real life, fairly large, into claustrophobic nightmares.

The limits of the play mat really hit me last year or so when I had a player with a sniper character concept in Star Wars Saga.  I wanted to draw spectacular maps, and provide cover and terrain and elevation and the like.  However, there is no way I could have drawn enough map to give the sniper what he really needed.

In fact, Saga, while less "fiddly" about movement and provoking rules than other d20 games, still suffered from everything being defined by the grid.  Oddly, I've yet to see the grid that could handle the functional ranges of a lot of the weapons in the game.  It created an odd dichotomy for me, where I had to write out where the long range types were on graph paper with distance notes, and then have the nice detailed map for the melee and pistol types.

That was when I really started wondering what it would be like to go back to the days of my youth and ditch the play mat.  I never did it in Star Wars Saga, because I didn't want to disappoint any players that might have been banking on their character taking various movement and position based abilities, or that just didn't want to mess with the rules as presented.

I also noticed that it contributed to my aversion to "on the fly" combats in Pathfinder.  I hated drawing maps off the top of my head, so I tried very hard to figure out every possible combat in a given scenario, which led to me creating a ton of maps that I never used, because I wanted to be prepared.

When I first started planning my DC Adventures game, I was very excited, and somewhat scared as well, because I was going to go off the grid for the first time in years.  For a while, I pondered looking into the optional minis rules in the Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Edition Mastermind's Manual.  In the end, I realized I wanted to take the plunge.

Amusingly I had one player as how not having minis or a tactical map was going to work.

So far I have had a blast.  I think a lot more game time is dedicated to telling a story and playing the game when I don't have to whip out maps and minis and I spend a lot more prep time working on story and background than on maps that I'm never happy with when I draw them myself.

I liked it so much that I've floated the idea to my players in my Hellfrost game of using the "without minis" rules from the Savage Worlds Deluxe PDF.

I'm not saying that play mats and minis are bad.  I am saying that I feel a bit more free as a GM when I personally don't use them.  Sometimes it's good to isolate your own strengths and weaknesses and learn how to live within them.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Ever played Dark Heresy?

    DH is designed with a tabletop in mind, and all of the movement is measured in squares, each square equals a meter, and most characters move an average of 3-4 meters in a single move action. Pretty straightforward stuff until you factor in the upper limits of ranged weapons...

    - the shortest range being 10m (for a hand flamer, a melta pistol, or bolas), and the longest that can feasibly be available to/carried by a fresh character being 150m (for a sniper rifle); most ranged weapons sit around 30m/pistols and 90m/rifles on average -

    ... you begin to see maps like this one <- that's a link, click it. And that's just the map from the mandatory back-of-the-corebook adventure. The scale/scope increases exponentially as the game progresses - think 20-story, factory-wide gunfights. Despite the obvious issue of not having a table available on this continent (or the next over) big enough to accommodate the maps you would need to play the game, the one saving grace the system supports is that thematic combat works out really well so long as everyone understands the basic concepts of the game (cover, pinning, overwatch, etcetera), and it all works out beautifully - until some bastard pulls out a melee weapon or psychic powers (or worse: both) - at which point it all goes Pete Tong faster than you can spot a belligerent drunk guy on Green Street.

    Either way, my belated (as per usual) point in all of this is that a lot of systems lend themselves to combat with specific rules for specific circumstances, which all generally require specific grids mapping it all out, and though moving away from those conventions generally causes more of a headache than it's worth, I don't know many people with the income, or free time to dedicate to both a titanic table of epic proportions, and drawing out the minutiae of every bit of cover, on the playmat, so it ends up being headache or bust.

    Still, it's a small comfort that lots of systems are not only playable, but better enjoyed without a stack of maps cluttering the table, Mutants & Masterminds does especially well in the thematic/cinematic department.

  3. Personally, I can't stand using models. Occasionally it is necessary, though. When that happens, we resort to my wife's Galactic Heroes toys and the biggest piece of paper/floor we can.

    In my mind, properly prepared minis are for a different game entirely.