Theatre of the Mind

What is Theatre of the Mind?

With TTRPGs at the peak of their popularity, and the available systems seemingly limitless, it is easier than ever to find a group of people to play with.

However, maybe it feels like there are a few things standing in your way of actually getting a game going. Maybe you don’t know what to do with miniatures, grid or hex maps, and a 5 foot free step. Maybe your group has had to go digital due to the ongoing pandemic and none of the VTTs out there have really worked for you. Maybe you just really don’t want to make a map for tonight’s encounter. You’ve got your group, you’ve got your game, but for whatever reason detailed maps and minis just aren’t your thing. This is where Theatre of the Mind becomes your best friend.

But Sean, WTF is Theatre of the Mind?

Well, I am so glad you asked! At its core, theatre of the mind is just a fancy phrase for utilizing group imagination and collaborative suspension of disbelief. Moving through the sequence of events (the scenes) of the game without physical representations of the people or locations you are interacting with. If you’ve ever played a TTRPG before, you’ve almost certainly participated in theatre of the mind. Lemme give you an example.

“Your party has recently arrived in town and you wish to offload some loot and pick up some improved equipment so you head to the nearest blacksmith. Amidst the sweltering heat of the forge and the thick smell of blade oil you strike up a conversation with the thick muscled owner of the shop. You sell off some of your goods, haggle over the price of a silvered sword (you talk her down by 5 gold with the promise that you’ll use the blade to investigate a series of rumours about werebadgers in the area) and head out to meet the rest of the party.”

See? While reading that I hope conjured a scene in your mind, you’ve probably had a similar interaction in one of your games. Maybe it was a bar not a smithy, maybe you were doing a backroom deal selling some documents you found while hacking into The Corporation’s database, but whatever it was – did your GM draw out a map for the encounter or did you just play out the scene? If you just played out the scene you’ve engaged in theatre of the mind. You performed an improvised “scene” without the aid of a map or mini. And that’s what we are talking about when we speak of theatre of the mind in TTRPGs. Creating scenes in our imaginations without the aid of a map.

Okay. Sure. But what about COMBAT?

Wow, you’re really on it with the questions today! Combat is where many people feel like they need maps. A lot of this is due to the fact that TTRPGs are the spiritual offspring of war gaming. Games like Little War, Axis and Allies, and Chainmail informed the basis of early D&D and as such TTRPGs as a whole owe a lot to the battles fought on those tables, and the maps and minis that made them possible. But I’m here to tell you that you can have just as dynamic, exciting, and tense combat encounters in your imagination as you can on a map. Perhaps even more so (but your mileage may vary on that one).

GM: “You all watch as this horrific mass of flesh and limbs comes flowing out of the hole and swipes several arms forward at Brem. Brem, does an 18 hit your AC?”

Brem: “…yeah”

GM: “You are grappled as a mass of hands and arms wrap around you. As you are pulled closer to the creature you feel the horrifying sensation of being pulled INTO the mass of bodies. You take *rolls dice* 11 points of bludgeoning damage and it begins to engulf you as it crawls further into the cave. You aren’t inside yet, but on the creatures next turn you’ll be fully engulfed. Alaric, it’s your turn. What do you do?”

Alaric: “How far away is the creature?”

GM: “You’re at the mouth of the cave? So it’s only about 15 feet away from you, but it’ll cost you an extra 5 feet of movement to get through the opening since it’s so small.”

Alaric: “That’s fine, I’ll climb into the cave and then stay 5 feet to the side so that I’m keeping my distance but can go after it if it moves further down. And then I’d like to cast firebolt at the arms that are holding Brem, to see if I can get it to drop him.”

GM: “Sure thing! So you’ve used 15 feet of movement to get there but you’re in the cave while maintaining distance. If you’re specifically going for the arms to get that effect I’m going to give you disadvantage on the roll, but if you hit I’ll let Brem use his reaction to try and break free.”

Alaric: “Awesome! *rolls* uhhh 14 to hit?”

GM: “That hits! Go ahead and roll damage, Brem you can make an Athletics or Acrobatics check to try and break free if you want to use your reaction.”

And it proceeds from there! I thought that was a pretty exciting encounter and we did it all without a single map or token.

Ok. I think I get it, but which do you like better?

Well, that’s my secret Cap, I love both. And more than that? I enjoy a mix of the two. Cop-out answer, I know. But, there are pros and cons to any method of playing, and there are definitely some games more suited to theatre of the mind than others (I’m not going to bother with maps for a Cypher System game just like I’m probably not going to run a Dungeon Crawl Classics game without them), but I hope this article has given you a good idea of what theatre of the mind is, and how it can work (and probably already does) in your games. At the end of the night, what method is best for your game is going to depend of your table.

Do you have a preference? Are you a theatre of the mind purist, or do you crave the minis and maps? What are some of your favorite theatre of the mind moments? Let me know in the comments!

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