Every so often I will see various forum threads or Google+ posts about people considering trying to run a Pathfinder or 3.x game without a grid or without a battlemat. Though they hear the siren’s call of playing without the battlemat, they have reservations about the move as they fear things just won’t work. Feats that were once useful will become much less so, time will be wasted trying to figure out where everyone is at and so on and so on.
I used to be of the same mindset from my early days of playing 3.x. I needed my battlemat and my minis. Then I played with a GM who didn’t feel the need to use a battlemat and I learned that the game played just fine without a battlemat. I am here to tell you that if you hear that siren’s call, don’t be so afraid to answer it.
How I Went Gridless
I used to use a battlemat for all of my 3.x games. I always had my battlemat, my minis and dry erase markers ready to go. Then I met a GM who did not believe that a battlemat was needed all the time. He tended to run a lot of combats without a battlemat anywhere in sight. Occasionally he would break one out (well, actually borrow one, I don’t think he actually owns a battlemat). These occasions were for situations with an extremely large number of combatants involved or a very unusual terrain instance.
There was another factor that made this lack of a battlemat attractive for our group and hence quite open to trying it. Our environment. We play every Thursday in our host’s living room. We have super comfortable seating with a very plush couch and a nice comfy GM’s chair. And the world’s smallest coffee table. Okay, maybe not the world’s smallest, I did see a smaller one posted to Twitter once. But small enough that getting a battlemat on there requires a little bit of finesse.
These factors led to our group trying the gridless option.
There are several advantages to moving to playing without a battlemat even with today’s tactic based games. Combats tend to become faster simply because there is less setup. You don’t have to drag out the battlemat. You don’t have to draw the room or encounter area. You don’t have to dig out the minis or tokens to put on the map. A fair amount of time is saved simply by not needing to do this setup.
During the course of actual combat there is less time spent moving minis and counting out squares as you move. Not only does this save time during combat, but it often leads to players focusing more on describing their actions instead of focusing on just moving their mini.
The lack of a battlemat also seems less prone to break immersion. Without the need to move minis around or slip into a chess-like mode of thinking your mind can think more about the scene and imagery surrounding the combat than focusing on the character representations on the battlemat.
Keys to Success
The biggest key to successful gaming without a battlemat is trust. You need to trust your GM for this to work out well. Naysayers of gridless play for normally tactic oriented systems say that the time made up from not moving minis will be lost again trying to clarify positioning. In a group that trusts their GM this is not the case.
In combat, if my character wants to charge the nearest orc, I simply have to ask, can I reach one of the orcs in a charge? The GM will quickly reply with the answer. An enabling GM will frequently say yes if that seems a reasonable action given the scene he has described. If it just isn’t the case, he can say no and as a player I accept it and either run or double move towards the orc so I can finish with a charge next round. These are quick questions and answers and typically done faster than I can move a mini on a battlemat.
Beyond player and GM trust to make this successful, the GM does need to have the ability to make mental note of how the battle looks. He needs to at least have approximations of where the various combatants are or at the very least, where the enemy combatants are so he can readily answer player questions if need be. This one can be tricky for some and might mean you can only run gridless for smaller combats.
In our group, our GM is excellent at keeping these details in mind. He can run much more complex combats than I can gridless. For me, I do have a limit. At lower levels I can run pretty complex combats gridless, but at these lower levels there are fewer abilities to track. As we move up to higher levels (12+) when I GM I tend to run at about a 50-50 ratio of combats with a grid and combats without a grid.
Answering the Siren’s Call
If you have been debating trying to play a somewhat tactical based RPG without a grid, go ahead and try it. You will be surprised at how well it can work and how liberating it can feel to do so! Even running a combat or two in a session gridless can free up time in a session for more roleplaying or even simply squeezing in an extra encounter or two for the evening. Give it a try and let me know how it turns out!