There have always been two camps when it comes to grids and distance figures in tabletop gaming – one somewhere over there-ish, and the other precisely 17.8 degrees to the left.
When it comes to combat, consistency and exactitude have often been the siren song of those who love game maps and miniatures and are careful with specific positioning and movement, but there’s a similar argument that too much exactness gets in the way of the fun when a clever trick or epic moment is spoiled by coming up five feet short. In any given player group, you’re likely to wind up with a variety of player preferences on which is better, and this is one case where a blend of the two is often worse than either extreme.
But where a blend usually fails, a mix can pay dividends, even for groups who’ve always favored one method or the other. It’s just a matter of knowing when to use which, and how to handle the sometimes awkward transitions between.
The Science of Relativity
First, let’s talk exactitude and why some groups refuse to live without it. Narrative descriptions of the immediate environment in game often rely heavily on assumptions the players have about the sort of setting they’re in. If you say the PCs are in a bar, they expect tables and chairs, patrons, perhaps pool tables and a dart board somewhere within the tight-quarters environment. If you say a ruined temple, it’s pews and an altar, likely high ceilings and windows, statues in the corners, that sort of thing.
But if you and your players are making different assumptions about what’s where and what shape it takes, they may make plans that run against the grain of the picture you have in your head of the battlefield. They can run into, trip over, or not realize they can hide behind fixtures you didn’t accurately or clearly describe and place. No one wants to be patching themselves up after a hard-fought exchange only to find out they were standing next to perfect cover the whole time and didn’t realize it.
Maps, naturally, help alleviate the problem by removing most of the doubt and confusion about what’s where and what options are available, which the strategists in your group will appreciate.
The downsides to exactitude is that once you’ve started it, it’s an all-or-nothing approach. Maps aren’t very much help unless they’re on a consistent scale, and they bring with them the tacit promise that everything in the room will be itemized and accounted for, so anything not on the map doesn’t exist in the scene, which may limit the players from surprising the GM by using their environment in clever ways you haven’t accounted for yet.
A more general narrative of “you’re in an abandoned theater” gives most players a starting point to ask questions. Rather than forcing them to figure out the math, it encourages players to ask more to-the-point questions like “can I reach the stage this round with time enough left to do anything else?” It allows the GM to fudge the numbers with tactical movement exactly like with dice rolls, and for all the same reasons: wanting to reward players for creative ideas or prolong a fight to up the tension and sense of danger.
But when all distances are relative, it’s easy to forget what you told one player a few rounds ago when the same distance comes up. If someone runs from the lobby to the stage in a single round, but then another PC can’t catch the fleeing bad guy crossing the same distance in the opposite direction later in the fight, the second player may rightly feel cheated.
Worse still, your planning players can’t think further ahead than the next move, because they don’t know what you’ll answer two rounds from now. They’re operating in a state of flux that can be discouraging and drive them toward more reckless, immediate action that’s a lot less satisfying for both you and them.
So if neither system is great all the time, when do you use which?
Generally speaking, use exact measurements when…
- The combat happens in tight spaces where it’s difficult NOT to interact with the environment
- Cover is plentiful (any structure with tables, doorways or corners to fire around)
- The combat is mobile (a chase through crowded streets or the halls of an enemy stronghold)
- Vision is hampered by the environment (anywhere dark or foggy, anywhere with doorways, hatches or corners)
By contrast, fall back to narrative relativity when…
- The battlefield is wide open (like a massive cavern, cathedral or open field)
- None of the fixtures in the room are usable for cover or would force someone to change their path
- The environment is regular and predictable (the steps going up a tower, uncrowded city streets)
- The fight is meant to be quick and low-stakes, where death and serious injury are extremely unlikely
Since neither method works for every situation, your optimal solution involves a lot of switching back and forth, which for a lot of GMs and players seems pretty sub-optimal from the start. The simple math you have to consider is this: do the benefits of using the right method for the situation outweigh the disruption caused by switching between?
It can be jarring for your players not knowing which way you’re going to handle the positioning in combat, so start by prepping them for the fact that it won’t be one way all the time. When they know a fight is coming, give them a hint which way you plan to rule it as far as mapping goes. If the players at least know to expect that the method will change, and why, it can help abate any worry from either your strategists or your narrators by helping them know how to prepare.
One other thing to avoid is too much back-and-forth between the two methods. If every other fight uses a different mapping style from the one before it, the game plays a bit like the chorus of a children’s song, which gets tedious for the players quickly. If your group has classically favored one form over the other, continue to favor the same method, and instead sprinkle in the alternative approach where it’s most fitting: the biggest, most complicated fights for exact mapping; the smallest, quickest action for relative abstraction.
You may find that, before long, your group starts to favor a more mixed method and has less trouble switching between at a moment’s notice. And when your group is that nimble, all kinds of movement become possible.