I don't remember where I read this exactly, but I know that, when it comes to playing tabletop RPGs, any time the battlemap comes out, it can only mean one thing. When playing around a table with a group, this isn't necessarily such a big problem, since it makes it easier to role play, you can captivate your audience, capture their attention, and don't need to worry about having something to throw in front of their faces to keep the players paying attention. However, playing using a virtual tabletop, especially when no one has a camera, it makes it a bit harder to do, so having visual props is helpful.
However, it isn't always necessarily the best, depending on the prop.
There might be spoilers ahead for Lost Laboratory of Kwalish, so you have been warned.
Last night, while running the module Lost Laboratory of Kwalish for my Tuesday night group, the party decided they wanted to charge the main cathedral, confronting the Grand Master. This was after they had seen a monk about to have his face flayed off, heading to the prison and seeing some rather insane prisoners, and meeting the others who were too injured to keep working, and previously running across a group of prisoners mining in the tunnels on the way to the Monastery of the Distressed Body. So, when the characters arrived at the main cathedral, what is the first thing I did?
Shared the battlemap I had created for the encounter.
If you know anything about this module, then you know that as a combat encounter, this is definitely a very deadly encounter. "Dozens" of monks in the balconies. The Grand Master is a Bone Devil with teleportation bracelets that let him attack anything, anywhere, and his claw attacks are Vorpal Blades capable of decapitating a character on a critical hit. The guards East and West have a Polymorph Blade, polymorphs a character into some other kind of creature on a critical, and Blade of the Medusa, which will potential turn a character to stone on a critical, respectively. Seriously, deadly.
How should this encounter play out? Some roll playing fun, the Grand Master boasting about this, that, and the other, talking about the great things he has in various places around the monastery, and if combat breaks out, the party, hopefully when they realize just how much shit they're in, run away and go find some of the stuff the Grand Master had been boasting about.
The problem, though, is that I immediately classified this as a combat encounter, because i showed the players a map with a grid, plopped a bunch of tokens on it, and had them start moving around and positioning their characters on the map. Tactical thinking led to a very short bit of role play followed by one of the players declaring they were firing a firebolt at the Grand Master, immediately initiating combat.
Now, where are we?
Had to stop halfway into combat. One character is down. I decided that it was non-lethal damage, so he's unconscious, and not dead, since they have a nice prison to throw the characters in. The barbarian, if I hadn't decided to go with the optional extra 6d8 damage for the Vorpal claws, would be decapitated because of a critical hit by the Grand Master. East had one critical hit, but it was the one that took that character down. West had 2 critical hits, but luckily the characters made their saves and didn't turn to stone. Things are looking bleak, but I will keep making sure that, if anyone else goes down, it is non-lethal damage, since I know that the Grand Master doesn't want people to die, since then they can't mine ore or be turned into a brain in a jar, or do whatever machinations the Grand Master desires to do.
How could I have done this better? Visual aids are great things. I didn't need to show a map. I had an image of the Grand Master, that I could have shown them first. I could have done better describing the room, what was going on in the room. If I hadn't sent them straight into "combat mode", then someone might have asked to attempt to perceive those special looking claws I described it and seen that they were Vorpal claws.
Obviously, it is still possible that, after seeing the goings on at the monastery, everything still would have played out the exact same way, but there is no way to know for sure. I just know that, in the future, I need to strive to do better by my players and me, since all we are here for is to tell a story and have a good time doing it.