I think a majority of us have had an experience similar to this…
DM: “You enter a chamber littered with crystal spires glowing harshly in the dark. The Necromoss you encountered back in town is growing in patches around the spires, no doubt originating here, creating a deadly miasma of spores hanging in the air, dancing around in the eerie glow, obstructing your vision. As you advance to pass the spires you are beset by a group of gaunt villagers carrying rusty but sharp farming tools. They seem grim and as you prepare to defend yourself a man you recognise as the mayor speaks.”
DM (As Mayor) “You have delved too deeply into the secrets of this town. Now you can never leave. Welcome to the Embrace.”
DM: They ready their attacks, roll Initiative…right, Kolben the Evoker goes first, what do you want to do?
Kolben: I want to target the center of the group with a good old fireball. Dead centre.
DM: You can but not without hitting the party. Also the room is so small you will have to hit yourself as well.
Kolben: What, you never said that! Ok, I move up and try to hit the mayor with my quarterstaff then. I will use Green Flame Blade and try to catch one of the townspeople in the secondary effect.
DM: I think your speed is not enough to get past he townspeople, he is positioned 20 feet away behind the group and there are three townspeople in the way.
Kolben: Information that would have been useful…EARLIER!
Sure, the player might be overreacting a little here but the Dungeon Master did not specify any of these things in his description of the encounter. Now, before we continue I want to stress that I do not promote any one way of playing roleplaying games over another at all. Each group has to figure out their preferred method through trial and error. I highly encourage roleplayers to try new and innovative ways of telling stories and not get stuck in one “correct” way of doing things. With this in mind I want to go over the pros and cons of the two most commonly used methods of running combat in classic role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons.
The Mind as a Stage
Let’s begin by taking a look at what running purely narrative battles does to help or hinder how we experience roleplaying games. For me the main pro is that anything is possible when you put words to it. Are you riding dragons into the gaping maw of the Abyss to rescue the soul of a king stolen by Malchanthet, the Queen of Succubi, or lost in a thick jungle while escaping from the pirates that had captured you? Use your words and describe what details are important to the story at hand. This way you can set the pace and mood of the adventure by conveying just what is important to the characters at the time without any constraints.
By contrast the drawbacks of doing a game using this narrative technique is that there are a lot of things that can be lost in translation, so to speak. While things can be vivid and simple in your mind, expressing that in words simply and cleanly to your players can be a very hard task indeed. This can lead to misunderstandings like we saw in the intro and will sometimes lead players to feel confused and even irritated when they feel as if they cannot follow the game or that the DM might be changing the game to somehow foil them and their actions. I must stress to DM’s that to be successful in using the theatre of the mind you must find a way to be both to the point and detailed in your descriptions and practise makes perfect.
Mapping it Out
When it comes to maps and miniatures you have an entirely different situation. The primary upside is that everyone sitting at the table knows the location of every other creature involved in the encounter and can spend the time between turns thinking about what they want to do when it’s their time. This can be very helpful when introducing new players to the game but will also give characters with movement abilities or certain position based abilities such as area of effect magic more weight over a more classic stand and slug it out warrior type.
On the other hand there are many drawbacks to running map combat. For some players it can get tedious that the roleplaying game turns into something more like a board game once in a while and other players can get lost in what is commonly known as being a “murder-hobo” as they only think about getting their character to be more powerful on the map. Some DM’s can even feel overwhelmed when facing a table full of experienced players and abandon maps when they feel they cannot sufficiently challenge them. Another drawback can be the costly logistics of it. Sometimes it’s just hard to fit a dry erase mat on a table full of character sheets, Mountain Dew and candy. On top of that the desire to have nice, painted miniatures and 3D printed dungeon walls can quickly bankrupt those looking to make their map-based experience the best it can be.
My opinion is that each has its place. For large nail-biting encounters featuring a multitude of creatures nothing can beat a good, detailed map. In my 4e Dungeons and Dragons Eberron campaign I ran a very long encounter featuring ten waves of Kobolds attacking the party inside a despoiled underground temple. The players had fallen through the unstable roof of the temple and crashed down into the first group of Kobolds who had made the place their home. The only other entrances to the temple were tight tunnels dug by the Kobolds so the players quickly determined that their only way out would be the same way they came in, the big hole in the ceiling, but doing so safely was impossible while the adventurers were under attack. The resulting fight was one of the more memorable scenes I have run in my time.
Trying to run that combat in the theatre of the mind would have been a disaster. Introducing wave after wave of Kobolds using only descriptions would have felt chaotic and confusing for the players and the logistics of keeping track of them would have been hell. On the other hand I always ran my World of Darkness games without a map because combat tended to be deadlier and more to the point. Describing a harrying basement encounter with a cast iron skillet wielding zombified hausfrau was much scarier then it could ever have been if I had set up models on a mat. My battered and bruised investigators arriving at the hospital that night sporting multiple contusions with no solid explanation on how they got them was a funny scene that totally reinforced the tense horror of the fight.
Of course in these examples the systems might appear to lend themselves better to each style of play but changing it up between fights is also fully doable and might even be the best way of doing it. No matter what method you choose there will be problems you will have to solve but remember that it is never too late to adopt new ways of having fun. I hope this list of potential merits and flaws helps you choose a new way of running your game and I recommend your give each style serious thought before you decide what best fits your story.