For those of you with me who started playing D&D after 3.5, playing without a grid seems almost impossible. I remember the first time that I tried DM’ing without using a gridmap and mini’s; I was very nervous and unsure how the whole session would turn out.
About halfway through I caved and begged forgiveness from my players as I dug out the grid and asked them to find their mini’s. It’s ok to have failures like mine; it was afterall the first time I tried without the grid. It just takes practice.
One Friday at my LGS, we assembled to play D&D Expeditions. Normally, we normally use dry-erase markers on plexi-glass on top of a grid. On that fateful day, the loaner markers that the store usually provides had been misplaced. None were available, as I don’t have a set of my own. Despite being forced to DM without a grid, it turned out amazing! The key is confidence in yourself.
Confidence is Key
The reason I say confidence is the key is because to play this amazing game, all you need is your imagination. DM’ing without a grid is very similar to DM’ing with one; except you must be a lot more descriptive, because there are no visual representations for you and the players to move around. Take away the mini’s, the grid, the books, the pencil and paper (and computer/tablet), and the core of the game is revealed to be a bunch of friends sitting around a table telling a great story! You already have everything you need to play.
Beyond personal preferences, the decision on whether or not you end up using the grid has several considerations. Firstly, who is your audience? Are they imaginative players, or do they need the visuals? Do they enjoy role-playing, or are they more hack-and-slash? Secondly, how comfortable are you at setting the scene with nothing to point at? How comfortable are you at coming up with descriptions on the fly? How prepared are you with the campaign?
Know your Players
If your players are more hack-and-slash, the grid is going to help those who are into the minutia of battle and want to get the most out of each fight. Also, if the dungeon you’re crawling through has encounters whose outcome may be determined by precise positioning choices, such as Tomb of Horrors, a grid may help more than not. However, if your players are devoted role-player who are all about getting into character, rather than fine details of exact positioning, then you’ll be better off without any maps. Such as on that Friday night, we ran DDEX1-3 Shadows Over the Moonsea, and smoothly proceeded through parts 1, 2, and 3 as all role-play. No maps were necessary.
Knowing your campaign material and being prepared ahead of time will help greatly if you decide to go without a grid. Confidence, I repeat, confidence in yourself and your ability, is key; because you can accomplish anything. If you’re nervous, as I was the first time, it’s ok to pull out the grid for battles and complex spots. The more you DM, with or without a grid, the better you will become at doing it.
Personally, I like pulling out the grid for battles. I may draw a wall or two if necessary, but normally I just place the monsters and the players on a blank grid and tell them to have at it. Other than battles though, I find myself describing more and more without having to use the grid. I find it helps the session keep flowing when I don’t have to spend time drawing out scenic locations.
If you’ve never tried not using the grid, I highly suggest giving it a shot at least once. It can be great fun. Whichever way you play, believe in your ability and yourself and it will go well.