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July 6, 2018

Theater of the Mind vs. Battle Maps for Combat Encounters

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When it comes to combat encounters in table top RPGs there are two methods of describing the encounters. One is to use a battle map and miniatures to visualize the scene. The other is to use theater of the mind which requires only the players’ and GM’s imagination and attention. There are reasons why a group will prefer one method over the other, but for the most part they can accomplish the same end result albeit a bit differently.

There are some systems such as Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition that are made to be played using a battle map and miniatures. While theater of the mind play is certainly possible it’s not anywhere near ideal. The opposite is absolutely true with systems like Honey Heist where there are not many (or any) mechanical rules and a grid would be unnecessary or slow the game down.

However, most systems I’ve found can be run using either method or even a combination of the two. In this post I’m going to showcase the pros and cons of using each one so that you and your group can make a more informed decision as to what method you’d like to use for your games.

What is Theater of the Mind?

Theater of the mind is a method where no paper, pencils, miniatures, or maps are involved in describing the encounter. The GM will describe what the room looks like, what the enemies look like, and where everyone and everything is located. Throughout the fight the GM and players will work together to describe where they are positioned and what they do.

This method will require the GM to fully describe the major details of an encounter so that everyone at the table has an understanding of what is happening. This is integral for players depending on the system you are currently playing. It’s a great way to promote collaborative story telling.

Games like D&D 5e have rules for range of an attack, cover, and more so having access to any information that may affect these mechanics is crucial. Systems with more mechanics and rules will require a more-complete description of the encounter. More open-ended systems will require less detailed descriptions.

What is a Battle Map

A battle map is just as the name implies. It’s a map of the encounter. The entrances and exits, the terrain, and any objects that could be interacted with during the encounter will be depicted on the map. I’ve written about making battle maps before and go into a bit more detail about what they are in this post.

Battle maps and miniatures don’t necessarily have to be anything expensive or fancy. This set up could be some paper minis that you printed off and an erasable grid (this link uses my Amazon Associate link which gives the site a small commission), or simply some notebook paper and a pencil or erasable pen to mark where each combatant is moving.

For the record, if you use a grid in Roll20 or any other virtual table top program you’re using a battle map to describe combat.

Theater of the Mind Combat

Less players means less reliance on good positioning. Battle maps aren’t always necessary! Art by LeeSmith.

Theater of the Mind

Pros of Theater of the Mind

Theater of the mind is unarguably the cheapest method of describing combat. It requires nothing but everyone’s imagination. This is a huge factor for many groups.

This is also the easiest method for a GM to prep. They simply have to make notes of what the encounter may look like as they prep or possibly make themselves a rough sketch of the battle field. They do not have to spend time making any maps or handouts for their players. As I’ve said before reducing prep time is important for GMs!

Theater of the mind combat also incentivizes the players to push the boundaries and envision things creatively. They have no idea what the GM envisioned the room or enemies to look like outside of the descriptions the GM has given them. Players have more leeway in what the story looks and feels like.

Ease of access is the major benefit of using the theater of the mind method. No money is required, and it can be done anywhere and anytime. You don’t need a big table to hold all your maps and miniatures if you aren’t using any.

Cons of Theater of the Mind

This is a difficult method to use for larger groups. The more people at the table, the more possibilities of someone mishearing or misunderstanding the description the DM gave. Larger groups also means more PCs and potentially more enemies which means there are more variables to keep track of without a visual guide like a map.

For people who are visual learners (such as myself), this can be a difficult method to grasp as you don’t have any real-time reference for positioning and the layout of the room. This may require the players that have a hard time with this to take extra notes or draw a map for themselves.

There’s plenty of room for error or disagreements between the GM and players regarding positioning. However, this reason begins to fade away the more you and your group get used to using theater of the mind style play. The GM will continue to get better at describing the setting and the players will understand how to work with the GM better. Regardless, it’s frustrating at first.

Everyone having their own unique view of the battle field is the major con of theater of the mind style play. Ironically it’s also one of the benefits of theater of the mind combat. It relies on the GM and players giving a solid description of what is happening on their turns. Having people in your group that aren’t able to do this, or having a larger-than-average sized group can make this more difficult to accomplish.

Star Wars Theater of the Mind

For our Star Wars RPG game we use a combination of both methods! Source: Strange Assembly

Using a Battle Map

Pros of Using a Battle Map

The entire group will know exactly what the combat encounter entails. Each enemy will have a miniature in the exact position they are standing and the size, shape, and layout of the room is clearly visible.

The GM also is able to cut down the amount of time they spend explaining the combat encounter’s setup. Whenever a creature moves the players and GM will all have to confirm exactly how close and how far they are to the creature now.

Attacks and abilities that affect a large area will also easier to use as you can see the layout of the entire room or area you are fighting in. Strategic mechanics in general will be a lot easier to visualize and plan out since you’ll have a constant view of the battlefield as it unfolds.

The main benefit of using a battle map and miniatures is the consistency it brings to the table. Everyone will know exactly what creature is where and if they are within range of their target.

Cons of Using a Battle Map

The time that the GM will save from not having to explain the entire encounter will never make up for the amount of time you’ll have to spend making a battle map. The more detailed the map, the longer you’ll have to spend creating the map. Making maps will put a huge dent into the time you allot yourself for prepping each session.

Having a premade in some ways sets limits and boundaries for the encounter. When the players think outside the box and change the area or initiate a chase through the city you probably won’t be able to show this with a premade battle map. You will have to resort to improv and drawing a sketch of what the encounter looks like as the location changes.

The cost of miniatures, mapping software, virtual table top subscriptions, and other tools you need to make battle maps are also a reason that people may shy away from using battle maps. There are free or cheaper alternatives available, but there is always going to be a cost associated with battle maps.

The major con of using battle maps is the amount of time and potentially money spent on them. It requires a lot more planning and preparation than theater of the mind style play.

Using the Right Tools for the Job

As I’ve mentioned previously in this post, you’ll want to determine what method best suits the system or game that you are playing. Some games inherently gravitate towards using battle maps or theater of the mind play.

If you are running the game decide on how comfortable you are with narrating the game. That being said, if you are GMing for a small to regular sized group and feel comfortable with your narrative skills you could save a lot of prep time by using theater of the mind combat.

Your group does not have to commit 100% to either option. I find that encounters such as urban alleyway chases work better as a theater of the mind encounter rather than one with a battle map. Any open-ended encounter will probably benefit from using theater of the mind style play instead.

Use both methods in tandem, or use one or the other. Both methods have their benefits as well as their drawbacks, so use the one that you are most comfortable with.

Conclusions

Personally I’ve grown up using battle maps for combat. Even if we didn’t use miniatures we would still use a pencil and piece of graph paper to show where all the creatures and PCs were in the area. However, I ran a theater of the mind encounter in this past session of my D&D 5e game and while it is certainly not my go-to method of describing encounters it is something I won’t shy away from in the future.

Theater of the mind combat offers a lot of freedom of description and interpretation. As long as everyone at the table has an understanding of the mechanics of the encounter, this is not a problem. If anything, for more story-driven games this can be a huge benefit.

Learning to run theater of the mind combat takes a lot of practice. However, using it has many benefits for certain types of encounters once your group has nailed this skill down.

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