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GM Tips: Using Theater of the Mind

As a GM for any game, you must decide on how best your game should be played. Lots of factors go into this decision; Distance between you and the other players and whether or not you can meet in person, conflicting schedules, financials, time, preference, and even the mechanics of whatever game you're about to enjoy with friends. There are definitely some amazing options out there to explore as a GM:

  • MINIATURES/TOKENS: If money were no option, I'm guessing many GMs would go this route. It's very cool to see your character and the monsters they face and the NPCs they interact with and the buildings they enter represented by well-produced miniatures and terrain. However, it can take a lot of money, time, and skill to bring these miniatures to life on your tabletop and not everyone has all three of those. The other drawback is that once you focus on the miniatures, the gameplay shifts to a wargame type of style and we all remember how D&D 4E went.

  • DIGITAL TABLETOP: Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds are pretty popular, and for good reason. The ease with which you can accomplish the same style of gameplay as using miniatures or tokens for free with digital rpg platforms is amazing. Add to that the ability to insert music, graphics, and sound effects and what you end up with is a video game/wargame hybrid of sorts. However, once again the player's attention is on the screen, focused on the digital miniatures and digital tokens. Plus, not everyone has access to reliable internet or decent computers.

  • THEATER OF THE MIND: What do you need for this method of play? Literally nothing aside from your own imaginations. The drawback? Players who enjoy the more technical aspects of the game (blast radius from fireballs, etc) will have trouble adjusting to the loose style of play and the GM will have to spend more time thoroughly explaining everything around the players so they can envision it.

Quick Aside

Want a free adventure you can play tonight with 30 minutes of prep? Have one on us!

Don't get me wrong. I will literally play any version of TTRPGs that I can. Using miniatures, using Roll20, using my brain - but I do have to say that I think more GMs should try to use the Theater of the Mind style of play when they can, especially as they become more experienced with running games. The reason for this is pretty simple, as I find it engages the players more with the contents of the story rather than the minutiae of combat and distances. If you are a GM who is able to fully engage players, and yourself, with miniatures or with Roll20 then that's amazing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But if you find that you're having trouble engaging your players, think about switching styles.

Here is an example of how Theater of the Mind can be different:

Let's say that the adventurers are in a battle with some goblins. The Fighter decides to rush forward and engage the lead goblin, attacking with his magic scimitar. Each tile is five feet so he moves the appropriate number of tiles toward the Goblin, and then rolls the dice. He's not within striking distance of any of the Goblin's allies, so that's great. The player controlling the fighter rolls for attack and hits with a 17 and then rolls for damage. The Goblin is hit for 6 slashing damage, and then the Fighter says he's finished with his turn. The Goblin hasn't died yet, and his miniature still stands. It then moves to the Rogue's turn. The Fighter begins calculating in his head his next movements once the Rogue undoubtedly takes down the Goblin with her sneak attack ability. He can move a few tiles to the left and help his Cleric ally with the Skeleton, or he can run to block the door from the Ogre miniature still left in the last room they were in.

With Theater of the Mind, the gameplay becomes more nebulous and sometimes more dramatic but less visual. Since there are no miniatures, it becomes very description and dialogue heavy and sometimes results in players becoming more creative with their solutions, and even sometimes leads to unexpected character development.

GM: Okay, Frank. Right now your Fighter is staring down the Goblin leader, Bepralm. He's snarling at you and waving his sword in challenge. In the distance, to your left about 30 feet you can see Roderick ferociously battling a skeleton by a shining gold coffin. Behind Bepralm, you notice Faelyn sneaking around in the shadows with her dagger drawn. Behind you, from where you've just run only minutes before, you feel the ground shake with the ogre's fury at having been deceived. What does Madrik do?

Frank: Well, I suppose since Roderick is so far away, and the Ogre hasn't caught up to me yet, I'll try to take down Bepralm. Madrik spits at the goblin and charges forward, his sword held high, and he shouts "FOR GREENVALE!" When Madrik gets within swinging distance of the Goblin, he's going to swing hard.

GM: As you reach the shrieking Goblin, who raises his rusty sword in defense, you catch sight of Roderick defending himself against the skeleton's savage strikes still over to your left. He seems fine for now. With a feint, you manage to catch Bepralm off guard. Too late, he realizes his mistake and with a cheer of triumph you slash the Goblin deeply along his side. He howls in pain and staggers back as goblin blood rolls down his side and onto the ancient granite blocks comprising the hall. He sputters and holds out his sword with a trembling hand. "Please don't kill me!" He shrieks. Chloe, Faelyn is still behind Bepralm, correct? Roll for perception.

Chloe: Yes she is! She's been sneaking up on him this whole time, watching Madrik take him down a peg. I got a 15.

GM: Excellent. You notice that Bepralm is reaching into a pouch with his free hand and pulling out a glowing stone as he pleads for his life. To your right, about 25 feet away, Roderick is holding his own against the skeleton and the two of them seem to be at a stalemate. Behind Madrik, you see the hulking form of the Ogre slowly making his way toward the chamber, punching the walls as he approaches. What does Faelyn do?

Chloe: Oh, wow. Okay, Faelyn jabs Bepralm in the back with her dagger, and she twists the blade as she says into Bepralm's ear from behind "You can't hide from me, goblin scum." She also takes the stone and pockets it.

GM: Nice. Madrik, you see Faelyn materialize out of the shadows behind Bepralm and see the point of her dagger pierce his heart from behind. You see her whisper something in his ear as his eyes go wide and roll back into his head. The Goblin leader slumps to the ground, defeated, blood beginning to pool on the stones surrounding his body.

Frank: Sweet. Madrik nods to Faelyn and spits on Bepralm's body. He tells her "Thanks, Elf. I could have handled that, though."

Chloe: Faelyn smirks, wipes her dagger blade on the dead goblin's tunic and points behind Madrik at the Ogre. "Handle that. I'll go help the Cleric." Faelyn takes the rest of her movement and runs up as stealthily as she can behind the skeleton.

As a GM, I know that there can exist a good blending of miniatures and Theater of the Mind, but as far as anecdotal evidence is concerned, I've noticed much of the time that the minis take over, or the digital tabletop takes over, when sometimes all you need is a good imagination, GM skills, and eager players. All I'm saying is give it a try. You might be surprised.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know about your Crits and Fails down below!


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