In previous articles I wrote about why you might want to run combat using the theater of the mind and how to do it. In both of these articles I mention using rough sketches to help you when you need them without getting too far into the details. Today I’m going to dive deep into the topic of using an abstract map to run combat in Dungeons & Dragons. I’ll also offer a few variants from other game systems, any or all of which might work well for you when running fast, big, and action-focused combat.
Stepping Back from Tactical Combat
One might ask, if we're bothering to use a map at all, why not use the standard 5-foot-per-square gridded map? It's a reasonable question and, if it’s the right tool for the situation, using a gridded map might very well be to right answer.
Our use of an abstract map, however, helps us gain the advantages of running combat in the theater of the mind and still visualize what's going on.
An abstract map helps us focus on the high action of the game. It rounds off the details of tactical combat and draws attention to the fantasy story of what's going on in during the fight.
The map itself can benefit from this abstraction. We can draw environments at a larger scale or at a completely different angle than we would if we were focused on a five-foot-per-square grid. We can draw maps quickly without worrying about the scale.
Most importantly, using abstract maps helps us clarify what is going on without losing the focus on the story of the game.
Chris Perkins created an entire abstract dungeon map out of simple square rooms, and relied on his own narration to fill in the details within each chamber in the 2015 PAX East Acquisitions Incorporated game.
Drawing an Abstract Map
One of the benefits of abstract maps is that they’re quick to draw. You don't need to care as much about the accuracy of the map. Just sketch what helps clarify the situation and move on to the action. You can do this right when you need it instead of doing a bunch of preparation ahead of time. The scene and the situation determines whether you need to sketch out a map or not.
We're only drawing these maps when our words alone cannot articulate the situation. If our words do work, we don't need to bother drawing a map at all. Thus, the map only needs to help convey the details enough to help players understand what's going on.
These maps help answer questions like, "Who is next to who?" "How far away is this target?" "How many enemies can I fit in a fireball?" and "What features matter here?"
When we're drawing abstract maps for improvised situations, the map can be as simple as it needs to be to clarify the situation. Sometimes, though, we want more.
From Chicken Scratches to Movie Sets
Though we've generally grouped combat types into three groups: 5-foot-per-square grids, theater of the mind combat, and abstract maps; there are really an infinite range of options within and outside of these three. So far I’ve described abstract maps as quick maps we draw on the fly, maybe just using a piece of paper and a pencil. Other times we might require something with more detail.
The map to the Well of Dragons, the final battle area in Rise of Tiamat, has an immense 20-foot-per-square scale. Putting this on a 5-foot-per-square battle map would take a huge grid. Instead, we can draw out or print the map at its current scale and generally describe the scale as "huge." Detailed diagrams that ignore scale can still help players understand how a situation looks.
The same is true for more elaborate battle maps. We can set up beautiful and detailed 3D terrain sets and make it clear to the characters that they can ignore the grid on the tiles and instead use in-story descriptions of what they want to do instead. We can keep the focus on intent and what's happening in story.
These 3D battle areas might include museum quality levels of detail but that doesn't mean we have to micromanage our movement, ranges, and distances.
Even Tiamat's inner sanctum, which "merely" uses a 10-foot-per-square scale, is utterly unwieldy when you blow it up to a 1 inch = 5 feet scale.
A few other game systems have embraced abstract distances, even when they use maps. The self-proclaimed love letter to D&D, 13th Age, uses a system for abstract distances that works very well for narrative combat whether using an abstract map or not.
Instead of breaking things down into 5-foot increments, 13th Age uses a handful of abstract distance terms to define ranges and positions. These include: nearby, far away, engaged, behind, or in a group. For example a character nearby an orc means that character could reach that orc with a move action but are not yet directly next to the orc (or "engaged”). "In a group" generally means that you are nearby or engaged with other creatures. Behind means that the person you are behind would get an opportunity attack if something tries to get around them and get to you.
We can, if we choose, lift these abstract terms right from 13th Age and drop them into our D&D game. This means shaving off the tactical details in combat in order to keep things moving dynamically with a focus on the action.
Here are some abstract terms we could use in our D&D game and what they mean:
Nearby: Two creatures are nearby one another if they can reach them with a move but are not actually within 5 feet of one another. This usually means within roughly 25 feet of one another.
Far Away: Two creatures are far away from one another if it takes more than a single move to reach them but they're likely within long ranged attacks. This usually means more than 30 feet away.
Engaged: Two creatures are engaged with one another if they are within the reach of one another; usually within 5 feet. A creature would provoke an opportunity attack if it moves away from an enemy it is engaged with.
Behind: When a creature is behind another creature, an enemy would provoke one or two opportunity attacks from those their target is behind when moving to engage that target.
Grouped: Any creatures nearby or engaged with one another are considered within a group. This means they're usually within 25 feet of one another.
Using terms like this, whether running combat in the fully narrative theater of the mind or when using a rough map, can help everyone stay on the same page and not get bogged down in the minutia.
One tricky bit of these abstract distances is that they're all relative to other moving things. We typically think of creatures being nearby or far away to other creatures but those creatures move around going from far away to nearby to engaged. When we have a map, we have fixed objects and areas that don't change distances. For this reason, we might look instead at the idea of "zones."
Zones are a way of thinking about distances in large blocks instead of small blocks. When we think about the distances in D&D, we're already abstracting things out even when using 5-foot squares. It isn't for example, in 1-foot squares or gods help us, down to inches. Imagine a fireball that has a 236-inch radius blast. That's madness. Figuring out how many inches away just doesn't matter that much. 5-foot blocks are fine. It doesn't have to be a 22-foot radius blast. 20 feet is good enough. We’re already abstracting distances in D&D.
What if we keep abstracting? Why not use 10-foot squares? Why not 25-foot squares?
When we start to think of squares in these larger dimensions, like 25-foot squares, we get into the idea of "zones."
Zones can be found in a few different RPGs these days but I first learned about them in FATE Core, an excellent theme-neutral RPG made by Evil Hat. Instead of having fixed distances for movement, FATE abstracts areas down into "zones". Each zone can actually have a different size but typically a zone is about the size of a room. Zones have unique features, called "aspects." We can think of these aspects as important features that affect the characters or that they can manipulate.
For example, a combat encounter could have a large throne room made up of three zones. There’s the entry hall with two aspects: huge cracked statues and massive iron doors. There’s the audience hall with impaled flailing skeletons and large crumbling pillars. Finally there’s the throne dais with a spiked iron throne and braziers of blue fire.
In our abstract map we can draw this all out or we can simply draw out three boxes and write in the names of these aspects so the players remember that they're there. This is truly an abstract map since it doesn't even attempt to draw all of the room's features.
These zones can be written out on 3x5 cards and placed out in front of the players so everyone can see the three zones and the features they have.
A character can move from one zone to an adjacent zone with a move or to two adjacent zones with a move and a Dash action or if they have fast movement. A character that moves through the audience hall takes opportunity attacks from the flailing skeletons unless they have some way to evade the attacks.
Big areas of effect, like a fireball spell, reach everything within a zone. Smaller areas, like a burning hands spell, hit one to three creatures within a zone. Lines, like a lighting bolt spell, can cross two or three zones hitting up to three creatures. We can use the “Adjudicating Areas of Effect” section in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide to help us figure this out. Some lines, for example, are bigger than others.
Any other details have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. As long as your rulings make sense for the situation, are transparent to the players before they make a choice, and generally favor the characters, it will all work out.
Most of the time you don't need to use zones if you’re running combat in a single room, but it can help if things get complicated and we don't want to fall back to a fully gridded battle map. Again, a gridded map is a fine tool to have if we want but if we want to focus on high action over nitty-gritty detail, an abstract map with some defined zones is a good tool to have in your toolbox.
Chris Perkins' abstract map for the 2015 PAX East Acquisitions Incorporated game is also a lot like FATE-style zones!
The Final Fantasy Style Map
There's another style of map that can help us understand character positioning without falling to the grid. I've thought of this as "Final Fantasy" style combat in which the characters are on one side and the enemies are on the other like an American football field. The excellent video roleplaying game Darkest Dungeon has similar combat to this, with a one-dimensional line of monsters and characters, monsters on one side and characters on the other.
With characters on one side and enemies on the other, we can move them closer together to show when creatures are within 5 feet of one another. We can also show if there is a front line and a back line for either side. Front lines can be reached with a move, back lines require a move and a Dash action. Moving through a front line likely results in opportunity attacks from one or two creatures in that front line. This is a good quick way for everyone to have a visual of how all of the creatures are positioned and grouped without resorting to the full resolution of a battle map.
This style of abstract map requires some sort of representation for characters and monsters, which is nice if you have some beautiful miniatures you want to show off but doesn't require any sort of map.
Starting Small and Working Up
If you or your group have been playing with a gridded battle map for a while, embracing the idea of an abstract map can be difficult. You can begin by starting small, using it for battles of little consequence and with simple environments. It also works well for battles you didn't expect to take place. Instead of spending a lot of time drawing out a detailed map on a five foot per square grid, just sketch it out on a piece of paper or a whiteboard and let your players know not to worry too much about distance.
Part of the Sliding Scale of Combat Options
D&D is a wonderfully flexible game. Its rules are permissive to many styles of play. The books act as a toolkit to help us share in incredible stories of high fantasy with our friends. As a dungeon master, we must fill our toolkit with all sorts of tools to help shape that story. Using an abstract map is just one of those tools. Along with running combat using pure theater of the mind and pulling out the grid for tactical combat, we can choose whichever method of combat we want to help the story come to life. Try out the abstract map, and add it to your own toolbox.
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.