Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Why I Like Grid-Based Combat and What's Needed in D&D Next

Dominic Matte
I'm a huge fan of full-on tactical grid-based combat in D&D. I know that some people don't really care how combat plays out, and some are against using a battle grid and prefer the 'theatre of the mind', but I like grids and I'm going to tell you why.

I started playing D&D with 3rd edition. This is probably a huge part of the reason why I prefer grids. In 3e, the range of attacks and spells were all listed in feet, as were speed values. Grid-based combat was recommended, but not assumed or mandatory, so I didn't use it at all in my early games.

Problems started to arise when my players decided to fight tactically. For example, the wizard wanted to maximize the effectiveness of his fireball, so he had to know how many monsters were within the blast radius. As another example, the enemy troops were equipped with shortbows, so the player characters, with their longbows and magic missiles, could outrange them - but they also had to know exactly where the cavalry was at any given time to know if they had to back up or not. We all had a really hard time keeping track of the exact positions of every creature on the field, so we started using rough sketches.

When 4e came out, it assumed that a battle grid was being used for every encounter. This made things way easier with my style of play: now I could very easily keep track of exactly where things were on the battlefield.

More importantly, it really opened me up to complex and dynamic encounters. I could easily place special terrain features or use creatures that modify the battlefield without giving myself a headache. Over the course of 4th edition I came to very heavily emphasize dynamic encounters, and as a result, I also tend to prefer long encounters, especially for important plot points. 

If combat only takes a couple of rounds and is done in a few minutes, there's very little opportunity to craft a rich dynamic battle. One example I enjoyed was a battle with a volcanic dragon in the middle of a city, where lava spread across the town square and gradually rose, forcing the players to move to the more restricted rooftops and to have to be careful about forced movement. In a short encounter, there might not be enough time for the lava to matter.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. 
Do I want grid-based combat for D&D Next? Actually, I don't care so much, as long as the designers select a single default and design the core system around that.

What exactly does that mean? Well, let's say that they want grid-based combat to be optional, to avoid overwhelming new players with tactics-heavy combat. If they decide to go gridless, we need to measure range with a simple non-numerical system: melee, close, medium, and far. If you list the range of a bow in feet, you'll inevitably create situations where people need to know exactly how much distance is between them and the target, which just leads back down the path of sketches/grids. A single move action could get you closer to an enemy by one level - the fighter who's close to an enemy can get to melee in one move and start attacking, but if he's far from the enemy wizard he'll need 3 moves to get there.

Of course, there will still be situations where you'll need more precise information, but that will now fall primarily to area-of-effect abilities rather than all parts of combat. With a simple system like this, it's very easy for the wizard to tell if she's close enough to hit an enemy with her fireball, and doesn't need to worry about how many feet to move if she's out of range.

Potential casualties of this system would be forced movement and attacks of opportunity. Forced movement can still exist, but it would need to be restricted to more powerful effects - knocking the goblin across the room as opposed to pushing him just out of reach of the wizard. That might sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but if there are only four range definitions and you push the goblin, it has to be far enough that it takes him a whole move action to return to his previous position.

As for opportunity attacks, if you're not keeping track of exact positions you won't really know if or when the orc moves into the melee range of the fighter. Opportunity attacks would likely be restricted to enemies purposefully moving in or out of melee range as opposed to passing by, which would make it tougher to protect allies in a battle without a grid.

There are some wrinkles to iron out no matter which option the designers choose, but whatever they end up picking, they need to commit to it fully to prevent confusion or backhandedly sending players to a grid.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy grid-based. I mean, it's all I'm used to, but I never really feel like it ruins the game or the mood of combat. Encounters don't have to be big squares or rectangles, but the area within it should be differentiable in terms of distance and location.

    I find that larger, more epic battles are better suited to a grid-less style. Big armies sweeping along, really have a specific range, and no one cares too much about the details.

    I hope D&D keeps the grid, it has always worked well for me!