Imagination: Roleplaying Rule #1

This week we take a look at an issue that’s one of the major reasons I’ve stayed away from 4th Edition D&D: 


I’m about to start a 1E campaign this weekend and I’m struggling a bit with how to handle maps. Like you, I’m not overly fond of miniatures and would prefer imagination to reign supreme. Sometimes I’d like combat to be 100 percent abstract. But all the same I’m planning on using grid maps for battle scenes, because it’s what I’m used to. I’m planning on describing everything all the way up to the initiative roll, then probably have a reusable whiteboard grid. Players can bring miniatures if they want, but I likely won’t use them.

Anyway, all that to ask: How do you do this? Map tiles? Handmade? Miniatures? None? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?


Many decades ago a bunch of tabletop wargamers decided they wanted a new kind of game.  Something more imaginative.  Something more abstract.  Something with more story and substance behind it.  Something with Dragons and Elves.  D&D was birthed by wargames.  It owes its existence to them, but it is NOT a wargame.  It is a Roleplaying game, and it was the first of its kind.

When Roleplaying first got started it was meant to be a mode of interactive storytelling.  A way for a group of imaginative people to come together and create something new that they could also participate it.  Stories are in our DNA.  Thousands of years ago people sat around fires sharing words.  Myths and Legends were made of imagination and sound.    Maybe they scribbled an image in the dirt now and then, or maybe they had a nice rock painting to use as the backdrop to their story, but you can be damn sure ancient storytellers weren’t creating detailed maps for every battle scene in their story.  Most of them couldn’t even write.

Once upon a time people understood the power that words held to inspire the human mind.  People realized that our imagination, when given the chance, was far superior to any physical representation we could create.  Then, mainly for political and economic purposes, people decided to make some fancy symbols to represent their words.  I know this will sound harsh to many of you, but the written word was the beginning of a downfall of human imagination  (I promise I’m going to answer the question eventually).

As soon as we started creating symbolic representations we allowed our brains to have less work to do.  Our imagination could take a rest, and we could allow someone’s finely crafted words or brush strokes to do some of the work for us.  Now we have movies and video games and all manner of sensory overload to make sure we don’t have to imagine anything at all.  (I’m personally offended that video games are even called RPGs.  Somewhere along the way, someone forgot what Roleplaying actually meant.)

Before I stray too far from the question at hand, let me bring it back so I can tie things up.  What I’m saying is this: a Roleplaying game should happen first and foremost, in the imagination.  Maps evolved for D&D over time.  I know people have taken advantage of them to varying degrees for a while, but it wasn’t until 4th edition that miniatures and maps were considered essential to gameplay.

Even if I ignore the fact that maps and miniatures are an obvious ploy from Wizards of the  Coast to squeeze as much blood and money from gamers as possible, I still don’t like them.  They brought the focus back to the wargamer’s battle, helped to create an overly complex set of rules of engagement, and created more strategy than a Roleplaying game should ever have.  4th Edition is a wargame with Roleplaying elements.

Maps and miniatures made people lazy, and that laziness has sucked so much of the imagination out of D&D.  So, I hate maps.  But… I still use them.  Yes, you heard me correctly, I still make frequent use of the root of all that is evil, and I will tell you why: Roleplaying is about co-creating.  There is the DM and there are the Players, and as I have said time and time again, we need them both.

Many of my Players over the years have enjoyed battle maps.  It helps them envision the fight more easily, and decide how exactly they’re going to execute their attacks.  They understand where their cover is, how many rounds it will take them to engage in melee, whether or not their bow is out of range, so on, etc.  My Players like it, so I make the noble sacrifice and use maps, but only for battle, and not for all battles.

Now the very roundabout answer to the actual question:  What do I use? 

As I view WotC as nothing more than a money hungry corporation that has ruined the thing I love, I will never give them money.  Ever.  Everything I use, I print out on my own.  I use a grid over some kind of background texture or image, and then populate them with other print-outs of chairs, trees, pillars or whatever.  I glue everything down onto heavy paper (I use my wife’s watercolor paper). It looks decent, and it’s much cheaper than purchasing maps.  For monsters I do essentially the same thing.  I just print out images and paste them on to circular, heavy paper tokens.

My Players are happy, and well… I’m still Roleplaying at least.

Please submit more questions! 

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

This entry was posted in DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, General Roleplaying, Player Advice and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Imagination: Roleplaying Rule #1

  1. Pingback: Beating the Dead Horse: 4th Edition Sucks | Ask the Dungeon Master

  2. Ask the DM says:

    Thanks for the question!
    I really like your last point. I’ve noticed the same thing. People do space out much more (especially with lengthy combat) and rely too much on the map to remind them of what’s going on. This is also another reason I’ve completely re-tooled combat for my homebrew system. It cuts combat times in half, while still keeping them interesting and challenging.

  3. Jonesy says:

    Thanks for tackling my question!
    So since I sent it to you, I had my very first 1E session. I was extremely fortunate in that this group of six people – most of them unfamiliar with each other – were very open to roleplaying. We actually spent the the whole five hours or so exploring the opening village, with lots of dialogue and very few die rolls. Possibly one of the most successful roleplaying situations I’ve ever been a part of.

    When the party enters the first dungeon in their next session, I’ll let you know how the combat turns out. As it stands I’m planning on going totally abstract for a while and seeing how it works. About half the group are 1E vets and the other half are familiar with D&D but have only played other versions (I should note this was my situation as well).

    I wanted to note that you’re absolutely right about maps making players lazy. I’ll give you a personal example. I’ve been in a 3.5E game for the last three or four years and I’ll admit there have been some sessions where I wasn’t too engaged. Combat takes forever in 3.5, especially with seven players, so when my turn came around, I’d be like “okay where am I again? who’s still alive?”
    Not the best way to enjoy combat. I’d like to avoid this sort of thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s