"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


This is a recent email I sent to my players:
Hey guys,
At the end of last session we discussed the use of minis and a battlegrid. I am not a huge fan of using minis with 2nd edition and earlier D&D - I actually think the combat mechanics work better without them - but I am fine with using them if everyone else wants to. The important thing to remember if we are using a battlegrid and minis is the placement of your mini on the map is not the exact location of your character relative to everything else.

Why is this?
1. The duration of a combat round is 1 minute. It is completely unfeasible for a character to stand in one 5x5 area in a combat situation with horrible abominations trying to kill him for a whole minute.
2. The combat system in 2E and earlier D&D is abstract in that a d20 roll to hit is not the only swing of his sword. It is the culmination of a full minute of intense action involving many swings, parries, feints, wrestling, pushing, dodging, etc. Think of how much action happens in a "Bourne" combat scene during one minute. The number of d20 rolls you get during a melee round is an indication of your ability to have one or more of these many, many actions cause you to gain an advantage and/or your enemy to become disadvantaged. This leads into the actual meaning of "hit points" but that is a whole other discussion. It is because of all of these actions that happen in a 1 minute combat round that means you can't think of your character being in one stationary place on a battlegrid.

So while the minis and battlegrid will show very approximate locations it is best to view groups of minis in a whirl of constant motion in a larger general area instead of a mini in a set 5x5 square.

What does this mean?
1. There are two "states" in combat - "In Melee" and "Not In Melee" - one of the things that the minis and battlegrid will show you is who is in melee against how many opponents and, in a very approximate way, where this melee is happening relative to those "Not In Melee". The "In Melee" state has two positions "Front Rank" and if you have a long weapon (such as a spear) "Second Rank". If you have a long weapon you have to tell me if you are in the second rank - if not I will just assume you are in the front rank. Second Rank allows you to attack from behind your fellow party members, reducing the number of opponents that can attack you.
2. Firing missiles (arrows, thrown hand axes, etc) into melee will still be done as per the DMG - there is the random potential to hit anyone engaged in that melee.
3. The rules for Flanking and Rear attacks will still be done as per the core rules - ie the first 3 opponents are assumed to be to your front, the 4th to your shield flank, the 5th to your other flank, and the 6th to your rear (not including any special situations like a thief hiding in shadows and his sneak attack). So just because your mini shows that you are behind someone doesn't make it so unless you specify that you are in the Second Rank. However, I will allow the thief to sneak attack someone without any hiding or moving silently if he is the 6th opponent to attack that target which the core rules do not allow.
4. To steal a term from 3rd edition D&D - anyone in a melee is "Threatened" by all of the other opponents in that melee. Just because there are 2 squares and another mini between you and the Ogre does not mean that he doesn't get a free attack if you decide to flee (unless you say you are in the second rank).
5. Movement is inexact. For example, if there are two melees happening at opposite ends of a large room and your character decides to leave one melee to go help at the other melee - you can't just count the squares to find out how far you can move. Where you are actually located in the melee you just left is abstract. If it looks like you might be able to make it to the other melee we will roll some dice to see if you make it there.
6. With abstract positioning and movement, knowing where the PCs are in a melee for an area of effect spell will also be abstract. If you are in a large room fighting orcs and the magic-user casts a Fireball into an area that includes a portion of the "In Melee" area, your PC might get caught in the blast. We will handle this by rolling some dice and seeing where your PC actually is.
7. Narrative description is far more important than where the mini is located. I am far more likely to give bonuses for narrative descriptions than mini placement. Telling me that your character "hangs back at the edge of the combat attacking whenever the opportunity presents itself" means more than having your mini at the edge of the melee. In the narrative example, I can rule that you have a minus to attack but also limit the number of opponents that may swing back, give you a bonus to check if you are in the Fireball area of effect, etc. Telling me you jump off a table, bringing your axe down on top of your opponents head may get you a bonus to damage from the momentum. Most of the time I will do a 2-for-1 bonus for penalty - such as a +2 bonus to damage for a -1 penalty to AC in the example of jumping off the table.

What do you think? Any questions/comments?


  1. While accurate and well enough written, this is what I take away from that '7-Step programme':

    1). It reminds me of why I so strongly dislike the 1-Minute combat Round.

    2). --why I dislike the use of minis in such combats.

    3). --why I like T&T better than D&D.

  2. I'm not trying to simulate an approximate of the real, so much of what you have makes for an interesting read but isn't really applicable in my case.

  3. Yikes! What would be the advantage in using minis with a 1 minute round? All I see is reasons not to use them.


  4. Why the departure from the Moldvay-Cook (B/X) 10 second combat round (B23/X23)? If you kept it integrating minis would be simplified as their location/movement on the table could more plausibly match the gameworld situation.

  5. Even with 10 second rounds I'd still use approximate locations.

    Use mini's they're fun. Don't use a battlemat, it will only counteract everything you said above.

  6. I like 1 minute rounds, and using minis to indicate who is engaging who.

    Once the round is over, disengage everyone, so that new battle configurations can be created in the next round, to keep the action fluid.

  7. @ rainswept - The reason for the email is that the newest group is using 2nd edition and it has 1 minute combat rounds. I don't think I have ever used minis with B/X - even with the shorter combat round.

    @ Timeshadows - T&T has a 2 minute combat round if I am not mistaken - but the high level combat system of T&T fits such a combat round.

    @ Barad - I'm with you, but we all have a responsibility to make the sessions fun for everyone around the table. If my players really want to use them, I will try to accommodate.

    @ Norman - That is not a bad idea. I am going to look around and see if I can find a large whiteboard to use instead of the battlegrid.

    @ Paladin - I will have to think about that - it is an interesting take.