I always knew something weird happens in the player brains when we play on grids, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it, until recently.

My group moved from grids to a theatre of mind play when we switched from Pathfinder to Cypher System. We would use grids occasionally from then on, and I could always feel that something weird happens. I used to describe it as a loss of dimension, that once you see the top-down board, you start to imagine flat worlds. The game would slow down, as rules are looked up, squares counted and lines of sights confirmed. Any narrative tension built up to that point would usually diffuse into the void.

It was when I discussed this difference from the purview of fast adjudication that it hit me. It was one of those “why combat is slow” discussions. I claimed that grids activate the puzzle-solving part of the brain. One needs to think about how to optimize moves, actions, combos, abilities, and the rest. It’s a problem to be solved and requires some thought. And the human brain loves puzzles.

Theatre of the mind on the other hand is usually not a puzzle but a scene, so the thought process is quite different. Generally, the first player thought is what would be the coolest thing their character could do, and not what optimal combination of game mechanics is needed.

XCOM is a great example of Combat as a Puzzle.

There it was. Grids vs ToM can be framed as combat as a puzzle vs combat as a scene. Now that I had a definition what to do with it? The next realization was that the goals in each are very different. This is a very useful insight as it will impact how I run and play each.

In CaP, players are thinking about solving a particular problem presented in the form of a grid with miniatures and terrain. They solve it by applying tactics and minute details are important. The scene ends when the puzzle is solved.

In CaS we are trying to make a dramatic scene, and here tension and emotional impact are more important than minute mechanical details. The scene ends at the denouement - when tension is diffused.

CaP vs CaS angle also answered my question of how would I run a tactical game like XCOM in Cypher. Simply use grids and minies. Problem solved, and no mechanics were hurt in the process.

This framework further allows me to use both formats to their full potential. I might run most fights as CaS, and then employ CaP for a boss fight, as an example.

I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg and that many more implementations are possible when thinking about grids and theatre of mind through the CaP vs CaS framework.