Theater of the Mind | D&D 5E Table Tips

Didn’t we already have this discussion? D&D and Theater of the Mind? Blech. Keep your theater to yourself and gimme the minis!

Playing DnD with a Battle Mat

The Players crash into a dragon in a battle cart during one of Alphastream’s Games

Joking aside, I will almost always run D&D with miniatures and a battle mat. It is my preferred way, I feel more engaged and I feel like my decisions make more sense and have a real effect on the combat. I am even one of those fringe folk that will use visual aids with Shadowrun and White Wolf games. But, I do find time that on occasion I would need to use Theater of the Mind (TOM) — When a DM doesn’t show up for organized play and I need to pick up, surprise combat I didn’t see coming, or it feels like a better fit for the combat are reasons I might run TOM. I enjoy playing in TOM when folks have rules for the way they run TOM and that is enhanced by good storytelling to make a thrilling and engaging cinematic combat.

MerricB and Slyflourish have some great guidelines on how they run TOM and really mirror most of what I am going to say in this post. So, make sure to check out their efforts to make this an easier option in your game.

How do you run total Theater of the Mind

Step 1: Decide if this combat is suitable for TOM. For me, this is deciding if it is a simple enough combat and am I lacking the supplies or prep to run it with minis or makers. If I can I will run it with minis or do a hybrid of TOM and visual combat.

Step 2: Describe the area and enemies with as much rich detail as possible. This is important so the players can be creative and work within the scene to come up with creative solutions to the combat.

Step 3: Decide and describe starting location of the parties and the enemy. I like borrowing from 13th age a bit for this. There are three zones. Near, Far, and Very Far. Near means, the player does not have to use their full movement to engage an enemy and can potentially use the rest of their movement to engage a second should they leave the current enemy for some reason. Far is range distance, it takes a full move to get near to them, and then you can use melee. For long range, it takes a move and a dash to get into melee.

Step 4: Roll initiative and start combat. I try to keep track of who is where, who has taken the most damage, and who is attacking who. Sometimes this can get a bit complicated. So another rule I will adopt (and I use this a fair amount even with minis — Don’t tell my players) the ‘Mooks’ rule. For me when I use this, I will mark off hit points for one enemy at a time until damage has exceeded the hit point total for one enemy. Then I will remove the last enemy hit, and any extra damage moved towards the next enemy on this list. I only do this with small groups of similar creature that aren’t a huge challenge for my party, such as 6 kobolds.

I will also allow the players to hit as many enemies in a zone with an area attack based on the table below

AreaCreatures
5′ Area1 Creature
10′ Area2 Creatures
15′ Area3-4 Creatures
20′ Area4+ Creatures

When something shoots in a straight line or a cone, I work on that based on what makes sense for the scene.
So along with that information, I enjoy encouragingly players to be creative and take risks to allow them to get more enemies or different enemies. Things like taking opportunity attacks will allow the fighter to get to the big bad or catching your self or an ally in an area effect might net you one or two more enemy targets. Swinging on the chandelier, sure you might not stick the landing, but you’ll get that attack in and bypass the mobs in front of you.

Hybrid Theatre of the Mind

Playing D&D with Hybrid Theater of the Mind

Using miniatures with Hybrid Theater of the mind.

I will go into more detail with all of this in a later post but in a quick summary. I will sometimes use miniatures to show approximate position. This will allow players to use some tactics without getting lost in the minutia of what the terrain is like, how many squares are in the way, can I get next to that enemy, or other little odds and ends like that. Or, in the case of Shadowrun, I will have little printouts of the rooms, office spaces, parking lots, stores in the mall that the players are in and then I will draw right on the map where the players are, where the enemies are. By the end of the combat, the piece of paper is a mess, but that is okay, it was a great tool to help show the players what is going on.

All Minis All The Time

I will almost always run with miniatures. I like miniatures, but there are cases where it is going to be harder to make the game flow with a battle mat. There is sometimes where you need to create a more cinematic style of combat, a combat that runs fast, or you just don’t have the tools to lay out the minis and running theater of the mind is a great way to get through combat. What do you guys think? Do you sometimes use minis? Always use minis? never use minis? Do you have a better way of running theater of the mind or some sort of hybrid?

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