Battlemaps (and Art, Tokens, and Props) vs. Theater of the Mind

So, in this article I’m talking about another one of those cutthroat, knockdown, dragout topics that we gamers seem to love arguing about our opinions on: Battlemaps vs. Theater of the Mind.  We’re going to look at what the difference is and which you should use. I’m going to start off with the answer to what you should use…  It’s both.

Battlemaps, (along with art, tokens and props – things that I’ve talked about in other blog posts), are all visual cues.  Not just of location (especially important if you’re fond of tactical combat), but also of what’s happening in the moment and the environment that your players’ characters see. This can include everything from hand-drawn maps on graph paper or things like Chessex BattleMats to computer-built and printed maps that come with a module or that you build yourself with software like Campaign Cartographer (using something like the Dungeon Designer add-on).  They could include photographs of rooms representing what your characters might see all the way up to incredibly detailed dioramas of foam or plastic, painted with exacting precision.  I have even seen people get creative with Legos in order to represent such things.

Of course, if you’re playing online, there are other options.  Virtual Tabletops like Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, our new favorite, Foundry, and others come with both pre-built options (both free and paid), as well as the ability to upload and use your own maps created much like those you might print out.  You can even go one step further usually and set up things like Fog of War, obscuring the portions of the map that your players have not visited with their characters or that their characters could not see, even basing it on the light range of a given light source (torch v. spell, etc…).

Such devices can be especially important if you’re running a game with people that space-out (whether because of things like ADD or similar conditions or those who simply have trouble translating the spoken word to a visual in their mind), or people that would have a hard time hearing you, for example at a Con game. Art helps give visual emphasis on what you’re describing.  Tokens and props, especially in an online game, also help remind players between games what’s happening.  I’ve created letters, plus notes of what or where they were. I’ve even generated ‘text’ messages between a player and an NPC that they can go back and ‘reference’ on their phone/commlink/electronic-communication-device-of-choice. 

Personally, I have started playing a game called Battletech.  It is fun but requires a great deal of tactical combat (both as a board game and the MechWarrior RPG) and the maps are essential tools.  When I ran Shadowrun, it tended to also have a heavy emphasis on tactical combat; things like cover, partial cover, etc…  Not because the game required it, but because my players often chose what Anakin Skywalker might have called ‘Aggressive Negotiations’. In those cases you definitely want a battlemap, not just for your players, but for you.  Keeping track of the entire battlefield in your head, along with things that can be destroyed, and all the potential tactical moves a player or NPC could make is extremely difficult and a battlemap makes the recordkeeping more manageable.  Those of you who have been following along with our blog know, both Josh and I are all about making our jobs easier however possible.

Theater of the Mind, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing.  You tell a story and describe what people see. It’s beautiful and gorgeous, at least in your mind. However, I regret to inform you that what you see as your describing and what your players will see as your describing are two different things. Think about when you’re reading a book. I’ll use a Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire scene for an example, especially since it’s been memed about so much. In the book, J.K. Rowling described Dumbledore as approaching Harry Potter calmly about putting his name in the book. In the movie however, he was violent and aggressive towards Harry, racing in and grabbing the kid. Now, think about other books that didn’t match the movies, or you saw one thing and when you talked with someone else they saw another. None of it is bad, it just means that each of you have different imaginations.

This is not a bad thing, particularly in games of suspense or horror.  The more definition you give a thing, the less scary it becomes.  Thus, for games like that, it is often better to describe things less.  This leaves them up to the players’ imaginations and they can almost certainly imagine something much scarier to them (and their character) than you can.  They are, after all, the ones playing it.  Much like allowing players to talk amongst themselves regarding their plans and you determining whether or not to “cheat” based on such conversations, sometimes, you can glean information about things that a particular character might find startling or uncomfortable and use that to create narratively interesting plot twists that force difficult choices on a character.

Now, when I opened up the post I commented about doing both, and I recommend it. Why? Because doing both will allow you to focus on not only telling a good story but giving representation to people who want to see it visually. You can mix or match in the ways that your group feels most comfortable. One of my groups likes for me to give them the description, then open up the map so they can see it. The first lets them immerse themselves in the story, the second lets them focus on how they want to move forward. 

For example, when I was working on my Hope’s Horizon Alpha testing game, the crew came across a derelict ship infested with unknown creatures. I described it, then presented them a map of the ship they had found, with fog of war enabled so they could explore.  The group enjoyed hearing me describe, then enjoyed being able to see what I was describing because it helped them stay focused on what and where they were going.

The more you commit to being willing to use different, appropriate tools for different situations, the more versatile your GMing will be and the more vivid the stories you will be able to tell.  Your players will remember your games more vividly and be more inclined to share stories from them with others.  This, in turn, nets you more potential players and perhaps even more games to play in (more often than not, the better the GM, the better the player).  I hope this post has given you some things to think about to bring your game to another level.  We too still seek to improve our GMing skills (and, quite frankly, our skills as players) because we never want to stop learning and providing our groups with excellent storytelling.  Onward and upward and as always, happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

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