Late last week, while I was taking a break from writing the “When Undead Go Stale” three-part article, Master John – better known as @beerwithdragons – asked on Twitter,

What's the most useful thing behind your DM Screen?

There are a number of GMs on Twitter who ask such questions as conversation initiators. When I have something to say in response that no-one else has suggested, and the time to say it, I reply. In this case, I wrote,

Me. Nothing else can create anything else needed on the spot.

At that point, I might have tweeted a link to one of my articles on ways GMs can get themselves out of trouble, such as A potpourri of quick solutions: Eight Lifeboats for GM Emergencies, and the conversation would have taken a different turn. But I didn’t do that; I had to get back to writing. When next I checked my Twitterfeed, I discovered a reply and a follow-up question:

Well said! Do you use minis and an mat? Or all theater of the mind?

To which I answered,

Neither exclusively. Depends on the situation. I'll have to write an article about that, sometime!

He replied,

Yes, please! I'm trying all sorts of ideas. Mats, theater of the mind, minis, overworld maps etc.

So, here we are. How do I choose to represent the tactical in-game “reality” and what are the options?

Considerations

There are eight considerations that I’m actively aware of when choosing how I am going to represent the “reality” that surrounds the PCs:
 

  1. Scale
  2. Complexity
  3. Set-up time
  4. Dynamism
  5. Positional Relevance
  6. Simulation Capability
  7. Desired Pacing
  8. Reconstruction
    1. Scale

    D&D and Pathfinder generally scale at 5 feet to the game-scale inch. The hero system works on a 2m to the miniatures inch, which is close enough to the same thing to permit minis to be used interchangeably. There are a few other scales out there, and some minis have bases that are larger than this, but for the most part, miniatures can all be used at this scale.

    Which means that they are of limited use if the area that needs to be represented is more than a couple of hundred feet along either axis. I simply don’t have the table space for anything larger (even that is a stretch). If the tactical situation deals with several miles of range, such as a marauding war-band of Orcs coming out of the hills and spotted long before they enter combat, or aerial combat with a Jet, or space combat with just about anything, or fleet movements, or the positioning of armies – forget minis, at least as literal representations.

    Which demonstrates just how important a consideration Scale is – it can rule out all but one or two possible choices.

    2. Complexity

    I’ve heard of people using their children’s four-foot tall doll’s mansions (usually with the furniture removed) as “battlemaps” representing a castle. Unless you have something similar at hand, depicting an entire castle at once is not going to be feasible, even though the floor scale might just about permit it.

    Some things – even natural scenes – are simply too complicated to be practical with some of the solutions. If the spacial relationships between disparate locations are so important that they need to be represented, tactically, that can definitely be a factor in choosing a means of representing those locations.

    That said, there are a couple of techniques that can simplify representations using miniatures, even making the otherwise-impossible not only practical but relatively easy:
     

    3. Set-up time

    Unless you can do it in advance, a key consideration is how long it will take you to set up your tactical representation, because you can’t run the game while this activity is taking place. Sometimes you can get around this – the others go to get lunch, one with your order and sufficient funds, while you stay back, keep an eye on their gear (might be necessary in a public space) and set up the scene. As a rule of thumb, 5 minutes or less is completely acceptable; between five and ten minutes is tolerable; between ten and fifteen minutes, I would have second thoughts as to the chosen mode of representation; and (with exceptions, as noted) more than fifteen minutes demands a different solution.

    4. Dynamism

    There are certain things, dynamic phenomena, that some modes of representation do poorly. These are less likely to come up in D&D / Pathfinder games than in other genres, but even there, they can occasionally manifest. Example: the PCs are swept up by a flash flood, the raging torrent carrying them away at high speed. Using miniatures to represent this effectively means resetting the entire battlemap every round. It’s impractical.

    Anything involving the third dimension used to be included in this category, but over the last decade or so, solutions have been found.

    See, for example,

    See also the links above.

    5. Positional Relevance

    How important is it that the players be able to visualize where things are relative to either other things or to themselves? There are situations in which it is critical – especially melee combat – and situations in which it isn’t important at all. Again, most of the latter will occur outside the D&D / Pathfinder arena – situations like psionic combat – but they can happen.

    6. Simulation Capability

    Equally, and similarly, there are often things that simply can’t be simulated using some of these techniques. Sometimes you simply don’t have the right figure (especially true in the case of larger-scale creatures). Sometimes, the environment itself is malleable or dynamic in some way – but I’ve already covered that.

    Sometimes, the creative GM can get around these problems, but such solutions are not always available. See, for example,
     

    For example, let’s say you want to set an adventure on the fantasy equivalent of one of Larry Niven’s Integral Trees, possibly as something that exist in the Elemental Plane Of Air. How would you represent that with battlemats?

    To the right is my solution – a somewhat gnarled trunk, ‘forest’ at top and bottom, and the occasional . It rests on the fact that direction on a battlemap is just an assumption – so along the spine and in the top and bottom foliage, the battlemap is Vertical while tufts along the way are represented by the smaller battlemats to the side – with round pieces of dressing used to indicate where the trunk is located. Minis would stand up on those side tufts, but be posed ‘lying down’ on the main battlemat.

    How long would this take to assemble? Two minutes – most of which is spent selecting the right tiles of battlemat – is probably a generous allocation of time. How long would it take to think of? If you haven’t discarded the notion that battlemats represent floor areas etc from above, it might never occur to you.

    7. Desired Pacing

    Literal Representation is slow. You not only have full game mechanics, but you have set-up and continued interpretation of the battlemap. There are no details that can be omitted or handwaved, everything has to be updated continually. The more that you abstract the representation, the more these factors swing to the opposite; you only have to mention something when it becomes relevant, and you can even streamline game mechanics to achieve a more cinematic action style.

    That means that the pacing you achieve is directly related to the representation methodology that you select – and, therefore, that the representation methodology should reflect the game pacing that you want to achieve.

    8. Reconstruction

    Most people can’t just put their representations to one side and leave it intact between game sessions. That means that if you aren’t finished depicting the situation being represented at the end of the game session, you will need to reconstruct next time. That can be easy, or it can be almost impossible, depending on the choices made during initial selection and implementation of the methodology. If there is any possibility of ever having to reconstruct your representation, the time to bear that in mind is from the very beginning.

Options

There are six general solutions to the problem of representing the in-game reality.

  1. Minis & Battlemaps
  2. Detailed Abstract Representation
  3. Dynamic Abstract Representation
  4. Broad Abstract Representation
  5. Supplemented Theater Of The Mind
  6. Theater Of The Mind
    1. Minis & Battlemaps

    Let’s be honest: the two extremes are the options that everyone knows and that most people employ as a matter of course. Depending on the breadth of their experience as a player, a GM may literally have never heard or seen anything else, and may not even be aware of the other extreme option – if, for example, you and your group can’t afford miniatures, or view them as a low-priority purchase item. I didn’t have any form of miniature for my first 30 years or so of gaming – and was a GM for most of that time.

    About 12 years ago, I think it was, I met a GM who had never played or refereed a game without using miniatures. He was totally flabbergasted that it was even possible, never mind that I had GM’d for close to three decades without them!

    These days, there are lots of options when it comes to minis – everything from cardboard to pre-painted plastic to traditional lead, mostly in 25mm scale, which has become the near-universal default. And you can get battemats and tiles for everything from Sci-fi settings to dungeon tiles, not to mention 3-D Terrain and Flatpacks like the ones I reviewed in last October’s Periodic Goodie Roundup.

    2. Detailed Abstract Representation

    Picture this: you whip out some tile-based boardgame, like Settlers Of Catan, and lay down contiguous terrain tiles, elevating some of the tiles with some form of stackable support underneath them. You then place a miniature representing one of the PCs and several monsters on different tiles, then announce that each figure represents a unit, and each tile is a mile across – the one character miniature is all the PCs, and each of the monster figures could represent anywhere from 5 to 500 actual enemies. Throw in some more figures representing units allied with the PCs, and you’re off to the races with a major war.

    This is a detailed abstract representation. You can do something similar to represent fleet actions, either naval or space-based, or a whole range of other broad-scale activities. Or you can use a different scale – 50 feet to the square on dungeon tiles – and drop a d10 to represent the number of enemies in a space, again with one figure representing all the PCs in a space.

    Of course, in many of these cases, you won’t be able to employ your normal game mechanics. That’s all right, there are plenty of military-style games which represent conflict between units of various technological standard, from something relatively medieval to something rather more high-tech. Pick the one that’s right and simply work up a set of conversions where necessary. A lot of the old Avalon Hill boardgames work especially well in this respect, but there are plenty of alternatives.

    3. Dynamic Abstract Representation

    Get a sheet of cardboard or a large sheet of paper . Glue several of the cheap figure-stands in lines across it, then slice the cardboard into strips so that each strip has pairs of the figure-stands across it. Sit battlemaps in between the stands. You now have transformed a set of battlemats into something that can be moved, by moving the underlying cardboard/paper, without disturbing any figures on the battlemats.

    Nor is this the only kind of dynamic abstract representation – most are far more abstract! I talked about constructing maps as you go in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly, and the technique is another form of dynamic abstract representation.

    Still another is to pull out something like the old boardgame, Orbit War; the board has a number of concentric circles with spaces arranged equidistantly around each of these circles, so that there are more spaces in the outer rings than in the inner. The purpose is to simulate orbits around a star or planet; at appropriate time intervals, you advance a marker representing each of the combatants – one, the PCs, and another the enemy – one space.

    Battlemaps on a lazy susan give them the ability to rotate.

    The only limitation is the scale of your imagination.

    4. Broad Abstract Representation

    This is a solution primarily used for large-scale areas – it’s your traditional overland map, or a digital equivalent. There may or may not be some sort of marker to indicate where the PCs are.

    I’ve used playing cards to represent unknown terrain – deal the deck out into some sort of grid. I normally use one three cards wide, face down. All you need is a table of what each card represents – or you can use it as a random generator. If you want to get even more sophisticated, you can take into account what terrain the PCs are moving from as well as what the new card indicates.

    My normal technique is to define a vegetation level by suite, and use the numbers on the cards to indicate elevation – and dynamically add in rivers and the like. Any change of 8 or more represents a cliff or steep climb.

    It doesn’t matter which way the characters turn, they continue to advance down the strip. More rules for that, because the terrain to their right doesn’t magically transform – normally – into that indicated by a new card; so that card gets removed and applied to the end of the strip. Of course, the GM has to keep track of the results, because they might circle back – this permits consistency.

    On one occasion, I saw a GM using a street directory to represent the corridors in a Death Star. He had defined in-context meanings for each of the standard map symbols in use, listed specific “street addresses” for each of several key locations the PCs might want to go, and simply never let them know where on the map they were.

    5. Supplemented Theater Of The Mind

    This is probably the option that I use most frequently except in fantasy gaming, and even there, it’s right up there. This is “theater of the mind” (I love that phrase) i.e. narrative description, supplemented by illustrations, photographs, sketches, diagrams, etc.

    I discussed this in detail in Stream Of Consciousness: Image-based narrative, and how to use Google Image Search – one of the major resources for the finding of appropriate images – in Finding Your Way: Unlocking the secrets of Google Image Search. Of course, I have also built up a large collection of images, usually with no specific intention as to their usage, and am quite prepared to sketch something out ad-hoc if necessary, or if I can’t find anything that I can transform into what I need!

    It’s astonishing how far one good image will go in providing a foundation for narrative.

    6. Theater Of The Mind

    The final option, of course, is pure narrative. Describe the scene and let the players picture it in their minds. This is something that I’ve written about extensively, here at Campaign Mastery; the most directly-useful articles are probably the six-part series on The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative, and Stealth Narrative – Imputed info in your game.

    The series on Writer’s Block, and especially part 4, which focused on Dialogue and Narrative blocks, might also be useful.

Making The Choice

Choosing a means of representing a particular tactical situation is a quick six-step process.
 

  1. Campaign Style defines a default choice
  2. One Step Removed: More Abstract
  3. One Step Removed: Less Abstract
  4. Another Step
  5. Repeat 4 until complete
  6. Make the best choice for the whole encounter
    1. Campaign Style defines a default choice

    Every GM has what they think is a default choice. In reality, it is the campaign style within the bounds of a particular genre that has that property, but unless the GM tries a different genre, or a markedly different campaign with a deliberately different style (in order to make the two more distinctive), he might never realize it.

    Once you have deliberately chosen a default style, you need to apply it every time that there is not a clear and undeniable reason not to do so.

    A deliberate choice can be more complex than a simple “always miniatures”; you can define a set of conditions under which miniatures are the default choice, and another set of conditions under which a more abstract choice is the default. Quite often, combat and non-combat are differentiators, for example.

    2. One Step Removed: More Abstract

    Assuming that the default style won’t cut the mustard on a particular occasion, I next consider the alternative that is one step more abstract than that default choice. Does it solve the problem that made the usual choice unsuitable? Does it fail to introduce new problems that rule it out? If the answers are yes, then that’s my choice. If either answer is no, proceed to step 3.

    3. One Step Removed: Less Abstract

    That, quite obviously, is to move in the other direction on the list of options (assuming that you can, of course), and ask the same two questions. Again, this either results in a selection, or you proceed to step 4.

    4. Another Step

    Quite obviously, that next step is to go one step further in each direction, with the same two questions.

    5. Repeat 4 until complete

    And you simply repeat until you have considered all six options.

    6. Make the best choice for the whole encounter

    This isn’t really a step in the process, but it’s something that might require you to change your mind.

    There are times when the situation is fluid or is likely to change before the end of the encounter/game session. It’s particularly jarring to start with one mode of representation and then shift to another one; details might not match up, and any player who made choices based on their perceptions of the situation will immediately get their noses put out of joint. So consider the whole encounter or situation before making your choice.

The Tactical Representation Of In-game “Reality”

After you’ve used all of these for a while, you will find that you no longer need to even think about which approach to employ, it will be obvious to you. When that happens, GMs get used to doing things in that particular way, and can find it disconcerting when they change game systems or genres and discover that the old instincts are no longer correct – or worse yet, bull their way into running an encounter using the wrong choice.

Changing game systems and/or genres requires that you go back to actively questioning your choices until the new ‘normality’ has settled down in your mind.

One last piece of advice: Buy a variety of Boardgames. As you can see, they can add to your RPG repetoire in all sorts of interesting ways!

My choices

You may have noticed that I’ve now reached more or less the end of the article without actually shedding much more light on my choices than was contained in the initial exchange on Twitter.

That’s intentional; my choices not only vary from campaign to campaign, but might also persuade readers that this way is the “right” way. There IS no “right” way, only a choice that works for a given GM in a given campaign. For that reason, I wanted to provide as much room for GMs to assess the options for themselves, the same way that I have done each time it becomes necessary. Each of these is a regular part of my toolkit, and which one I will pull out always depends on the circumstances. In the Zenith-3 campaign, Supplemented Theater Of The Mind and Miniatures are used with equal frequency. In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, the default is always Supplemented Theater Of The Mind. My fantasy games tend to be equally represented by Theater Of The Mind (sometimes Supplemented, more often not) and Miniatures; the exception was my 5e game-testing campaign, in which I deliberately chose to go with Miniatures and Battlemats as the default choice.

Every option has its benefits, limitations, and even liabilities. Make the choice that will provide the maximum upside at the minimum difficulty.

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