Theater of the Mind vs. Battlemaps for Combat Encounters

When it comes to combat encounters in tabletop RPGs there are two methods of describing the encounters. One is to use a battlemap and miniatures to visualize the scene. The other is to use theater of the mind which requires only the players’ and GM’s imagination and attention. There are reasons why a group will prefer one method over the other, but for the most part, they can accomplish the same end result albeit a bit differently.

There are some systems such as Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition that are made to be played using a battlemap and miniatures. While theater of the mind play is certainly possible it’s not anywhere near ideal. The opposite is absolutely true with systems like Honey Heist where there are not many (or any) mechanical rules and a grid would be unnecessary or slow the game down.

However, most systems I’ve found can be run using either method or even a combination of the two. In this post, I’m going to showcase the pros and cons of using each one so that you and your group can make a more informed decision as to what method you’d like to use for your games.

What is Theater of the Mind?

Theater of the mind is a method where no paper, pencils, miniatures, or maps are involved in describing the encounter. The GM will describe what the room looks like, what the enemies look like, and where everyone and everything is located. Throughout the fight, the GM and players will work together to describe where they are positioned and what they do.

This method will require the GM to fully describe the major details of an encounter so that everyone at the table has an understanding of what is happening. This is integral for players depending on the system you are currently playing. It’s a great way to promote collaborative storytelling.

Games like D&D 5e have rules for the range of an attack, cover, and more so having access to any information that may affect these mechanics is crucial. Systems with more mechanics and rules will require a more complete description of the encounter. More open-ended systems will require less detailed descriptions.

What is a Battlemap

A battlemap is just as the name implies. It’s a map of the encounter. The entrances and exits, the terrain, and any objects that could be interacted with during the encounter will be depicted on the map. I’ve written about making battlemaps before and go into a bit more detail about what they are in this post.

Battlemaps and miniatures don’t necessarily have to be anything expensive or fancy. This set up could be some paper minis that you printed off and an erasable grid, or simply some notebook paper and a pencil or erasable pen to mark where each combatant is moving.

For the record, if you use a grid in Roll20 or any other virtual tabletop program you’re using a battlemap to describe combat.

Theater of the Mind Combat
Fewer players mean less reliance on good positioning. Battlemaps aren’t always necessary! Art by LeeSmith.

Theater of the Mind

Pros of Theater of the Mind

Theater of the mind is unarguably the cheapest method of describing combat. It requires nothing but everyone’s imagination. This is a huge factor for many groups.

This is also the easiest method for a GM to prep. They simply have to make notes of what the encounter may look like as they prep or possibly make themselves a rough sketch of the battlefield. They do not have to spend time making any maps or handouts for their players. As I’ve said before reducing prep time is important for GMs!

Theater of the mind combat also incentivizes the players to push the boundaries and envision things creatively. They have no idea what the GM envisioned the room or enemies to look like outside of the descriptions the GM has given them. Players have more leeway in what the story looks and feels like.

Ease of access is the major benefit of using the theater of the mind method. No money is required, and it can be done anywhere and anytime. You don’t need a big table to hold all your maps and miniatures if you aren’t using any.

Cons of Theater of the Mind

This is a difficult method to use for larger groups. The more people at the table, the more possibilities of someone mishearing or misunderstanding the description the DM gave. Larger groups also mean more PCs and potentially more enemies which means there are more variables to keep track of without a visual guide like a map.

For people who are visual learners (such as myself), this can be a difficult method to grasp as you don’t have any real-time reference for positioning and the layout of the room. This may require the players that have a hard time with this to take extra notes or draw a map for themselves.

There’s plenty of room for error or disagreements between the GM and players regarding positioning. However, this reason begins to fade away the more you and your group get used to using theater of the mind style play. The GM will continue to get better at describing the setting and the players will understand how to work with the GM better. Regardless, it’s frustrating at first.

Everyone having their own unique view of the battlefield is the major con of theater of the mind style play. Ironically it’s also one of the benefits of theater of the mind combat. It relies on the GM and players giving a solid description of what is happening on their turns. Having people in your group that aren’t able to do this, or having a larger-than-average sized group can make this more difficult to accomplish.

Star Wars Theater of the Mind
For our Star Wars RPG game we use a combination of both methods! Source: Strange Assembly

Using a Battlemap

Pros of Using a Battlemap

The entire group will know exactly what the combat encounter entails. Each enemy will have a miniature in the exact position they are standing and the size, shape, and layout of the room are clearly visible.

The GM also is able to cut down the amount of time they spend explaining the combat encounter’s setup. Whenever a creature moves the players and GM will all have to confirm exactly how close and how far they are to the creature now.

Attacks and abilities that affect a large area will also easier to use as you can see the layout of the entire room or area you are fighting in. Strategic mechanics, in general, will be a lot easier to visualize and plan out since you’ll have a constant view of the battlefield as it unfolds.

The main benefit of using a battlemap and miniatures is the consistency it brings to the table. Everyone will know exactly what creature is where and if they are within range of their target.

Cons of Using a Battlemap

The time that the GM will save from not having to explain the entire encounter will never make up for the amount of time you’ll have to spend making a battlemap. The more detailed the map, the longer you’ll have to spend creating the map. Making maps will put a huge dent into the time you allot yourself for prepping each session.

Having a premade in some ways sets limits and boundaries for the encounter. When the players think outside the box and change the area or initiate a chase through the city you probably won’t be able to show this with a premade battlemap. You will have to resort to improv and drawing a sketch of what the encounter looks like as the location changes.

The cost of miniatures, mapping software, virtual tabletop subscriptions, and other tools you need to make battlemaps are also a reason that people may shy away from using battlemaps. There are free or cheaper alternatives available, but there is always going to be a cost associated with battlemaps.

The major con of using battlemaps is the amount of time and potentially money spent on them. It requires a lot more planning and preparation than theater of the mind style play.

Using the Right Tools for the Job

As I’ve mentioned previously in this post, you’ll want to determine what method best suits the system or game that you are playing. Some games inherently gravitate towards using battlemaps or theater of the mind play.

If you are running the game decide on how comfortable you are with narrating the game. That being said, if you are GMing for a small to regular sized group and feel comfortable with your narrative skills you could save a lot of prep time by using theater of the mind combat.

Your group does not have to commit 100% to either option. I find that encounters such as urban alleyway chases work better as a theater of the mind encounter rather than one with a battlemap. Any open-ended encounter will probably benefit from using theater of the mind style play instead.

Use both methods in tandem, or use one or the other. Both methods have their benefits as well as their drawbacks, so use the one that you are most comfortable with.

Conclusions

Personally, I’ve grown up using battlemaps for combat. Even if we didn’t use miniatures we would still use a pencil and piece of graph paper to show where all the creatures and PCs were in the area. However, I ran a theater of the mind encounter in this past session of my D&D 5e game and while it is certainly not my go-to method of describing encounters it is something I won’t shy away from in the future.

Theater of the mind combat offers a lot of freedom of description and interpretation. As long as everyone at the table has an understanding of the mechanics of the encounter, this is not a problem. If anything, for more story-driven games this can be a huge benefit.

Learning to run theater of the mind combat takes a lot of practice. However, using it has many benefits for certain types of encounters once your group has nailed this skill down.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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1 Comment

  1. Personally, I hate theater of the mind for systems designed to be played with a grid. I find myself spending huge amounts of time pestering the GM for information about my options that I could figure out in moments with a proper grid. Also, while I don’t philosophically object to GMs fudging I’ve always felt like answering those questions is too easy a way for the GM to artificially manipulate the difficulty of a battle. If I’m facing 10 enemies and I can cast fireball, we’re in Theater of the Mind, the GM doesn’t have to lie about a die roll to save me because they can just decide that this turn I can get all 10 enemies with one fireball without catching any friendlies. I also feel like it limits my creativity because I can’t make clever use of terrain without knowing how it’s actually configured.
    And as a GM I have never had any problem with battle maps taking too long to draw. The most elaborate map I ever drew took me about five minutes, and that was one for a full-session fight, which I just drew before the session started and then folded the map over and unfolded it when the PCs entered the room.I think a typical map takes me between 30 seconds and three minutes depending on how many interesting terrain features are present, and I’ve never not had my players take that long getting their stuff figured out for the fight, asking me questions, or listening to my narration to set the scene.
    My experience as both a GM and player is 100% that using a battlemap saves time compared to the ceaseless Q&A that a tactical thinker will require to actually play theater of the mind. I find that battlemaps also have more of a sense of legitimacy and fairly treat characters whose race or class is balanced around them having an above or below average speed. It’s really hard to judge what characters with varying speeds can and can’t do TotM, but it’s dead easy to count spaces and say whether someone has enough movement on a grid.
    The one problem I will admit exists with a map is that it costs money. There might be cheaper alternatives, but the setup my group uses is a $45 mat and a pack of multicolored markers. Not a crushing cost for most, but an unpleasant cost for many I think. Roughly as much as one core book bought new.

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