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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?

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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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