Talk about a hot topic, and one I am not sure how to post about. There is so much to say, I am certain there will be more posts about this from me.
Should D&D Combat Be Map Based?
For me there is only one answer to this. Yes. But that doesn't necessarily mean that map based play should be part of the core rules, and there is a strong indication that it wont be. There are definite advantages to map play, and lots of arguments used to call them bad. I will try to cover some of the common ones I have read, and explain when I don't think they hold water.
In all the years I have played D&D I have used a battle map for less than half of them. I couldn't go back to a system that didn't use them.
The main reason I feel that maps are important is because they ensure everyone has an idea what is going on. Before playing with a map there was regular confusion on who was doing what, and how they interacted with each other. Combats used to pretty much be monsters would be assigned to players, and that person would fight the monster until there was a winner and then they would go help someone else. Killing monsters tended to be purely about hits and damage. It was fun, but it felt weird when a player wanted to do something and the DM had to explain why they thought it couldn't be done. When you added AoE you would have questions about hitting monsters without hitting players, and generally it was based on the mood of the DM. You would hear questions almost all the time starting with "Can I..." where the DM would make a decision based on their idea of what was going on. The players didn't know what they could do, they had to ask. This was hard on the DM, and very hard on the players. Especially when the DM wasn't consistent.
Adding a battle map and some sort of tokens to track characters and monsters eliminated this in one fell swoop. All of a sudden players could see where they were, and what was going on, without opinion or guesswork. Arguments were reduced, and planning and teamwork became much more important. Some battle map opponents say that having to work as a team isn't D&D, I think it is the core of the game. Working with the other characters to beat obstacles and achieve goals.
A common objection to using battle maps is that they don't allow for creativity in battle and limit your options. This is partly true, but not in the way that the people who say it feel it is. What they tend to think is that just because you have put a token on a map you are now completely unable to be creative in your fights. Never have I in all the years I have played on a battle mat felt this, what I have felt is a battle mat clearly tells me what my options are, and only limits me by preventing me from asking to take actions that are clearly out of the question.
The opponents say they love the freedom to say "I run to the wall and use it to launch a jump onto the trolls back where I grab him and try to stab him." Sounds good to me, but where in any of the rules that include a battle mat say you can't say this? Because you are in the centre of the room and the nearest wall is 40' away? Well then that is helping the storytelling, making it clear that your description is breaking the narrative. Apart from that, I can't think of any of the last 60 fights I have DMed where PCs couldn't do this.
In fact it is the opposite. I try to make my maps interesting, with details like low walls, or ledges, or bridges or whatever details fit the area the battle is happening in. I will never forget the fight where the player decided to jump onto the back of the monster approaching them up the wall from below while they were on a bridge and plummet with it into the depths below. Things like this happen all the time because the players can use the maps as tools the same way the DM can. Visual Aids are a good thing. A picture tells a thousand words, and a map with tokens on it can convey many thousands of words of detail and prevent just as many words of questions.
Does this mean you need to use the current 4E system of movement based combat? Certainly not. A map can be just as I said above, a visual aid for all the people at the table to be working with the same understanding of the battle. Have a map, use tokens for monsters and for characters, don't have squares, don't care too much about accurate distances, just use it as an indication. Someone wants to move "over there" move the token. Don't measure if they are moving too far or not far enough by a few feet, just move them. Don't worry too much about line of sight or line of effect, just allow them to do what they want the same is in fully descriptive play, but use the map to keep things clear. The only rules become common sense. Is it likely someone is going to be able to climb down a ladder, run across a 40' room and hide behind a barrel in 6 seconds? Probably not, so use your common sense, decide how far they would get and put their token there. Maybe that means the Troll can see them, or approach and hit them, but that isn't a penalty of using a map, it is a part of storytelling.
The important point is this. Using a battle map does not mean counting squares or getting out a ruler to measure distances, it is a method of communicating the environment to the players, and only as limiting as you want it to be.
Another argument against maps is that D&D isn't a war game, it is a role playing game. I agree completely, and I am not a fan of strategy based war gaming, but I love the freedom that D&D on a battle mat gives me to be able to do interesting things. I have already stated, repeatedly, that you can use a battle mat without D&D becoming a complicated strategy game, but the simple strategy mechanics used in 4E were great for doing amazing things. Telling the players the dragon's breath pushed them back and knocked them down is fine, but when their descriptive action is to stand up and attack the dragon again, it really is just description without impact. When all of a sudden they have to decide if they want to stand up and make a ranged attack, or stand up and move back into range but not attack this round, the dragon's breath had impact on the fight beyond just some damage and description. Neither the damage or description was removed by the battle mat, it was enhanced with simple mechanics that made the players have to deal with the actions of the monsters, not just cross off some hit points and move on.
Lots of people say they can be fully consistent and have the same level of expression without the use of a battle map. Great. But I expect the number of players who can say they do this and honestly say they never get questions about what is happening or if something is possible are very few.
Reading through this it sounds like maps are the main thing in my D&D games, and that isn't true. There are times we go for ages without using maps at all, because we are role playing. We use maps when combat starts to ensure that we have a level of communication between all the players that prevents mistakes or confusion. The battle map is a visual representation of a combat that is taking place inside the imaginations of the players.
There is so much more I want to say on this topic, and I expect I will in the coming weeks. Things about what part of the current system works and what doesn't, things about how it could be improved, or problems I have encountered but can't think of a solution for. This post, if you have read it, will hopefully make you understand my reasons for thinking some level of battle map use is vital for good Fantasy based combat.
Extra Note: My Tokens
I have used several token systems over the years. From D&D Miniatures, to colored glass beads, to the tokens provided in the Monster Vault. The tokens were great because they were numbered and you could track each enemy easily. The colored glass was good because different types of enemy were clearly visible at a distance, which with the tokens was sometimes hard as they were very similar. In the end I made my own tokens out of different colored polymer clay and painted numbers on them, with a border on one side for bloodied. They work great.