Sunday, September 21, 2014

Abstract Battle Boards: Anybody Use Them?

Yesterday a post over at Greyhawk Grognard about the extent to which OSR players use miniatures got me thinking.

Basically my comment on that post was that I have sometimes used them, sometimes not. Most of the time in my early years of gaming, my groups didn't just because we were kids and couldn't afford them. When we did eventually have some minis we used them very abstractly (without precise measuring and such), just as a kind of marker to make relative positions clear when there were lots of characters and/or monsters involved. In the sessions I've run with the Monday Night Ubergoobers, I haven't used minis. However, the party has a lot of NPCs, and it may be time to bring minis into play.

If I do, I'll probably use them abstractly like I did in the past.

This isn't to say that I'm against using minis with precision, wargaming style. This style of play does have its advantages, especially, IMO, if you want to focus on comparatively realistic close tactical maneuvering, in which case it is important to know exact movement distances, exact weapon ranges, whether someone is (or can get into) melee range, etc. I've played in RPGs that use miniatures this way, and I've had a lot of fun doing it.

The abstract use of minis has its strength in the level of action-narrative flexibility it allows. An absolute requirement for this, though, is a GM who makes a point of saying "yes" – or at least "yes, but" – whenever the players want to try something cool. "Can I do X?" "Yes." "Can I do Y"? "Yes, but, you'll need to roll and if you fail Z will happen." etc. The GM doesn't have to worry about whether the PC is technically in movement, shooting, or spell range, etc. If the action the player wants to take sounds cool, the GM can just say yes, because the details of distance and range are all hand-waved (which is also why this style of play doesn't work with a GM who says "no" a lot, since the only justification that can generally be given for saying no is "because I'm the GM and I said so").

So I'm leaning toward abstraction and the use of minis as mere "place-holders," in the RPGs I run. One of the things I am considering using, which I never used before, is some sort of more structured abstract battle board just to help organize the relative positioning of characters in combat, perhaps something similar to the "Conflict Action Map" from Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! on which Tenkar did a series of posts (post 1, post 2, post 3) back in 2012:

I think the key to using such an aid is to remember that it is still not meant to be an instrument for strict, precise tactical maneuvers – for which I suspect it would prove woefully inadequate. The goal of an abstract battle board is simply to have a tool for organization that helps everyone remember roughly who is where and doing what, at times when the number of combatants is fairly large.

Which finally brings me to my question: Has anyone else used some sort of abstract battle map? If so, which one did you use, and how did it work for you?


  1. Looks good except you need a Run really far away section in case something like last Monday occurs. :D

  2. This is pretty cool. I could see it being useful in a number of abstract-combat type games.

  3. I use a custom variant of the Ancient Odysseys map for my game at my flgs. I really didn't want to use minis but with 8 players I found I needed something for marching order.

    Unfortunately, once minis come out, players of more modern games or wargamers see the minis in a tactical light. I tried dungeon tikes but what a PITA. the abstract map method seems to work as a compromise.