If there’s one aspect of our hobby that I truly adore besides the immersive interactive storytelling, it’s maps and miniatures. I’ve thrown an inordinate amount of money at plastic minis and vinyl wet erase mats, spent an inordinate amount of time lovingly painting every small detail on a Reaper or Heroforge figure, and wasted an inordinate amount of ink crosshatching around the edges of a map I’ve drawn just to make it pop a little more. Tactical combat and terrain can add a lot to a battle, and absolutely nothing elevates the aesthetic of a game to the next level like a really cool looking map.
However, the fact of the matter is I don’t need maps and minis, no one needs maps and minis. As awesome as I think they are, there’s also plenty of valid reasons not to use them at all. The game flows a lot better from narrative to combat or vice versa without the giant speedbump of having the set up minis and possibly draw a map in between. If you prefer to draw your maps beforehand, then not using one obviously cuts down on prep time. Combat moves a lot faster and bogs down less as players focus more on what they’re actually going to do than on counting spaces on the board. It forces players to pay attention more as they can’t simply glance up at a map when their turn rolls around, and players will also naturally start using their environment more, thinking in three dimensions without having a grid to tell them expressly where they can and can’t go. Eschew the map, and you’ll see more innovation from your players than you ever have before, that’s a promise.
Unfortunately, in my years of running games at conventions and local game stores, I’ve still met far too many gamers who think of gaming without a map as an inconceivable occurrence. I’ve seen people deride it as “playing ‘Mother May I’ with the GM” to simply assuming they won’t be able to keep track of what’s going on without ever giving it a shot.
Well, there’s a way to do things and a way to do things, right? Lots of people talk about doing it, but guidance on actually making it happen is sparse. As a Game Master who’s run many successful Theatre of the Mind games in just about every conceivable system from 5th Edition, to Pathfinder/3.5, to Star Wars Saga Edition I’m hoping to show you how easy it is to add a versatile new tool to your GM’s toolbox.
1) You Need Your Players’ Trust
This should go without saying, a good Game Master should possess their players’ trust regardless, but when there’s no communal visual aide and the table is relying on what’s in your head, it’s absolutely crucial. They need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re not going to use this as an opportunity to screw them or give yourself an advantage. Organically, this comes with time, but I’ve been able to bring players I’ve never gamed with onboard with a simple mission statement: assuring them that as the GM I’m on their side, I want them to succeed as much as they do, and I’m simply eschewing the map so the game will flow a little better and offer them more options than being confined to a grid. If I think it will be a particularly hard sell, I’ll even offer to go back to maps and minis if they try it and don’t like it. By following the rest of the rules on this list, I usually have a group of true believers by the end of the session.
2) Handwave Distance
That might sound like sacrilege, but hear me out. Does anyone actually care if the goblin is precisely 15, 20, or 25 feet away? No, they care about whether they can reach it in one move action or not. When is the last time you encountered a character built for ranged combat that couldn’t shoot across an average sized battle mat without leaving the first range increment?
I’m not suggesting that you ignore distance entirely, it’s valuable in certain situations to help make educated guesses. What I am saying however is that in most circumstances, precise distance is not necessary or even useful information.
My rule of thumb (and I always make sure my players are aware of this) is that any creature I present in an encounter can be reached in one move action, unless I specifically say otherwise. The only time I will actually specify distance is if there’s something I specifically designed to be difficult for the melee guys to get to, or an element meant to provide something for the ranged guys to contend with, for instance a mage 80 ft. away up on a 10 ft. high ledge. Unless a fight occurs in a very small encounter area, near the door, or the tanks have specifically wheeled the enemies around, I usually rule that Flanking requires two move actions, one to actually reach the creature and another to maneuver behind it, as that’s the way it usually shakes out on a battle mat anyway. It usually takes about 15 - 20 feet of movement to circle all the way around a medium sized creature on the grid, more if you’re playing Pathfinder/3.5 and are trying to do so at a safe enough distance to avoid Attacks of Opportunity. Having to travel any appreciable distance to get to the creature makes it infeasible to do in a single move. (Though I may be inclined to cut them some slack if they’re willing to risk the AoO or Tumble through the creature’s space)
At some point, you will undoubtedly encounter a player who absolutely insists they need to know how far away something is, or some other specific measurement. When that happens, I’m going to teach you a phrase that will make your life significantly easier. Learn it, practice it, remember it because it has served me well these many years.
“What are you trying to do? The answer is probably yes.”
Looking for reasons to say yes to your players is a completely different piece of GM advice, but that probably yes part goes a long way to engender trust and ensure to your players that you’re not trying to use the maplessness to unfairly rule against them, as well as nip in the bud the “Mother May I” mentality I mentioned earlier.
The above phrase came to be because once during a game I spent a minute or two debating with a druid player Wild Shaped into a big cat who swore up and down he needed to know how far away the Shambling Mound was. So I hit him with the phrase. It turned out he was trying to figure out if he could gain the benefits of the cat’s Pounce ability. Again, he didn’t really care how far away the Mound was, did he? What he really wanted to know was whether or not he could Pounce. He hadn’t joined the fray yet, there was no reason to deny it to him, so of course I said yes. That’s not to say I would’ve let him Pounce repeatedly or Charge repeatedly, however, at least not without moving back out and risking an Attack of Opportunity.
9.9 times out of ten, what the player wants to do isn’t going to break your carefully designed encounter, and for the 0.1 times it does, honestly the player probably deserves the easier encounter for their ingenuity.
3) Put Players First
There’s going to come a time when a player has a different idea of the situation in their head than you do. When situations like that occur, as long as their interpretation is reasonable, it’s always best to give the player the benefit of the doubt. In six months you probably won’t remember or care about the discrepancy, but it will help every player feel more comfortable without a map and not feel as though they need one to “prove their case.” The key phrase is as long as their interpretation is reasonable.” I.e. don’t let them cheat either.
With me, this used to happen a lot if I tried to make an attack against someone who was still in the hallway. “I haven’t entered the room yet.” Over time, you’ll learn to mitigate situations like this by asking for specifics, such as “Is everyone walking inside?” before starting the encounter. If they’re looking for traps, ask them how they’re looking for traps. If they don’t specify they’re crawling on the floor, then they have to make a save against the burning hands trap three feet off the floor if they don’t see it. If there’s a pit in the center of the hallway, ask them how they’re walking down the hallway. If they don’t specify hugging the wall, then they’re not. Ask if they’re walking single file or two abreast to figure out who falls in, etc. Since I’ve gotten in the habit of asking for specifics, this type of situation arises exceedingly rarely anymore.
Make sure that every important facet of a room, terrain, or combat encounter is included in your initial description. (Besides traps and things meant to be a surprise, of course) Nothing is going to piss players off more than a Barbarian attempting to charge an orc only to hear, “Oh! You can’t, there’s a giant pool of water in the center of the room” or “Oh, I forgot the floor is covered with ice, make an Acrobatics check.” If you’ve been playing with your group for a while, you might be able to get away with that once or twice, but either way, it makes it seem like you’re treating them unfairly by pulling stuff out of thin air.
On the other hand, if your players suggest something, such as, “Are there any chandeliers in this room?” If it makes sense, go ahead and throw it in! Always follow the Rule of Cool, your players will love you for it.
4) Use The PCs To Track The Monsters’ Positions
How do you keep track of where everyone is in Theatre of the Mind? Simple. Tordek, Regdar and Mialee (the old 3.5 iconics just don’t get enough love anymore) are fighting four goblins. Tordek runs up and engages one of the goblins in melee. Regdar runs up and engages a different goblin in melee. A third goblin attacks Tordek in melee while the fourth stays back with a bow. So what’s the situation look like? You have two goblins on Tordek, one on Regdar, and one standing in the back. If Mialee wants to Magic Missle one of the goblins, you can just ask:
“Do you want the one on Regdar, one of the ones on Tordek, or the one with the bow?”
Tracking hit points for them isn’t very difficult either. You can mark them however you like, Goblin 1, 2, 3, and 4. Goblin A, B, C, or D. Carl, Bob, Stu and Hoseface Larry. You just need to remember who went to Regdar, who went to Tordek, and who’s got the bow. When I have trouble keeping track mentally, I notate it in my notes like so:
Tordek C (7)
Regdar B (7), S (4)
Mialee HL (7)
I usually track it in the same place I do initiative.
As the fight progresses, circumstances will arise that will help your players more easily determine the target they want:
“Do you want an injured one or a healthy one?”
“Do you want the one that Tordek just hit or the one Regdar knocked prone?
5) Make Combat Visceral
“Your arrow hits, the orc takes five points of damage” might cut it when using maps and minis, but that’s largely because the dynamic at work is that of a board game. A large part of the fun comes from trying to outmaneuver the enemy and use the board to their advantage to stack the encounter in their favor. However, in Theatre of the Mind, the players’ main vector for entertainment is their imaginations, and as the one who acts as narrator and sets the stage, it’s up to you to make what they imagine as entertaining as possible.
There’s been a lot of advice written about not being too florid with your combat descriptions. It’s all crap, all of it. Maybe don’t write a five page soliloquy for every kobold that dies as they breathe their last, pleading to the kobold gods for forgiveness, but don’t be afraid to inject some passion into the combat either.
The orc does not miss the fighter with his axe. “The orc’s axe howls through the air in a downward slice, but the fighter deftly twists his sword around to catch the blow on the flat of his blade as he plants a boot in the orc’s stomach, forcing him back. The zombie doesn’t get hit by the warhammer. “Its pallid form shudders beneath the dwarf’s hammerblow, its spine separating with a sickening crack as the top half of its body sloughs to the earth in an unnatural contortion. With grotesque motions it pulls itself back together and stumbles forward to redouble its assault.”
This viscerality is one of the most compelling things about Theatre of the Mind. As much as I try to evoke this same experience when using minis, it’s way too easy for me to get bogged down in the pedantry of trying to keep track of position, staying mindful of each monsters abilities, and trying to remember which health tally corresponds to which mini. Sometimes I’m just grateful to get a mini off the board and be done with it. Theatre of the Mind lifts a lot of that mental strain and just lets me focus on what’s going on in the encounter. If you can evoke a vivid enough image in your players’ minds, if they can see the cutting arcs of blades and the flashes of spellfire, hear the ring of metal and the earth crunching softly beneath their feet, it will be vastly more entertaining than watching a bunch of tiny statues stand around.
6) Resolving Area Of Effect Attacks
This is admittedly the trickiest part of playing in this style, and even I have been known to break out a map from time to time if there’s a big dragon battle coming up. It’s far from impossible however. The 5e DMG has a nifty equation to help when this situation arises, but I think I have a better way.
Dude, you’re the Game Master. Just do what you do a hundred times a session and make a call.
If you’ve followed my other steps and properly engendered trust in the players at your table, they have no reason to doubt you when you say that the Dragonborn’s breath weapon can hit two of the eight flying kobolds. If they do disagree with you, hear them out and if it’s reasonable either amend your call or explain to them why you came to your original decision.
This method might sound a little flippant, but there’s a couple bits of common sense that I use to inform the situation.
In the case of something like Fireball, creatures are usually going to have about 5-10 ft. of space between them, including players if you’re using PCs to mark positions. Even dumb creatures will instinctually stick together for protection, but they’re not going to pile on top of one another and invade each other’s sword swinging space without a deliberate reason. Usually, you won’t have to worry about players being caught in the blast as most players will place their AoE behind the enemies to catch them in the very edge and spare the friendly melee. (It’s an exploit used every day on the battle map and there’s no reason to deny it to players here) If something like Flanking or odd maneuvering places a player behind the line of enemies, you’ll know and be able to adjudicate accordingly.
A Cone Effect will always catch whatever’s in front of it unless the player specifically maneuvers to avoid hitting their teammates, which may require going adjacent to the melee depending on the circumstances.
Anyone who’s ever tried to run a Blue Dragon boss fight on a battle mat will tell you that a Line Effect will almost always hit precisely one target, unless they specifically maneuver to line it up like a billiard shot, in which case it might get two.
The point of this article is not to convince the reader to throw away their maps and minis, it’s to hopefully add a powerful, versatile tool to every GM’s toolbox that can be alternated between as the need arises. Each style has its pros and cons, and getting comfortable with both can help elevate the Game Master’s quality of life to the next level. It’s daunting at first, I know, I too once played with only maps. When I finally took the plunge, I found an exciting new way of running my games that made them flow more freely than they ever had before. Try it, just once. We can always go back to maps and minis if you try it and don’t like it.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author, freelance writer and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
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I am become death, destroyer of worlds.