“Theater of the mind.” Let the words roll off your tongue. Theater of the mind. Theatre, perhaps?
In Dungeons & Dragons – or any tabletop combat game – “theater of the mind” is used to describe a playstyle eschewing miniatures or props. D&D got its start as a take-off on miniatures wargaming, and for decades the rules were written almost entirely with miniatures in mind. But let’s say you don’t have a bunch of miniatures. Or maybe you’re playing over the internet, and find tools like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds too clunky or complicated. It’s absolutely possible – especially with Fifth Edition – to rely entirely on the theater of the mind.
A true confession: I’ve only played with miniatures a few times in my life. Most of the time, my buddies and I do D&D over google hangouts, using no visuals (other than occasional screen-sharing). While playing my budget version of D&D, I’ve picked up a couple tricks for making theater of the mind combat smooth and fun.
ONE – DISTANCE
Distance in D&D is generally measured in how far you can move in a single round. On a table or a mat, you can just count the squares – oh, my fighter is six squares away from that orc? Great, I can close in one round. But in theater of the mind combat, distance is a lot more abstract. On a combat grid, five-foot squares make the difference in combat – you can see immediately that Hobgoblin A is ten feet away, and Hobgoblin B is fifteen feet away. In the abstract, though, that can be harder to communicate. Units – feet, squares, whatever you use – are useful to set up initial positions. But players have a hard time tracking the constantly-shifting field of combatants purely in the abstract.
My main piece of advice here is to describe distances broadly. Don’t punish players for not remembering which hobgoblin was five feet further away. Even if you can use units to communicate distance to the players, think about it in terms of actions and action economy. Hobgoblin A and B are ten and fifteen feet away? They’re both one move action away. Hobgoblin C is sixty feet away? Well, then Hobgoblin C is a full round run away. Those are more important facts than the measly little five-foot steps.
TWO – DIRECTION
Related to distance is direction. The relative positioning of combatants or terrain elements is critical to fun, engaging combat sessions. You can use shorthands like North/South/East/West if you and your players find those helpful – just use them consistently. But I’ve found that it’s more helpful to describe in terms relative to the PCs’ position. “There’s a hobgoblin in front of you, two to your left, and one running at you from behind” – that carries more meaning than “there’s a hobgoblin to the east, two to the north, and one running from the west.” Of course, when you’ve got a bunch of players all facing different directions and doing different things, it can be hard to describe everything holistically – you’ll get a lot of players asking “so the hobgoblin to my left – is it behind Mark the Druid? Or is that the one that’s to the right of Lisa the Barbarian?”
There is a solution here: pick four shorthand references in the combat area, and use them almost exclusively. The wall with the big mossy patch. The barrel of fish. The doorway with the face carved over it. The mysterious patch of slime on the floor. Use these things as anchors, hooks on which to hang the rest of the scene. Bigger and smaller combat areas will require different anchors, but in general you should enter the scene with these anchors already in mind. Your players will be able to keep track of the flow of the battle if you use consistent descriptors.
THREE – FORGIVE
The two tips above may have given away the game on this one already, but I’ll say it anyway: forgive your players. By that, I don’t mean “forgive them for screaming into the mic when they roll a 1.” I mean don’t penalize players for misunderstanding things like distance and direction when there’s no visual aid. Let’s say you’ve described a lovely scene with a few hobgoblins (A, B, and C), two anchors (a barrel of ale and a gigantic brazier), and some distances for your PCs (Mark and Lisa) to follow. Mark wants to hit hobgoblin A, because he has this whole plan to knock hobgoblin A into the gigantic brazier and set him on fire. But Mark didn’t hear you right – he thought you said hobgoblin A was by the brazier, but you really said hobgoblin C.
Don’t be a dick! If your player describes doing something impossible, don’t just run it and watch them fail – give them a chance to correct course. In the example above, Mark just picked the wrong hobgoblin. His plan would work if he targeted hobgoblin C – so let him try it on hobgoblin C! D&D is always a game of communication, moving ideas from brain to brain and back again. Visual aids make that easier; it’s more difficult when it’s all abstract. So forgive!
FOUR – SHUT UP!
Hey! You! Yes, you Dungeon Master. You do a lot of talking, don’t you? Especially during combat! Give someone else a turn, why dontcha?
In all seriousness: get your players to describe their actions in detail. The more your players can describe the space their characters inhabit, the more they will understand the spatial relationships in a way that makes sense to them. When we describe these things out loud, we’re forced to visualize in a way that listening alone can’t quite reach. So when your player says “Alright, I’m going to attack that hobgoblin across the room,” ask them how they get to the hobgoblin, how they are moving, what kind of attack they’re trying to make. Even just “Cool, tell me how that happens” goes a long way. This isn’t just a theater of the mind strategy – this is in the DMG, and has a long and rich history of being good DM advice. But it’s extra bonus effective when you’re all just trying to collectively imagine some wild, weird action scene. It pays dividends!
FIVE – GET FANTASTIC
Here’s the fun thing about theater of the mind combat: it takes zero work to create an absolutely bonkers setting. Whatever setting you have planned for an upcoming session, ramp up the weirdness by one. Raised platforms, crumbling stairs, battle in the treetops – do the weird thing. And if you bring in the other tips – generous descriptions of distance, wiggle room, asking players to get into the descriptive action – you’re setting yourself up for a blast. In fact, go one step further – let the players get fantastic, too! Let’s say a player wants to try to swing on a chandelier – a real classic move. Now, maybe you didn’t describe a chandelier, but it would make sense that there’s one in the room. Allow it! You and the players are co-constructing this scene. This is straying somewhat from the charter of this post, but I can’t stress it enough: “Yes, and” and “Yes, but” are incredibly powerful tools – especially when all the combat is purely imaginary and not tied to a grid/cardboard setpieces/whatever.
Theater of the mind combat may seem intimidating if you’re used to using a grid to build your combat scenes. But honestly? It’s refreshing, easy, and low-maintenance. You don’t need to tinker with Roll20, you don’t need to invest money in a good playmat or markers – just crack open the rulebooks and go to town.