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A Gnome's Ponderings

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A look into the Theater of the Mind

Lowell Kempf
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Something that I and some of my gaming friends have been discussing lately is Theater of the Mind.

In this particular case, we mean games where the environment is almost entirely in our heads, imaginary. Theater of the Mind is a more grown up, adult way of saying “Pretend.” After all, no one can really seem butch and manly, even in their own minds, when they say they’re playing Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. But they can pretend that playing Dungeons and Dragons is manly. (Every girlfriend I have ever had and my wife-to-be all assure me, though, it’s not )

Almost every game you can play has some element of imagination in it. Even a game of chess can be imagined as a battlefield where men live and die. Emergent story play is a real and vibrant part of playing board games, video games and role playing games. Heck, Fantasy Flight practically uses emergent story play as their slogan.

However, my friends and I are being more stringent about our definition of Theater of the Mind. For us, it means stripping away as much physical elements as possible from the environment and using imagination as much as possible.

I have two different tables that I play role playing games at, which is more than enough now that I’m not in college And, for the most part, we play Dungeons and Dragons at both groups. Again, back in the day when I was at college, learning new systems was something you didn’t think anything of. However, when time becomes a rare and precious commodity, we all have come to feel that we’d rather spend time playing a game than learning a game.

And, as time has gone on, Dungeons and Dragons has come to have more and more physical elements defining the environment, taking it farther away from our concept of Theater of the Mind. There have always been miniatures and maps in the game. Heck, it evolved from table top miniature war games. However third edition made using miniatures almost mandatory and fourth edition flat out did.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that’s a bad thing. Believe you me, playing with miniatures and a grid has a ton of benefits. I remember the arguments in second edition about where a character was at a given time. “The thief is opening up the treasure chest? I’m right there, Bob. I’m looking over his shoulder.” “The chest explodes. Take 113 points of damage. Make a save to see if the splinters impale your body against the wall.” “Not me, Bob. I was on the other side of the room.”

In addition to those fun filled arguments, miniatures and maps added a definite level of tactics of the game. And that was tons of fun.

Recently, one of the my tables has been running some second edition with no map or miniatures. And we all agreed that having all the action happen in our heads definitely felt different. It brought back memories of the old days, sure. But it also made us realize that when you strip away the physical elements, it becomes a more immersive, more whimsical experience.

Not better or worse. Just different.

One thing I did realize was that playing in the Theater of the Mind does require more trust on the part of everyone involved. Like the example I used above, when everything is in people’s heads, people can argue whether or not they were at the door when the orc scimitar squad came roaring in.

While pure Theater of the Mind is not the easiest thing to come by (and, let’s be honest, the dice and character stats make even second edition D&D a couple steps away from this platonic ideal), there are some board games that play in that theater.

Once Upon a Time, the game of coming up with your own fairy tale, is a good example of this. The cards just give elements that you need to work with. Apart from that, everything that happens is just in your own head. I will admit that the competitive nature of the game design does occasionally seem at odds with the idea of corporative story telling. Once Upon a Time is a game that you can technically win but its real virtue, at least for me, comes from working with the other players to tell a coherent story.

Another game that I have recently come across that truly caters to the Theater of the Mind is Rory’s Story Cubes. To be honest, this set of nine dice with different images on each face really skirts the line of being a game and being a story-telling tool. That said, they are about as pure a Theater of the Mind game that I have found, including almost every RPG out there.

Theater of the Mind is a delicate place to play. It doesn’t take much for spoilers to tear it apart. However, with a group of people who want to actively hold up its walls, it can be a lot of fun.
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Subscribe sub options Fri Feb 24, 2012 5:49 pm
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