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"Theater of the mind" and battlemaps etc

Hi all

So, with Court of Swords we are seeing D&D, as presented by Rollplay, move towards a general use of battlemaps (graphical grid maps) for combat scenes. While such maps aid particularly the use of the mechanics of D&D, or for that matter most tabletop rpgs, they can, in my personal experience, deprive the players and the audience of experiencing the combat scenes in the “theater of their own minds”.

Now, this topic is widely discussed (do a quick google search), and also falls greatly in line with the criticism towards the “Initiative” mechanic of D&D, which also tends to break immersion. In my personal opinion, very graphical battlemaps only further undermines immersion. Simple drawings done in roll20 on grid maps or purely “in the mind theater” as were custom in the early days of Rollplay D&D, again in my experience, tended to have less of a negative effect on immersion.

While the awesome roleplaying of Max, Dan, JP, and Adam are contributing to the immersion beyond comparison, even during combat scenes where graphical battle maps are utilized, I do suggest that perhaps something have been lost since the Original Rollplay, Solum, the many one-shots, and the West Marches.

To reiterate, I’m am purely speaking of immersion in battle scenes, and how very graphical battlemaps can undermine the aspect of the “theater of the mind”, which I deem the core essence of any tabletop rpg.


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There’s pros and cons for both methods, particularly in a heavily mechanical and particular game like D&D. You’ve laid out some of the disadvantages of pre-gen map art, so I’ll just mention some positives.

Time. In-game, having particular maps prepared instead of waiting to draw them out off-the-cuff is great for the time constraints of a 4-hour show window. Yes, it is possible for the GM to hand-draw these maps beforehand, but that’s another expenditure of time on the GM’s part off-screen that they might not have. It makes their job a lot easier to have some ready-made art tools and object stuff for general encounters.

Unified mechanical “vision”. With the art objects on-screen, it’s a lot easier for everyone in-game to get on the same page with what’s going on in the encounter. No more wonky issues with range and uneven walls/doorways. No more confusion about what those generically drawn lines and boxes and squiggles actually represent. No more fiddly calculations trying to figure out how much difficult terrain you have to crawl through. Etc. The fight where they tried sneaking up on that wagon to get the shackle/bracer thing comes to mind.

And, although I do tend to favor theater-of-mind in this respect, shared creative vision without descriptive miscommunication assists in setting the scene. One thing I remember happening a lot on West Marches was that the players kept envisioning a forest everywhere they went, just cause it was a fantasy adventure setting. So there was a lot of talk about trees and such that weren’t there, and Steven would have to clarify. A fairly minor inconvenience, but prominent enough for this point I feel.

Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that it depends on the game. D&D benefits from having a lot of map details laid out for you (often painstakingly-so, especially for those playing on real tables with minis). A game like Dungeon World is more often better suited for that free-flowing interpretation of space. *But, you know, whatever works for your group.

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Personally it helps my immersion to see the actual environment, the actual size of areas and objects in correlation to the characters, how bigger the token gets when shapeshifting and how it effects the general area around the character, etc…

I don´t really comprehend that you feel some sporadically drawn lines on a white backdrop would create a better immersion for you (as Steven did in WM)…I haven´t seen much of Solum or Originals but from what I can recall seeing there were also maps used by Koibu… One thing for certain I know was used was a “world map” so the characters could see the terrain and where cities were, how long the distances were between cities and their own general location, something like that would actually be really cool for CoS now that I think about it, something that the Gnome could introduce to the game perhaps?

If you want to really create a theater of the mind you shouldn´t watch anything really, just close your eyes and picture everything…

I approve of the grid maps and it makes me see much more of the world, if I wanted a complete immersion I would close my eyes, there´s no middleground for me. I think the only better visual would be first person VR, thinking like minecraft at E3 with the glasses, Adam being the GM and moving the monsters around, storytelling and we as the audience are virtually in the room, I don´t know if that stuff is released yet but minecraft DnD mightve been a thing if it was cheap.

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You also have to take into account that we don’t think or imagine things alike. For example contrary to the person above ^ , having detailed drawn maps in front of my face when I play online often prevent me from picturing a scene in detail, instead making me think of a room with only the stuff that’s on the map (or a blank boring room if there’s nothing on the map).
That’s a problem when I DM because drawn maps often makes me forget to describe a new environment!

That would be fine if you were alone playing, but the main downfall of “theater of the mind” play is that as everybody thinks differently, confusion can arise about the situation presented by the GM. The D&D manual says that you can play it that way, but the truth is the mechanics are designed to be used on a grid, sadly.

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I agree Peluche_. And to the Samstein and VyRe40: All I’m saying is that, I’ve watched all of the Original Rollplay, Solum, Swan Song, Balance of Power, West Marches, and a bunch of one-shots, and in none of these shows have detailed battle/gridmaps really been used. Sure, it was attempted in the Original Rollplay and in Solum, but never became a thing.

So what I am addressing, and is putting up for debate, is that: The use of detailed battle/gridmaps is a new thing to the Rollplay experience; how are the players and the GM (would love to hear from you) experiencing it, and how are the audience experiencing it?

Again, in my view the often slightly cartoonish detailed battlemaps does simply not fit into the world I have created in my mind between combat scenes. And I would also argue, that the players and the GM are focusing much more on determining accurate distances to their opponents, types of cover, etc. than on describing narratively how their character is acting, and why. Asking the GM: “Can I reach him?”, and if yes, announcing: “Then, I will charge up the field, and swing my longsword at him.” is a much better narrative, than: “I see that he is within 30ft. of me, so I move my entire movement up to him and attack him with my longsword.”

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I really like the use of the new maps. It helps me understand what is mechanically happening during the game. It also seems to speed up the combat, making it feel more hectic and deadly. rather than having to stop and ask the question “Can I reach him?”

If you consider that roll playing games are about telling a story together or having a conversation, maps can help make sure everyone is on the same page without explicitly saying things. I hate conversations like this: “There is a bush ahead of you, you can’t see him.” “Well I move to the side of the bush.” “You run into the wall I mentioned earlier.”


In the past I’ve always liked when they did use maps for the areas. As someone watching a show it helps immensely that Adam is using them almost always. Like Dragy said, the whole thing with watching the players not actually know what’s going on in the environment and having to ask the DM constantly about what is around them was always a frustration all the way back to the Solum days.

The only thing I’d say bad about the battlemaps is they’re based on stock Western fantasy it seems. But that’s extremely minor.

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I personally prefer the new maps but I don’t mind some hand drawn maps when a situation arises where a precreated map does not fit in. But seeing the houses layout etc. in the new maps really helps me visualise it better.

It’s a top down map so there is still room for imagination, with a clear foundation/setting all can agree upon to minimize misunderstandings so the flow of the combat is better.

Another plus side is the mechanical aspect of seeing JP using the liner all the time and seeing how many feet there are between everything so we can try to figure out how we would play the next round.

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As many people have already said, having a detailed battlemap creates an equal and objective playing field that everyone can perceive the same way. That means that everyone can make informed decisions based on what’s in play, which is specially important in certain games such as D&D.

To all that, we have to add that Court of Swords is a very mechanically focused show, with a big emphasis on lethality and character death. When the stakes are high, it can be very frustrating to not be able to make these informed decisions you need to make in order to survive, so I think it makes absolute sense to use battlemaps in a show like this.

In other shows, such as Balance of Power, Blades, or the Dogs in the Vineyard one-shot, combat is handled in a more loose and flexible way, which make details of the enviroment less of a focus, and not as important to equalize among the players/GM.

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Heck, even movement is mechanical in Court of Swords. Wasn’t it episode 14 where Adam is telling people “These green squares mean you only get this much distance because there’s shrubbery in the way”? Not to mention since episode 1, it’s always been “Yeah, the guy’s 30 feet in front of you, but there are pillars in the way that mean you’ll have to spend two turns walking sixty feet to get to him.”

So while some people might find the maps disturbing to their visual space, it’s kind of an SOL situation because the players need it. They need to know what they can and cannot do within the mechanics and a blank page with with icons and a rangeboard is not going to do that.

But fear not, there is a ridiculously easy solution. Tab it and move to a different tab. The show works great on audio and no one is forcing you to look at the map. Or if that’s too much to do, then close your eyes. You know, “imagine”.

Sure, but it’s just a bunch of rings. It’s an abstraction, not a representation of what is actually there, as the CoS battlemaps are.

I listen to the mp3’s because the streams are never usually at a good time for Australian time zones, so the way i’m listening to and enjoying the combat scenes in CoS is all theatre of the mind