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D&D General The Grid vs. Theater of the Mind vs. a Mix [a poll & discussion]

How does your group incorporate minis and a grid vs. using TotM?


Moderator Emeritus
As I was deep into my new obsession, crafting modular terrain for my D&D games (designed to be usable in different situations), I started to wonder how frequently people mix or alternate their approaches to establishing the encounter area. Basically, do you use minis (or the digital equivalents on a VTT) exclusively, theater of the mind exclusively, or mix them up depending on factors?

Personally, I used TotM for the first 13 years of playing/running D&D. While sometimes we'd draw crude map on paper and/or line up minis or representative dice to show a marching order or other positioning, 99% of everything was based on description. When I transferred colleges after a short break, I joined a group that used minis a lot more often, and we had an in with a comic store owner who let us order minis at wholesale prices so I jumped on board. The adoption of 2E Combat & Tactics helped codify that for us, and when 3E came out it was nearly what we had already been doing, so it felt like a "natural" progression for us. So for the last 24 years or so, my D&D games have mostly made use of minis, though sometimes we rely on theater of the mind for quick fights or when minis would not clarify much (for example - the PCs and a band of orcs are exchanging arrow fire across a wide and deep ravine).

So that is what the poll asks, but I have other questions I am curious about.

General mini-users
  • How much does what is depicted on the battlemat limit what is in the environment? For example, if the drawn scene does not depict rocks or a tree in a particular spot, can they still be there based on player query? A room depicts a fireplace but no fireplace tools, does that mean they are not there or might they be there if the players ask the DM about it?
  • Do you (or your DM) draw out encounter places ahead of time?
  • If you use pre-printed battlemats do you end up using the same locations over and over?
  • If you use minis in a dungeon environment, do you (or your DM) draw out the dungeon on the battlemat as you explore it or simply describe it, drawing particular rooms/areas when and if there is a combat there?
  • Connected to the previous question: Do you use minis for non-combat circumstances? (like when a party fans out and searches a room).
  • If you use minis, how do you handle things like running fights through a city or when the party gets split up?
  • Anything else you think is important to know about how you use (or don't use) minis/grid?

Theater of the Minders
  • How much say (if any) do the players (as opposed to the DM) have in describing the environment?
  • Do you use other visual aids to help the players picture the area (a map, a quick sketch?)
  • How do you keep track of distances, ranges, and movement?
  • Anything else you think is important to know about how you use (or don't use) minis/grid?

While I did not make this a "[+]" thread, I just want to put it out there that I don't want this thread to devolve into a flame war btwn those who prefer one approach over another. I am actually most interested in when and if you switch between them and to what degree, and what the benefits or downsides of the approach you prefer that you try to play up or mitigate?

I'll swing back by later to see how it is going and maybe answer some of these questions for my own games.

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Mod Squad
Staff member
So, I have several groups, my answer to the poll question is my best attempt at averaging over them.

Of the D&D groups I've had playing online during the pandemic, all have used maps - in large part because they come naturally with VTT, and partly because those games have leaned a bit to the tactical combat focus.

One other group, playing Fate Accelerated, has used no battlemaps.

Playing live D&D before the pandemic, it was bringing out a battlemap when the combat was going to be more complicated or make use of a lot of dynamic positioning.

My two non-D&D campaigns before the pandemic used all TotM.


Magic Wordsmith
Tableau Vivant (the grid) all the time for me with highly-detailed maps on a VTT, whether playing online or in person.

I have a very large asset library that allows me to pull out what I need on the fly, but most of my encounters are set up prior to play. The entire dungeon is prepped, for example, or I have a bunch of wilderness maps at the ready for travel encounters. If something is on the map, it exists as an interactable. If something reasonable for the scene is not on the map, it's possible it might be there. (Player: "I look to see if there are fireplace tools in this fireplace. DM: "You find rusty fireplace tools scattered about the cold ashes.")

Some maps get used over and over, but I try not to do that. Typically this is for wilderness random encounters. What I do is prepare 9 such maps and have a macro that randomizes which map the encounter takes place on when a wilderness encounter is indicated. This makes it a bit more tolerable in my view.

We use minis for exploration, social, and combat. For exploration and social, it depends on the situation and scale. If we're in a city as opposed to a dungeon, for example, I'll have a splash page up with an evocative image of the city. Same goes for chase scenes - a splash page of cool art depicting a chase marked by "zones" indicating distance between hunter and quarry helps manage the scene. Here's my chase scene splash page for my current swamp hexcrawl:


The main thing is to use art to keep eyes on the screen and to make sure that any questions as where things are relative to each other are mitigated as much as possible as that sort of back and forth slows down the game.

Marc Radle

We only play live / in person and we always use the grid.

I’ve played theater of the mind combats in the past, and while they’re fine … for me, I get excited whenever combat starts and we position the minis etc., and I would really miss it if we didn’t do it.

I love the tactical aspect of minis on grid D&D combat. If I were playing in a D&D game and the DM preferred to run combats theater of the mind … I honestly would be disappointed, and would probably consider finding a different group

For D&D I use hexgrid and tokens (not minis, those are for Warhammer) most of the battles. Grid is on paper if I've bothered to draw it beforehand (I try to do so for complex thing to not waste time during the session) or on vinyl mat if I quickly sketch the scene during the game. I try to add some scatter terrain and large and medium sized features, but of course small objects are not on the map. Such details may or may not exist depending what's reasonable. Fireplace tools next to the fireplace sounds pretty reasonable to me.

D&D is rather combat focused game and there are a lot of mechanics that depend on terrain, line of sight, distances etc, so it is just easier to have some sort of map. For other games which have less detailed, more abstract combat rules I wouldn't bother. I also wouldn't necessarily bother for really simple combats in D&D.

As for exploration, I don't necessarily have maps for areas where there are no potential enemies. I can just describe those, and exact distances & such don't really matter that much.


We use a grid and minis nearly all the time. Last convention we played in, one of the DM's went with TotM and none of us liked it. There was a lot of questions about how far away someone is and where is so-and-so. It made a lot of confusion about if the thief was able to backstab and if the mage was too close to a monster. A lot of this is clear when using minis.

TotM does allow for more options if asked for and described right. It also gets people away from looking at the grid as a focus, but that is also where the action is going on, so maybe that is where people should be looking.


Way back in ye olden days, when we started playing D&D we did TOTM, but pretty early on we started using paper tokens for complex battles. It just worked better for us and we never looked back.

Now? We always use minis and lately I've switched over to a hex grid. Occasionally we'll narrate minor combats, but honestly I don't ever bother with easy encounters, I'd rather just spend the time elsewhere.

When it comes to props, I paint minis for PCs and have a fair number of metal or prepainted plastic minis, although I'm not a collector by any means.

I've tried things similar to dwarven forge and while they look cool, we always hit visibility issues with the terrain pieces blocking the view of the minis. That, and I only occasionally have set piece battles figured out ahead of time. Most of the time I just know who's who and come up with a set of likely encounter opponents, including having 1-3 more encounters than I need depending on what kind of direction the group might take.

Instead, I either draw or use generic blocks to represent terrain features, especially when there's elevation changes. I recently started making "tree stumps" for all those forest encounters. But I still keep them as stumps instead of full blown trees for visibility reasons.

Couple other props I use
  • Plastic rings from bottles that I can put on minis to remind me of status effects. So if the wizard has dominated that barbarian, I'll put the same color ring on each. Fortunately I don't need as many as I used to - back in 4E I had a whole chart printed out for all the conditions and options.
  • I keep those clear plastic dice cubes and use them for flying creatures.
  • Large metal rings for AOE spells
  • Colored squares made out of 1x1/4 inch wood strips cut into 1 inch squares that I use for things like walls of fire and so on.

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