On Battle Grids and Miniatures

Recent posts have given the impression that I am against the use of battle grids and miniatures in roleplaying games. This is inaccurate. For most of my gaming history, I have used battle grids and miniatures at the table.

Back in the ’80s, we played with miniatures and battle grids – this is a photo taken around 1987 while playing Rolemaster during a 24-hour charity game:

When it comes to combat, I love me some minis and grids action… even more so if it’s a hex grid. But I have changed my habits a bit since the pandemic forced all my gaming online and I began to focus more on the relationship between player and character perspective.

Why use grids?

The benefits of battle grids are clear: everyone knows where the characters are in relation to other creatures, you can more accurately measure distances, position becomes more important, and tactical play opens up. This is hard to do with the so-called “theatre of the mind” because everyone’s imagined picture of the scene is going to be different.

Personally, I prefer the use of hex grids simply because they bypass the need for fiddley “every other square counts for two” shenanigans which, frankly, I never even considered until D&D3e. Truthfully, I like hexes because I was brought up playing hex-and-chit battle games and they feel naturally comfy to me. But that’s by the by.

What changed?

Thinking back, I realise that D&D4e damaged my appreciation for battle grids by making the game so predictable and disassociated from the imaginary experience I was seeking with roleplay. Lots of disassociated mechanisms – where powers and abilities are not tied to the actions of the characters in-world – ruined my desire to play in that style.

But then, ever since the pandemic killed my face-to-face gaming and forced us online, the VTT has eroded my enjoyment of playing with miniatures further. On top of that, I have found that moving miniatures can easily separate the perspective of the player from that of their character in the imagined Otherworld, largely because moving a miniature around a grid is so removed from the picture in my head.

Friday Night Roleplay, circa 2018

Making digital maps is hard and extremely time-consuming. Buying them is crazily expensive over time. For my last miniatures and battle maps digital game, I was spending three hours or more just making battle maps and dungeons to play in because the expectations of players became something like expecting to move around the entire world on a digital map, like in a computer game.

In fact, the games felt more and more like computer games. The style of play became more mechanistic and bound to considerations of tactical play which went far beyond my conception of what I was seeking from roleplaying. Frankly, if I want to play something akin to Diablo then I can just boot up the Xbox and play Diablo. I’m not a digital artist, the whole prep thing became a time-sink, and I gave up.

More recently…

Our games played verbally, without the rules in front of players and focused on inhabiting the perspective of the character, have been enchanting. Running those games as GM, I have found battle grids useful for larger combats but used them out of sight of the players. Grids have shown up only for arena combat gaming and solo battle scenes.

But I do love a good miniature. Before the pre-printed grids from Games Workshop, we actually played on an open table with a tape measure, miniature wargaming style, in the way that I always imagined Gygax and Arneson played. The tactical wonders still enthral me and it’s a big part of the appeal of GURPS for me.

But I’m not sure how to blend the top-down character-as-pawn feeling of miniatures with the deeply Otherworld-immersed experience I am seeking and enjoying without such tools. I’m not sure the benefits outweigh the risks, especially when I don’t really play with tactically-minded players. Plus I hate staring at a computer map when I could be watching the faces of my friends.

But let me be clear: I am a big fan of battle grids and miniatures, not least for the clarity of position on the table. I’ve just lost how to use them at my table.

Game on!


  1. I wonder if the secret for immersive grid-based combat is to keep things minimal?

    Thinking back, the battles I remember as the most dramatic were from a time where we used whatever we had to hand on a battlefield drawn on a whiteboard. Each player had their miniature but the enemies were usually various coins or glass beads. Everyone knew where everyone was, but you had to use your imagination too, and perhaps people played more imaginatively as a result? No matter how much effort I put into making my VTT maps as detailed and beautiful as possible (mostly by raiding Patreon), I’ve never been able to recapture that.

    I haven’t tested this theory, but I might give it a try in my next game…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you (and Shelby) are on to something here – minimalism and hand-drawn sketches, plus imagination. I also think using these tools minimally, such as just for combats, only when it’s tactically beneficial, and largely on-the-fly.

      Liked by 1 person

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