Early versions of Dungeons & Dragons always included miniature rules for movement, range, area effects, and even for actions similar to attacks of opportunity. But I never witnessed those rules in action. They seemed to require miniatures. Collecting miniatures cost a lot of money and invited another hobby consisting of painting miniatures.
D&D second edition arrived in 1989 with the usual easily abstracted and easily ignored rules for miniatures. However, six years later, Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics finally introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the third edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, and cover. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment.
TSR supported Combat & Tactics with The Gates of Firestorm Keep, which Dungeon magazine ranked at number 11 on its 2004 list of greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. The Gates of Firestorm Keep started the tradition of including printed battle maps for major encounter areas, and also included cardboard counters for the monsters. So The Gates of Firestorm Keep stands as the first adventure to invite D&D players to use a battle map.
Update: A few adventures prior to Firestorm Peak featured both battle maps and cardboard counters. See “Early combinations of adventures with battle maps” for more.
The complete change in approach arrived with third edition, co-designed by Combat & Tactics co-designer Skip Williams. When third edition debuted at Gen Con, vendors such as Chessex immediately sold out of their battle mats. While the third edition rules tried to phrase its rules so you could play without a map, everyone used a map, so 3.5 abandoned any nod to play without one.
For most folks playing D&D in 2000, the adoption of battle maps represented a big change. For instance, I played all three rounds the D&D Open tournament in 1999, and none of the DMs resolved combat on a map. (Now the D&D Championship plays as a tactical miniatures challenge. Still fun, but very different. In the lower left corner of the photo, you can see my figure, a turn or two away from being treated like a steak in a Benihana by a marilith.)
Fourth edition showed that some of the D&D community will rebel if an edition fails to adequately support their favored play style. But the third edition’s switch to battle maps brought no rebellions. Everyone started using maps and figures, and almost everyone felt the addition improved the game. Maps and figures enable all the players to share a clear understanding of the battlefield with the DM. The maps enable the tactics that make fights interesting.
Fourth edition brought changes that can make D&D combat more dynamic and exciting than ever, but some of the changes have threatened to sour players’ attitudes toward the battle map. Fourth edition forces every encounter to be a big set piece, and often these battles seem to take too long.
The set-piece problem comes from encounter design. Fourth edition works to prevent one-sided fights by bringing greater formality to what constitutes a combat encounter, and what adversaries the players can expect to face. This puts a stake to the heart of the old-school possibility of stumbling into 30-300 orcs, but it also eliminates short encounters where just you slew their sentry. In fourth edition, every encounter requires a battle map, because every encounter takes the same scale.
The problem of long combats has prompted much discussion, but I do not blame the map. Most players used maps in third edition, and the few who complained about the length of combat typically favored the non-combat pillars of the game.
So when D&D Next comes out, I’ll embrace it, but I’ll still use my battle maps.