'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Why I think Zones Are Better Than Grids.

Over the last weekend, I again had the opportunity to play a game that used the more traditional grid-based system. It struck me that although it added the ability to more clearly move figures around and know "exactly" where each person was, it came at the cost of time.

Each time a character moved we needed to count the squares and try and determine the exact location we wanted to be. When casting spells with an area of effect, we needed to make sure the area was going to be what we wanted and count out carefully.

All of this additional time added up, and from where I was sitting slowed combat considerably. Combat should be an exciting time in the game, full of fun rolls and descriptions. We should not be seeking to slow it down. If I had any lingering doubts about zones before, they are pretty solidly gone now.

Instead of a battlemap composed of grids, zones break the map up into areas, let's see how that works in practice.

Basic Battlemap
Battlemap with Zones

Above we have two examples of the same map (From 2 minutetable top) described spatially. One with a grid where players can place a miniature on the map and move them in 5' increments. The other has the same map described with zones, where player miniatures are simply placed within a zone.

It is important to note that I have drawn the zones on largely for illustrative purposes, you could use a basic clean map and denote the zones through narration, small markers or just a small keymap. The zones don't need to be exactly delineated. We just need to know that a character is in the "Deep Stream" or on the "Rocky Incline"

Can you do much of what I am going to talk about with grids? Yes, you could, but I think zones are a simpler and more elegant way to accomplish it.

The first thing I think zones do are speed up movement in combat. You don't need to see if an opponent is 5 or 6 squares away. If you are both in the same zone you can engage them in combat, they are close enough to do so freely. Are they one zone over? Do you have a minor action available? You can also move to engage them easily. If a PC is at the bottom of the cliff and an opponent in the stream on the top of the cliff, you can fight. You don't need to count spaces. This in and of itself is a pretty big plus in my books.

What about terrain though? Surely the moving from the base of the cliff to the top of the cliff should impart some slow down. This brings us to another excellent thing about zones. They can each be made a little differently. Moving across the cliff zone might require an Athletics/Acrobatics test to move at full speed. It might even cause damage on a failed roll simulating fall damage. Essentially when a player is on that zone they are actively climbing up the cliff.

Some examples for the above battlemap written for Conan 2d20.
  • Rocky Incline - Steep incline - D2 Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance. Incline plus loose rocks make the going difficult.
  • Skull - Cave entrance - 2cd Cover from missile weapons.
  • Steep Path - D1 - Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance.
  • Path - Open ground, no penalty.
  • Cliff - D3 Athletics/Acrobatics Hazard for take 2cd damage on failure.
  • Stream - Flowing stream - current is stronger than it looks - D2 for all physical tests while in the zone.
  • Deep Stream - Flowing & Deep - D2 for all physical tests and D2 Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance.
  • Path - Open ground, no penalty.

Now we have created a battlemap that has a lot of interesting things going on. Players may wish to try and fight on the open ground of the paths, but if they need to gain entrance to the skull cave, they are going to have to fight over some hindrances or hazards to get there. As I mentioned you could, of course, do similar with a standard grid battlemap. Not only do I feel the zoned approach is easier, I feel it lends itself to wanting those details more.

Finally, they are hugely abstract, they can represent whatever size you need, a large open field might represent a larger area on the table than the trees next to it. They might be player scale, or they might be army scale. Following on the abstract nature, you don't need your zone to specifically represent an actual 1:1 scale on the table, using a set of cards like RUNEHAMMER's ICRPG Graphic Index Cards or pictures of printed areas laid on the table you can quickly lay down easily identifiable and interesting zones for your players to interact with. If you need a set-up like the above you could grab a set of 8 index cards and write the name and details of each zone and just lay them out on the table.



And because of this abstract nature and ease of creating zones with a small card, you could lay out a complex area in a very small space, eliminating the need to carry around a large battlemap, you will just need something to represent players and enemies which fit inside the cards. Examples might be small chits or 15mm figures.

Lastly and this one may be a bit of a shock, I think think the abstraction of the exact position of a character within a zone is more realistic. Unless you subscribe to the idea that 1 roll of the die is the equivalent of one blow of the sword, keeping a character in a 5'x5' square is wholly unrealistic to me. The idea that combat is moving across and around the area is much more realistic to me. "The fight between the warrior and the bear rages in front of the skull cavern, the roar of the bear pushing the warrior back as he circles to find an opening on the massive beast" is descriptive of a battle occurring in a zone where the two combatants gain and lose ground and circle for the best place to strike from.

The downside is that players are a little more generic, in D&D you might have someone that can move 4 squares and another that can move 6 squares. With a zone-based system, each player is essentially moving the same distance. For me, though this negative is a very small one and is strongly outweighed by the positives. Similarly, other aspects of the game strongly tied to a location are lost such as an area of effect or flanking.

To sum up why I think Zones are superior to grids: They can save time in combat, they lend themselves to a more descriptive and interactive environment, their abstract nature allows more freedom of scale and I think it is a more realistic interpretation of the world.

Zones meet a nice middle point between the strict theatre of the mind and players measuring exactly where their miniatures move. They can speed up combat by eliminating exactly where everyone is. They can create rich and vibrant environments that are more interesting to play in. They can be scaled to fit the table size you have with minimal fuss. Creating their physical representation can be as simple as words on a card up to a full 3d layout.

If you haven't tried zones before in your games, I encourage you to give them a shot. If your system doesn't specifically include them a rough guideline is to allow players to engage and move within a zone freely, a normal move allows movement between zones and a sprint allows movement across 2 zones. You will need to give some consideration to how you handle area effects and flanking. Maybe you won't like them, or maybe your players won't and you'll go back to the grid. But just maybe you'll enjoy this new system free of range rulers and measuring.

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