In 1938 Orson Welles scared America with his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Many people panicked, thinking Martians were indeed invading the earth. Radio is often called “theater of the mind,” and Welles was a master of the medium.
In a way, roleplaying games are a modern version of the old radio plays. While they use visuals like maps, minis, terrain, or handouts, those aren’t the true substance of the game. The real substance of the game is the conversation. Roleplaying games are made out of words. (Including bad ones when the dice don’t cooperate). Some forms of roleplaying are entirely theater of the mind. For example, corporate and educational trainers use roleplaying scenarios all the time. Play by post and internet games (without a Virtual Tabletop) are almost purely verbal games.
So should we run sessions without maps and minis? Rely only on the conversation around the table? Seek to make them more “theater of the mind?”
The purpose of this article is not to provide firm answers. I don’t have them, and I certainly don’t have them for you and your group. I’m also sure I am not the first person to raise the question. Still, let’s look at the role of our imaginations in the game, open up the topic for discussion. Sounds a lot like a gaming session, doesn’t it?
POSSIBLE ADVANTAGES OF THEATER OF THE MIND
I played in a Star Trek campaign in college in which we never used miniatures or other visuals. Occasionally the GM might sketch out a combat situation on paper, but that was about it. In a way, not using figures and maps forced us to create the world in our minds. It didn’t detract from the “reality” of the game. As with fiction, characters in books are no less real because we don’t have a picture of them. We create their faces and voices, and that may make them more real and personal to us. The theater of the mind approach to roleplaying may have this advantage for some people.
This can even help the GM develop better narrative and descriptive skills. Without maps and minis, the GM is responsible for helping to create the world in the players’ minds. It’s a demanding task, but these improved skills may even be useful in real life, such as during job interviews. This may also tamp down some unwanted player behavior at the table. They need to pay attention to what you say rather than their cellphone.
The theater of the mind approach will save you money and time. You don’t need to purchase figures, tilesets, or terrain. All you need are some dice, pencils, paper, and your imagination. Not having to acquire and take care of all the material trappings may even give you more time for campaign planning. It also removes the issue of not having a figure in the desired gender or ethnicity.
Lastly, theater of the mind can help players and GM’s who are blind or visually impaired. This alone makes it worth considering.
POSSIBLE DISADVANTAGES OF THEATER OF THE MIND
However, many (if not most) people are visual learners. Minis and maps help them focus on the game and make it more real in their minds. A pure theater of the mind approach may not work for these players.
Theater of the mind may prove difficult for combat heavy or tactical games. Minis, tokens, or at least a sketched map of the situation are probably better. Marching order, combat placement, and tactical movement then become part of the party’s planning process.
Theater of the mind may not be helpful if a player’s mind wanders. It happens to all of us (even GM’s, heaven forfend) once and a while. If your mind wanders and you don’t have a map or minis available, you may find it difficult to get back into the game on your turn. Or the GM may have to review what is going on, though this is not necessarily a bad thing.
And lastly, maps and minis are fun. Many people would miss them if they were not there.
Hopefully there was something for you in this article. If you use a lot of minis and maps, perhaps your game might benefit from allowing the players to imagine more of the NPC’s and scenes. If you conduct a purely verbal game, perhaps maps, tokens, or NPC cards might make the game more concrete for your players. I haven’t resolved the issue of “how much is too much” in terms of visuals myself, or what types of games might work best as theater of the mind.
We’d love to hear your thoughts below.