Before the introduction of third edition Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, virtually everyone played the game in the theater of the mind—without battle maps, miniatures, or other markers. In an effort to focus on imagination and roleplay, the fifth-edition designers created a new game that welcomes that old style of play.
In the run-up to Gen Con, in the group where judges discussed the upcoming event, many of the judges touted how their masterly use of the theater of the mind eliminated their need for battle maps. When performed by a skilled dungeon master, theater of the mind apparently allows a DM to speed play and work without the burden of tokens and battle maps. Players can exercise their imagination and enjoy a game unencumbered by counting squares.
Shadows Over the Moonsea at Gen Con 2014
Theater of the mind is a tool just like a battle map. Even though I strongly prefer running fights on battle maps, if the players just want to eliminate a sentry, I run theater of the mind. But if you boast that you’re so awesome at running theater of the mind that you never need a map, I think of a carpenter boasting that he doesn’t need a saw because he is so awesome at hammering.
After the convention, in reviewing the players’ feedback forms, judge coordinator Dave Christ surmised that some judges who favored theater of the mind may have suffered lower feedback scores because they ran games for players who dislike the technique.
In short, some judges favored theater of the mind, but overestimated how much their players shared their affection for the technique.
So why do some dungeon masters love theater of the mind?
The preference begins with an urge for easy preparation and fast play. The dungeon master doesn’t need to prepare maps or gather miniatures. For a DM, less preparation leads to more flexibility. Unlike the drudge working with tiles and minis, theater-of-the-mind dungeon masters have no stake in where players go because they paint entirely with words. And then when a fight starts, theater of the mind avoids pausing to set up. You don’t have to draw or lay out a map or place figures. In an elementary fight, players can operate faster too. No one needs to count squares of move figures.
Also, theater of the mind grants the dungeon master an extra measure of control over the game. I’m sure this urge to control comes from a good place. Theater-of-the-mind DMs want to tell stories. They want to say yes. On the battle map, everyone can see that a jump from the balcony to the dragon’s back spans 50 feet, but in the theater of the mind, only the DM knows. “Well sure, that’s a cool stunt. You jump to the dragon’s back.” These dungeon masters don’t want their creative wings clipped by the mundane battle map. It’s all about telling stories, right?
Plus, theater of the mind makes writing adventures easier. Often an adventure’s author can avoid drawing maps and let the dungeon master improvise. Where fourth-edition adventures included maps of encounter areas, fifth-edition adventures often just include a list of creatures.
So why might your players love theater of the mind less that you do?
Wait, what? I know you explain every scene so vividly that no one misunderstands, but in some games—not yours—players struggle to grasp every nuance of the DM’s mental picture. In these games, the fighter charges to engage the beholder, and then the DM explains, again, that the creature floats 20 feet above the battlefield, on the far side of a deep crevasse. Now the frustrated player must rethink her turn.
What’s happening again? I know your players pay rapt attention every moment, even during the other players turns, but in some games—not yours—players may let their attention lapse. In public play, I’m lucky if the players can hear everything. And the battlefield situation changes with each turn, so dungeon masters wind up explaining the situation over and over.
Mother may I? Players enjoy feeling like they have direct and complete control over their characters. They want their available actions revealed before them. They want the potential outcomes of their actions to be predictable, something I call resolution transparency.
Some players even have less interest in seeing their characters featured in the DM’s story than in tackling the challenges of the game world. If a story happens to emerge, all the better.
These players want to play D&D, not some version of Mother May I where they have to ask if their proposed actions match up with a map locked in the DM’s head. “If I use my lightning bolt, how many gnolls can I hit?” “How far do I have to jump to cross the crevasse?” “Can I reach the cultist without provoking?”
In theater of the mind, these players cannot plan their turns in advance because so many options require the DM’s consultation and approval. The dungeon master’s attention becomes a bigger bottleneck. As the dungeon master keeps describing the evolving battlefield and answering questions about what players can do, playing a round of combat without a map takes longer. In an angry rant on theater of the mind, the Angry DM gives some advice on running without a map. “Be repetitive, repeat yourself, and use repetition.” Good advice, but the repetition shrinks the time saved by skipping the map. Eventually, time saved in setup gets lost. Fights over a certain size take longer to resolve in theater of the mind.
Of course, not all players enjoy the details of combat. To make theater of the mind work, Angry DM advises, “Don’t force the players to be too specific about the targets they are firing at and don’t keep too much track of which target has how many hit points. Just keep a vague idea of things. Then, apply attacks and damage to the places that make the most logical sense for the combatants.” This advice plays well if your gaming group cares little for detail because they see combat encounters as a means to reveal character or advance the story, rather than as a tactical challenge.
Theater of the mind could be the perfect match for your group, but DMs must avoid assuming your players share your love.
Way back in “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons,” I describe how the introduction of third edition brought a quick and overwhelming switch from theater of the mind to battle maps. The third edition rules continued to support theater of the mind, but they now supported maps better than past editions. For most players, the introduction of combat on maps provided a revelation. For all but the simplest encounters, maps provide a better play experience.