Battlemap? What Battlemap?

When I looked over the prompts for this month’s RPG Blog Carnival (Location, Location, Location, hosted at Campaign Mastery), one of the first that stood out to me was “How do you represent a location if you don’t have a matching battlemap?” It’s not that I’ve never had that problem, just that I’ve never seen it as a problem—it’s easier for me to think of games in which we’ve had some sort of battlemap (usually a vague representation of the scene scrawled on the nearest piece of scratch paper, though two of my face to face GMs are prone to write on wipe off grids, and one configuration of my group created battlemaps using Legos) than to start listing off all the games that hadn’t had them.

So, how did we handle it?

First, careful descriptions. When your entire source of communication is an instant messenger window, you learn to make words count. Distance words are useful (though you need to be careful to work in the operative measurement unit of your chosen system or, sometimes, to be able to convert to something similar if your players can see meters just fine but tend to side-eye yards), and placement; so is being able to describe the scene in degrees, or if people can’t visualize that in terms of a clock face (“So you’re in the center, it’s over at about two o’clock, your friend is at three o’clock, and the Object of Doom is round about eight thirty or so.”).

Second, the occasional diagram. Sure, some people need the full on grid with the terrain types clearly marked, but sometimes you can make do with something a little simpler—Legends of the Wulin, for instance, only really cares about what zone of the battlefield you’re in, and in my game the question is just “Can you get to them in one dramatic leap? Fine, you’re good.” A very vague outline can often do the job—line, line, vague bushy shapes for bushes and trees, captions where necessary, “This good? Keep fighting.” Sometimes in my chat games, I’ve found myself having to try to type myself diagrams; my group was once escaping through a series of lava tubes, and after several repetitions of visual description, I finally texted them all:

________/ /_____

_______________ (you’re in the upper bit, which isn’t near as tilted as it is in the diagram.)

Another part of it is just allowing for Schrodinger’s scenery control. When how cool the battle looks is almost as high a priority as who wins, and you’ve got a group that has a highly developed sense of verisimilitude, then it’s generally a pretty safe bet to create a skeleton location and just let the players add to it, through either questions or straight assumptions. “Hey, is there an appropriately leafy tree here? Good, I’m in bird form and perched in it.” “Ducking behind the nearest rock, there’s got to be one big enough for me, then getting ready to slam the first thing that comes around at me.” “I grab the third fork off of the nearest place setting and…”

And we asked a lot of questions if we weren’t sure. “Where am I relative to this?” “I’m in range for this effect, right?”

Battlemaps are cool, sure—but with a good visualization and a willingness to let go of precise positioning, they’re not quite as necessary as they could be.

1 comment

  1. UZ says:

    Despite my vast enjoyment in using maps to provide a sense of place outside of combat, I haven’t actually used a battlemap since DragonQuest. And that one had these *hexagons* on it, if you please.

    Believe me, you haven’t *lived* until you’ve played a game where a housecat has to pay a movement point to make a 60 degree turn :)

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