A hypothesis on the life cycle of combat RPGs

A question from the blog-topics backlog which I’d now like to throw out to the readership: If you have ever played a combat-oriented tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, did you ever actually use miniatures on a grid, as the rulebooks generally assume of their players, with each square representing a 10’-by-10’ area? Or did the combat, as with the rest of the gameplay, stick to an entirely verbal format?

It’s been a long time since my last paper-and-pencil D&D session, but I’ve dabbled amidst perhaps a dozen different RPG groups since first discovering them way back in high school, in various locations up and down the American east coast. In precisely zero of these groups did the players ever move character-representative pawns around on a grid, treating them as a literal tactical representation of the battle. At most the GM might occasionally doodle out an abstract visual-aid snapshot of a particular battle setup, just as a visual aid:

OK, this is the cave [draws blob on paper]… here’s where you all came in, and there’s that mysterious light [writes MYSTERIOUS LIGHT down in one corner of the blob]. The goblins are coming at you from this tunnel over here. You have initiative, right? What’s your first action?

That sort of thing. And from there, everyone sort of co-wrote the resulting combat choreography, with the GM generally allowing any action that didn’t seem to stretch the limits of a character’s ability. A character couldn’t bound across the huge cave in a single move (unless magically propelled), but they could probably move to rearrange themselves relative to anyone else in the party, or run to cover. At no point in any such game I played did the action ever stop while we checked whether a character, given their height, dexterity, encumbrance, and so on, moved the sufficient number of feet per round to cover the distance between their current position and that stalagmite over there. And that’s to say nothing about missile weapons or area-effecting spells; generally, if the GM said you could see it, you could shoot it. (Or be shot by it.)

And yet, the games’ thick manuals always provided copious rules that seemed to assume that this number-crunching mode was the only way to play. To the best of my knowledge, this has remained true in D&D all the way up through its most recent fourth edition: just flip through any Player’s Handbook and observe all the words and diagrams given to describing the precise square-footage of fireball spells, varying by caster level, or the grid-footprint of white versus black dragon breath.

Any tabletop RPG group I have actually seen in action would just take these numbers as cues, suggestions of relative scale and feasibility. A GM would thus know that a black dragon’s stream of acid-breath would toast fewer targets than a white dragon’s wide cone of blasted frost, and narrate the results accordingly. They would not lay down a straightedge to determine which players, exactly, the dragon has line-of-sight on; they would instead build on the story so far to come up with an answer that just makes good dramatic (or fight-choreographic) sense.

Therefore, a hypothesis emerges from my very limited experience: the encoding of miniatures-combat rules into tabletop RPG rulebooks turns them into an odd sort of genetic carrier, allowing concepts seeded by wargamers in the 1970s to express themselves as videogames with perfect and infinitely patient computerized arbiters many years later. But the tabletop rules must exist first, an interim, crysalis form serving to entice a quite particular subgroup of unsatisfied players to adapt them into the digital formats that they strive to evolve into. Only then can these games, freed from the control of impatient human GMs, proceed to revel in their own rules’ arithmetic, right down to the fractional movement modifiers inherent in a character after they drop an extra electrum piece in their belt pouch.

(Granted, sometimes these combat RPGs will instead evolve into amazing duck-billed tabletop slugfests like Descent. This is because life is vast and beautiful.)

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10 Responses to A hypothesis on the life cycle of combat RPGs

  1. Up through 3.5, I can easily play D&D without a grid. But 4e demands one, I think. There's an incredible amount of the rules dedicated to grid combat. If you've got a choice between a power that lets you attack enemies an extra square away and one that does extra damage, or between a power that lets you shift two squares (instead of one) and one that lets you teleport three (instead of moving five), the grid is essential. One of the most desirable things for a player in my campaign was an item that increases her speed by one square.

    One could certainly play 4e without a grid by ignoring these rules, but you'd be tossing aside a lot of the mechanical choice (and thus differentiation) offered by the system. At that point, I'd recommend using a different ruleset. Thinking back, I believe 4e might be the only system I've played that demands a grid. GURPS advanced combat does, but that's clearly an optional ruleset that is for people who want a grid.

  2. The group that I played 1e with as a child never bothered with a grid, but the group I played 3.5e with as an adult did. The host even had a nice dry-erase sheet printed with a grid that he could draw the current map on. We spent a lot of time in our sessions thinking about fiddly details in the grid rules, and we liked it that way. It made us feel clever, even though we knew that the DM would probably let us get away with fudging stuff a little if we wanted to.

    I remember describing the effect at the time as like taking a break from the story to play a board game that determines what happens in the story next.

  3. Doodpants says:

    DnD 3.x pretty much demanded a grid for combat, IMHO. Both groups that I'm currently in started with DnD 3.5 and then switched to Pathfinder, and we've always used grids. Our DM owns a set of interlocking dry-erase grid tiles, and tons of the pre-painted plastic minis put out by WotC and Paizo, which are pretty sweet.

  4. Jason McIntosh says:

    The last D&D per se I played was three-point-something; it was in 2005. The manuals clearly pushed the grids but we all managed to continue ignoring them just fine.

    I haven't played 4th edition, and the feedback I'm receiving (here and on Twitter/FB) is quite insistent that its rules have the notion of "squares" baked in so thoroughly that they no longer seem optional.

    It's reminding me of criticism I read, when 4E first arrived, that it seemed to take plenty of cues from CRPGs, particularly MMOs like World of Warcraft. So naturally I want to see this as an extension to the life cycle I wrote of above (even if the "cycle" metaphor starts to break down as a result, as we get into good ol' family trees instead).

    • Jay LaPorte says:

      I can also confirm that D&D4 is literally *designed* as a glorified tactical board game. (This sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. It seems they're refining that concept into D&D5, which will be a little more humane, but we'll see.)

      I also definitely get the impression that D&D4+ were designed *after* World of Warcraft and it's progeny came into existence. There seems to be a lot of mechanics and flavor borrowed in from that style of game that I don't recall in 3.x. (This is either because Wizards was attempting to appeal to that market, or because my memory is colored.)

      These days, my friends and I just play a rules-light homebrew, so we spend no time worrying about mechanics and just get to playing around in an imaginary sandbox. Let computers do what they're good at, and let humans do what they're good at, I say!

  5. Isaac says:

    Well, I've played both D&D 4 and Savage Worlds campaigns that exclusively used a grid when we were anywhere combat relevant. But I've also played Burning Wheel campaigns with rules for much more abstract positioning, Fate games that used quickly sketched zone/node based positioning, and Dungeon World games where the rules explicitly favor narrative positioning over any kind of grid-based fiddling. All of which arose after the rise of videogames.

    Perhaps the existence of the videogame is a necessary catalyst to allow tabletop roleplaying to shed it's chrysalis of detailed simulation and emerge as an interactive story butterfly.

  6. Jason Love says:

    I joined up with a group in high school to play AD&D, and I dunno if it was just because one of our friends *really* likes and collects figurines, but we always used figurines on a grid with dry-erase markers to draw terrain, walls, etc. When 3rd edition came out, this seemed to encourage the practice even more. We have subsequently used these methods for Champions/the HERO System, various D20 spinoffs like Modern and Star Wars, the FATE System, Pathfinder, and (briefly) D&D 4th Edition, although we had unrelated problems with that version. About the only system we've played with any regularity that hasn't had us rolling out the old grid are the various White Wolf campaigns we've run, whether Mage, Vampire, Werewolf, etc.

    I mentioned our preponderance of figurines and ready availability of supplies as one possible cause for this tendency in our group, but it's also possible that D&D-derived videogames like Tactics Ogre set some of our expectations, as some of us were playing that game around the same time our group was forming. The fact that 4th Edition is what it is (i.e., an obvious grab for computer and console RPG initiates) suggests to me that our experience was far from unique, and it's entirely possible that combat-centric RPGs will have to deal with undesirable intrusion of elements better suited to computers just to coexist with their electronic heirs. Personally, I'd prefer for the opposite to occur: I want videogame developers to start incorporating the characteristics of narrative-centric tabletop games into their game designs; maybe then my group will be open to playing a tabletop game without as many explicitly simmy elements.

  7. Space Hobo says:

    This is basically one of the fundamental oddities of D&D/D20. It is a system derived from miniatures-driven Napoleonic War re-enactments. A bunch of wargame nerds just started saying "What if we used these rules to play Lord of the Rings?"

    I'm still a big fan of Forge-era (first decade or so of this century) Story Games such as Prime Time Adventures or Dogs in the Vineyard. These games aren't coloured by any wargaming ancestry, and focus entirely on using the rules to craft compelling stories. So instead of a rulebook that's 600 pages of combat minutiae and a page of hand-waving saying "Oh I suppose you could have a stupid cooking skill if you wanted to waste the slot", you have universal conflict representation systems where any game could erupt into Iron Chef without feeling like a stretch or devolving to "well, let's ignore the rules and just role-play it".

  8. Sam Kabo Ashwell says:

    More anecdata: my teenage RPG playing (AD&D 2nd ed., Shadowrun, WFRP, a few others) never really included any grids. We would sometimes use minis to represent the formation of the party, since that was often fairly important - who walks into the trap first, who gets backstabbed in the ambush - but by-the-book calculations of movement and time didn't happen much, if at all.

    We were pretty much all wargamers - D&D was a more grown-up step from Games Workshop games - but most of the GW games used open maps, with rulers rather than grids. And I had a pretty adolescent fixation on Realism, so going from the more-literal rulers approach to the more-abstract grid would have offended my sensibilities, I think.

  9. matt w says:

    Chiming in really late, but I used to play The Fantasy Trip and always used the hex sheets; it was pretty much impossible to play without. This may be because it was really a board game with a role-playing system later laid over it. Also the games came with hex grids and counters included, which was immeasurably less demotivating than the idea that I'd have to dig up graph paper and miniatures somewhere.

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