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Top 5 ways to run a game without a grid map

Written by Expy - Published on January 22, 2008

Who needs a gridmap?

You forgot your gridmap?  Or your minis?  Or you need a change of pace for your campaign? Here a 5 ways to replace the battlemat.

Top 5 ways to run a game without a grid map

  • Whiteboard or chalkboard
    • When I was in college I would often get together with some friends and play one of the 14 ongoing campaigns I was playing in.  We’d sneak into a vacant classroom and play D&D, Vampire, or whatever was hot back in the 90s.  Anyhow, what I want to say is that having a large surface to draw battle zones on like a classroom chalkboard often led to creative combat scenes.  I even ran a few D&D tournaments on chalkboards.
  • Description only
    • If you’re a good storyteller and narrator you could describe all of the action.  I’ve done it a few times when I was GMing a Mage: The Ascension game.  With a minimum of preparation it can go smoothly.
  • Go diceless
    • This approach really encourages players to be creative.  Let the players know that their characters are mor e likely to succeed if their actions are well described and encourage superstardom by rewarding bold decisions.
  • Kindergarden comes in handy
    • You can tape sheets of paper together and draw a grid map!
  • Avoid combat
    • This might only be possible if you have some non-combat encounters planned or if you’re running an investigative campaign.  If you plan on avoiding combat, your players might still get their characters in trouble.  So keep an open and resort to one of the other techniques to handle the possible combat encounters.

I hope you have a blast next time you get to play without your grid battlemap.

PS: Does anyone use online tools to run combat? Let me know.

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26 Responses to “Top 5 ways to run a game without a grid map”
  1. Sandrinnad says:

    Good suggestions, I especially like the chalk/white board idea.

    In combat I like to have something a little more solid – this is what we’ve done:

    Have everyone pick a favorite die to represent their character (or do origami, or use an eraser, or something) and use a bunch of your spare d4s (or whatever you have the right number of that are distinguishable from what’s representing the PCs) for the other side. Place them on the table in their approximate positions and have-at’er.

    It’s an approximation, but it is a roleplaying game….not a miniatures game.

  2. Yax says:

    I agree. You really can’t let lack of good minis keep you away from rpg-ing.

  3. Asmor says:

    It really depends on the game, and the players.

    I could never, ever, ever run anything beyond the most basic combat in D&D without a map, because the map is an integral part of the movement system. It also really annoys me as a player when a DM running Dungeons & Dragons does the map half-assed, such as by plopping a stuffed animal down or drawing a kraken onto the map without explicitly defining which squares the thing’s in.

    On the other hand, I’d have no problem going mapless with Savage Worlds. I do prefer using a… map, for lack of a better term, though. I like just sticking some stuff out as terrain and using a tape measure as opposed to a grid.

    D20 and Savage Worlds seem to be exceptions in my RPG experience, though, as most other games put comparatively little emphasis on movement rules, and sometimes even combat rules altogether. In those cases I’d prefer to go without a map.

  4. Asmor says:

    err, change “integral part of the movement system” to “integral part of the combat system” in my post above.

  5. I prefer using no maps because I’m not that interested in combat per so. But my players love it. Depending on who’s sitting at the table I sometimes run smaller fights without a battlemap. Check out my notes on playing without a battlemap.

  6. Maikl says:

    I have NEVER EVER used D&D miniatures. We always use dices :)

  7. I’m actually a pretty big fan of running without a GRID map. I love having a map, and I love using whiteboard, but having a grid has been usually unnecessary to me. However, I don’t run DND very often. If I’m running a DND game, then it is pretty essential to have the grid.

    They sell, for about 4 dollars, a dry erase tile at big box hardware stores. It is about 2 ft by 2ft dry erase surface on a particle board kind of back. It is pretty sturdy and can be cut up into smaller chunks with a saw. It is really kind of nifty, and cheaper than the dry erase boards you can find at big box office stores. I’ve also done the taping sheets together thing. A permanent marker and a pile of scrap paper has helped make some HUGE maps in the past.

  8. Saragon says:

    My current DM doesn’t really bother with a grid — I can only describe him as a “dice-mapper”. Mid-sized dice are Medium creatures, tiny dice are Small creatures, etc; even the terrain is marked out by similarly-shaped or -colored dice. Highly inaccurate, but VERY easily modified, which actually makes big terrain-shaping effects or battlefield-control spells fun.

    I have used GameTable before, and it’s a very good piece of software; but I do find it a little difficult to get into the moment when using it. Perhaps I’ve played too many strategy video games, but I always start approaching the game from that perspective when using a computerized grid. Not always a bad thing, but it does get very emotionless.

  9. Yax says:

    I didn’t expect so many people to just wing it with dice! Now that the minis game is available it’s nice to have a better option for miniatures.

    Are all sales of d&d minis in random booster packs or can you buy only the figurines you need?

  10. If you aren’t talking a the secondary market Yax, then yes all offical D&D miniatures are only available randomly except the iconic dragons.

    I use Minis and battlemaps because
    1) I spent so damn much on them
    2) It makes combat look so cool.
    3) We like it!

  11. Yax says:

    Thanks for confirming, Chatty.

  12. Sandrinnad says:

    Dice are the gods of the game – if you can’t do it with dice, it shouldn’t be done ;)

  13. Saragon says:

    Yax and Sandrinnad – our dice-based mapping has actually gotten pretty complicated. The party usually ends up being marked out with a particular set of dice (heavy steel), down to the appropriate die for our hit die sizes; and since my DM collects unusual dice, we can usually have nearly-accurate sizing up to Huge. Trees, rivers, walls, mirror images – it all ends up being mapped out. Unfortunately, as I said before it’s VERY inaccurate without a grid, and that’s caused some headaches before when the DM and I didn’t eyeball distances in the same way.

  14. Maikl says:

    I use dices and/or pencil becouse D&D minis are so bloody expensive for me and also my players aren’t big fans of them.

  15. Yax says:

    I haven’t bought minis in a while, but I get the feeling the feeling that we’re better off now, with the plastic minis in random packs, than before with the metal minis. These metal minis were so expensive and sometimes impossible to assemble.

  16. Merric’s Law of Miniatures: Non-Random Packaging, Cheap Prices, and a Large Range of Figures: Choose two.

    :)

  17. Yax says:

    I like these laws. I’d like 3, but I can handle 2 choices.

  18. Sparky says:

    I also hate using grid maps. In all the games I have played, every map is hand drawn. Usually to how someone describes it. Heck some of my maps are just a series of lines, branching of either left or right, just showing where they have been.

    Also going diceless has been a huge increase in my groups RPing. Now we sit around, pop in a movie, and RP in one of the many campaigns we have (mostly now they are modern to future, with one Group of heros being used the most). Its fun not having to worry about dice and rules, everything is decided by coin, rock/paper/scissors, or whatever sounds the coolest at the time.

    Also a nice smaller substitute to a white board (which we do use when available) is a sheet of paper (any white paper will do) in a sheet protector. You can use dry erase markers and wipe it off. Great cheap replacement, and I have hundreds because all of my maps and notes (common used charts and graphs) are in 3 ring binders for each player.

  19. ScottM says:

    For D&D, I’m very happy with grids and tactiles. For everything else, a quick sketch and or clear descriptions are all that’s necessary.

  20. Josh says:

    I never used a grid in my game ’till a couple weeks ago, when I started marking locations on graph paper for my characters. By the end the graph paper looks like crap and might be torn a bit, but it works fine, for us. It only takes up the space of a single piece of paper, all the combat takes place in a an area of at most 1 1/2 inches on the paper, and experience gained is marked at the top. We use letters for monsters and stars for characters. The whole system works perfect, and we never have to worry about losing minis or someone rocking the table and knocking them all over the place. We never have to worry about someone moving the minis around while I’m looking away or something of that sort either.

    Wow, I’d never be able to run a diceless game, what am I supposed to throw at people, pencils?

  21. Jason says:

    I use Fantasy Grounds II to play online (as my gaming group lives all over the U.S.) and we find it great fun.

    http://www.sacred-cow.net/fg2

    I started keeping our chatlogs there, and the 1/25 session has a screenshot of the program included. Further sessions will have a lot more screenshots included, as well.

  22. Trask says:

    Although not really designed for playing with other people in the room, the excellent “Game Table” application can be used to keep track of combats on a laptop. It has dice and an initiative tracker. And it is free!

    http://gametable.galactanet.com/

    Trask

  23. Ian Winterbottom says:

    I personally love minis and/or a map, but then I love to paint the figs and to draw the maps both are a big part of the creative process for me. Adding detail to the game is half the fun. Also I began the hobby as a Wargamer and modeller so I like to put things on the table? I find it contributes greatly to the illusion of “Reality”? I have gone the description-only route too however and had some excellent games, especially when in the Forces, where the only concession to mapping was the Dungeon map drawn by the players, on squared paper!? (Figures couldn’t survive Shift or Exercise!)
    I have used just about anything to represent characters and monsters, before I got lots of minis, dice made damn good Gelatinous Cubes for a start; and the same Skeleton or Goblin used to pass duty as anything mansized. larger creatures I often represented with a topdown counter, it give a good representation of the actual size of what it represents? Card minis are also a cheap and easy method? But on the whole the Representation is a great part of the game, to me?

  24. Michelle says:

    as a DM i provide my players with minis but i havent had a whole lot of time to paint them :( my grid map however….every time i use it with marker, it usually ends up all over my hands, then to my books and notes and its really F****ng annoying.

    i always wanted to get a glass topped table and then tape the ground cover underneath with the topographical terrain on top of the glass. that way everything can be interchanged but still be really functional

  25. Yax says:

    Map markers can be evil.

  26. Ian Winterbottom says:

    Michelle, what a brilliant idea! I have a glasstopped coffee table in my livingroom, if the missus doesn’t catch me! Never mind, a little widow-cleaning fluid goes a long way! And it would give me the opportunity to use a lot of resin, etc., and homemade 3D Dungeon terrain I have had for a long time. With regard to painting your minis, try allowing players to paint their own mini, really personalise the character? Another shortcut is to investigate using card minis, there are an infinite supply of them available on the Web, in bewildering variety; means you can REALLY have personalised characters and NPCs, even figures to represent masses of Undead or Orcs? (The card fig makes a great character illustration for your sheets, too!)They look a little odd mixed in with 3D minis, but shut one eye!
    The usual dice or poker chips, game counters of any kind, make a usable substitute, if you find one of those Dollar Store places they usually have bags or jars of the “pebbles” you buy for the bottom of fishtanks or ornamental bowls and vases; a couple of colours are inexpensive? (if you get the jewelled ones they can be passed out as “reward” points too, by the way?)

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