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.

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.


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I guess option 3? For quick, simple combats I’ll use TotM. For average-complexity combats I’ll use minis on UDT or a wet-erase grid mat with some scatter terrain. For climactic set pieces I might set up a more elaborate tableau vivant map.

The games I run/play in are both on VTT (5E and Starfinder) so we use maps 100% of the time. We also use maps for exploration, which works well with the dynamic lighting features (we are using Roll20 and FG).

As with anything, the DM adjudicates what is on the map - usually what you see is what you get, but I don't think there are really any rules set in stone on this. On a less detailed map I would be more likely to rule there was extra stuff not shown on the map if that made sense.

The maps are generally prepped in advance, but if something is needed on the fly it is easy to find a generic map (anther big advantage of VTTs). We also occasionally draw out simple maps with drawing tools if nothing better is available. Pretty maps are a luxury, but I am happy just do a rough sketch when nothing better is available.

Overall, while I don't think maps are necessary, they definitely add something to a game. Many fights work fine with TotM, but when I think back to the most memorable combat encounters, they all had a level of complexity that just wouldn't have worked without the grid.


He / Him
I almost exclusively use minis and maps, for the following reasons:

1) they're fun! It's really fun to have little toys on the table.
2) they're communication skills. I find it's a lot easier to communicate what's happening in combat when we have a visual aid.
3) it's art. I'm an artsy fartsy guy, so I enjoy the visual aspect of it, and I also like crafting and painting miniatures, maps, set pieces, etc.

That said, my use of miniatures and maps has changed a lot since switching to online play.

At the table, I tend to use a small grid to draw out the dungeon map, and a large one-inch grid to draw out the battle map. Neither one is an exact replication: I tend to use fat markers and scribble a lot. I invite players to add to the scene, too. If we are outside, there are probably bushes around. If there's a fireplace, there are probably rusty pokers nearby.

Now that we play online, I have had a lot of fun sourcing or creating beautiful, detailed maps of dungeons and other set pieces. Because there's more detail, I find players add less to a scene. But it is fun to look at!

I have a good number of pre-printed maps and Dungeon Tiles, the latter of which I either use exclusively or lay on top of pre-printed maps to alter them.

I have gone so far as to use backing board, removable adhesive, and bits of cardboard to create different elevations for my maps using dungeon tiles, but I've cut back on how much I prepare maps in advance (due to things such as a map ending up not being needed).

Now, I most often bring a selection of loose Dungeon Tiles in a box and arrange them on the fly to make a battle map.

Playing almost exclusively online, we used the grid most of the time. That said, lately we've done a couple TotM combats with just an image of the scene on the screen and that worked fine. We've been experimenting lately with zone-based combat and it has worked quite well as a bit of a compromise between full-on tactical grid with (!#$@!)* dynamic lighting and imaginative theatre of the mind.

I've only played a couple of in-person games in the last 18 months. In those games we have used a large whiteboard with minis and have approximated distances rather than worrying about counting squares (playing with my daughter, my brother-in-law and his two <10 yo kids...)

*dynamic lighting, for all its glory, is sometimes just a bad word waste of prep time if you get carried away with it... which I tend to trick myself into doing.

Musing Mage

Pondering D&D stuff
For combat I always use a grid. Always.

Theatre of the mind combat is extremely frustrating and limiting because no matter how smart you are, or think you are, you cannot account for everything, and many abilities in D&D (old and new school) require very specific knowledge of positioning.

That doesn't mean you can't use what's on the grid to offer some ToTM flavour, for instance. When I run my 1e games, where combat rounds are meant to take place over the course of a minute, I often offer a descriptive based on how the dice roll, or decisions made by enemies - things like that. It's still informative, but the grid is always the baseline.

For roleplaying scenarios, ToTM will win out, I don't feel the need to draw every nuance of the tavern the players are in (unless I'm expecting trouble, or the players start instigating something) for everything. I still often stand when I DM and gesture, act, do voices etc to aid in that.

So in short, I definitely feel a mix of theatre of the mind and grid play are essential. But combat without a grid to track positions, ranges, cover, etc etc... that's a non-starter.


I've used grid combat since 1980, except when playing at school (it's not feasible to tote metal minis and a game mat from class to class). ToM for me has always led to too much confusion and other issues for me to not end up using minis and grids for positioning.

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