Recently, I was taking this training class for my day job, and the person in the video said that we have far more neurons dedicated to visual processing than audio processing. Honestly, I tried to look this up, and there is a mountain of neurobiology about audio vs visual uptake, processing, and memory, as well as articles on visual vs audio learning, etc. I was never able to fully confirm what the person in the video said, but it got me thinking. Regardless of whether there are fewer or more neurons, there are neurons for audio processing and visual processing. RPGs are, for the most part, an audio event, as we mostly speak the narrative and actions of the world and characters. Could we as GM’s enhance the clarity of our games if we engaged visual representation of information in our games?
Quick note. This article is about the use of visual aids at the table, specifically drawings. Some accommodations may be needed if you or someone in your group has visual impairments, such as viewing distances, color contrasts, etc.
Yes, I know about Battlemats and Minis…
Plenty of people have battlements and minis for their games. Back in the halcyon days of the d20 boom, I also rocked a huge vinyl battlemat and scores of tokens and minis. And yes, they did enhance combat, by providing additional information. That is part of my point. Having a map and tokens allowed players to better visualize the combat scene and made it easier to make decisions like how to flank an opponent or where to drop a fireball for maximum effect.
I also realize that many of us play games that do not use battlemats or minis. I have played countless games with nothing at the table, playing in the Theater of the Mind. This is the point I want to make. Is there a way to use visual input to enhance the Theater of the Mind when not in combat?
Yes, there is.
Without really thinking about it and in a somewhat haphazard way, I have done some of this – mostly in the way of finding pictures on the internet for various NPCs, or using Google Earth to show a real-world location. My current Night’s Black Agents game uses Miro to create a murder board, in order for my players to keep track of all the clues. Those all help enhance the games I use them for, again proving that using both audio and visual inputs creates a richer experience.
Those things are good, but they do add extra prep to my games, as I have to sit and search Google for images. It is not hard for some genres but more tricky for others. It is also harder to do in an ad hoc way, like during the middle of the session.
That got me thinking about…
I have in the past been known to draw out a combat scene on a dry-erase board at my table. My previous game room had a large whiteboard behind my chair, letting me turn around and draw (often badly) on the board, but again nearly always for combat or other tactical needs.
That got me thinking that I could do drawings and doodles of non-combat situations in order to enhance the transmission of information in the Theater of the Mind. For example, when I describe something such as a device or a building, I could do a quick doodle of it and show it to the players as I was describing it so that things were made more clear.
I am in no way good at drawing or doodling, but I did not want that to deter me from trying. Two things about that: One, drawings don’t have to be amazing to convey more info. Even bad drawings help with more information; Two, the more I do it the better I can get.
I had a number of possible ways to do this. I had considered using my iPad and Apple Pencil but I use my iPad for my session notes, so I decided to go manual with a LetterForms dry-erase notebook, and STAEDTLER Lumocolor Water soluble semi-permanent markers.
The notebook has multiple pages, meaning I can do more than one drawing at a time and do not have to erase them like I would with a dry-erase board. The semi-permanent markers mean that I can do a drawing and keep it between sessions so that I don’t have to re-draw things each session. The notebook easily fits in my gaming bag and the markers into my GMing kit.
What to Doodle
I am currently running a few games and I selected my Aux (a Cortex Prim Sci-Fi game) campaign as the test for this. My Night’s Black Agents game has the Miro board, and my other Cortex Game is online and would not be a good candidate for the notebook approach.
The Aux game (think the TV show Scorpions, but in space and with way bigger SCIENCE!), has lots of descriptions of things that don’t exist, from continental geo-shock absorbers, firecanes, and building-size radiation scrubbers. In the game up to this point, we were just playing Theater of the Mind, relying on my descriptions of these massive constructs.
My plan was to then start to doodle these devices as well as other things, like arrangements of solar systems, where things were in relation to other things on a planet, etc. All of this would be used to enhance my verbal descriptions during the session. I would describe things and then doodle them, showing the doodles to my players to enhance my descriptions.
For the past two sessions of my Aux game, I doodled while we were playing and would hold up the drawings, when needed, to show the players what was going on. I asked the players if they thought it helped, and they agreed it helped to put us all on the same page when it came to our descriptions.
I also found another bonus, and I should have thought of this – the drawings helped me keep things straight between sessions. As soon as I looked at the drawings, I was able to recall more details about the session (It should be noted, that I also take notes during the session on index cards).
I have included a few of the doodles in the article to show, proving I am not very good at drawing and was still able to enhance my play using these drawings. I am going to preserve these drawings by scanning them and adding them digitally to my campaign notes, but I think their best use is during the game.
Narratives & Doodles
I am still working on this as a part of my overall GMing style, and I think there is more work to be done, but I find the results promising. I am going to add this to future games I run, and hopefully, over time my drawing skills may improve.
Do you doodle while you GM or to help visualize things in your game? Do you do it outside of combat? What medium do you like to work in?