D&D 5E Using Zones instead of Battlemaps

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I'm interested in transitioning my 5e D&D game away from using battlemaps and towards using roughly sketched "zones."

I love using battlemaps. I like the art of them, I enjoy the tactical nature of grid combat. But I've noticed that my players get a little too focused on the map, and wind up restricting their actions based on what they, as players, see. For example, my players get too caught up counting squares for movement, measuring how wide a crevice is before trying to jump it, or not using the features of the environment just because it's not drawn on the map.

So I want to switch things up!

I still want tactical play, but I want players to focus more on what their characters can do, and how their characters can interact with the environment, instead of counting squares or making assumptions based on what's on the map or not.

I'm thinking of switching to zones instead of a battlemap with a grid.

What I'm picturing is a loosely sketched map that is not to scale. The map is divided into named zones. The players and DM move their miniatures around the zones, but aren't counting squares or measuring distance.

Written onto the zones would be tags that give clues and invitations on how to interact with the environment. So for example, a sample battlemap might look something like:

zone map example 1.png


In game, I would quickly sketch out the battlemap and write the tags (or have a player do so) as I describe it. I purposefully wouldn't describe distances, except for words like "far" or "close" or "big" or "small."

Tags Encourage Tactics

The list of tags would hopefully encourage players to interact with the environment. It would be important to note that the features of the map are not necessarily in those exact places; the stalagmites may be anywhere in the Upper Alcove, and big mushrooms can be found all over the slimy Cave Floor. So a rogue on the Upper Alcove can describe hiding behind a stalagmite without worrying too much about their exact placement on the battlemap. At the same time, a goblin on the Cave Floor will likely have some cover because of all those Big Mushrooms!

Characters would be rewarded for interacting with the environment. A barbarian shoving a hobgoblin is going to have an easier time doing so on the Cave Floor (because of its slippery tag), and doubly so if they shove the hobgoblin into that Slippery Stream! Basically the hope is that the tactics of the grid would be replaced by tactics of the environment.

Movement and Distance are Abstracted

Obviously this would change the way character and enemy movement and distance is tracked. My thoughts are these:

A character can, generally, move one zone per 30 feet of movement. Faster characters could move more than one zone. Small zones, obviously, could be passed through easily.

A character or enemy in a zone could potentially be anywhere within that zone. This is very different than on a grid, where a combatant is located within a 5' square. It is assumed that on a turn a combatant can easily move up to a target in the same zone and attack. Combatants who want to be adjacent to an enemy would just place their miniatures right next to the other miniature.

For attack ranges, I'd probably use a rule like this:

Adjacent - 15 ft: Same Zone
Within 30 feet: Adjacent Zone
Within 60 feet: Within two Zones
Greater than 60 feet: No limits (within reason)

So a spell cast with a 30 foot range could target an enemy one zone over, while an archer with a 60 foot range could shoot anywhere on the map (within reason).

Similarly, Area of Effect spells would have to be somewhat abstracted. I would probably use Sly Flourish's general guidelines:

Tiny Area: 1 creature (cloud of daggers)
Small Area: 2 creatures (thunder wave, burning hands)
Large Area: 4 creatures (cone of cold, fireball)
Huge Area: Everyone (earthquake, circle of death)
Short Line: 2 creatures (wall of fire)
Long Line: 3 creatures (lightning bolt, blade barrier)

Adding and Changing Tags

One of the things that I would get excited about using Zones would be adding and changing the tags that describe the environment.

Of course, there are spells that would add obvious tags. A Fireball cast into an area with flammable objects would get an "Objects on Fire" tag added to a Zone. Shatter, Spike Growth, Grease, etc would add Tags to Zones.

But Tags could also get added through player inquiries. In the Cavern above, a player might ask if there are large stalactites hanging from the ceiling. If there are, I would add "huge stalactites" to the Cave Floor zone. Of course, a Shatter Spell cast on those stalactites would send them raining down to the ground to crush any targets hidden amongst the mushrooms... And then I would add something like a "rubble" tag to the Cave Floor.

Enemies, too, would be setting things on fire, knocking over columns, and adding Tags to Zones.


...

So that's my idea! I'm going to give this a try in a one-shot tonight (with very creative players) and see how it goes.

Have you used Zones, or a similar way of showing the battlemap? How'd it go? What are some benefits or pitfalls I may not have predicted? What are some creative or fun ways to use Tags?
 

log in or register to remove this ad


BookTenTiger

He / Him
That is basically how Theatre of the Mind works and how minis worked in 2e for the big battles.

But in those days you didn't have skills which were balanced around 5 foot squares.
I really struggle with full Theatre of the Mind. Minis and maps just really help me communicate with the other players at the table. I always hate the question, "Wait, how many goblins are there?"

What skills do you think are balanced around 5 foot squares?
 

cavetroll

Explorer
I really struggle with full Theatre of the Mind. Minis and maps just really help me communicate with the other players at the table. I always hate the question, "Wait, how many goblins are there?"
Its not for large battles, its for most exploration and if there are only 2 opponents or 1 monster or whatever, no need for minis.

If you had 5 goblins the DM might just write on paper five G letters and write next to each the damage, people point to which one they attack, but there is no grid.

What skills do you think are balanced around 5 foot squares?
So many, like being able to push someone 10 feet back in order for the next person to land their adjacent greenflame blade. Or pretty much any opportunity attack. The list goes on, most things are measured.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Its not for large battles, its for most exploration and if there are only 2 opponents or 1 monster or whatever, no need for minis.
Oh, I guess I do use Theatre of the Mind for these things then!
So many, like being able to push someone 10 feet back in order for the next person to land their adjacent greenflame blade. Or pretty much any opportunity attack. The list goes on, most things are measured.
In my Zones scenario, if both characters are in the same Zone, then this is still possible!
 

Laurefindel

Legend
Indeed, this brings memories of AD&D 2E! Contrary to popular belief, theatre of the mind doesn't have to be only in the mind! Props and abstraction of space and distances like you did is very TotM.

One problem we had back in the 90s - and I expect you may face the same issue - is not so much to describe distance in terms of "near" and "far" but in relation to what a character can reach or not.

Most characters can move 30 ft before having to give up their attack(s)
Most characters can dash 60 feet to get into a position within the same round.
60 feet and 120 feet are benchmarks for many spells and abilities such as darkvision.

Distance doesn't matter; what a character can reach in a round does. That should be your metric to avoid things like "I though I'd be out of the fireball's range!" or "if I knew I wouldn't be able to get there this round I would have done something else!" or "I meant to stay out of reach of melee attacks!" etc.

The downside is that characters with fast movement or high base speed don't get to enjoy the full benefit of their abilities. Or they get a big boost. A wood elf's +5 feet speed will often be ignored, unless you say that the elf is always 5 feet closer or further than it should be, at which point it becomes is a significant feature!
 
Last edited:

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Fred hicks has a blog post about using fate style zones for tactical grid play and it works OK in fate IME.
I've never considered adding zones to d&d and it seems like adding them would create all sorts of problems but the log post might be a useful read
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Fred hicks has a blog post about using fate style zones for tactical grid play and it works OK in fate IME.
I've never considered adding zones to d&d and it seems like adding them would create all sorts of problems but the log post might be a useful read
Thanks! I'll check out the blog.

What kinds of problems do you foresee?
 


MatthewJHanson

Registered Ninja
Publisher
It reminds me a lot of how Fate works. I love zones in Fate so it's worth a shot, though there's a fair amount that you'd need to adapt.

For example there's a lot of things that trigger on being within 5 feet of somebody. Just being in the same zone wouldn't cut it. Though theater of the mind deals with that all the time, so I'm sure you can work it out.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
It reminds me a lot of how Fate works. I love zones in Fate so it's worth a shot, though there's a fair amount that you'd need to adapt.

For example there's a lot of things that trigger on being within 5 feet of somebody. Just being in the same zone wouldn't cut it. Though theater of the mind deals with that all the time, so I'm sure you can work it out.
Yeah FATE is definitely an inspiration!

For Adjacent actions and reactions, I think we would put miniatures next to each other to represent being within 5 feet.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
So just thinking aloud here, with no playtesting....

As others have suggested, the main trip up is probably those cases where being adjacent to another character is important (eg, opportunity attacks; small aura effects; helping actions; judging distance for things like picking pockets, whispering, etc; and the like).

To account for those cases, maybe consider a tiny "zone" attached to each character to represent being close enough to directly interact with someone? In fact, this little thing is sort of a cross between a "zone" and a "tag"; and conceptually, it just means "within a step or two of." It could be called "engaged with" or "toe to toe zone" or something. It'd be a little extra bookkeeping than just zones, but still less than a grid.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
If you had 5 goblins the DM might just write on paper five G letters and write next to each the damage, people point to which one they attack, but there is no grid.

Or, you know, most people including children can remember that there are only 5 goblins from one round to the next.

So many, like being able to push someone 10 feet back in order for the next person to land their adjacent greenflame blade. Or pretty much any opportunity attack. The list goes on, most things are measured.

Measured does not mean that there is a grid with squares. It can be at any angle. 5e's grid rules are not completely developed anyway, they are just an option that we never use:
  • Full TotM: we remember roughly where the clumps of combatants are and that there is a defenseive line.
  • "Grouping": Yes, the fighter and cleric are battling 5 goblins by the pool, and the wizard is fighting a ranged battle with the goblin archers on the ledge.
  • Battlemap, whether face to face or on a VTT: just move wherever you want, there is no grid displayed, and the distances are showed in any direction anyway, this is not 1990 anymore...
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Zones are significantly better than grids for imagination! I see three issues with the above proposal:

  • Players will want to be adjacent to/engaged with an opponent in the next zone, without moving into that zone. "But if he's standing at the edge of the stream, then I should be able to reach him from the cave floor!"
  • The tags, while increasing engagement, will also increase the mind's focus on the map instead of the imaginary space. You can provide the tags in your descriptions, without writing them out, and they'll be part of the environment instead of a part of a list.
  • Continued use of minis (and specific placement of minis) will probably perpetuate the issues raised by grid usage.

I use "postures" for characters instead of zones, which is like an abstract tactical positioning. Offensive posture characters are in the thick of it, along with other offensive characters. Defensive posture characters are staying back, so they have a bit of safety, due to different circumstances. Postures apply to the character, not the map, so there are no artificial barriers to illustrate. Postures also assume fluid movement, so PCs feel less stuck-in-place during the round - and the exact position of a mini (if used) isn't important.
 

aco175

Legend
I remember the DM having all the say in his mind back in the day when we used a loose scene like this before the grid. If I was a thief and wanted to sneak around for a backstab, I would ask if the distance was short enough to sneak and get behind the monster. Sometimes the DM would say yes, that is fine, roll a move silently check, other times he would no, you only get partway with no real explanation when I thought it was about the same distance. It worked and we had fun, but it left a lot open for the DM to guess at. Not sure if you can make the players have more say in the environment and how super their hero is able to be. You will likely need to reel some players into a middle ground someplace.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I tried it out in a one-shot last night and it worked really well! Even though I have a ton of premade, beautiful battlemaps on Roll20, I just loosely drew some maps, and when it came time to fight I added zones and tags. Here's an example:

zone map.png


(Ignore the blue squiggles at the top and the orange squares below, those were other maps.)

The characters were taking a shortcut through a dry gulch when they encountered two enemies (an elf captain and a gnome screamer) cutting a swatch through the forest on the other side of a grove of trees.

The characters wound up moving through the zones a lot, being chased by the Screamer (whose slow speed made him unable to dash through two zones), and firing spells from afar at the Lieutenant who had taken cover in the thick grove of trees.

At one point, the druid had climbed up a tree on the Steep Slope and was concentrating on Heat Metal on the Screamer (in this game, the Screamer was a gnome wearing a mech suit). The Screamer wound up launching rocks from the gulch at the tree, knocking the Druid down to the ground. Very cinematic and fun!

You can also see Spike Growth listed as a tag in the Grove, as the druid had cast it there at the end of the combat.

Some quick little rules we came up with on the fly:

1) Each Zone is "about" 30 feet across, unless otherwise stated.

2) Creatures cannot be adjacent if they are in two different zones.

In the future I might add something like "half cover" or "3/4 cover" or "lightly obscured" to zones, to remind me to use those rules for enemies. I forgot in the first round to give the Lieutenant cover in the trees, even though it made sense narratively.

Overall, a big success!
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Or, you know, most people including children can remember that there are only 5 goblins from one round to the next.
Respectfully, I need to disagree with this. There is a lot happening at a gaming table, and between making rulings, side conversations, ordering pizza, opening beers, rolling dice, making jokes, and having fun, it's actually very easy to forget how many goblins are in a room without notation! At least, that's how it's been in my experience.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top