Monday, January 20, 2014

Grid or Theatre of the Mind - Does it Effect Spell Interpretation?

After reading the responses to yesterday's post, How Strict are you with "Fireball Volume?" it got me thinking - are these responses based in part on two extremes of style? We have those that run their games with a grid, with minis or not, where facing, distance and counting out squares is part of the gaming experience and we have those that run their games as Theatre of the Mind, where little is mapped out to exacting specifications and much is left to DM interpretation and fiat. Needless to say, most gamers fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

Myself, i fall on the far end of Theater of the Mind. I use maps that are revealed on screen using Fog of War (Roll20 is our VTT of choice these days) but we don't use tokens, we don't stress exact placement and my players put a lot of faith in me to run things fair and square (I do believe that successful Theatre of the Mind style play requires player trust). If one of my players were to put himself and their party in the way of a "fireball blowback" I'd be sure to give them a hint of such a possibility as they announced their intentions.

I'd expect that "use of a grid" leads to a more precise spell interpretations than the "Theatre of the Mind" style of gaming, but I could be wrong.

I'm not saying one style is more correct than the other, as the rules support both extremes out of the box, at least until late in 3x.

So, thoughts, comments, questions?


  1. We use both methods here. Intense melee encounters generally get the grid, so there can't be any "misunderstandings" when things like Fireball blowback happen. The rest of the time is more theatrical, such as exploration, minor combats, tricks and traps, etc. It seems to work pretty good.

    1. As far as spell interpretations... the players here are pretty good about eyeballing whether a spell will fit in a particular area. When we go to the battle map we have a more definite reference. When I am DMing I let a lot go, even then, unless it's "chaotic stupid." Our other DM pulls out those transparent "area of effect" sheets and overlays 'em on the battle map. He is a little more particular than I am on the fiddly bits.

  2. I don't use minis. Too fiddly for my group. Theater of the mind is the way I usually go, except during combat. Then I scratch out a room and show the placement of PCs and foes. My players usually ask me about distance, blowback, and such, and I'll warn them about potential hazards if they don't, but it's usually pretty obvious the wizard doesn't want to throw a fireball at the guy the fighters are in melee with, according to my chicken scratch map. I use Theater of the Mind for practically everything else although i might show a few google images of landscapes or cave features to help them visualize the countryside or type of dungeon they're traversing.

  3. The same: Theater of the Mind for "standard" game play, grid map for combat.

    I like knowing the placement of my Players so that they -- and their companions -- can "feel" the consequences of "blow back" and other choices they make; Color Spray, Sleep, etc.

    I never tell them that they're about to "blast" their friends as well as their enemies. Even with all the modern communication equipment we have -- such as GPS -- people still die from "friendly fire."

    Happens in the Game too. ;)

  4. I prefer ToM but I've definitely been in encounters (one at NTRPG Con in Mythrus Tower a few years back comes to mind) where I was grateful to have the grid and minis. It changed the tone of the tactical game dramatically.

    Despite that, though, I've never gone out and acquired minis and I don't play with them if I don't have to.

  5. Its been so long since I've done combat without minis and maps I can't remember how we did spells...

    1. I recall that we specified the distance to the point of origin (unless one was built in, like Burning Hands) and fired away. We would try to make sure it fit, and the DM would let us know if we messed up. Typical "oh shits" were Walls of Force between us and the target, or targets that were illusions, or even reflections in a mirror in the corner of a monster down a side passage or other part of the room. The same stuff that happens today...

  6. Theater of the Mind predominantly. We do put minis out for the characters, there are sometimes when it's advantageous to demonstrate relative positioning. We used to use cheese balls for the monsters, then you could eat your kill.

  7. I play with minis. But it occurs to me that most rule sets don't really support ToM that well. If they did, they would phrase things like "The fireball hits 4 figures in a loose formation or 12 figures in a close formation."

  8. Like most long time gamers, I've been on both sides of the fence. But my heart lies cleanly on the Theatre of the Mind side.

    Most of the gaming in my youth was done on a piece of heavy plastic that we used over taped together grid paper. We'd draw on it w/ grease pencils. It was quick (w/out the loss of time for "set up") and concise enough that it obviated most arguments regarding placement.

    Most of my recent gaming though has been done using maps and minis. Pathfinder is our regular game and it's well positioned to use those tools.

    But saying that, every time I run a game it's theatre of the mind all the way. We very rarely use minis. And the only map is the one the player's keep. (Or something hastily sketched on the back of a piece of scrap paper.)

  9. Since most of our games are virtual we have been using a map and tokens. When I GM I tend to favor ToM, but if the players ask for the visual I'll map it out.

  10. I've been playing in two AD&D e campaigns recently, one of each type (ToM and grid/mini). Here's my assessment:

    1. Grids & minis slow down play considerably and lead to a lot of dithering among players about exactly where to move and what to do (e.g. where to drop spells, how to create bottlenecks using placement on the map); ToM resolves much faster, even if the players get fancy with their tactics

    2. Tactical choices in grids/mini play most often involve questions of positioning/reach; in ToM, tactics often involve deception/misdirection (ambushes/surprise) and creative ability/spell use.

    3. Players try to use the environment in both types of play, but with grids/minis that manifests itself as fiddling with lines-of-sight and using environmental obstacles to funnel enemies; ToM players use the environment in ways that don't rely on exact positioning (basic terrain advantages, high-ground, raw distance). ToM players are also more likely to fight on the move (or relocate to a more advantageous area) since they don't feel locked into the area covered by the current grid

    4. Calculating spell measurements (like with fireball) becomes the sole responsibility of the DM in ToM play since the players cannot see an authoritative map; this puts a lot more pressure on the DM to both accurately describe the location's dimensions beforehand and apply the spell correctly afterwards. This makes me think that it works best with an experienced DM. With grid/mini play, the player can see the dimensions and plot out the area of effect; of course, the player has an unrealistic birds-eye-view of the battlefield in this case and there's that problem with dithering in a quest to maximize benefit mentioned above.

    I enjoy both types of play, although the speed of play issue makes me lean slightly toward ToM. All the other advantages/disadvantages seem to cancel each other out (although I can't really say if that holds true outside of 1e/2e).


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