I’m often amazed that some RPG players can’t imagine playing without miniatures. I understand why you’d want to have miniatures in your games, they’re fun and add a great visual element to a game. The thing is, I can’t imagine the need for them.
I’d actually venture that I couldn’t have done a good number of the games I’ve GMed if we used them. In a way they anchor the player’s senses to their vision of what’s on the map. I’ve actually had problems identifying with my character when I have a miniature on the table. Again, I’m not opposed to them, they have their use but it’s mainly useful as a visual prop and a tactical reference. I also think that they can be a hinderance if players feel they have to use them even in a tactical situation.
One example of where they could be a detriment is if PCs lose sight of each other because of brush, fog, darkness, confusion etc. When this happens, I am far more comfortable as a GM explaining what the PC is seeing. This often leads the players to question their impressions and makes them act more cautiously. This can be very important for getting the players into the mood you want. If everything is out on a map, it nearly eliminates this atmosphere.
A second example can be seen in what happens in the Starfleet Battles game with cloaking devices. In that game (or at least the versions that I played) cloaking devices are nearly useless because a map is in use. I can’t easily fault the game makers, trying to get a cloaking device to do what it really could do on a map is not easy. If someone has a homebrew rule out there that makes this work, please let me know I’d love to hear it. On the other hand, I could easily narrate this situation.
Obviously this kind of approach isn’t always needed or even wanted. It can get old very quickly if it’s all the players ever do. Really to have the best effect the players should experience situations where they clearly know the elements that surround them. However this can also be done with good narration and proper communication. A map or grid isn’t needed in these situations if surroundings are described well enough.
Unfortunately we’re all human and that means we don’t always explain things well enough. That’s when a tactical map starts to really become a need, when the verbal description fails either from the GM’s fault or the player not correctly hearing what’s conveyed. In any situation where there are more than three spacial points of reference and a tactical situation is going to carry on over several turns, a map can be very useful for getting the game to run smoothly.
Maps Without Miniatures
Even when there is a need for a map, miniatures can be a problem in some settings. In situations where the field of combat is very large, miniatures can actually be a huge hinderance. In Sci-Fi or modern games the scale of a miniature can cause problems, not that these problems can’t be handled but we’ve resorted to a simple dot on the map with notations if needed. In some cases I’ve used a small white board and simply erased and redrew marks as they move. I don’t worry about the map being exactly to scale, just relative positions are enough so the players know about in what direction things are in and I keep distances in my head. I don’t know if that works for everyone though. I’ve heard some people recoil in horror at the idea of remembering distances between 5 or six different moving objects. In truth, unless it’s an active combatant, I will fudge distances to things like walls and terrain.
One interesting hack that we’ve played is to have a player that is responsible for the map and then I don’t have to keep things updated as the GM. In The Artifact this falls to the player who is playing a Scout (any kind) because Scouts are intended to do things like mapping and judging distances so it actually adds to the atmosphere of the game. This was the reason for releasing a booklet of maps that a player could draw on and keep each map of what happened (Scout Maps). The permanent books are also a nice way to recall adventures. In most games, a simple blank book would be enough but The Artifact needed pre-made maps because of the manufactured environment.
What About Grids?
To be honest, I always found grid moments far too limiting. They work best for closed in built environments where movement is constrained. Hexagon maps are slightly better and work well for open and natural areas but not very well for close spaces. I prefer working with distance measurements. If a map can be done to scale, then a ruler may be useful, but it’s not usually even needed unless exact movement accounting is needed.
That’s how I manage things. Most of my players are used to it because I introduced them to RPGs, I’ve had some that are confused by me just spouting off distances to different points and I more quickly draw up a map for them now. What do you do?