It ought to be simple. Describe the battle. Remember which NPC is which. Save a bunch of money on minis. As I recently discovered, however, it’s easier said than done.

This summer I ran “Lost Mine of Phandelver” for a group of newcomers. Wanting to give them the full gamut of gaming experience, I decided to pop one of the bandit fights off the grid and into the Land of Imagination. Numerous questions followed.

“Wait, which one has already taken damage?”

“How many of them can I get with my breath weapon?”

“What do you mean I’ll provoke two opportunity attacks if I move? I thought only one dude was adjacent to me!”

This is the kind of mess that appears when you apply Theater of the Mind (e.g. gaming without visual aids) to a tactical system. Games like D&D care deeply about how many feet you are from you opponent. Remembering whether that vampire spawn is 30 or 40 feet out can drastically alter the dynamics of play. Beating up multiple opponents rather than one big guy gets complicated too, as you’ve got to track multiple hp pools without remembering which of the mechanically-identical goblin warriors has already taken damage. Ironically enough, you know where you stand when positioning is unimportant.

In more narrative style games with more abstract combat, it’s easier to justify a theater of the mind approach. Exalted is my go-to system here, with an emphasis on elaborate action descriptions and flashy improvised maneuvers rather than crunchy on-the-grid combat. Without the mechanical need to track exact positioning, free-form play becomes the norm.

And so, for today’s discussion, I’d like to hear about your own experiences with theater of the mind gameplay. What do you gain when you jettison the minis and the map? What do you lose? And do you have any pro tips or best practices for making theater of the mind work in practice? Tell us all about your own imaginary legions and invisible dragons down in the comments!


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