Workshop Notes: Theater of the Mind

Combat is, for many D&D players, the most exciting aspect of the game. It is where the adventurers can test the limits of their curated abilities and become heroes of renown.

Capturing these heroics while sitting around a table can be a challenge. There are several tools available to us– grids and miniatures, tokens and terrain pieces– which can provide a visual aid to paint a picture of the battle scene. While these tools are certainly fun to use, they can sometimes break the narrative flow of combat. Many a session has become bogged down with concerns of movement distance, angles, and cover. The momentum of a moment can be lost quickly and, though the addition of music can help, the immersion is lost.

“Theater of the Mind” is a narrative-based method of combat in which the scene is described by the DM, without the use of visual aids. It is, ideally, a technique that can help prevent a battle from devolving into an exploration of rules and mechanics and keep the players “in the moment”. That being said, it still isn’t without its flaws.

Here are some things I’ve learned from running Theater of the Mind combat!

The Context:

The party was awoken during the night by a piercing scream…an alarm indicating a Gnoll attack. They rushed to meet the attackers, heading them off at the first farm that fell victim to the savagery. The party them found themselves locked in combat with 10 Gnolls, fighting alongside two NPCs from the village.

Set the Scene:


The most important part of running a Theater of the Mind battle is setting the scene. Describe what the players see, how many enemies there are, the actions of NPCs, and the overall feel of the environment. In this scenario, I described the broken and smashed doors of the farmhouse, the nearby granary quickly being enveloped in flames, the sheep panicked and scattering with Gnolls in pursuit. The party came upon the scene with two town guards close behind…and the Gnoll that spotted them let out a laughing howl before diving into battle.

Use Reference Notes:


While you are not using a grid for the battle itself, it is extremely helpful to have a small sketch or reference diagram in your notes to help you remember where the enemies are in relation to the party members. There is already enough to keep track of as the DM, and combat can be a juggling act even without switching to the more narrative style. Since the party is depending on your ability to accurately and consistently describe the events as they take place, you want to make sure you don’t lose track of the odd Gnoll or NPC.

Consider the Environment:


Strangely, I found it easier to picture what is happening in the scene outside of combat when we weren’t tied to a grid. Think about how the actions which are taken impact the buildings, landscape, or NPCs in the area. As I mentioned above, the Gnolls had broken into the farmhouse and chased away the inhabitants. That means that furniture had been destroyed and overturned, windows shattered, people within the center of the town now raising the alarm elsewhere and possibly trying to lend their aid. All of these things create a sense of depth and broader implications for the battle and give the players varied elements of the environment they can interact with.

Keep the Battle Moving:


The biggest change for the players, and simultaneously the most positive one, is the speed at which combat progressed. Without the worry of attack ranges, the players were able to focus their creative energies on the task at hand. For the DM’s part, this means that you narrate the movement of PCs and enemies in such a way that, if it is reasonable, the players can reach an enemy with minimal difficulty. Or, if the distance is greater than reasonable, allow them a dash action in accordance with your best judgment.

The point is not to make combat too easy– the difficulty of the enemies themselves will pose enough of a challenge– but to keep the momentum going.

Feedback from the Players:


For the players, the most appealing aspect of Theater of the Mind was the free-flowing nature of the battle. Since movement and range mechanics were alleviated, they were able to be more creative and responsive with their actions and attacks. They also enjoyed the freedom of describing their movements, from the way they attacked to their interactions with the environment. For example, one player wished to climb through one of the broken windows to sneak behind a Gnoll inside the farmhouse. Since we didn’t have to count squared on a grid, she was able to simply perform the action without the awkward situation of being stuck in the window or running out of movement (#parkour).

The biggest recommendation was the use of a map or visual aid but only at the beginning. While using a fully-narrative approach for the course of the battle itself was heartily preferred, having an idea of the initial starting positions helps to orient the players to the scenario, and this is something that they found lacking. For future battles, I will be sure to incorporate this, even if it is a simple, rough sketch.

Ultimately, the style you choose is dependent upon your party. Some prefer the story elements of combat, while others enjoy the tactile experience of moving pieces across a grid. Still others enjoy a blend of the two– there really is no right or wrong way to play!

What stories do you have to share? Is there a style you (as either a player or DM) prefer? Let us know in the comments below!

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