Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Theater of the Mind" or "Playing Blindfolded is Fun"

Okay, so part of the old school renaissance (OSR) phenomena is a backlash against using the dreaded battlemat.  This is partly due to the antipathy which OSR types have for D&D 4th Edition, which in their minds is clearly the spawn of the devil, which requires a map with a square grid for combat.  The opposite of being tied to using a gridded map for combat (or other action situations) is, of course, using no map whatsoever but rather only the imaginations of the participants--the "Theater of the Mind".  Now there is also a bit of a middle ground in which one uses a minimalist approach to the map: a simple sketch map, some tokens on a plain tabletop, using a few dice to represent things, etc.

Now, I got my start as a gamer in board wargaming.  Board wargaming, as its name implies, uses a game board with a map on it and, typically, a grid of hexagons.  Later I dabbled in miniatures gaming which used a tabletop or space on the floor with a terrain represented but no grid.  So when I got into roleplay gaming (lo, these many years ago) I was quite comfortable with using a grid and also with operating on an open tabletop.  But battlemats hadn't been invented yet and the closest thing available were blank paper wargaming maps for the do-it-yourself game designers.  The problem with those was that they only came with rather small hexes or squares which were too small to properly hold a gaming miniature.  Back then a "25mm" miniature was the size of a "20mm" miniature today, although a few makers of historical miniatures had "30mm" lines which were close to today's 28mm figures.

So at the gaming table I fell back on just doing simple sketch maps on the fly with pencil and paper.  Several time a session I would say "Okay, quick sketch!" and draw out a very basic representation of the scene.  This worked well enough, although with a big table it was often difficult for everyone to see the small sketch well.  Later, when some marvelous person invented the erasable battle mat, I bought one immediately--and I still have it.

As a very visually-oriented person I find it absolutely essential, both as a player and as a GM, to have a clear visual representation of what's going on in an action scene.  It doesn't have to be fancy--I'm still fine with "Okay, quick sketch!"--but I need to be able to see what's going on.  Now I have a friend (Hey, Kaiser!) who steadfastly refuses to give us any visual representation whatsoever of action scenes.  It's totally theater of the mind--and it drives me crazy.  It's like playing blindfolded.  And here's a great example from the blog (which I recommend):

GM: The orcs sprint forward, cutting off the wizard from the rest of the party. One lunges in, stabbing Thomas in the shoulder for eight damage.

Thomas' player: Hey, I said last turn that I was backing out of range!

GM: Oh, well, you miscalculated the distance.

Thomas' player: Um, OK. It's my turn then, and I'm going to catch all the orcs in a fireball.

GM: Alright, but you can't get them all.

Thomas' player: You just said all the orcs cut me off from the rest of the party.

GM: Yeah, but they're not grouped together like that

Thomas' player: *sigh* OK.

My games will always have some visual representation for action scenes.

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