Well, since D&D 5th edition allows both theatre of mind and battle map based combat right out of the book, I thought it was about time that I talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches. I will assume the game is being done in person, as virtual tabletops can take away quite a few of the setup disadvantages of battle maps. I personally employ both in my games, and will also talk about how you can combine the two methods. This piece is aimed for newer Dungeon Masters, but I hope the more experienced ones can participate in the conversation.
Theatre of Mind
Theatre of mind means the Dungeon Master will be describing everything. When run by a great story teller, this can be an absolutely wonderful experience and since it requires no physical materials, it is extremely versatile and light weight.
- It's extremely versatile.
- It requires no physical resources, meaning it is highly portable and has very little setup overhead.
- It flows naturally from the rest of the game.
- Can easily be done online through VOIP programs.
- When dealing with complex situations (lots of players or monsters, 3 dimensional environments, etc.), positioning is easy to lose track of.
- Amount of choice given to player can seem less (since they don't have very precise control over movement).
- It can be difficult for players to know how far they can actually move in a turn, causing lost time when the Dungeon Master corrects them, and the player reconsiders their turn.
- Whiteboards sketches or paper sketches to set the scene can help with positioning (at this point, it may be not much more effort to just use battle maps).
For the purpose of this article, this involves using a ruler and miniatures. Using battle maps means the Dungeon Master will have the battle setup with miniatures and maps, clearly showing the situation. They can also be used to describe a scene where there is no fighting, but the physical representation makes the layout far less confusing for players choosing which way to go.
- Positions are shown for players, so they know exactly where they are.
- Seeing the scale of their characters compared to something can really fill them with a sense of dread or make them feel confident.
- Exact positions are seen, so complex tactics can be employed quite easily.
- Easily translates to virtual tabletops, allowing new features (such as field of view, showing only details the characters can see).
- Physical resources are needed for the map and miniatures (depending on the budget and fidelity, it can range from printed maps and coins to plastic 3d tiles and painted miniatures).
- Setting up the map and positioning takes time away from play if you pause to do so.
- Finding/replicating or creating maps takes more effort from the Dungeon Master.
- If the chunks of the map are present on the table at once, meta-gaming is made possible (player can see the dead end up ahead). If you instead only show maps once the players enter line of sight, we are back to the issue of taking time to set everything up.
- Putting together the maps ahead of time can save time during play (this is more easily done with paper tiles, as major chunks can be filed away and quickly brought out and connected). When using paper tiles, the Dungeon Master can prepare pieces in advance (while waiting for perception rolls, etc.).
- The location can be described (using the theatre of mind technique) to set the scene and describe details that cannot be represented by a battle map (room smell, for example) while the Dungeon Master sets up the battle map or adds tiles to it. Note: This is true when players enter a new room and are ambushed or attacked.
- If combat cannot be avoided or if your players initiated combat themselves, the time while everyone is rolling initiative can be used to set up the battle map. Note: Only saves time if you already rolled initiative for creatures in advance.
Using Both Together Without Virtual TableTops
For me, the dead time while setting up maps is an important detail to handle. Practice in setting up the battle map can become a factor, as it can minimize dead time. The actual act of laying the tiles down isn't the hard part, it's getting the right tile to the right spot so preparation (knowing which tiles go where to form the battle map) can make a huge difference in keeping the game rolling. I've found that players tend to like to look at the battle map when it has interesting features, and seeing it being put together isn't as damaging as it may seem. If done reasonably quickly, they see the details as they come up and get to see details you may have had described, making it more real.
Sometimes, one method cannot or should not be used. If your players just saw a single guard and are trying to kill him before he can react, setting up the battle map could be overkill (especially if you can't bring it onto the table in one piece). If he succeeds in raising an alarm, more will come and at that point the battle map could be very handy (handling 10 guards vs 5 player characters using complex tactics can be a real headache). Finding this balance is tough. However, if you are putting your battle map onto the table in a reasonable time, the players probably won't care (depending on players, they may appreciate the visual aids).
Using a Virtual TableTop
Using technology to assist can be a great help. In particular, if you can't get people to a table a virtual tabletop can become an incredible tool. Personally, I found my players prefer having real physical objects in front of them to a flat screen, even with the delays that come with the setup of physical objects. The line of sight feature is nice, but you can also build the map as players move using tiles (when doing so, having the right pieces ready to go cuts down on time).
Enhancing games through visual aids is a common way to help make games more enjoyable, and using tiles is the most basic of these strategies. Still, if used incorrectly (taking too long to set up, at the wrong time, etc.), it can be less effective than the good old theatre of mind. I hope this discussion was thought provoking or helpful. If there is something you feel needs attention or any other reason, feel free to comment.