Saturday, November 7, 2015

Mapped Combat vs. Mapless Combat

So I've made some posts related to combat speed, and mapped combat vs. mapless combat.

Here are what I perceive as the upsides and downsides of both:

Mapped Combat


Agreement & Clarity. Everyone knows where everyone is. It's clear who is facing where, who is in which hex, and everyone's relative position.

Reach: Weapons with a superior (or inferior) reach matter more on a map.

Defenses: By the GURPS rule books, you don't get Retreat without tactical combat, so effectively your defenses are not as good.

It looks cool. The visual impact of minis on a map is tremendous. Players take pictures of the session not only to record it but because it's fun to see well-set up minis in action.


Time. It takes longer. If only the setup time and cleanup time, fights which require a map and minis will take longer.

Resources: You need a map, terrain, markers, minis, and status markers.

Speed. Turns tend to take longer with a map, because of the issues of tactical precision, below.

Double Edged Swords:

Tactical Precision. Your ability to leverage your position, your enemy's facing, you friends positions, your movement score, and everything else is improved with a map. So is the cost of doing this poorly. Having a map means your decision a couple seconds ago to step or turn or whatever can come back to bite you. Your ability to move around can get you into trouble where you can't get help. Moving may shore up your position or undermine it. You get no benefit of the doubt on where you are or how you were facing.

No Fudging. That is, you can't really just rule people can or can't attack. You can't wing mapped elements. You get locked into a precise set of positions and it's harder to just fast forward to victory or defeat once it's become obvious you are winning or losing without any consequence to tactical decisions made in the process.

Mobility: Movement matters, and slow fighters slog around and speedy ones can take advantage.

Overall, I feel like mapped combat giveth on one hand (more precision, everyone is clear where they are, you can use Reach, Retreat, and Facing to your advantage) and taketh away on the other (you are precisely where you are, positioning matters, and you can have Reach, Retreat, and Facing turned against you.) It costs time, however, and speed of play.

Sometimes you must go mapless, because of real-world concerns (lack of minis, lack of maps, lack of time, fights too big and spread out for minis, etc.)

Mapless Combat

Speed. Less to decide, so you can decide faster. Many more actions are "attack the guy close to me" and just caring who or what is in front of you, to your left, and to your right.

Easier. There is much less to know for the players. You only need to know the combat basics to get through.

Time. Less setup, no cleanup.


More confusing. It's harder to track where everyone is, and it's almost certain people won't have a very solid idea of where all of the combatants are. The larger the combat, the more this becomes an issue.

Spells. Spell casting penalties are tricky without a map. At -1 per yard, you really need to know precisely how far or close you are. You can overcome this with range band-like default penalties, but you can't get around them ("I step forward in the -5 band so I'm at -4!" = Nope.)

Double Edged Swords:

Tactical Precision. See Mapped, above. Basically, you can't really use your tactical understanding of hex map fighting to leverage your Reach, your Facing, and your Move and exploit those of the enemy. And the opposite - you don't suffer any of the major consequences of them.

Mobility. You are not rewarded for higher mobility because there isn't anywhere to move around. You aren't punished for being a Move 3 tank, either, though.

Overall, you have to trust the GM and just take some answers as answers. This isn't to say mapped combat is for players who don't trust the GM (in that case, don't play with each other, period.) It just means if you thought you were set up to hit the guy attacking your buddy and the GM says, no, you can't get to him - you can't get to him. Ultimately it's how the GM pictures it that matters, and you can't argue it very effectively. For players who don't like to cede any information about a situation

Really, mapless combat is just "adventuring as normal" but with violence. Like opening a door or a chest, or when a bar fight happens, or whatever - it's mapless but has consequences. You have to accept some fuzziness and assumption. If you try to have the best of both worlds, you actually end up with some of the pros but all of the cons of both styles. And personally I think no fight or PC has been lost directly due to lack of a map. I've seen a number of people killed make-a-new-guy dead in tactical combat. And as for speed of decisions, I don't see anyone really making better ones with more time spent.

Short version: without a map, you give up the benefits (but also the consequences) of tactical combat elements. Things go faster but you have to be willing to accept the downsides of vagueness to do it. Both options have elements that affect the combats positively and negatively.

Did I miss anything?


  1. I'd offer that mapped combat takes a huge load off the GM in terms of remembering where everyone is; I just don't have the brain power to consistently keep track of 3 players, an NPC or two and a bunch of monsters, even if I abstract it in my (tiny, warped) cranium.
    On a completely different note, would you be willing to throw out a precis of your extremely cut Tactical Grappling some time? I don't like the binary 'hold/no hold' of basic grapples, but TG as a whole seems like something I don't need all of to get some value from.

    1. Having the map takes that load off of everyone - but for small fights, you are investing a lot in relieving that load.

      I can't post the TG strip-down, because I'd essentially have to give away chunks of the TG rules. Doug and I may do something with them, as well, so we don't want to post something we can potentially write to publish.

    2. James: Over on Gaming Ballistic, I've got some alternate rules for condition-based grappling in GURPS that hint at what's going on.

      There are also many posts about TG on the subsection of the blog called The Grappling Mat. Including probably enough concepts to get you going in a non-binary way.

  2. There is some setup cost if you're drawing the map in play, and fishing through your collection for the right miniatures, but in my experience it's not really significant compared to the total length of a non-trivial GURPS fight.

    I think the time cost of using a map strongly depends on your players. If you have hyper-analytical tacticians trying to compute the perfect move, then the map gives them more to think about, leading to slower decisions. But if you have players who have a hard time remembering how many enemies there are, the map gives them something to focus on, so they don't have to ask the GM for a full status recap nearly as often.

    I haven't actually timed the same combat with and without a map. I might try that next session. (Of course that's not a big enough sample size to give really scientific results, since the die rolls might make a bigger difference than the map, but it might be interesting.)

    1. I think you're right about the slower decisions aspect.

      The setup isn't hypothetical, though - I know that even if I come into the session with pre-made walls to plunk down, terrain ready, and minis ready, there is setup time. I come with trays of minis, with all of the minis for given encounters nested near each other. I'm as ready as I can be without having the minis out and the terrain down. The Chessex map lives on the table at my friend's house, which has a dedicated gaming table.

      But still, setup is non-trivial. You don't kick down down the door, roll initiative, and go around the table. You kick it down, roll initiative, and then we take a few minutes to get out the minis, put down the terrain, mark the map, etc. It's a non-zero time investment.

  3. I'm definitely one of those people who has trouble remembering how many enemies there are. Near the end of the night, I have trouble remember who the enemies are! Being able to see the map doesn't exactly make me into a tactical genius (as you've noted, there's now more going on so in some ways it's worse) - but if I can't see a map, I end up driving the GM into setting up an improvised, not-to-scale map because I have NO IDEA what's going on. "OK, so this can of coke is the tower, and my shoes are the keep. These gummy bears are orks. That Reeses Peanut Butter Cup is a giant ooze monster. These M&Ms are you guys. You're the red one."

    After that, it's just a whiteboard marker and a dry-erase surface away from an actual map. Since the rest of both my online group and my tabletop group like tactical maneuvering, it works out best for everyone if we have a map.

    I confess, one of the big reasons why I like playing idiot berserkers is that I can reduce combat to a simple algorithm: "Seek nearest target. Murder target." Repeat at the start of my turn each time, and I always know what I'm supposed to do. That's something that works much the same whether it's on a map or off. :)

    1. That's one of the upsides of a map - everyone can keep track. I'm totally onboard with that, which is why I listed that as an advantage of mapped play.

      It totally sucks to set up a map and minis and walls and all of that when the PCs fight a single slime or a half-dozen orcs or get jumped by an acid spider, though. I'm happy to set up big fights - big mapped fights are one of the highlights of my game, and I collect and paint minis so I can use them - but there is a tradeoff for "I need a map for every fight." I think a lot of the confusion can be off-loaded if you follow the GM and just go with "I attack the next closest guy" or "I stay next to Bob and use Wait to kill the next guy who comes." In a way, you don't really need to know anything beyond what's close by.

      And if I seem like I'm arguing heavily in favor of the upsides of mapless combats, I might be - because I simply cannot put every fight down on a map. I don't have minis for everything, I don't always have time, and so on. Some will always be mapless in my games, and I don't think that's a negative. It's just swapping the pros and cons of the map for the pros and cons of the lack of a map.

  4. I think I avoid map-less combat myself because I can almost never tell which fight will be a significant one with my wandering band of murder-hoboes. A minor fight which should be handled with a limited use of resources turns into a death match, and a major battle turns into a two turn curb stomping thanks to indiscriminate use of hoarded resources and moxie.

    The other 'con' to maps that I think you might have omitted is that presence of the map overwhelmingly prejudices players towards combats. There are a LOT of times I like to have a map prepared for traps, secret passages, exploration, or just tactical maneuvering as a potential precursor to combat.

    But once that thing is on the board, the players are ready to start throwing dice.

    That's probably the other reason I map SO much. By giving them a ton of maps, they can't be sure that 'he has a map prepared' means 'we should probably fight these guys'.

  5. I went mapless for decades (as a DM) until I got a group of players that really squawked that I was hosing them, tactically. So we switched to maps, just so they can all see where everyone is and how they're moving on the grid. Now no one complains when I kill their characters.

    So...big pro of using maps: players can't bitch that I don't track combat in my head accurately.

    I don't invest too much money in it, though...I usually use zombie figures that you can buy in bags of 100 for whatever random goons are encountered, or rubber monsters, etc. that I can pick up from a toy store for cheap (I do have SOME minis, but I don't have the time to paint like I used to before my kids were born).

  6. Do you have to go all or nothing? How about map-lite? A quick sketch with counters or dry-erase crosses/circles for the combatants. You don't even need hexes, though an acetate sheet with 1/2" (or whatever) hexes is useful. It's how I handled combats way-back, with a 6-pack of coloured markers so I could highlight different features/enemies. I always found it faster to sketch the room/cavern (quick squiggly lines) instead of describing it with enough detail for players.
    This doesn't work so well for big combats (too many marks to erase/redraw), but it looks like you mainly want this for mid-sized combats anyway.

    1. Peter inspired me to try a halfsies approach for maps:

  7. I use a lot of not-to-scale drawings to help make sure we're all on the same page about the layout of a room/complex or where terrain is located ("No, you can't hide behind the boulder at the moment, it's on the other side of the house"). Not every fight gets a drawing and minis (of some kind) on that drawing.

    As I've watched the Minis vs. Mind discussions turn into arguments over the last few years, they increasingly ignore the middle ground of using minis and drawings in a loose, approximate way, which is mostly how I myself use them. Completely eliminates the "over-enthusiasm" of the guy that wants to "teleport" to wherever the action is (or seems to be; "You can't be both by the door AND by the window, dude"), and it doesn't take time away from the game. I can describe things or answer questions while I erase a map we no longer need, or even do it while the players are discussing their next move among themselves. Often that goes for doodling the next map, too. I've had cases where no matter how simply I try to state things, people can't wrap their head around it; drawing something has never failed to clear it up.

  8. That is an experiment that requires a very large sample set. Once you run it once, the players will not need to think in order to make choices. Or at least not as hard. Or they may make different choices to alter the outcome. And of course every group you run with will be different in their speed and decisions. But it is impossible to run a control such that these variables are eliminated. So you'd have to run the combat thousands of times before the statistics start to filter out these factors (under the assumption that they are less dominant than the map/no-map condition, which may be an invalid assumption).


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