Mind Style versus Grid Style: can core support both?


Mind Mage
Theater of Mind Style has the DM and each player describe and visualize the encounter. The scene exists slightly differently in the minds of each gamer at the table. The feel is more like a novel.

Minis on Grid Style has the DM and players place and move minis on a mat to represent the positions in the encounter. The feel is more like chess.

D&D has always been both, originating from a hybrid fusion of Grid Style wargames and Mind Style fantasy literature.

5e generally leans toward Mind Style, but still has rules that are unfriendly to it, such as requiring attention to "micromeasurements". For example, lightsources have a differing specific radius of bright light followed by a specific radius of dim light − rather than a ballpark distance category that allows Mind Style DMs to conveniently handwaive the lighting effects in an encounter. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for each gamer at the table to be certain if something is well illuminated or not, as they visualize the scene.

I enjoy Mind Style. At the same time, Grid Style has benefits such as keeping track of an encounter with many creatures, and the minis and maps can be beautiful art in their own right. Also, the Grid Style might be more familiar for those who are new to a roleplaying game, but who are familiar with videogames with fantasy themes.

The goal of this thread is to formulate a format for D&D core rules, that can easily support both styles of play. To do this, the thread explores what each style needs to flourish, and what each style finds difficult. In someways, the two styles are antithetical to each other. For example, Grid Style can employ micromeasurements as chess-like tactics, while Mind Style finds it difficult for each player to imagine the distances and locations in the same way.

What do the rules look like, if both Mind Style and Grid Style can use them well?

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Because I'm the DM
Just include both, the number for grid and the name for mind.

Distances/Range example:
Melee (adjacent)​
~ 5 feet​
Close (one turn move action)​
~ 30 feet​
Mid (2 turns dash action)​
~ 120 feet​
Long (one minute dash action)​
~ 600 feet​
Far (2+ minutes dash action)​
1000 feet +​

Firebal: 150ft (mid)
Longbow: 150ft/600ft (mid/long)


Totm involves a lot of description & abstraction with things sliding in & out of a quantum state of relevance & irrelevance as the action shifts. Tactical grid involves precision & requires a lot of rules that can't be easily abstracted like totm. You can simplify & abstract precision on the fly relying on that sort of quantum shift but not the other way around to add rules & precision.

A lot of 5e's "totm leaning" is probably more the result of incomplete areas in the rules and excessive reliance on "ask your gm" rather than a deliberate effort to support totm. If that were not the case there would be things like universal range increments as noted above rather than a bunch of (often) one off ranges that may as well be drone warfare given the various rules for movement. I think that a lot of "but totm" service often comes down to just trying to justify rules omissions that fall into areas that totm itself has as weaknesses. With the proliferation of vtt's & mobile computing devices (ie cell phones laptops tablets etc) grid combat is easier than ever.

Edit:lighting is not an insurmountable hurdle that requires obluviating darkness & other games have managed it. If a room is such & such size it needs x & y amount of light to be partially & fully lit. You can do that with a number of smaller lights adding to x&y or one bug one else you can only enjoy the area being partially lit close to or maybe in short range of light sources.
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5E already does TotM and Grid perfectly fine, so 1D&D will almost certainly do the same. Distances might be a trickier part of TotM, but it's because everything's in flux. The DM will have a rough idea of how far different things are, and should convey that information to the players. If a player has a hard time visualizing it, it's often because the DM has failed to provide adequate information. Some players can't ever work out TotM, however, as they're solidly "visual learners" that need visual information to comprehend.

does it? I play TotM a lot in AD&D, but I've never played it that way in 5e. It's always been on a grid. And with more and more people using VTT, grid seems to be the clear majority going forward. 5e seems very much grid based to me. 5ft increments, rules for which squares are affected by which effect, etc.
We primmarily play 5e TotM. I don’t know if the rules promote that style, but it is easy for us to play that way.


The biggest hurdle in my opinion is for those who play Theater of the Mind to get past the idea of needing precision. The precision you otherwise would get for playing with a grid.

Actual distances in TotM? Irrelevant. As the DM, you get to make up and narratively decide what the characters can see and do. Do they have light sources? If yes, then you have to arbitrarily determine where the monsters might be and which ones are in view... and should not once bother with the "ranges" of the light sources per the PHB. You know what those ranges are "supposed" to be-- torch throws weaker than hooded lantern throws weaker than bullseye lantern-- so just decide what can be seen.

Is a mage casting a ranged spell? Then as the DM you can and have to just arbitrarily decide how many creatures can get hit. You might have a visualization in your own theater of the mind of where the monsters are... but you won't have precise coordinates, neither in distance nor clumpage. So you just have to essentially make it up, while using a sense of logic and reason for yourself as to where they all might be.

Basically... if you wish to play Theater of the Mind, you should not try to play the board game without having the board. Just use reasonable determination and make calls that seem as likely as you can visualize, and leave the distance and positioning to those using the grid.


I believe that rules support TotM pretty good, even if they are mostly written for grid play.

Personally, before we played a lot more of TotM, but with VTTs and most importantly cheap electronics, grid style has been more popular as all you need is a cheap laptop and cheap large screen TV to put it flat on the table.

Then you can shift maps in seconds and not draw them for hours beforehand.

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Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
It currently supports both but I wouldn't say it leans theater of the mind. There are a few things which make it harder to do theater, and I've felt like it leaned more grid over time.


I think the rulings over rules philosophy of design makes this possible. I know a lot of folks groan at its mention, and wish the rules were more uniform and/or complete, but this partial vagueness allows room for table interpretation. You can easily go either way with 5E which is something that was much more difficult in 3E and 4E.

The thing is that you can absolutely be mediocre at both (and you can be bad at literally anything) but what makes for a good grid style game is in large part doing precisely the things that are hard in theatre of the mind.

In particular it's all the fiddly actions and overlaps and the pushes using existing terrain. You're using existing terrain and existing factors that have been previously set up. In a grid based game it's the equivalent of bumping the lamp in filmmaking or that scene early in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf hands Frodo his hat, thus 'proving' that the size difference is not just a trick of forced perspective or two actors on separate green screens or filmed in their shot/reverse shot on different days. These overlapping effects and interacting with unexpected but pre-existing properties don't work nearly so well in ToTM.

So you can have both working. But both working well is a lot harder as strengths and weaknesses are different between the different approaches.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
"Mind Style versus Grid Style: can core support both?"

I don't think it's a question of "can."

I think the history and the current practice of D&D is clear- D&D must support both Theater of the Mind ("ToTM") as well as Grid/Minis/Chits/Battlemap ("Minis").

Think of D&D as the TTRPG equivalent of light; it is both a wave and particle. Here, it is both a game for ToTM, and a game for Minis. It is both a desert topping and a floor wax.


Elder Thing
I've never played D&D - any edition - using minis or a grid, except in some AL games years ago. I've found that 5e lends itself to TotM play just fine. Better than 3.5 did, for sure.

As others have mentioned, the key to TotM play is letting go of the tape measure. I prefer that approach myself, because IRL very few people can accurately gauge distances, but players use grids to do exactly that. I also find that playing TotM, players think more 3-dimensionally. It's much more challenging to imagine things that aren't present when a good chunk of the game is; when you have a game board to play on, nobody thinks to look UP.



I would argue D&D has not always been both. 0-2e were definitely not both. Miniatures were mentioned but not integral to play in those early editions by any stretch nor practical due to the cost and availability. Even 3.0 they were not necessarily essential to the game by any stretch. The grid was not even a part of the game as it was suggested in inches and the 1e DMG had loose guidelines for both squares and hexes but equally supported the use of measuring tapes or rulers for distances and the scale was one for floors and another for heights but outside of Battlesystem for mass combat they weren’t an expectation of play but a fun addition if you could and all but a luxury by the time 2e was released and then the grid became a very cool skirmish module for the Combat & Tactics Player’s Option rule book that became the foundation for modern grid play.

Theater of the Mind was the default and the doubling down on the skirmish aspects of 3.x in 4e was a big drawback and Chief criticism of that edition for many considering that shortly after launch WOTC raised prices, changed the approach and then scaled back the D&D miniatures line, undercutting a primary component of the game with 1st party support.

The micro measurements have always been part & parcel of RPGs with many theater of the mind games still using them because we still use distances to describe things in relation to one another. These are not mutually exclusive concepts. Champions, for example, uses measurements in the same way and is not a heavy miniatures game. Vampire: The Masquerade last I check, the TotM par excellence, uses them as well. So I don’t really see an issue here.

Much like any other RPG these things are easier to conceive on a tabletop with a physical representation in all games and there is a reason even games that didn’t usually use miniatures before the 3.x era saw a creep in of miniatures to help with game play including Cthulhu.

Could some things be better? Sure thing. Get rid of the grid. Abandon it altogether for a raw measurement using measuring tapes or rulers. Eliminates square counting, speeding up play, eliminates concerns with making everything fit into a perfectly mathematical grid size and shape. The grid should be a guideline to mapping but not within the play area for movement. Get rid of circular bases, helps to kill a whole host of other issues like centaur PCs being forced into medium size while being Large size because we don’t want them on the 2” circular bases. Realize that the adv/disadv mechanic isn’t the answer to every scenario. Does it help with the grid vs totm? No because with the 5e rules the only areas of complexity then become flanking.

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