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Posts Tagged ‘theatre of the mind’

After years of 3rd and 4th edition D&D and a small smattering of Pathfinder, 5th Edition D&D allowed us to break away from gridded combat. In a lot of ways the designers seemed to encourage theatre of the mind (TotM) as a way of showing the flexibility of the game and its ability to accommodate different play styles or mimic the feel of one’s favorite edition of the game. I often wondered how this has played out in practice. I get the sense from everything I have read online to watching some streams that there can be quite the mix of TotM and good old gridded combat.

While 5th edition enabled TotM, when I looked at the games I have run or am running as well as games I have played in, I realized that gridded combat was pretty much the only thing going on. In online VTT games I can see the pull or need towards having a map and tokens as the VTT’s are kind of designed with that default assumption in mind. Additionally, I feel that using maps and tokens online can really help center people and provide an orientation that might be difficult for the DM to get descriptively, given that they are speaking to people that they are not in the same room with or directly looking at. In my home game, I think I just started drawing rooms or combat areas on my battle map out of habit. There was a recent session in my home game that went fairly long and I was tired and didn’t feel like drawing one more boring non-descript room out. I suggested to my players we just narrate the combat scene.  Sweet baby Jesus, you would have thought I suggested that I shit in their mouths. The gripes seemed to come from them feeling they might be unable to do the most tactically superior action and a fear of possibly leaving themselves defensively exposed to me on the bad guys turn. So I relented and drew a box and placed everyone inside it.

That interaction irked me. I began to look more closely at how the game was playing and whether it was satisfactory to me. The pacing of play seemed to be bogged down or slowed due to the tactical miniatures game that was occurring for every combat. It was not only measuring movement, positioning, and determining area of effects; it was also the minutia of tactics being discussed on every turn that was making the sessions a bit of a grind. This play style seemed to be exacerbated by the dungeon crawl nature of Princes of the Apocalypse which can result in frequent minor battles or fights. Additionally, the gridded combat really brought out the competitive nature in me. It was like if you are going to set the battle up like a chess match then I felt almost compelled to Bobby Fisher the shit out of them. I know it has been said frequently that the 4 or 5 heads of the players will outmaneuver and beat the DM’s monsters, but to be honest that was not really happening at my table. While my players have been involved in playing rpg’s for decades, they would currently fall into the category of casual player. They don’t read blogs, listen to podcasts, or pour over player options, which essentially culminated into some at-will pownage by me. I also found myself falling into a less than stellar DM mode, in terms of  just defaulting to drawing something on the grid rather than being descriptive and immersive.

I decided things needed to change to improve my enjoyment and maintain my interest level in running the game. However, change can be hard, especially after years of gridded play being the default assumption and, for some of us, the borderline compulsive accumulation of a metric shit ton of mini’s, maps, and dungeon tiles. Nevertheless I persisted. I decided to change the status quo at my next session. I downloaded and printed Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea’s one page document on running TotM in 5th edition and handed it out to my players. I explained to them my reasoning for making the change and assured them that we weren’t going “full TotM”, as if the movie Tropic Thunder has taught us anything it’s that you never go “full” anything.  I told them that for most encounters we would just use TotM, but for the more set piece encounters we would grid it up.  They seemed to be on board and the session went well. I still used may ridiculous amounts of mini’s and pawns to add flavor and show relative positioning, kind of like we did back in our  AD&D and Runequest days. As a DM, I still need to work on describing the action better and setting the scene/environment, but we are moving forward.

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