So it took me reading this Charles M. Ryan blog entry about using/not using the grid during a game to identify one of the areas I need to change in my own game: the level of abstraction.
At a very basic level, RPGs serve to abstract reality by assigning numbers to intangibles - how hard you are to hit translates to Armor Class, how hard you are to kill is your HP total, etc. In earlier versions of D&D, the abstraction carried through to the table where everyone sits around and imagines the scene as it unfolds. Issues of distance and movement were squarely in the GMs sphere of control.
Starting with D&D v3.0, gameplay started to migrate out of the fluid realm of imagination and solidify on the tabletop grid. For some reason, that feeling of being slave to the map got worse in 3.5. I started to dislike combats because there were too many moving parts and controlling a horde of minis got to be too much. Not to mention my players started spending more time analyzing their actions for the round rather than engaging with the story. We spent so much time going over the situation and counting squares that combat turned into a grind. The best parts of the story became those that most distanced themselves from any use of the rules.
Combat became too much to handle concretely, and my style has typically been much more abstract. I'll get into some details in the next couple of Wombat's Path posts. I started to feel bogged down by the rules, like I had to maintain my side of the rules arms race to keep up with my players and not have plans undermined by a written rule I didn't fully appreciate.
I turned into a rules lawyer out of necessity. That still bugs me.
I realized recently that Rule Zero had fallen out of vogue in the D&D rules. I think that added to my discomfort with the rules, but I think the continuous concretizing of D&D makes me more uncomfortable.
Can we reverse this trend? Yes! Mr. Ryan's thoughts give a good starting point for paying attention and moving away from counting squares on the map. Rob Donoghue goes so far as to remove the map from play in a recent post on Some Space To Think - I see some great ways to think about abstracting encounters in there.
Minis and maps have their uses - mostly to lay out a scene or indicate where someone stands. But counting squares belongs in board games or wargames, not role-playing.
The next time you GM, I invite you to turn away from your maps and speed up the action by putting the glitz and flash of combat back into your players' heads.