A Quick Word on Theatre of the Mind

I run most of my Dungeons & Dragons games as Theatre of the Mind; that is, I don’t use miniatures.

This does not imply that we end up using a lot of description to enliven the combats. In fact, my groups tend to be brutally efficient about most of them, except for the odd combat where we decide to put more effort into it.

I grew up with the old AD&D rules, and my approach to this form of combat tends to be guided by them. In particular, I follow the following guidelines:

  • Combatants are either in melee or out of melee.
  • Combatants can use their movement to move into melee, or out of melee.
  • If you’re in melee, it’s assumed you’re always moving and you can be adjacent to any monster also in the melee you like.
  • A combatant can only retreat from melee, not forward to attack the opponent’s back ranks. It may be possible to bypass the melee if the terrain permits.
  • Rogues can always find somewhere to hide if there are obstacles in the area.
  • Characters in melee always attack the most damaged opponent in the melee.
  • Ranged characters always attack the most damaged opponent
  • Monsters split attacks evenly between characters, unless it makes sense to concentrate fire. Alternatively, I determine targets randomly.

This system has the advantage of running very quickly, and of giving characters a better chance of surviving. Focusing fire in D&D is extremely effective, and having the monsters act less intelligently improves the survival chances of the PCs significantly. I’ll change this tactic if the monsters are being overwhelmed.

When area effect spells are cast, I make quick adjudications of how many monsters are in the area. I make these values up on what seems reasonable, but the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are a good starting point if you’re running TotM.

Terrain choke points can restrict how many creatures can be in melee at once – and, as such, are very valuable. There’s nothing like surrounding a barbarian with eight kobolds when he’s charged forward into the room!

For those times when distance between groups becomes a big factor (say a combat begins with combatants 100 feet apart), then I just keep a written record of how far creatures are apart. “100 ft.” You move 30 feet You’re now 70 feet away from the monsters.

I do use miniatures on occasion, but this is my standard approach to combat. It’s fast, and efficient.

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4 Responses to A Quick Word on Theatre of the Mind

  1. Peter says:

    Thank you for this quick and efficient explanation of how you run combat TotM. I mostly run with a battlemat and minis, but would like trying out TotM. This gives me a great place to start.

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  3. Bendalf says:

    This is really close to how I run things and I love it for my group. We don’t have the most time in the world to play D&D so our three hour game each week we like to keep the combats moving and epic feeling. Not being limited to a map means I can create anything in the area the fight is taking place. At times I’ll write up “zones” on my blank dry erase board and place minis there but that’s normally the most we use a map currently.

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