Dungeons & Dragons is, at it’s core, a game about killing monsters. It does a lot of other things as well, things that I usually enjoy more, but if you look at the rules and system the game is built on and around, it’s obvious that the whole thing is designed for fighting monsters. Not only that, but it’s really designed around putting minifigures on a grid to represent you and the monsters, based on spells and abilities.
Many people love to break out the grid and minis, look at the fight from a birds eye view, and get into positioning. In fact, when the Dungeon Masters Guide explains Area of Effect, Flanking, Cover, Speed, and Line of Sight, it does so in context of the grid. So for people that love tactical combat, these are the things they have learned how to master. What if you are playing with a group that doesn’t use a grid and minis though? Often times, groups that prefer the Social or Exploration pillars of the game see no need to invest in minis and a grid, because it takes up such a small part of the game anyway. When combat does come up, they simply imagine the whole fight, which is known as Theater of the Mind.
But what if you’re in a Theater of the Mind group, but you are a tactical player? What do you do? Well, let’s take a new look at tactics, without the grid.
First, I want to mention the biggest problem with Theater of the Mind combat, and that is the lack of teamwork. When our party fights, we want to feel like a team, working together to defeat the enemies, like the super cool finale fight from Avengers: Age of Ultron.
When a fight starts, due to the 5e Action Economy, more often than not there are an equal amount of fighters (people who fight, not the class), on either side. Then, for bookkeeping reasons, one enemy fighter is going to go up against one Player Character, so it’s easier to keep track of how much damage each person has done. Not only does this make Area of Effect abilities/spells harder to manage, but the fight turns into the airport fight from Captain America: Civil War.
It’s a cool fight, without a doubt, but it switches from a 1v1 to a nearby 1v1, and only occasionally do two people work together, and it breaks up the rhythm and flow of the fight. It loses all of the teamwork that looking at a grid grants you. So we have to find a way to get that back.
Let’s get rid of Line of Sight, Speed, Cover, and Flanking, at least by those terms. Instead, we are going to focus on Environment, Distance, Hiding, and Focus.
First, we are going to establish our environments differently. With classic grid tactics, we define the room first, including walls, doors, and furniture, then we move on to placement of our minis. This is in an effort to balance the battlefield, and make everyone understand where they are in relation to everything else, to move around and get into better positioning.
Instead, we are going to change our focus from the top-down Birds Eye View, into a more natural Point of View. When you establish the room, first mention what you notice first. Usually that will be creatures, in order from biggest to smallest, then a particularly large piece of furniture, and end with walls and doors, as that’s not really crucial right now. When I walk into a room, the first thing I notice is someone else who is facing me, and the last thing I notice is the table and chairs on the far wall.
Also, when you focus on grid tactics, you tend to think about using the environment that is represented on the board, like the furniture. If you are in Theater of the Mind, players often feel more comfortable asking about things that weren’t necessarily mentioned, like a rock on the ground, or a sconce on the wall. Things that didn’t exist, but now they seem to have an idea, and if it makes sense, the DM can just will it into existence.
“Yeah, sure, there’s a gilded sconce on the wall, that’s adding to the lighting in the room.” It allows the party to contribute to the environment in a way that they can use.
Next, we are going to talk about how far things are from you. If you ask me how close something is, I will rarely use measured distance to describe it. Instead, I will describe it more in terms of how easy it is to get to. Something is nearby, it’s a little far, it’s way over there, or it’s…right here.
So we are going to change the way we describe distances in Theater of the Mind as well. If something is within melee range without me moving, it is “right next to” me. If something is within my movement speed, or 30 feet, then it’s “Near” me. If something will take two turns or a Dash action to get to, 35-60 feet, then it’s “Far from” me, and if something is going to take some time to get to, or get to me, like over 65 feet, then it’s “Very Far from” me.
Now, if a player asks where that orc is, you can say “it’s near you, on the other side of a table” then you know you can get to it on your turn, and maybe use a table in the process, but we don’t need to worry about moving around it or anything.
“But Sean,” I hear you say, “what about Area of Effect Spells?” Well, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 249, it tells you how to judge how many targets, on average, are in an Area of Effect.
Area …………………….Number of Targets
Cone ……………………Size ÷ 10 (round up)
Cube or Square……Size ÷ 5 (round up)
Cylinder……………….Radius ÷ 5 (round up)
Line……………………..Length ÷ 30 (round up)
Sphere or Circle…..Radius ÷ 5 (round up)
Of course, if this wouldn’t fit your situation, the DM is always empowered to change it, but this is about what any spellcaster with an Area of Effect spell is going to be looking for.
What about cover? For tactical players, finding Half Cover, Three-Quarters Cover, or Split-Move and Fire is a super helpful aspect of the game. Well now, you don’t find cover, you hide. It’s largely the same thing, but it’s not about getting something between you, it’s about hiding behind something. Again, we are moving our planning view from Birds Eye to Point of View. You can still do a similar thing, where behind a table is Half Cover, behind a pillar is Three-Quarters Cover, and you can Split-Move and Fire just as easy. The change, is that when a fighter is hiding, they might be gone when you approach. Hiding and moving is a lot harder on a grid, unless you just remove the piece from the board, which can feel unfair, for some players. But when nothing is being removed, it feels more like you lost track of someone, rather than they are magically hidden (unless they are magically hidden).
So the ultimate piece of Theatre of the Mind tactics, isn’t positioning, it’s Focus. Enemies will go after whoever has their focus, and players will tend to attack whoever has their Focus.
If someone is Hiding, and their turn goes by without attacking, their opponent is going to move their Focus to someone who is actually being active in the fight, which allows the enemy rogue to do a sick sneak attack when no one is looking.
If someone is insulting the enemy, comparing their mother to a goat, then the enemy is usually going to disengage with whoever they are fighting, and Focus on the loudmouth.
If someone casts Summon Elemental, and suddenly a Fire Elemental appears on the battlefield, that is where all of the focus is going to go. The other orcs in the room aren’t going to keep attacking the Gnome Cleric when there’s a six foot tall Fire Elemental attacking their Orc friend. They are going to shift their Focus, allowing the Cleric a break to cast a healing spell or two.
If you want to emphasize when you are trying to take focus or lose focus, use your body language. If you are trying to be the focus of the fight, sit up straight, puff out your chest, speak with authority, “I STRIKE the orc across his FACE!” If you are trying to stay in the back, then you can hunch, give a loud whisper “i sneak around the back, trying to stay out of sight.”