Off the Grid and the Tabletop Craft Renaissance

“HUGE … tracts of land you say? Now we’re talking!”

164989_482341861835562_1308677549_nGridless gaming is one of those anxiety inducing notions. But I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while now. The power of the grid is quite seductive. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. It’s a universal game element that’s easy to understand, and you can tell at a glance how far your character can move, how far you can attack, or whether or not foes and friends will be caught in an area effect. Truth is, we all wind up counting spaces with our fingers, or plodding our figures along one space at a time like a giant game of Parcheesi. We already start out knowing that we’re playing a game and the grid is a visual element that starkly reminds us of that. Yet we’re also telling a story … which invokes an often bandied term “immersion.”

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Roleplaying games are really hybrids. They are part game and part story. Some may be partial to one element over another, and both are essential to the equation, but I believe that most of us are looking for a seamless experience where the game and story inform each other without interfering with each other. This is ground that, I feel, is most fertile for immersion. “Immersion” is a word with a moving definition in an RPG discussion, and It’s not always a useful term. Being engrossed in the story, being caught up in a role, having a deep mental involvement in the game mechanics: these are all elements of immersion, and if they happen, then great, they happen. Yet I’m always looking for an experience that embraces all of that potential. And If I’m looking at a physical representation of the scenario, and it’s basically a grid, I find it more difficult to divorce the story–or more specifically the situation–from the game in my thinking. It becomes something more akin to chess with limited moves and tactical possibilities than what the D&D (or most any tabletop RPG you can name) can offer, which is really bound only by an agreed upon logic.

Theater of the Mind
In a sense, I’ve already been gridless. throughout the years, my games have been, more often than not, “theater of the mind” which always requires a consensus ad idem or a “meeting of the minds” so to speak. In order for it to work, everyone needs to be on the same page. Everyone also needs to be flexible thinkers and good question askers as well…
“Is there a rock handy I can throw?”
“How far away are they?”
“Is there a back way out of here?”
In this style of play, the situations can be fluid since they are negotiated, but they can be downright confusing as well. And the consequence is often a backtracking, or retconning of the narrative in light of a new understanding for fairness’ sake.

An Evolution of Solutions
A simple solution can just be a basic drawing showing the environment, features, and the positions of characters. I did that quite a bit back in the day. If you want to get more miles from a drawing, then use dice, coins, or whatever’s at hand for tokens and you can use the map for the entire encounter. But already we can envision an incremental evolution taking place here. The graph paper becomes a wet erase board. The tokens get standardized with washers and printed images. You experiment with paper standups. You buy a few miniatures, and pretty soon you’re looking for more 3D options, buying dungeon tiles, looking up how to make terrain online, and at this point, you’re hip deep in game paraphernalia with a dwindling budget and no end in sight and you’re looking for a rehab or support group to no avail.

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“Less is more.” I’ve tried to keep things re-usable as well as “hide” the grid as with these felt ground pieces with just the corners of the grid marked in.

There’s also the problem of flexibility. Chances are you will never have enough terrain to fulfill the requirements for every situation. You can mix your media, add dry erase mats to dungeon tiles, you can agree on varying scales, you can even mix 3D and 2D elements. But it’s quite likely, you’re looking for a certain aesthetic, you have personal standards for what you and your players will accept on the table (hey, I understand!) and mixing media can definitely foil a target “look.”

The trick is, to make the terrain itself be flexible. You still won’t fix every problem. Essentially, you will still be bounded by the pieces you possess to represent tactical situations unless you forgo the table top for a pure narrative temporarily. Sometimes you just have to, things come up you can’t craft or purchase beforehand.

Less is More
And sometimes less is more. You’re balancing two aspects to 3D gaming: diorama vs. game board. I see a lot of embellishment on terrain pieces sometimes. And don’t get me wrong, it has its place, but if it’s something the PCs can feasibly interact with you’re going to have to anticipate questions like…”Is there really that much gold spilling out of that chest?”
“Can I pick that skull up and take it with me?”
“Hey, one lousy spell book? It looks like there’s a bunch of ’em on that table!”
Elaboration can make a visually stunning piece, but then you have to talk about what’s “for show” and what just is. Always leave some room for imagination, and remember that figures have a space they occupy that is governed by their bases. The real world is full of sharp angles and tight spaces, your game environment can’t, for playability’s sake.

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DM Scotty sparks a terrain revolution with 2.5D.

The RPG Crafting Renaissance
Enter what I call the “RPG Craft Renaissance.” There was a serious need for tabletop solutions, especially with 4th edition, making miniatures of some kind a necessity. There already was a great war gaming community out there with how-to videos on terrain for games like Warhammer et al., but not much for games like Dungeons & Dragons in mind. There is a large amount of crossover potential and many of the skill sets and techniques apply, but table top RPGs typically require more discrete and idiomatic settings for the action, like dungeons and interiors. So along comes DM Scotty with The DM’s Craft.

It’s difficult to put to words how praiseworthy this YouTube channel and forum  is. It’s an egalitarian on ramp to easy and cheap solutions for miniatures gaming. There is a prolific amount of content there with useful ideas for any skill set and budget. Now there is a burgeoning community of RPG crafters along with a growing host of other DIY personalities, like the DMGinfo, who emphases modularity, with his own style and whimsical brand of humor. But what makes this revolutionary is the reinvention of 3D and a return to wargaming roots. The idea is to forget the walls and forget the grid.

Mr. Dungeon Master, Tear Down This Wall!
I’ve seen many a building rendered for gaming complete with furnishings and fully realized interiors. Yet when it’s only the roof that comes off the building, just try getting your fat fingers down in there to move pieces around, or even see what’s going on without standing over it, for that matter. Form and functionality collide with these cheaply made tiles. And since things are kept cheap, the crafty DM can anticipate environments beforehand and pump out new rooms, caves, or whatever. You generally don’t need full scale walls to represent the scene in a visually pleasing way. You can suggest the walls and add shadows, even indicate windows and openings, all without loosing that …yup…immersion.

And if that’s not flexible enough for you, Scotty’s “2.5 D Next” concept utilizes large spaces bound by modular walls to define rooms and interiors rather than tiles. This makes the game more travel ready and offers a quick and visually consistent solution for those extemporaneous fights. Personally, I understand the value of the “Next” method, but visually, I still prefer the tiles. Moreover, you get great advice and how-to on dungeon dressing and even some DIY figures. What’s not to love?

Circles and Grids (or lack thereof) 
The second element this renaissance espouses–gridlessness– brings us full circle. You don’t see grids on these tiles (painted tiling notwithstanding). Tapping into the strengths of a miniature wargame style of play, movement can be measured with sticks or strings, and area effects can be indicated with 3D markers. You do give up some certainty and clarity in exchange for directional freedom and more nuanced movements that don’t rely on arbitrary increments, like 5 foot spaces. Spaces don’t have to line up, so terrain placement can be organic and free-form. Uncertainty is also an element embraced by some games. Not being able to pre measure adds a human error factor that can make for a more “realistic” or at least a more “interesting” experience. Also, less clarity can mean greater agency for the GM who gets to arbitrate when “almost” is “good enough.”

Moving (Gridlessly) Forward
The cool thing about 5th edition is that the miniatures rules are optional and flexible. Ranges and effects are given in feet and radii. It’s really up to the individual group to represent or not represent the encounters tangibly, however they want to do it. Since at the moment 5e is my game, I believe I’m going to take that plunge, and what we’ll see coming up on Random Treasure is some of those crafting results.

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