There are many ways to run combat in Dungeons & Dragons. Some dungeon masters use erasable poster maps and miniatures. Some use pre-printed poster maps. Some use beautiful 3D terrain. Some use projectors or flat screen TVs placed on a table. Some run their games entirely online using a digital tabletop.
Many use nothing at all.
We can group these various ways to run combat into three large buckets. These buckets aren't perfect representations of the myriad of ways to run combat in D&D, but they'll suit the subject of this article.
The Three General Types of D&D Combat
The first of these buckets is gridded combat in which characters and monsters are represented by tokens or miniatures on a five-foot-per-square grid of some sort. This grid could be physical, like a poster map, or virtual like on an online tabletop. The Dungeon Master's Guide includes rules for running gridded combat using a few different optional rules.
The second bucket is theater of the mind in which DMs describe the situation, players describe their intent, and the DMs adjudicate the results. In this style, combat happens completely in the narrative. We just talk. We don't represent our characters with miniatures and we don't use any sort of visual representation.
The third bucket is the abstract map. In this style DMs use some sort of visual representation to show the rough approximation of an area and the relative distance of characters and monsters. This could all be done like a football play sketch on a piece of paper or it might be with miniatures. It might even be done on a beautiful color map or tabletop terrain. Distances in this style are relative, not strictly fitting a five-foot-per-square grid.
In a series of articles here on D&D Beyond, I'll be discussing the second and third of these buckets. The Dungeon Master's Guide and Xanathar's Guide to Everything already offers optional rules for running combat using a five-foot-per-square grid so we'll leave that style to them.
Instead, I’ll write about how we can run combat without any sort of visual representation or by using rough diagrams and character representations to show relative distance.
In this first article, I’ll cover the high level basics of running theater of the mind combat and talk about why you would want to run this way at all.
A battle map from the 4th Edition adventure Keep on the Shadowfell (2009) illustrated by Jason Engle. Note the grid and the treelines which follow the squares, 5-foot increments, even markers where the enemies for this pre-defined encounter should be at the beginning of the combat.
A Tool in the Toolbox
How we run combat tends to be one of those topics in D&D on which many have strong opinions. If you have them, consider putting those feelings on hold and recognizing that there are many different ways to play this game that work for many different people. There is no right or wrong style. The only wrong way, in my opinion, is to assume there is only one right way. Running on a grid works fine for many groups. So does running in the theater of the mind or by using an abstract map.
Keeping all three styles in our DM toolboxes gives us the widest range of options and the greatest flexibility to choose the style that best supports the game. Keep your eyes open and consider alternatives to your own favorite approach.
Why Run in the Theater of the Mind?
We return to the topic at hand–running combat in the theater of the mind. Why is this a viable style? What advantages does it have? Here's a quick summary of the advantages of theater of the mind and we'll soon dig into the details.
- Cost. It's free.
- Speed. It takes no time to set up or tear down.
- Flexibility. We can describe anything we can imagine.
- Maintaining Narrative Flow. We don't have to break between scenes to go from exploration to roleplaying to combat and back again.
That said, running combat in the theater of the mind has its drawbacks. These include:
- Obscurement. We don't share a clear and common view of the environment and situation.
- Overly Simple. It doesn't scale well with complexity in a combat encounter and it shaves off a lot of tactical nuances.
- Sensory Deprivation. It takes away the fun of seeing miniatures and battle spaces.
- Subjective. Not seeing a combat arena means we have to rely on the DM to adjudicate fairly based on an environment and situation we might not fully understand.
Much of what we'll talk about in future articles attempts to mitigate these drawbacks. For now, we'll talk more about the advantages.
One major benefit of using a grid is everyone has a unified understanding of where creatures and objects are in space.
One of the wonderful things about D&D is how little we have to spend for the hours of entertainment we can have. The core rules of the game are available for free and much of what we need to play we can get on a few sheets of paper. The D&D Starter Set, at about $20, has enough material to play the game for more than a dozen hours, and longer if one is willing to build adventures from the material within it.
Things get expensive, however, when we start to consider maps, terrain, and miniatures. I’ve talked about this cost, and its options, in a previous article here on D&D Beyond, so we won't repeat it here. While inexpensive tokens and hand-drawn maps work just fine, painted miniatures and detailed terrain can dramatically increase the price of this hobby.
That cost isn't a problem when running combat in the theater of the mind. Running combat in this style doesn't have to cost anything at all. A sheet of paper and a pencil can help outline what is going on and; while miniatures still help to show potential positioning, traveling order, or who is on which watch during a rest, they aren't required.
Keeping the theater of the mind style of combat in our toolbox means we don't have to fall down the rabbit hole of trying to buy all the right miniatures for the adventure we want to run.
Embracing theater of the mind for even just one combat scene in a session can save a lot of time. We don't need to prepare as much for our game if we're willing to describe or loosely diagram some, most, or even all of the fights we're going to run. It also speeds up gameplay when we don't have to set up a map, move miniatures around, argue about corner cases, and tear the whole thing down when we're done.
Being able to run combat using just our words and maybe a loose diagram gives our game a nearly infinite flexibility. Not being fixed to a five-foot-grid means we can build environments beyond what we can draw out on a flat map. It means we can have battles on the sides of cliffs or while leaping from earthmote to earthmote. We can have a fight while soaring on two intertwined astral skiffs or while falling down the sulfurous clouds of hell.
The flexibility of theater of the mind combat means we have no physical limits on where the story of the game goes.
This flexibility also expands out to the game we run. If we're prepared to run combat in the theater of the mind, it means we don't have to spend time preparing every possible battle area ahead of time. We don't have to worry about finding just the right miniature or drawing out just the right map. It means we can let the players make big decisions about where they're going to go and let it go that way without worry that we don't have those potential combat areas prepared or that the ones we did prepare are now going to waste.
This flexibility gives a whole new freedom to the story and direction that our game takes at the table.
Maintaining Narrative Flow
When we're playing D&D, the flow of the game is very important. Scenes move through all of the pillars of play, from NPC interaction to exploration, without having to break out the scene types. That tends not to be the case with combat where suddenly we're shouting, "Roll for initiative!" changing the whole theme of the game.
When we keep the option of running combat using the theater of the mind in our toolbox, it means we can switch from any of the scene types; roleplaying, exploration, and combat; without any break in the flow of the story or narrative. We don't have to reach for the miniatures. We don't have to stop the whole game to put down or draw out a map. We can let the actions chosen by the characters lead from scene to scene all within the context of the story.
The simple removal of switching from narrative play for exploration and roleplay to the tactical play of combat gives our whole game a greater focus on the unfolding story at our table.
Jerry Holkins, Patrick Rothfuss, Chris Perkins, Mike Krahulik, and Holly Conrad play D&D with a gorgeous house terrain piece by "Czar of Happiness" during the Acquisitions Inc. Live Show at PAX West 2018.
Examples of Theater of the Mind Play
Understanding what running theater of the mind combat looks like can be difficult, particularly for players and DMs used to running exclusively on a grid. It is easiest to think of it just like the other two pillars of D&D. The DM describes the situation, the players describe what they want to do, and the DM adjudicates the results. It can be as true for combat as it is for exploration and roleplaying.
Even still, it's one thing to describe running theater of the mind and something else to experience it. Luckily, the internet comes to our aid.
I offer two examples of games that make heavy use of theater of the mind combat. The first is a game by Mike Mearls for the Founders and Legends game in which he runs a three-hour game for six level 18 characters. This, as you can imagine, is no small feat. Challenging level 18 characters is incredibly hard and doing so in three hours is a Herculean effort. Mike runs an enormous battle arena in the latter part of this game in which cyclopean tentacles and a dark priest of a forgotten god assail the heroes of the adventure.
The second game is a recent game of Acquisitions Incorporated at PAX West in September 2018. In it, Chris Perkins uses a beautiful model house for the adventure but uses no miniatures within it and no distances are discussed during combat. While they do have this model in front of them, it's purpose is purely to draw the players into the world. "I want to live there," says Holly Conrad when she looks down into it.
Both of these games show how the story can shift through scene types as things move on. In the middle of a battle, Omin Dran is banished to hell where he begins a negotiation with a pit fiend, breaking from combat to interaction without any physical shift at the table.
If you want to watch two masterful DMs running combat in the theater of the mind, these two examples hopefully help, and they are not the only ones. Many streaming shows and podcasts forgo gridded combat in favor of the narrative use of theater of the mind. All of them show how we can shave off some of the tactical details of combat for the greater energy of the larger story in our game.
A Tool to Help You Focus on the Story
This is just a short introduction to theater of the mind combat. In future articles I’ll get into the details of how we run it. I’ll start with the basics, talk about how to discuss it with your players, describe the use of an abstract map to aid in visualizing combat, and talk about the edge cases where things can get complicated when running theater of the mind.
Keeping theater of the mind combat as an option helps us keep a laser focus on letting the story of our game unfold as we play. We don't have to prepare particular combat encounters ahead of time. We don't have to invest heavily in miniatures, maps, and terrain. We can let the story unfold in whatever direction it goes. Theater of the mind gives us more room to share the story because we have more time to do so during the game.
Keep this style of play in your toolbox to keep your game fast, flexible, focused, and fun.
Mike Shea is a writer, Dungeon Master, and author for the website Sly Flourish. Mike has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, Pelgrane Press, and Sasquach Games and is the author of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations, and Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Adventures. Mike lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Michelle.