Dungeon masters: Why your players might not love theater of the mind as much as you do

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.

an overcorrection?

An overcorrection

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

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 than 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.

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26 Responses to Dungeon masters: Why your players might not love theater of the mind as much as you do

  1. Robert says:

    I disagree with your first sentence somewhat. I think the only reason most of us did theater of the mind back in the old days is because there wasn’t minis and maps and such to be had (or not many at reasonable cost anyway), not because players preferred it.

  2. I think there’s a happy medium somewhere. I don’t like my games being completely Theater of the Mind nor to I like them completely go to Battlemat Tactics.

    Even in the days of AD&D 2e I’d use miniatures, even if just to show the marching order of the party.

    I think it also depends on the size of the group. From what I’ve experienced, Theater of the Mind works best with maybe, at most, 3-4 players. Anything larger and its definitely time to break out those miniatures.

  3. Chris says:

    I completely agree. Using miniatures and battle maps is one of the aspects of D&D that I really enjoy as do my players. Like you, I use theater of the mind for smaller aspects of the game or in some areas like a tavern where here isn’t much of a need for a map and minis. I was disappointed when I watched Acquisitions Incorporated at PAX 2013 play 5e without Chris Perkins’ sets and the minis.

  4. DM Punks says:

    Excellent point made. I’ve always been in the middle with this, doing TotMind for quick and simple fights, and using minis (well, cardboard minis until recently, when I can afford actual D&D minis) for the more elaborate set piece encounters. But it wasn’t until recently (in a 13th Age game on roll20 no less) that player feedback made me realize just how much certain kinds of players need the additional point of interactivity that miniatures present. (Admittedly, I was rather poorly prepared for that session: first time using roll20, first time running 13th Age. And I was lazy preparing maps. 🙂

  5. Patrick says:

    Back in my D&D days (1979) we used minis all the time. The group I game with now say one of the highlights of our sessions is the layout of the tiles and miniatures. Each time we play they take tons of pics and post them on our groups facebook page. They are die hard 4e guys but I run the games with a lot of old school mechanics and style. Even for the quick “take out the lone sentry” encounter they like for me to throw down a couple of tiles and a mini.

  6. Pedro says:

    I completely agree. Miniatures and battle maps really enhance gameplay. If anyone is interested in some nice terrain, Battle System is easy to put together before game session, stay put during the game and I think it might encourage an improved gameplay with the elevations, battles on stairs, bridges and so on! It is live now on kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1621774283/battle-systemstm-fantasy-dungeon-terrain

  7. Mike says:

    Personally I’m too busy to prepare maps ahead of time and my games sessions are too few and far between that I would want to waste any valuable playing time setting up maps. So my players get a choice, theater of the mind or someone else sits behind the DM screen.

  8. Alphastream says:

    TotM is a tool in our DM arsenal, like any other. And, like most tools, you want to have proficiency! 🙂 It takes practice to use narrative combat, just as it takes practice to use a battlemap well. I have played many games where the battlemap was so incredibly dull and ill-used. I have also played narrative games where the action may as well have been on a grid because it was so prescribed.

    My recommendation to DMs is to try out different styles. I have written adventures for organized play where I calculated the optimal position of the terrain elements down to the exact square – and I truly believe those adventures were better because of that precision. More recently, I’ve written narrative 5E adventures where I truly feel the placing and size of those elements is utterly unimportant. Both can be true, and it is nice to experience both as author, DM, and player!

    I find it particularly to play different games. Fiasco, Fate, Numenera, and other low or no-grid games have pluses and minuses from which we can learn. We can take those best elements and bring them into our games. Narrative styles won’t come immediately. They take time to work into our tool kit. The more you play with people who do it well, the easier it is to see what there is that is worth emulating.

  9. Don Holt says:

    Mini’s definitely have been around since RPG’s began. Remember RPGs were just an extension of a mini’s game where individual leaders began to be used in addition to troop formations. Gygax just dropped the troop formations and played a leader’s only game. So in that regard so have maps, aka dungeon charting, as well as open terrain but without the 1 inch squares.

    Second, there are some rich set builders who would be devastated not to have layouts. (As would I, if not able to play in such games ever now and then.) Sure it takes him forever to setup a scenario, but that is what he enjoys. He uses (good) paper and kinkos to print, and does the scene ever look nice.

    TotM is great to use in the non Melee portions of your game, but I like a suggestion method, where players as well as GM propose what exists (including relationships and skills) and then rolling D100 to see if the idea is true or not. This makes your players become much more descriptive in their suggestions, because while you may “fail” at playing the flute, you still might be able to play the harp, or bugle, or drum.

  10. Jeff M says:

    We always played with miniatures and continue to do so. the only difference is that now you can buy all the miniatures and dressings you could ever want. but back when I started (1978) we played with Ho scale soldiers, toy bugs, and zoo animals.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Jeff,
      When I think back to how we played in the good old days, I feel grateful for all the miniatures and dressings we enjoy now. Back in the day, you either improvised, or you adopted the hobby of painting and fabricating your own. Of course, if Gary had not improvised, we would not have had Bullettes, Rust Monsters, and so on.

  11. Randy Hammill says:

    I’ve always been a fan of minis, and have used them since the late ’70s. What I’m not a fan of is the battlemat itself. Partially due to the set up time, but mostly because the players often get hung up on the counting squares, and movement based solely on the minis. While back in the day we loved it when Combat & Tactics came out, and then the 3rd Edition improved upon it, now it feels more constrictive and less realistic…and more like a game.

    So now, for the more complex battles I like to use the minis, but I’m shifting away from using anything with a grid. The compromise seems to play to the strengths of both methods, although I still have to work a bit to remind my ex-4th Ed players to just show/tell me what you’re doing and don’t worry about measuring distance, etc.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Randy,
      I see your point. Usually the relative positions of combatants matters much more than distances, so the grid becomes superfluous.

      • Randy Hammill says:

        My issues extend even beyond distances actually. Because the game is turn based, everybody is stationary for some portion of a round while you move your mini. While it seems to make tactical sense, the reality is that everybody is in motion all of the time.

        For example, if two opponents are engaged in combat, and an ally of one attempts to flank, their opponent will generally move in whatever fashion is necessary to keep both opponents in front of them. The ‘traditional’ gang-up uses 3 or more allies to surround their enemy. And if caught in that situation, it’s highly likely that the opponent will turn and run as you try to circle them, rather than get stuck in the middle.

        Actually, now that I think about it, the best analogy would be to use a bunch of minis to simulate a football play. It would be virtually impossible using turn based movement and moving one player at a time.

        It really took the 5th Edition for me to realize that the abstract nature of D&D combat is probably the most brilliant approach for simulating combat. Not for every thrust, parry, and such, because that’s extremely complex and nearly impossible to simulate. But it’s also missing the point.

        Instead, by using broad strokes the 5th Edition looks at what significant events can provide advantage or impose disadvantage, and probably turn the course of the battle. The anarchy of combat is simulated by the randomness of the dice. Many have pointed out that a 3d6 would give a more stable result (bell curve) rather than the swingy nature of a d20. But I think that swingy nature is what really makes the combat feel right.

        I ran part of Phandelver to introduce a new player this last weekend, and in a matter of seconds, 2 die rolls completely changed the course of a battle (he rolled a 1, and the goblin then rolled a 20). The adventure suddenly went from cleaning up the last few loose ends to an immediate retreat and hope they survive.

        I suspect that if you outlined the highlights and the results of a given battle in D&D to somebody who has experienced a real fight, or a real battle, would find it’s very realistic. When the game is very combat oriented (like the 4th Ed), then it’s easy to see how the rules go down a path of how to gain incremental bonuses to increase your chance of something exciting happening.

        But when the game is balanced, or even more focused on exploration, story, and other non-combat elements, then combat is no longer center stage, and the details become less important than the result – you’ve survived to see what’s further down that passage, or to chase the goblin king into the depths, or a race to make it to town to warn the militia about the impending orc invasion, etc.

        And that’s ultimately the point, in D&D combat isn’t the end, it’s one of many means to an end. It’s an obstacle in the way of the characters’ goals. It’s a secondary player, not the main event.


        • Don Holt says:

          Then why not abstract it even further.

          To me, D&D is the middle of the road, and thus solves neither desire in game play. Further it tends to push beginning players into bad behaviors, in that since there is combat every session, PC are often oriented around this aspect of the game.

          I basically run two different games. In the first and most frequent game, it is simply story-telling, where percentile rather than D20 is used to determine the validity of a thought that I or a player may have about the game. Since traits are 2D10, there are 2D10 saves made against that trait. (So I have a bimodal distribution with greater variance than 3D6, but less than 1D20.) For example when one PC was researching the genealogy of a family, the lady of the keep refused to give the PC the records because of an extremely high D100 die roll (low rolls are good, i.e. like saves in the original D&D). When that result occurred, the whole table looked at each other, and we all knew she had something to hide.

          And when the characters do come in conflict, I usually time the build up near the end of the session. The next session is then a detailed battle, more like a miniatures game. As I run my game two nights a month, we have a “battle” every 3 or 4 months.

          So my advice is to ignore battle altogether in most of your game, but when you do have it, don’t abstract it. I run it second by second, hexes at 2.5 feet. Actions take time and fatigue, stamina (Con/6, determines how fast the fatigue comes back), facing, morale, hit location,and strike momentum all come into play.(I do have an intermediate setup, with 40 foot hexes and 5 seconds turns. Missile weaponry and charging horses figure are featured in this setup. Once everything is within 40-100 feet, we switch scales.)

          Otherwise players tend to develop a casual attitude toward battle and only rarely do they have a live threatening event.

          Of course if your in a one session and done type situation, you don’t have this option.

        • DM David says:

          Randy, I enjoy tactical combat as a game within the game, even though, as you explain, it brings no more realism that an abstract system. I think you do a excellent job of explaining why we should avoid getting hung up on the details. Thanks for a thoughtful comment!

  12. Mariozi says:

    I am a TotM guy. I learned to like the following mechanics on my combats:
    Run the turns quickly and mathematically, the gather all the info of what happened and come up with a “final report” or “verdict” of what (almost) really happened on the round. Then off we go to next round again.
    I find players like this approach, as they know they are influencing the final story, and as the “final report” lacks the robotic quality of the much needed turn-based system.

    • Mariozi says:

      Forgot to say, I use a battle grid and a white board to quickly draw more complicated scenes as well while keeping the gathering-reporting procedures.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Mariozi,
      Thanks for weighing in. Your approach to TotM seems like a good compromise between using a grid and locking too much in the DM’s head.


  13. Mark says:

    I never DM, and I don’t think TotM has anything to do with mere DM laziness. Maps and minis are just the trappings of a completely different game to TotM. I suppose it depends on whether you view the primary attraction of the game as character, story and immersion, or tactical combat. Many groups find the latter incredibly tedious. I’m not a board gamer, and have no interest in moving tokens around on a grid. The way some people play D&D, it looks no different to something like Arkham Horror, except that it takes even more work to set up.

    In my experience, maps and minis reduce immersion, encourage metagaming, and cause combat to drag on endlessly. Depending on your play style, that may not be a problem, but all those are cardinal sins as far as I’m concerned. My group generally will have a combat scene roughly once every 3 sessions (we play 4-5 hour sessions). Other groups do nothing but combat encounter after combat encounter, and regard ‘staying in character’ as purely optional. In my opinion, these are the only kind of groups for whom maps and minis provide a better experience.

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  15. Worldwalker says:

    Since this turned up on my Twitter feed, I have to add a comment here: I played with minis starting back around 1979. I don’t think I knew anyone who didn’t. Miniatures have always been a part of D&D. It was derived from medieval minatures rules, after all. The little white box, the first version I owned (back before it said “Original Collector’s Edition” on it) was subtitled “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.

    I have memories of games going back to the end of the 1970s where, when we didn’t have enough miniatures for whatever we were facing (hordes of orcs being the biggie here) we just substituted dice, preferably of various colors to differentiate them. “I’ll cast a lightning bolt at the blue 12-sider!” I also remember doing the ordering for a local game/gift store back around 1981 or 1982 — the owner had no clue about RPGs, so he just gave me a budget and told me to make a list of what would sell — and looking through Armory’s “new releases” lists at sometimes painfully bad drawings of the new minis. Heritage, Grenadier, Minifigs and companies I can’t remember the names of right now — there was a thriving market in miniatures in the early 1980s, with scores of new models being released every month. I still have miniatures from that era, stowed away somewhere.

    Something else I have stowed away somewhere: my old copies of Melee and Wizard, which were released in 1977 and 1978 respectively — and came equipped with maps and cardboard pieces to represent top-down views of characters, monsters, etc. — i.e., quasi-miniatures. Nobody had any question about what to do with them, because everyone was accustomed to real miniatures.

    So … um, no, the use of miniatures in D&D did not start in 2000, nor 1990, nor 1980. It’s been a part of the game since before D&D was a game, when it was Dave Arneson’s mods to the Fantasy Supplement in the back of Chainmail.

    • David Hartlage says:

      Hi Worldwalker.
      Thanks for sharing a different view of the D&D world. Before about 2000, I saw minis in D&D, but never saw anyone use them to do more than establish marching order. Funny you should mention Melee and Wizard, because I wrote a whole post about how much the maps and counters in those games changed my play style. See Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.


  16. MEP says:

    As an RPG player, I greatly prefer theater of the mind to tactical maps. As a GM I think the game flows much more smoothly without grids and minis, and that many players are more creative when they’re not thinking of the game in terms of a grid and numeric ranges. I totally appreciate the difficulty of visualizing a complex scene, and I’m more than happy to use abstract maps or precise maps without a grid, but the grids just kill combat for me.

    Players stop thinking about the game in narrative terms and start thinking of the game as a collection of rules to be exploited. “I hit the orc with my sword for 13 points of damage,” is dry and boring and it gets very repetitive, especially in D&D where combat tends to take multiple rounds. I prefer the Fate approach of breaking a space up into “zones” and players describing what they’re doing in the zone they occupy or how they’re traversing from one to another.

    I don’t claim this is universal, and I try to adapt at the table if it seems like my players want something else. But I think part of the reason I tire so quickly of tactical combat grids in an RPG is that I get my tactical combat fix outside of the RPGs I play. I play Warmahordes, Infinity, X-Wing and Guild Ball. I don’t need D&D to get my tactical combat fix. For players who only play RPGs (or only D&D), the tactical element of the game is exercising a part of their brains that the rest of the game isn’t flexing (and that they’re not flexing elsewhere).

    I think there’s definitely something in tactical combat games that scratches an itch for some people, myself included. I choose to scratch that itch outside of RPGs. Many players only play one game, so I think it’s great that D&D can be more than one thing for more than one person.

    For me, more and more, I think I’m probably going to stop playing D&D for a while in favor of different RPGs that focus more on scratching my particular itch (not uncoincidentally, I recently received my copies of 7th Sea AND Gods of the Fall). But I don’t get the mentality of someone who says that their preferences (one way or the other) are the “best” way to play anything.

    Statements like, “For all but the simplest encounters, maps provide a better play experience,” are overreaching and can be easily countered with dozens of stories from someone whose experience is exactly the opposite of the author’s. It should be, “For all but the simplest encounters, maps provide a better play experience for people whose personality, preferences and expectations match my own.” It’s not an objective truth that can be applied to all groups. In the end, the real issue here isn’t maps versus theater of the mind so much as it is making sure that player and GM expectations align with each other, no matter what those expectations are. It’s not that one method is better or worse than the other in any objective sense, and arguments that try to “win” this debate are mostly stroking the author’s ego. Stop treating game style like it’s a war you need to win.

    • David Hartlage says:

      Hi MEP,
      Well put. I wanted dungeon masters to understand that some of the advantages of narrative combat reach DMs but not players. DMs can’t assume that players share their preference. At the end, you caught me spouting off about my own preference for grids, because, you know, I write this blog to spout off. Thanks for commenting!


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