5E Brainstorming TotM

Hi folks,

Recently started a new D&D5E campaign, and we're just getting to the point where combat is imminent.

Now I've run plenty of combat in 5E before, but I always use battlemaps or dungeon tiles and markers. This time, as I'm trying to run a more free-flow, narrative campaign, I was thinking of leaving off the battlemaps and sticking to narrative (read: "Theatre of the Mind") combat.

Unfortunately, my experience with TotM in 5E has been really negative thus-far... the system just seems overwhelmingly optimised for map-and-marker combat, at the expense of a lot of built-in tools for TotM. I'm going to try an persevere with using TotM for the more spontaneous action sequences and only using maps for the big set-piece "Marvel Battles", but I was curious if there are other DMs out there who have the same issues using TotM in 5E.

The biggest issue I see with TotM in 5E is that it puts all the stress for managing and directing the flow of the action on the DM. I think this strips a lot of agency from the players, and can leave the DM with all the blame if the fight "goes south".

What, as a DM, are your experiences with narrative combat in 5th? Are there any special tools or systems you use to make it more accessible for your players?
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
You could have distance markers and zone aspects. It does require that you ignore or simplify all the ranges indications for abilities and spell. It can be hard and you must ask your players for help. Ask them to ignore the specific ranges and dont sweat the minutia of positioning, focusing instead on describing the cool actions they are doing. Tell them that you wont ''gotcha'' them with AoO all the time because they didnt clearly understood their positioning. I use AoO only when its undeniable that the PC was engaged in melee with a foe and he tries to change from one distance to another.

Distance Marker I use is Engaged (aka in melee), Near (10-15'), Circling or Skirmish (30') and Distant (more than 30'), always calculated from a PC to another creature.
There's half a move between each distance and we dont bother with racial speed. Classes that gives you a bonus to speed gives you another bonus instead (+1 AC against AoO per speed increase).

Zone Aspect means that you divide your 'battle in thematic zones with objects or scenery the players can interact with in each one. You players are fighting at night at their camp? Then there's a fallen tree zone, a fire pit zone, a small river zone and the Distant distance marker means your in the wood that give you concealment. Each of those element can be used by or against the players.

Anyway, hope that helps. It can be tough but if everyone helps it should work.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I prefer maps and tokens and use Roll20 even for in-person games.

But one thing I learned about TotM is that the standard play loop is even more important and the DM is well-served by internalizing that process and using it. The standard play loop is (1) The DM describes the environment, (2) The players describe what they want to do, and (3) The DM narrates the results of the adventurers's actions.

The key thing here (and this applies to any game, not just TotM) is that this is a loop, meaning that after you've narrated the result of someone's action and their turn is over, start back at (1) The DM describes the environment. Many DMs just go "Okay, John, you're up next..." skipping over (1) and going straight to (2). By doing so, this opens up the floor to questions about who is standing where and what the current PC is in the position to do. A side conversation ensues between the DM and player that interrupts the flow of the game while everyone gets back on the same page. With a map and tokens (or minis), these questions are answered just by looking at the map. With TotM, we need the DM to serve that purpose.

So, after (3), go back to (1) and re-describe what's going on succinctly and with an eye toward positioning, plus anything that has changed since the last time you described the environment (e.g. "the orc next to Ragnar was slain..."), laying out the basic scope of options that present themselves to that character. Then proceed to ask that character's player "What do you do?" Get into the habit of following that play loop as an ingrained habit. This simple thing will clear up a lot of issues and is already built into the rules, no house rules or special techniques required. It's good to do this for those times when you are using a map, too.
 

aco175

Explorer
I recently went to a convention and one of the DMs played TotM over grid. There was a lot of asking questions about distance and where the monsters were in relation to the others. Some of the actions I thought was a bit unfair like trying to circle a monster to get to another PC and the DM had an attack of opportunity when I thought there was room to get around. I would think you need to be more descriptive in where things are and go over things each round before players take their turn. Try to be fair and maybe even fudge a bit on the players side if there is a question.

I asked the table after the convention and each thought a grid would have worked for most of the combat except one that only have two monsters. My home group does not want to try since the visual of a grid works fine for everyone. I know others will say if it better, so I guess you should try and see how it goes.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Hi folks,
The biggest issue I see with TotM in 5E is that it puts all the stress for managing and directing the flow of the action on the DM. I think this strips a lot of agency from the players, and can leave the DM with all the blame if the fight "goes south".
What, as a DM, are your experiences with narrative combat in 5th? Are there any special tools or systems you use to make it more accessible for your players?


First rule of DM Club: Good games are the result of the DM, bad games are the result of the players.

Second rule of DM Club: See the first rule.

Okay, now that we have that cleared up ....

I think, like most things, it is a matter of preference. I happen to disagree with your premise (that 5e is "optimized" for grid combat)- in the same way that, say, 1e or OD&D or B/X or BECMI were "optimized" for table combat. To me, 3e and 4e (especially) had a much higher expectation that you would be running some sort of grid-based system with an emphasis on tactical combat.

In other words, the inclusion of distances and the ability to use them does not require a grid; instead, you find that you run a slightly different style with an emphasis on different areas when you are running TOTM; for example, large, set-piece tactical combats are de-emphasized.

But IMO, the big difference (as pointed out above) is the issue of details; some abilities and skills become de-emphasized (off the top of my head, mobility is a feat that isn't quite as useful in terms of the added speed, and you can extend that to almost any ability or skill that is mostly about marginal improvements in distances) which ends up resulting in different styles of game play. On the other hand, again IMO, combats become more free-flowing and faster, allowing more time to enjoy the other pillars of D&D and/or to use each combat not as some big show-stopper that feels like a break from the rest of the game and may require the entire session to resolve, but simply as a natural interstitial and part of the adventure.

Again, these are general points. What ToTM does require is buy-in from the table. There are no special tools or systems I use (other than far too many years running it), but it requires a collaborative effort with my players to run; if they feel that ToTM is "gotcha" (in other words, that my failure to describe something is used to punish them or restrict their freedom), then it doesn't work. As far as combat goes, I try to make sure it goes quickly, fairly, and the players have fun (more of a "yes" system than a "no" system of adjudication).
 
Unfortunately, my experience with TotM in 5E has been really negative thus-far... the system just seems overwhelmingly optimised for map-and-marker combat, at the expense of a lot of built-in tools for TotM. I'm going to try an persevere with using TotM for the more spontaneous action sequences and only using maps for the big set-piece "Marvel Battles", but I was curious if there are other DMs out there who have the same issues using TotM in 5E.
While 5e supposedly defaults to TotM, it really has vanishingly little support for it. You could check out other games that do work well w/o a map, like 13A (which does both nicely) and lift a mechanic or two.

The biggest issue I see with TotM in 5E is that it puts all the stress for managing and directing the flow of the action on the DM. I think this strips a lot of agency from the players, and can leave the DM with all the blame if the fight "goes south".
Yep, that's part of DM Empowerment. The thing to do is take it and use it to your advantage. You can use a map, for instance, but keep it behind the screen. You don't /need/ to keep perfect tabs of where everyone is, you just have to do a fair job acting as if you are. Players will get used to asking you who they can reach, which is closest, how many they can catch in an AE, etc, instead of trying to ask precisely where everyone is and figuring that out for themselves. This lets you adjust the difficulty of the challenge to suit, on the fly. Too easy? Oh, you can only catch two of them in a fireball. Too hard? Remove a few monsters, no one will even notice since you don't have to reach down and sneak them off a play surface.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
What, as a DM, are your experiences with narrative combat in 5th? Are there any special tools or systems you use to make it more accessible for your players?
None of the rules of the game are actually changed, when you decide to bring out the map or put it away. You still provoke an opportunity attack, when you leave someone's reach. The only difference is how much time you spend setting it up, and how easy it is for everyone to visualize. If your players are bad at visualizing, or you are bad at describing things as the DM, then you'll probably want to use a map.

That being said, there are some things that you can do in order to make it easier for you, if you don't want to use the map. For example, use fewer enemies, so that it's easier for everyone to track their positions mentally. Avoid the use of small cone effects, where it might be hard to describe who is in the area. Don't cluster different terrain very closely together; you want it to be obvious when someone is standing somewhere that's different. In general, just space things out more across the battlefield.

And when in doubt, err on the side of the players. There's going to be miscommunication, and players will want to have done something else, if only they'd known. If they thought they had stopped more than 30' away from the spellcaster, then let them move back when it becomes relevant. After all, the character can see the battlefield much more clearly than the player can.
 

TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
I think the problem with "Theater of the Mind" is that everyone involved has their own unique and completely separate mind.

Every TotM combat I've ever played out (about 4 dozen) has had people "misunderstanding" exactly what the DM meant in one way or another. It's caused frustration and problems. Perhaps a third of the time the DM ended up drawing something to explain the situation after a question or three.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
I think the problem with "Theater of the Mind" is that everyone involved has their own unique and completely separate mind.

Every TotM combat I've ever played out (about 4 dozen) has had people "misunderstanding" exactly what the DM meant in one way or another. It's caused frustration and problems. Perhaps a third of the time the DM ended up drawing something to explain the situation after a question or three.
I think this might be a failure of a DM narrating the results of the action. With TotM (as Iserith noted above) narration is key. The DM has to keep telling the story of the battle and reminding the players of their situation. It also requires the players to pay attention. Nothing worse for a DM to hear, after a clear narration of the players current situation, “err what’s my situation?”
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
I would make it clear to players before the game begins that you're using TotM, because there are certain abilities that are much more useful when using a grid (such as the Mobile and Sentinel feats). If players don't design their character to optimize using the grid, it makes things a lot easier for everybody.

The biggest thing to making TotM work best is to reduce the number of combatants. While most people think D&D is best with a larger group (5+), TotM is better with 3-4 players. In addition, the DM should use smaller numbers of more powerful enemies, or turn a group of enemies into a swarm for mechanical convenience. The less you have to keep track of, the smoother everything should go.

In addition, you shouldn't fret the details. Movement and distance is whatever you want it to be, so don't try to keep exact figures in your mind. If you think something is within range, it is, and that's it. Sometimes player won't like your answers, but that's not really any different than being 5' short on the grid (a common annoyance IME). I'd keep the DMG rules for AoE targets handy, and use that with a dose of common sense as well.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
I think you need experienced players to run TotM without it turning into a dogs breakfast - or at least players with some ability to visualize space well. Personally, I'm not a fan, but there's nothing wrong with it. As mentioned above, you need to be recursive with the description of the environment, and you also need to be pretty thorough in your prep to have dimensions and distances in the environment planned out. If you are both making up dimensions on the fly because you're a DM of the No Planning School, and you're also slipshod on the descriptive end, you're probably running crap combats. Just my two cents. I don't love battle mats either (too board game-y for me), and tend rather toward moderately to scale sketches on whiteboard, but it's all DM preference and group ability really.
 

Azzy

Cyclone Ranger
I think you need experienced players to run TotM without it turning into a dogs breakfast
Ha! I spent my first 13 years of playing D&D without a battlemat, so I don't think that experience comes into it. It's definitely a big gear switch from gridded play, but it may actually be more natural to some.

I think the big thing is to be desriptive, be fair, and encourage the players to ask questions whenever they're uncertain.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
Ha! I spent my first 13 years of playing D&D without a battlemat, so I don't think that experience comes into it. It's definitely a big gear switch from gridded play, but it may actually be more natural to some.

I think the big thing is to be desriptive, be fair, and encourage the players to ask questions whenever they're uncertain.
Newbs often struggle with TotM - they lose track of where they are, where the monsters are, and pretty much everything about the environment. That said, although new players will mostly struggle there's no real way past that, except to live with the growing pains. So lets not call it a barrier, but rather a challenge - gotta get those players trained. It's a lot of improvisation and micro-decision making for the DM too. Like I said though, good planning can take some of the sting out of that second part.
 
I started playing using only TotM. I was still a kid and had a good imagination, but I never had a problem with it.
In the last game I ran for 6 players, 3 were completely new, I used it for everything. I had a map of the area, but I never drew anything for the players. None of the new players had any trouble with it.
It does depend on the players. Some are better at picturing everything mentally than others. But it doesn't matter if they're experienced or newbies.
However, I do think you need a DM that has experience with it for it to go well. They are the ones that need to make sure to keep setting the scene. I like to start every person's turn with a brief recap. Like "Brom, it's your turn. You just saw Kharn slay the goblin across the room. Behind you, Elly just went down from goblin arrows and the goblin in front of you is grinning wickedly. What do you do?"
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
Sure it matters. It's not just about keeping the room description in your head as a player. If you want to make tactical decisions you need to able to answer questions like "can I reach that orc in one move or not" and in TotM a new player is almost never going to able to answer that question without asking, not unless the answer is already obvious. What that does is put a lot of questions and decision making back on the DM. I'm not saying that's a good or bad thing, YMMV, but it is most certainly a thing. It's less of an issue if all your combats happen on a flat 2D plane devoid of obstacles and movement hindrances, but then you have a very different problem - boring combat. So sure, TotM works just fine for a 20x20' room with a table in the middle for pretty much every player, they can keep that in their heads just fine.. But if you're fighting in a big cavern filled with stalactites, ledges, loose rock, and a river, new players will struggle, as will a lot of GMs. Keeping all the range and movement stuff straight is hard, and you need that information to run a tactical combat or it might as well not be there. I'm not saying you can't run that second combat TotM style, obviously you can, but it's not easy and new players aren't going to manage it without a hitch.
 

cmad1977

Adventurer
When using ToTM I presume competence and superior knowledge on the part of the character.
Solves a lot of issues.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Newbs often struggle with TotM - they lose track of where they are, where the monsters are, and pretty much everything about the environment.
It's the DMs job to keep track of the state of the combat and clearly narrate the situation for the current player. The players job is to simply pay attention to the ongoing narration and be ready with their action(s) when their turn comes up.

Yes it is a burden on the DM, but the last thing they should do (but too many actually do) is say: "Joe, you're up..."

That's when things drag and 20 questions begins.

It should be: "....Jill, your fighter takes down that ugly goblin with that massive blow from your greataxe. Joe, you're engaged with the last orc who's looking ready to bring some pain. What do you do?"
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Sure it matters. It's not just about keeping the room description in your head as a player. If you want to make tactical decisions you need to able to answer questions like "can I reach that orc in one move or not"
The Roshambo approach to TotM addresses a lot of these tactical issue with a very neat system. Check it out if you haven't already. (I linked to it earlier in the thread).
 

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