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Hot Button: Does the Grid Inhibit Roleplay?

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On May 28, 2008 @ 8:55 am In Hot Buttons | 22 Comments

I once pitched a new RPG to a friend. His first question was “Does the combat system require miniatures and a grid?” I’m paraphrasing a bit, but his essential point was that he enjoyed RPGs that emphasized stories and roleplaying while foregoing detailed tactical combat. If the RPG did have a highly detailed combat system, he was walking away.

This brings me to today’s hot button: Does the grid inhibit roleplay (or strong stories)?

While it’s easy to argue “no, of course not,” consider this. You’ve just been invited to play in a new RPG that you’ve never heard of before. You walk into the room and see a dining room table with a battlemat in the center with markers and miniatures sitting next to it. There are also a number of charts detailing initiative, special combat moves, and injuries. Your character sheet is hard to read at first, with a number of formulae and special abilities, many of which only work if certain conditions are met.

Now, consider the same scenario except you walk into a living room. Comfy chairs abound and dinner trays are set up for your character sheets and dice. Your character sheet looks simple: a few ability scores and a handful of skills, advantages, and disadvantages. The mechanics are simply explained, with maybe one chart for degrees of success.

How do your expectations differ in each case? Have those expectations ever been turned upside down?



About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Hot Button: Does the Grid Inhibit Roleplay?"

#1 Comment By Irda Ranger On May 28, 2008 @ 9:43 am

Just because the battlemat is there doesn’t mean you have to use it every gaming session. If the DM is good at building tension and excitement with story & RP whole sessions can go by with the Minis just reminding you and what your character looks like.

I find a grid can also help with RP in the sense that “There are fewer arguments during a combat over where people are standing, so it’s over more quickly, so we get to Baron Dodo’s Galla that much faster.”

#2 Comment By Patriarch917 On May 28, 2008 @ 9:48 am

I prefer that my role-playing game be more than improv-theater while sitting. I like the “game” part to be well developed, and miniatures and a map generally add to the interesting tactical possibilities. Without objective indicators like dice, rules, markers, etc., success or failure is at the whim of the GM, and you can only accomplish what the GM allows.

If the GM has a great story, that’s fine. Maybe I’ll read your novel someday. At the game, however, I want you to present me with a situation, and let me create the story with my reactions to the situation. Sometimes, that story is going to be that I kill the monster and take their stuff.

#3 Comment By LordVreeg On May 28, 2008 @ 10:06 am

I need to recast the question, since you seem to be making 2 seperate interogatives which might not be mutually exclusive but which do not have to converge.

Are you asking if a combat-heavy sytem turns off roleplayers, or are you asking if a mechanics-heavy system is contrary to the playing style of story/plot-driven gamers?

Your descriptions of the two scenarios describes both a combat-biased game vs. a more holistic system
a complex, mechanics heavy system vs. a freeform, open-ended system.

These are 2 different questions.

I’ll thnk on answering both, but I’d like to put that out there first.

#4 Comment By Nephlm On May 28, 2008 @ 10:13 am

A battlemap doesn’t inherent hinder roleplay but it does suggest something which may. When combat happens it is going to take sufficient time to resolve that the time spent setting up the battlemap will just be noise. This will often disturb the flow of roleplay as you play the game inside the game that are most combat systems.

This means you will spend a disproportionate amount of time resolving a combat and thus your time for investigation, political maneuvering or wooing the princess will be similarly constrained.

All of this is suggested by a prominent placement of a battlemap, obviously the conclusions are not valid for all groups or even all systems.

#5 Comment By davethegame On May 28, 2008 @ 10:38 am

It does, and it doesn’t?

It seems to imply that the rules will emphasize the sort of combats (and indeed, even the presence of combat) in the rules that a map helps with. It’s a big sign that says that’s what part of the game is. I don’t think it detracts from roleplaying, but I do think it implies that there will be more than just roleplaying.

#6 Comment By SanctaIra On May 28, 2008 @ 10:39 am

I think you’ve portrayed the situation with a little bias. Certainly, in the situation you’ve described the setting might be less conducive to role-playing, but you gave a lot more factors than just the battle mat, no? Or is it your opinion that all these factors come into play because someone has chosen to use a battle mat? I think that’s an unfair assumption if that is where your question is aiming. What does the comfort of the chairs have to do with the use of a battle mat? How does using a battle mat indicate that character sheets are always complex and difficult to read? Lets be fair here and look at the question objectively.

The battle mat is one variable in a large equation which will ultimately determine the quality of role-playing in a gaming session or even in a gaming system. I am in agreement with Irda Ranger that the grid helps to alleviate some disputes and can help to maintain equality of participation. Without the use of a grid, you might find yourself with a spotlight stealing player who tries to be everywhere at once. This, in my opinion, not only dilutes the quality of role-playing but can also upset some of your more passive players and might drive them away from the game.

In general, I think the way you phrased your question is really unfair and you should re-work it so that the question you are asking actually pertains to the variables described in your two situations.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 28, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

The question isn’t “Which is better?”

Because frankly, neither one is better. Which do I prefer? I dunno, it depends on the quality of the rules system, the mood I’m in, and the chemistry in the rest of the group. The biggest factor is the GM: A decent group will ‘route around’ or find a way to handle a bad player or bad rules, but the only way out of a bad GM is to find another game.

Does the combat-heavy Crunchmaster RPG actually inhibit my RP? Or does it merely provide a tasty course of its own when it’s clobbering time? Because even the crunchiest game can be run to be RP-friendly.

Does the rules-lite DramaJacques RPG mean that I have to get verbally and physically creative Every God-Damned Single Time that I try do anything? Or does it allow the group to focus on what they consider important? A good group will hand-wave a lot of the silly stuff.

I’ve been both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised at a few systems. I thought D&D 3.5 was the bomb, but now I feel that it encourages a play style that doesn’t do much for me. I thought a lot of the Forge games were brilliant, until I realized that many of them are intended to be played with the same mindset as the designer intended. (“You’re not investigating your feelings about (sensitive topic)? Then you’re playing it wrong.”)

Yeah, to mangle a saying, the cover of a book will prejudice me as to its contents. I would’t expect to find a militant feminist screed inside Exalted: Savant and Sorcerer. I might not expect a battlemat-featuring game to be RP-heavy, but I think I’ll give it a test run before making up my mind.

Better? *shrug* To each his own. And to me, the seat at that awesome game that was open only because some idiot was close-minded enough to turn his (or her) back on a game that happened to have a (gasp!) battlemat. ;)

#8 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 28, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

Lordvreeg: I don’t think a distinction is necessary. In my friend’s case (which started the post), he would be be turned off by seeing the battle mat, but he’d also be just as turned off to settle into the comfy chair and find out that the rules were mechanics-heavy.

Sanctaira: I’m sorry “comfy chair” upset you. I was envisioning my own living room. I currently run three campaigns: One is D&D 3.5, with full-on battlemats and minis, one is Victoriana 2e, which is mechanics-heavy but battlematless, and one is a WitchCraft game using the M&M mechanics, which is battlematless and actually my lightest of the bunch, rules-wise. All three have ongoing storylines, and for D&D and Victoriana, the adventures are commercial (or pre-commercial). D&D is certainly the most “combat heavy,” but I’ve run combats (without a map) for Victoriana that lasted just as long. I’ve also run D&D sessions with the battlemap in front of me that centered more on investigating a mystery than combat (to build on what Irda Ranger said).

My “hot button” questions are more about expectations. When you walk in and see a battlemat, do you have different expectations than if there isn’t one? Does the game end up playing like you expected, or were you surprised?

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 28, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

I geek over minis, so seeing a battlemap would fulfill my expectations.

On the other hand, the comfy chair would be tantalizing spare. “I wonder what’s up tonight?” There’s a sense of mystery in the air.

#10 Comment By SanctaIra On May 28, 2008 @ 12:41 pm


It’s a good question, I just didn’t feel that was the question I had left in my mind after the article. The battle grid inhibiting role play has come up in my home games a couple times, so I just wanted to ensure the question was approached in a fair manner.

It’s an important question to ask. I think the answer really depends on the players and the game master though, so it’s hard to make a blanket statement based solely on the use of a grid.

#11 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 28, 2008 @ 1:16 pm


I wholeheartedly agree with you. The quality of any game depends on the people at the table.


I also wholeheartedly agree with you. This is not a discussion as to what is “better,” only about expectations as to how an RPG will play.

I’d love to hear anecdotes about expectations reversed. One of my best examples is Feng Shui. This game is designed to be played in comfy chairs with streamlined character sheets (heck, you don’t even design the character, you just personalize a pregen), and yet the fight scenes were some of the most colorful and intense as I’ve ever played.

#12 Comment By Grogtard On May 28, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

Mini’s and battlemats are only tools. It’s easy just use them like many folks use a dry erase board. Just use so everybody has a good idea of what is where and who is next to what or whom. It gets on one player’s nerves just a bit but everyone else doesn’t mind.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On May 28, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

In the spirit of the question: yes, but. I find that a grid and specific combat applicable powers encourages me to focus on combats– if it’s advertising combat as detailed and worthwhile, I’ll believe it until proved otherwise. Similarly, if the extent of the gun rules match KPFS’s, then I won’t bother to list a specific make of gun on my character sheet.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times. Usually by a crunchy system when good roleplayers make it live and breathe. It can be anything, and people will find a way to get good dialogue in. Similarly, I’ve noticed that dialogue is stilted in our PTA games, despite the very simple rules and uniform system. That’s probably because we’re thinking “big picture” too much… but that’s what’s encouraged by the rules text.

#14 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On May 28, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

This seems like a variant on the Signposts thread – exploring more deeply the specific signpost (“this way”) to Exampleburg used there. I think battle mats are very useful – players in my role-playing intensive/story focused game have even requested them (again, props now in hands of #3 ex in Denver. . .Live in Portland, must get new by the time I return to Denver. . .), however, as I brought up in “Signposts” – I like to use fuller 3d visual prop layouts when possible as an aid to story immersion – everyone visualizing the same backdrop the same way. If this is set up in advance or built up in the course of play/exploration (create the 3D “dungeon” map as you move through it) it alleviates actual PC mapmaking requirements (it can be assumed that a given PC is making a map without requiring a player to actually do so. . .) since the visual reference is already in place and likewise will speed up combat since there is no need to pause for set-up – that has been an ongoing dynamic throughout the play session. Ultimately I think it helps to integrate the tactical crunch in a manner that supports the overall story emphasis being sought – there is a lot of immediate comprehension of tactical information at a glance without having to digress in describing crunch detail *and* that information is pretty much grasped and understood by all involved in the same manner – it eliminates most instances of a player making a choice based upon a misapprehension of some facet of the current setting environment or actions of another (N)PC.

Honestly, I think the biggest single influence upon the shift from story engagement to combat mechanics in the change from AD&D 2.0 to DnD 3.x was the elimination of the declaration phase at the beginning of the combat round! In a story telling game this is a must – players have to have the pause to “get their stories straight” – too many times I’ve seen someone (X) with a later initiative get messed up by someone acting ahead of them in some manner (#) which they *never would have done had they realized that X was in the process of doing Y* – and the character # would in fact *have known that* because it would have been visibly obvious to them. One of the most common examples is the “tank” charging forward only to take an arrow in the back from the slower archer whom he would have seen preparing to shoot and moved accordingly. Players need to be clear with each other about what all the characters would in fact be aware of at that particular moment in order to be able to play the characters accordingly. (and okay, sometimes the tank’s player says, “Yeah, I know, but # really is that dumb and would have charged ahead without thinking anyway,” then tenses up and crosses fingers while X resolves the subsequent missile attack. . .)

Anyway – in the initial context, the 3D display then facilitates the declaration phase significantly and players can coordinate their characters’ actions just as effectively and realistically as their opponents (who, all being played by the same person, always inherently have and properly act upon whatever information they should about what their cohorts are doing,) with the display obviating the need to verbally describe a lot of the information otherwise taking the time to speak during the declaration phase.

And, I must admit, I like playing with the toys.

In accordance with Prophecy,

Have Fun, Play Well,
Amergin O’Kai

#15 Comment By HappyGnome On May 28, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

The grid (in the broad sense) will always be enthusiastically embraced by people who value simulation, the very tribe that sucked the life right out of Dungeons and Dragons.

Filtering imaginative play through a mesh of constrictive mechanics is about as much fun as a hot poker in the eye.

#16 Comment By age On May 29, 2008 @ 1:35 am

I’d be put off by the full on battle map, heavy stats/formulas, and much more attracted to the story-telling atmosphere of the couches. But I agree with Grogtard and IR, we use a grid-whiteboard as a useful tool and it does help prevent the “I wasn’t standing there!” arguments.

#17 Comment By suudo On May 29, 2008 @ 8:13 am

Why on earth does a battlemat have to imply heavy mechanics? My group places a battlemat on the table before every game just in case, and most of the time it isn’t even used. We play Savage Worlds, which is not a game thick with rules.

#18 Comment By LordVreeg On May 29, 2008 @ 9:24 am

Nor did I mean earleir that a mechanics-heavy game was bad.
My biggest issue is with GM’s trying to play a roleplay-intensive game with rulesets that are combat-biased. Through the eyes of my gamers, a game that focuses most of it’s mechanics (skill, reward, spell choices, etc) on combat is always going to inhbit roleplay. ALWAYS.
I don’t mind heavy mechanics as long as they are built to enable the play style of the game in question. The battlemat is irrelevant, a prop. The ruleset vs. the type of game people want to play is the real question.

your orignal proposition included this line,
“There are also a number of charts detailing initiative, special combat moves, and injuries.”

So my natural response is that this particular rule system is ‘combat heavy’, and therefor not built for intensive role play.
So asking if it a system designed for for a combat-heavy, socialskill-weak game would inhibit roleplay is like asking me if a dumptruck would suffer any drawbacks in a dragrace. The answer to both questions is,
“Of course.”

I am sorry if this sounds heretical or blunt (or cruel). But running a roleplaying-heavy game with a system that is 80-90% combat situation-specific can be an interesting change of pace once in a while, but it is by definition using the wrong tool for the job.

#19 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 29, 2008 @ 9:58 am

I’m in the “not necessarily” camp — I’ve played games where having a battlemat either had no impact on roleplaying or enhanced it.

On the other hand, I’ve played more games where not using one enhanced roleplaying, and I do tend to look at games with battlemats differently. Battlemats make me focus on tactical decisions, and that tends to bleed into the rest of the playing experience for me.

As a GM, I use the absence of a formal battlemat as a signpost to signal that I’m more interested in the roleplaying aspects of the game than the nitty-gritty tactical stuff.

Great question!

#20 Comment By Tommi On June 1, 2008 @ 7:23 am

Personally, I don’t care about the “game” part. Battlemap would cause extra time focused on mostly irrelevant things like exact positioning. It would reduce from roleplay in that it would take time away from that, but not in any other inherent way, I think.

#21 Comment By robosnake On June 10, 2008 @ 8:09 pm

In short – yes, a battlemat and miniatures inhibits roleplay, but you can’t have it all.

What I mean is that some gamse are strong in the tactical department. A lot of your thinking and character-creation goes into how you will use your abilities during a tactical physical combat. That’s what the game does well and that’s what you should expect.

Other games are strong on narrative and immersive roleplaying. Nailing things down to a specific grid-map inhibits this because rules conversations and pausing to choose a maneuver that fits the situation slow down action and narration. Instead you have some kind of negotiated narrative control system where you know who is supposed to be describing what is going on when, or what a character does and what the results are.

They’re different kinds of games. Its like asking “does having a Monopoly board inhibit Scrabble play?” Yes, yes it does, because you’re talking about two different kinds of games with two different agendas.

You can also have hybrids, where sometimes you are into the roleplaying, and sometimes you break out the battle mat and get down to counting squares and throwing combat maneuvers at each other. I think that in both cases, you can just focus on what it is you’re doing at the time, and make that as fun as possible.

#22 Comment By Nefandus On July 25, 2008 @ 11:49 am

It really depends on the activity.

Take Live Action Role Playing (LARP) for instance – Vampire. This is a fairly mechanics-lite system that certainly doesn’t use a grid. Challenges are resolved with rock/paper/scissors, and movement is calculated by physical steps. By and large, the activity is a story that is largely propelled through a large amount of social challenges, and the setting generally reflects this (often set within some kind of vampire “gathering”). Personally, I didn’t care for it much, but that’s me. It was largely because I prefer to engage an external storyline that is directed by a gamemaster, rather than seed a room full of subplots and conflicting personal motivations (like a soap opera). Gridless works ok in delivering what LARP promises.

On the other hand, I recall playing D&D in the early days before we used grids, and I found that the tactical complexity suffered in comparison with today’s versions. Combat was largely reduced to “I attack the orc!”, and everything else was ruled by GM fiat. Players could suggest and negotiate, but the GM decided what was in bounds and what was out. Thus, while you would think *roleplaying* would be enhanced with loosey goosey tactical game rules, it seemed to have the opposite effect. The more loose the game structure in a challenge scenario, the more it required GM arbitration or interpretation, and thus deprotagonized players while simultaneously reducing the strategic complexity of the activity.

So, I’d say it really depends on the nature of the activity. If you are going to have a game as part of the role playing experience, then it doesn’t benefit anyone to remove the structures of the game that are in place. If, on the other hand, the challenges are intended as plot propellant – in deciding in a very loose fashion what will happen next from a story POV, with less emphasis on spatial tactical elements, then there is little need for a grid. Enjoy your LARP.

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