2 August 2021: Addressing Theater of the Mind

Theater of the mind is a term that originated in radio. Plays and shows relied on dialogue, music, and sound effects to convey what was happening. While some people assert that all tabletop roleplaying should count as theater of the mind, because it all contains some degree of reliance on narrative and description, most agree that it refers to a style of play that does not utilize maps, miniatures, or other visual aids. Everything is expressed and resolved through conversation.

Dancing Lights Press leans into the theater of the mind style of game play, for three reasons.

The Assumption of Combat

First, the need for concrete, tactical visualizations implies that the game places a heavy emphasis on battle. This is a holdover from the hobby’s wargaming roots, i.e. the original intentions of Dungeons & Dragons. You need to know exactly where characters are in order calculate things like range and area of effect. Modifiers are applied based on visibility and cover. If your game is centered around combat encounters, then you absolutely need these things.

The assumption of combat is so prevalent in the hobby that some players and gamemasters have come to equate conflict with fight scenes. They don’t understand how a tabletop roleplaying adventure might work without combat. Other forms of conflict — chases, investigations, puzzles, moral dilemmas, non-violent interpersonal conflicts, most forms of literary theme — don’t fit their idea of what tabletop roleplaying is.

Dancing Lights Press is interested in exploring other ideas. Our systems include the mechanics for fight scenes, but don’t assume that stories will focus primarily on combat. Without that key assumption, there’s no need for maps and miniatures. Using them when combat is only a fraction of the story being told, if it’s part of the story at all, would be jarring and interrupt the flow of the game. It might be more challenging to describe battle solely through conversation, but that’s what creative imagination is for.

Limitations on Genre

Miniatures are only available for a limited range of genres; good luck finding figures for a workplace comedy, a Regency romance, or small-town police procedural. This again creates assumptions about what roleplaying is, and what it can be. The association of miniatures as essential pieces for roleplaying tends to limit possibilities to variations on fantasy, science fiction, horror, and superheroes.

Theater of the mind frees you from those restraints. You can literally play anything you are able to describe. Any character, and villain, any location. Visual aids might be fun, but they tend to impose unintentional restraints on creative imagination.

Holding to a Lo-Fi Aesthetic

The need for additional materials can be a barrier to entry for the hobby. Full-color, hardcover rulebooks are expensive. No one’s saying that you can’t collect beautifully made book, but collecting isn’t playing. Dancing Lights Press is already working on this cost-barrier problem with the upcoming line of affordable, 96-page, A5 (bullet journal-size) hardcovers.

Not everyone can afford miniatures. Even printable paper minis use ink and cardstock. Not everyone is good at painting miniatures, or has the time to do so. That might not be what interests them about tabletop roleplaying. It’s fine if it’s your jam, and you have the means, but painting isn’t playing. Putting an emphasis on miniatures and related tactical considerations may cause potential players more interested in story and character to turn away from the hobby.

No player should have to invest in more than paper, a writing utensil, and dice. As long as the gamemaster owns a core rulebook, the group should be able to play. Everything else should be optional.

Addressing Theater of the Mind

Naturally, not everyone will agree with this perspective. If you like to collect books, have at it. If you love miniatures, no one is telling you to give them up. A preference for combat-centric games doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re free to disagree with my stance; there are already plenty of products on the market for you to choose from.

What Dancing Lights Press is looking at are the people that don’t fit into the traditional mold. We’re looking at people interested in character and story, rather than combat and tactics. We want to serve the casual players, and the people who aren’t ready or able to invest a lot of money into a new hobby. Ultimately, we want to create products for anyone interested in collaborative, creative play. Your imagination doesn’t require heavy graphics, high production value, or tons of accessories.