Wednesday, 23 July 2014

D&D's Theatre of the Mind (Part 1)

With its release in 2000, 3E rejuvenated a depressed D&D scene with a spectacular and modern set of rules that brought table-top roleplaying into a new golden age.

One of the many ways that 3E differentiated itself from its predecessors was the inclusion of a satisfying tactical combat mini-game which brought war-gaming sensibilities to a past-time which hadn't seen the like in twenty-five years. These new rules eased D&D away from the abstract combats of AD&D and towards more battle-mat-focused miniatures play.

You could certainly play the new edition without miniatures, but you only had to look as far as the illustrations in the Combat chapter to see that Wizards of the Coast would much rather you bought-in to their imminent -- and frankly rather good -- D&D miniatures line.

Heroes vs. the undead in my 4E campaign


I had not problem with that, and to be fair, it's not like we hadn't used the occasional metal miniature, token, or scrawled tactical map for AD&D. It certainly wasn't the norm though (ironic given D&D's origins), and most combats took place in a shared imagination constructed on the  DM's narration and the inevitable, subsequent interrogation of him by the players ("Can I..?" and "How far..?" being the queries most-often heard.). We now call this style of play "Theatre of the Mind" (TotM).

Having played a lot of Warhammer and similar games at university, I actually really enjoyed the transition to battle-mats and miniatures. Overnight, I could flex an additional set of gaming muscles. As a DM, the new rules swept away much of the doubt and argument that came as part of combat in a shared imaginative arena, and by laying everything out in front of the players, in theory encouraged strategic and forward-thinking team-play. Plus, the collector in me just loved the minis and tiles. Fair to say, I was right in 3E's catchment area.

Fourth Edition took battle-mat play and ran with it, creating an encounter-focused game where distances were now measured in squares and combat was so rife with stacking buffs, forced and tactical movement, terrain effects, and the like, that the grid was now all-but mandatory. TotM, it seemed, had been deemed a relic of old-school D&D and worthy of sacrifice (once the swords were drawn at least).

This caused a lot of the usual consternation in the roleplaying community and sparked a pointless gamer civil war that raged across countless forums and still smolders to this day. It never bothered me though. I loved the tactical game too much for that. And to be fair, if you fully embraced 4E's gamist philosophies (which was in fact the only way to play, in my opinion), the battle-mat often became the stage for glorious strategic teamwork and epic confrontations. We had some amazing sessions at the table. What Fourth Edition did well, it did very well indeed.

Over time, though, I did grow tired of the excessive battle-mat time required by the game (as I've written about before). Entire afternoons could be lost on one combat. Sometimes this was good, because the combats were good, but sometimes this was bad, because the combats were interstitial and uninteresting, and my DM spidey-senses would prickle as I picked up rising waves of boredom from the more roleplaying-focused members of the team.

Eventually I formulated a set of morale rules which would have allowed the players to focus on beating down their opponents as a whole, rather than as individuals, affording me the freedom to design quick "speed-bump" encounters which wouldn't hang the game up for hours on end. To my surprise, the group resisted these changes. It turned out they were having a perfectly good time, thank you very much, and loved the many options presented by 4E combat encounters. My wonderful morale sub-system sits, to this day, in the old campaign wiki, unwanted and unused.

Now along comes Fifth Edition, and Theatre of the Mind is back.

Not only that, but it's the default play-style, with the grid-based tactical mini-game relegated to an optional module due for release later in the life-cycle of the game. Basic D&D still has distances measured in feet, and it still has the forced movement rules that 4E introduced, but the battle-mat has been rolled up and put on the shelf. 5E is very much a game you can play solely in your head, a design which presents the alluring prospect of using the Basic rules for simple, speed-bump encounters, and the optional tactical combat module only when the stakes are higher -- for the big bad, say. Whether the two systems can side-by-side without favouring either method, we'll have to wait and see. The designers will truly have earned their pay-check if so.

5E also arrives at a time when my school-buddy D&D group has been experimenting with AD&D during our irregular meet-ups, with grid-less combat and strict adherence to AD&D initiative and combat rules a fixture of the game.

It's been a really interesting experience, with the good outweighing the bad, I'd say. What you lose in meticulous tactical planning and the ever-thickening fog of uncertainty the more actors there are in the play, you gain in lightning fast combats (low Hit Points, high move rates, and deadly spell-effects also factoring in there of course) and, by declaring actions in advance of initiative, you also gain by not feeling obliged, as a player, to re-calculate your options every turn. You're already committed to a course of action. 5E doesn't go to those extremes, but some of these advantages will certainly play their part in the how the modern game plays at the table.

In Part 2 of this article, I'll offer some advice on how to run Theatre of the Mind combats with maximum impact and minimum uncertainty, confusion, and doubt between the players and the DM.

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