Theatre of the Mind?

I will say up front that I am not exactly sure where this post will lead me but I need to write it anyway!  The Evan Jeshka posts have been good for a break as I have had some trials and tribulations to deal with and I think that this is my way of investigating what I have discovered, and my way of finding your opinion.  I have heard role-playing described as theatre of the mind by many people in the past and I agree, but what does that mean to them, or to me.  I put out a reasonably well received post just prior to the Evan Jeshka posts about GM’s sitting back and asking if they would want to play in a game that they ran.  One share of that post generated a great level of conversation that I have been watching and it has forced me to think about these things.

Gaming online, which is where I do half of my gaming (at a minimum) has changed the way I game.  In fact, I think that this may stretch back to 4th edition D&D.  Prior to my playing 4th edition D&D I never used visual aids like miniatures or tiles.  But that changed for some reason and now they are stock of my games.  Online virtual tabletops are increasing this dependency.  I know that you can still play with just a die roller but all of the energy that seems to be going into these tabletop systems seems to be visual based that can be used with tokens and facsimiles of miniatures.  System support looks to being able to interact with the tabletop and the miniatures so the system can run smoother.

Underwater combat image showing woman underwater
This is the feeling I want to evoke in my games. Image by Michael Vincent Manalo, legalese at bottom of page

I get that a portion of this can be attributed to the fact that we are not all sitting around a table together so creating a “virtual tabletop” with things that can be interacted with will cause people to perhaps become more engaged, particularly those that have a need to move and play with things.  The problem that I have with this, or am developing with this style, is that everything is beginning to feel very combat based.

Now looking at the history of the games that may not be a surprise.  Chainmail, the tabletop board game,  begat Dungeons and Dragons, the first RPG.  Experience and development was based on the number of monsters defeated and the amount of gold stolen (murder hobos).  I am not old enough to have been there for the first wave of games (26 January 1974 birth of D&D happens to actually be the day I was born ironically) but I was ready for the second wave so to speak.

This is where I differed.  it is true that the very first game that I ran was red box D&D, but that was because others did not want to.  It was not my game.  The game was fun BUT I also knew that D&D was not my game and so I looked through the catalogue of my friendly mail order game store and found a game that I thought was more me (and it was cheap – that was an big factor too).  Super Squadron.  A game of derring do and super heroes that were bigger than their spandex suits would allow.

Thus was born a string of games that really focussed on story and character development.  I got into James Bond RPG, Maelstrom RPG, Mechwarrior (as a spy), MegaTraveller, Shadowrun and then Earthdawn.  AD&D as a player but with a GM that truly knows what theatre of the mind came from.

As I grew with these games I was much more of a person that loved theatre sports.  If you are unsure of what theatre sports involves, it is improvisational theatre, you can see an example of a scene here.  This kind of thing is all about theatre of the mind, character interaction and growth.  Role playing.  These are the games that I want to play in and these are the games I used to run.  Premise, cast and then action.  The games I ran were as much about the interaction, if not more, than the strongest member of the group.  The thrill of a spy trying to catch a beautiful foil.  A boat chase through the panama culminating in a thug that gives up his contact.  It was not all about death and treasure.

I think that my games have shifted from this ideal of character interaction now and it is a culmination of things.  Pathfinder is basically D&D with a twist and I have been indoctrinated in the murder hobo mentality.  It is not that these games cannot become theatre of the mind.  Far from it.  In fact I think that Pathfinder offers an excellent ability to do so, it is just the culture of the players have a certain expectation.  In fact, in the Adventure Paths that I run they give an excellent amount of detail that could be used to increase the interaction and reality of a game, it is just they do not generally provide a way for that information to be shared.  I just need to create that material for my players.

This is how you roll for initiative in Sports.
But this is what most of the games I run end up as these days.

This is the reason I always thought I would have been a great Cthulhu player.  It is all about the story and staving off madness, not murder hobos killing and looting (though I am sure that has happened).  It is why I am so fully engaged with Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, paying a lot of attention to my new copy of Silent Legions and the very last RPG that I bought that has not arrived yet was Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space.  My absolute favourite fantasy game is now Dungeon Crawl Classics, and before you snort with laughter and say that has nothing to do with role playing – check your facts.  The entire system is geared toward role-playing.  It is designed so that even in the deepest combat, the player role-plays their character with player originated feats of heroism and a plunging into darkness as they wield more power.  The idea of mountains of gold coins is deeply discredited and discouraged.

I am not sure, at all, where this leaves me though.  I know this can not be a cut and dried affair.  I will need to start pulling back on things like maps and the like.  People have said to me when I have discussed this with them that I should just put down an evocative picture somehow related to the scene.  I agree with this a lot.  If the players steer things to combat, then bring out a map; don’t have a map out with tokens and expect them to try and find a diplomatic solution.  In my in person game I have been using flip mats to draw the areas they are in as they traverse it.  I need to pull back and describe, allow the theatre of the mind communicate this to them and then only go for the map if they start a fight, or they just do not get the description.

I want to hear from you about this.  I am fairly well set to do the things that I have mentioned above for the reasons I mentioned above.  But am I right?  Is role playing all about the murder hobos these days.  Should I stick with the hours of prep creating tokens and maps for my virtual tabletops?  Have you faced the same existential issue and decided to go a different path.  Am I the only one that is feeling this way?  Please help me in investigating this issue.  I really think it is one that is well worth investigating.


  1. I love your thoughts.

    My mind has recently returned to my first role playing experiences with Rolemaster second edition. (thanks firstly to your post about untimely deaths of characters and then because a friend (collector of all things) bought Character law et al. on Ebay.

    I am now hopeful of running a game.

    I recall how my experience of roleplaying has changed. We never used miniatures or even maps. A scrap of paper to quickly sketch the layout of a combat an we were off. This forced more description of scene and actions from GM’s a players. As a result the combat scene were more fluid as well. (maps seem to lead to a stand up knock down fight as do attacks of opportunity.) In those combats people climbed/ jumped out windows, ran into crowded markets, fought on rooftops, well you get my drift. There were no hard edges to maps, there was no meta gaming in the vein of “there must be a secret door cause more of that map is yet to be revealed” or ” we have to go back an clear that room we haven’t yet explored.”

    One of the things we did, when we were younger and had time, was go on a hike/bushwalk during the day and then play a game based on that scenery later that evening with the hills,valleys, choke points, ambush sites still fresh in our minds. (I noticed a while ago you posted a picture of some caves you had visited and commented how you you could use these in game.)

    I wonder how “map and mini oriented” players would respond. My collector of all things friend ran a game recently for our pathfinder group. Some around the table really struggled to imagine combat without maps as a reference point. The clamour for a map was overwhelming and one was produced.

    In any event, I would be very keen to come with you on this roleplaying journey if you are prepared to have me along. I may have to convince my collector of all things friend to take one of his holidays in the South…


  2. I too love creating characters and playing in a game where Combat Monkey is not the required 2nd class for all characters, but (and here is the crux of the issue) players have been taught that ‘Murder-Hobo’ is the best and only true way to play most games… We played Top Secret (SI) for years and combat was a portion of the game, but so was investigation and discovery. We played V&V (Villains and Vigilantes) and we had so much fun playing as the superheros and the stories we recall have nothing to do with the fights (like the night my hero was stopped by a police officer whilst drunk, super-strength and handcuffs and a jail cell with force-fields that allow non-living matter to pass…)

    The best way to change this dynamic is to indoctrinate the players, I have stopped role playing on a regular basis as all I can find is ‘Murder-Hobo’ games now and I want to play the Bard or the Malkavian or the Information Gathering hero… and they have no place in these games (try playing a grifter in RIFTS, I dare you).

    So, Make it so!


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