"Old School" vs visual aids

Gamer Life General Discussion

There are a couple of threads going on right now about how to run an "old school" type of campaign. One of those made me think about how using extensive terrain elements might impact the enjoyment of the game.

While there are many things being discussed that are being identified as elements of "old school" gaming, things like lethality, scope of rules, use of battle grid, etc. one of the things that gets mentioned is sometimes referred to as "theater of the mind" which is the concept that in the old days games were much more descriptive and required more imagination by the player who was reconstructing in their own head what the GM was telling him.

This got me to thinking about differing, and perhaps mutually exclusive, aspects of the game that I find enjoyable.

First of all, I am very much a fan of "theater of the mind." I love the idea of the GM and players collaborating on a joint story that may be led by the GM, but is "owned" by everyone in the group who contributes to it.

But I also enjoy the tactile, craft-oriented aspects of gaming. Making and/or painting miniatures, for example. Or more and more lately, making and using terrain.

Last night, for example, I spent probably two hours assembling and painting a "Dwarven guard room" which is where my players will start their next encounter. The guard room is made from Hirst Arts blocks cast out of Hydrostone and painted with acrylic paints. I don't want to post a photo of it yet because I want the first view of it to be when I plop it down in front of my players.

The room will have two doors, one at a higher level since the guard room is at the lower level of a dwarven city, and is the gateway into the Underdark where the dwarves sometimes trade with the races who live there. There will be a desk, a table, some chairs, some shelves, some items on the tables and desk, a weapon cache and a cabinet for storage of armor. All will be painted and put on display so that I can say "OK, your characters are in this room."

From there they will (presumably, unless they revolt) head out the door into a dwarven made tunnel which will lead eventually to a secret door into a larger tunnel where the Underdark begins. That tunnel is also made out of Hirst blocks, assembled and painted, and the larger tunnel is the beginning of a fairly typical "dungeon crawl" section where there will be multiple passageways and rooms to explore, all done in the same fieldstone blocks.

Now, my players have repeatedly expressed great satisfaction and appreciation for my terrain elements, which have included a palace, wizard's tower, troll's cabin, several outdoor elements and an underground cave/cavern so far. And I enjoy making and using them.

But does using such things detract from the "theater of the mind" experience? Does it make the game less "literate" and more "mechanical"?

I dunno. What do you think?

Shadow Lodge

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I'm super old school. I use minis.

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When I am a player I can very easily become confused with descriptions. Having at least an abstract description mapped out on the table helps me be less confused.

I don't need a tactical system or map, but if I have abilities that rely on range and positioning, it's very difficult for me personally to the use the map in your brain that you're describing, without having a similar map in my brain to reference.

Silver Crusade Owner - Tijuana Geek

You are doing a great job as far as i can see. Keep it up!

As Irontruth says its of great help to the players to don't get confuse so easy and get a better understanding of were they are standing and what can they do.


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I started with 1st edition using a sheet of graph paper to map and some dice. When we tried minis, all there were back then were the lead figs that you had to paint and had to spend long hours and big bucks to get enough to use for battles that we still mainly kept with just verbal descriptions. It was a lot of fun and we rarely worried about fireballs hitting our own party or lightning bolts bouncing back. Some of the handouts in the early days helped a lot though, like the ones in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. When I went to PC gaming, the Infocom IF games with no graphics always seemed more enjoyable that the other games that had pictures - but then the Infocom games were some of the best there were.

I would say now though, after playing the old goldbox games like Pool of Radiance and countless other computer games, and with things like the virtual tabletops and Neverwinter to help, that I've grown spoiled with seeing what's going on and it would be hard to play without visual aids. Sad in a way, as I can still remember some of the early dungeons and battles I played and pictured in my head, better than I can remember the ones with graphics, minis or aids.

At least a third of my gaming experience is with palladium while the rest is 2nd edition. We never used the battlemat for any of it, so theater of the mind is definitely my forte. We discovered that most of the folks at my new table are 3.0/3.5 only and having been exclusively on the battlemat heavy 3.0/3.5/pathfinder battlemat mechanics made my mapless style of gaming a tough transition for them, while the opposite was true for me.

I find a palpable transition with the folks at our table dropping theater of the mind as soon as the mini hits the mat, and suddenly its a game of battlechess with funky rules... It helps make the theater of combat more definitive, but in my personal opinion the advantages of that don't outweigh the disadvantages.

Sadly pathfinder combat is largely built on battlemat mechanics so getting away from the mat in pathfinder games is tough at our table. I prefer systems where the mat isnt necessary.

tennengar wrote:
Sadly pathfinder combat is largely built on battlemat mechanics so getting away from the mat in pathfinder games is tough at our table. I prefer systems where the mat isnt necessary.

Yeah, I prefer it when the map isn't required, but rather a useful visual aid.

I'm a fan of the method that games like FATE or 13th Age use. You can scratch out a quick map, but you don't count movement down to the square, hex, meter or foot. Distances are counted in abstract terms, like by zones or just counting how many rounds they are away.

Lots of old-schoolers used (and still use) minis. Using minis and terrain doesn't have to detract from the "theater of the mind" aspect (although, for some people, it can).

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Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Visual representations only detract from the theater of the mind as much as you allow it. And if you ask me, NOT using the visual aids can be just as descriptive. Anyone who says its 'old school' not to use minis and maps is Old School and that only newly minted gamers use minis is full of crap. The game has its roots in wargamming and miniatures are very much a part of it. I used minis and hand drawn maps with ADnD just like I did in 3rd Edition. 3E made more use of them, but they have always been there. I remember using the old model train layout my uncle had made for me to run a woodland/town adventure once when i was in junior high playing ADnD. Actually worked really well.

The key to keeping the theater of the mind with visual representations is to keep them as that, a representation and not the feature of an encounter. Dont let players count out squares or spend time lining up spells. Ask them to describe their actions, then relay it on the battle matt (I charge the Ogre and hit him with my axe *rolls dice*) as opposed to (*reaches down and starts moving mini then rolls dice* does an 18 hit?)

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 8

D&D was based on Chainmail, AD... :)

No one play style is right or wrong. I've played in both. Do what a) is most fun for you and b) what works best for the group. Sounds like you're having fun with minis.

I am a visual/kinesthetic learner, and I have ADD. I really struggle in "theater of the mind" games to keep track of what the hell is going on. And I've played a LOT of those... a lot of my friends I gamed with in the 90s in particular preferred this way of playing, so I've had plenty of practice to try. But at some point, no matter how hard I try to listen, no matter how hard I try to keep things straight, no matter how many notes I take (and I have to take a lot more in that kind of game) at some point I will have to ask the GM to repeat something or explain something so I can understand what is happening. In combat in a "theater of the mind" game I will often draw simple map of the battle on my notepaper so I can keep track of what is going on more easily.

Minis and battlemaps make it much much easier for me to focus on the game and what is happening, and I have to ask the GM a lot fewer questions. It also means that whatever energy I was spending on just trying to keep up with what was happening I can now spend toward more roleplaying and interaction.

By way of example, I am in two Pathfinder games right now. One is with a GM who prefers "theater of the mind" style--while occasionally we will set up a battle map to play if things are complicated, we usually don't. The second with a GM who is opposite--he uses loads of miniatures, maps, and dungeon tiles, as well as other visual aids like the Game Mastery NPC cards and item cards. Both GMs are very good storytellers and rules arbitrators; I'd say they each have their strengths and weaknesses but are roughly equally talented at GMing. I pay much better attention and participate more actively in the second game (the one that uses aids) than the first. Even when we are not in combat or using the minis and aids, I feel like the set up of the minis on the board and the GM's use of handouts and cards during narrative play help me remind me what I am supposed to be doing and help keep the ADD from kicking in and keep from from staring off into space. (The classic use distracting items to keep one focused trick.) In the first game I have my moments, but I generally feel much less engaged and often have to ask the GM lots of dumb questions, especially mid combat (I'm playing a spellcaster so I need to understand the area well so I can cast spells in the right place, etc.). I feel like I zone out a lot more often too. Am I playing effectively and participating? Sure. But not as well as in game #2. While I think too many visuals (a fully crafted battle board) could be distracting, I find I picture what is going on and my character's involvement much better too---it does incite my imagination, not dampen it. So there really is a difference for me.

THAT said, the thing about visual aids is that of course they may require at least an investment of time--to create--if not an investment of money (purchasing minis, paints, tools, etc.). It's a good source of revenue for the hobby industry if managed well, but not necessarily good for our wallets. If you don't adapt well to needing battlemaps or aren't good at prepping ahead of time, you may slow game time down if you have to pause the game to set up a battle. It is important that if you do use game aids that you think about how it is going to affect players and gameplay time--just as much as if you don't.

But in the end, it's down to you and your players.

Your work on your battle terrain sounds like a lot of fun, btw. :)

We've always used minis and most often a white board with a square grid on it, since way back in AD&D 1e - it's not new school to use minis. While on one hand, I'm a pro cartographer, so I often create detailed artistic maps for the publications I am involved with, in my home games, we only rely on a white board and GM's description on what is presented before the PC party.

For many games we talk out what's going on for much of it, instead of relying on a map board, though for treacherous terrain and encounters we need the map and minis.

Everyone still requires an imagination to get the most out of a given encounter or situation. The mind theater is not reduced for what little visual aids we use to aid combat scenarios.

I'm a old school-ish DM, and play games with and without visual aids. Both can be done beautifully but its a totally different mindset, and two very different styles of DMing.

In my experience, the "you are fighting in a 60'x20' room with four columns 10' apart" description without a map doesn't work for me. Either a draw it out in sight of players, or I don't mention dimensions other than "large enough" or "too small". Typically, my games without visual aids are much less combat oriented.

My "issue" with grid-maps is that unless you're dealing with serious landscaping, players have eyes only for the grid and tend to think very two-dimensionally. Unless you actually carve a gully out of styrofoam, rare are the players who will use the gully as cover, even if you drew it down. Play outside by the campfire and tell your players "the encounter takes place in a clearing exactly like this one" and suddenly players are looking around, stating to use this tree as cover, one rolls down between these large roots, one climbs to this easily accessible branch, this one runs over there just out of the fire's light... None simply stays in the open like they do when their minis are on the grid.

When I play without a grid, my players naturally ask about such "vintage spots". When I use a grid-map, the same players simply count squares...

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In earlier edditions of D&D, melee combat was more abstract. Positioning relative to the other person didn't grant mechanical bennefits, like flanking bonuses. You could get away with more abstract relations to eachother, and the terrain became something you could more easily utalize.

I feel 3rd ed changed a lot of this by moving to a more concrete system. I think a lot of it has to do with more solid codification of what you can do in battle. This is also one of the gripes many people I know have with 4th ed, where it codified things even more and the emergent gameplay made it harder for them to get into the world. For instance, doing something creative with terrain is almost always less effetive than attacking with your basic weapon or using one of your abilities, despite the fact that it can easily make the game more fun.

Overall, I think a lot of what you are seeing is how the mechanics influence perceptions of the game and how it should be played. When I play other, less codified games, I find the players are more willing to deal with abstracts and interact with their surroundings. I haven't found it to be age-specific or related to how long the person has been playing, but different players definetely have different preferences. You should pick a mechanic set that works well with the style of play you want.

I will often give the players an incomplete map. I am terrible at describing room dimensions without totally breaking the flow of an otherwise exciting story.

My preference is for each player to have a miniature for his or her PC. These mark "this is the room I am in" without worrying about actual map squares.

Every now and then I might ask, "Which doorway are you nearest?" or something else of tactical importance that a player could answer with his or her mini.

Grand Lodge

As I have said many time on these boards, I run an older edition of D&D, and I rely heavily upon "theater of the mind"... So even with a map on the table, combats are "gridless" (I encourage at least one of the players to "map" during the session so the players have some form of visual map). I use lots of descriptions with lots of details which helps the players a lot when they search for secret doors (my players prefer to tell me where and how they search for secret doors rather than rely on the 1 in 6 chance of finding them randomly)...

I like to make my own handouts whenever possible, even if the adventure I am running has handouts that can be used. For example, I am running the original Ravenloft module, and it has handouts that can be printed out (I have the module on PDF), but I typed the handouts myself, using a cool font, and printed them on real parchment. Another handout I made for an adventure of my own design, was a "pirate's map" drawn with charcoal on a piece of white canvas. I "aged" the map by soaking it in a mixture of coffee and tea.

I usually did much of the same things back when I ran 3rd edition...

Liberty's Edge

TOZ wrote:
I'm super old school. I use minis.

With rulers and string or are you a grid-using whipper-snapper?

I'm not nearly as old-school as some, but I did get my start in 2nd edition.

Honestly haven't done a lot of theatre of the mind stuff. Especially since 3rd ed. came out. And I recall in those days improvising miniatures with dice. (D20s are PCs, the D12 is the boss, and the D4s are the goblins.) Or whatever we could scrounge up. (The green army man and the monopoly terrier flank the chess bishop, while the checker pieces swarm the jolly rancher.) That sure took imagination. *G*

I do enjoy a good battlemat. I like turn-based tactical video games, so turn-based tabletop is an easy alternative to get into. Tabletop gives me unparalleled freedom of choices, while still keeping a good, solid ruleset to plan my actions around. As well as enemy scripts infinitely more complex, yet still consistent. I still make tactically unsound choices if I decide it's what my character would do, but I still enjoy knowing exactly what's where and planning around that. Most of the time.

I'm not completely against mind theatre, but it'd have to be a much different ruleset. Pathfinder, and many other games, are built around tactical movement. Trying to guess where everyone is and determining if that enemy is in range by essentially GM fiat I just don't see working well.

I'm also recalling some combat I've run in ruleless Play-By-Post games. It was a bit of a mess, until we decided that one person would write out the whole combat once we went over the basics of how the combat scene should go and how it will end.

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I'm hooked on terrain building.

I use Styrofoam and a hot knife for most my crafting. I made a box full of cave features that I can move about to make underground environments.

My next project that I am working on is a gear cog tower.

The tower will consist of several rooms that are shaped as gear cogs. In one tooth of each cog is a door. The rooms/cogs will turn each round and then the teeth line up the door is open (and the players better move). I plan to have an encounter in each room.

AD, I would love to see some of your work. I'll take photos next week of the terrain I've built.


Scarab Sages

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My visual aids back in 2nd edition used to include waving about a real sword while delivering monologues and real 18th century silver coins.

The good old days.....

I only use visual aids if I have to (as in PC making a map as they go with ranks: cartographer-or my language fails me) despite the fact I often spend time sketching.

I avoid battlemats and minis like the plague because I have found it adds far too much OOG banter about where to position, who's going to go help who and how, and generally slows combat down.

It's a lot easier and faster for a player to just say "how far away are they?" or "can I hit more than three of them with a fireball?" Than look at the map, get up, wander around looking over the various features, picking out which mini is yours (unless very distinctly painted and personal use), calculating (even math whizzes will compare number for the best benefit) chatting about "well I was thinking about going here-" "But if you do, then they might.." etc etc.

Yes, I have played miniature games, quite a few, and I have never seen it go the way of speed chess (move, act, next player) and I have without exception seen it degrade to out of game topics, while people wait for their turns (complaining about work, school, family, hobbies).

With all of that going on, combat ends up taking three times as long and people spend most of the session OOC.

Our other regular DM similarly avoids it, but he's been on a slump lately and not cutting back on some folks (who may be intentionally) sidetracking into OOC stuff, but he's got a pass for some health issues at this time. It would still make adding a battlemat and minis into a miniature game rather than a d&d role playing game.

Tactics are basic math. Miniature games basically turn an RPG into a basic math with toys-not that I won't go for more complicated miniature games now and then (been trying to put a warhammer fantasy army together for a year or so now), but for me, there is a very very strong demarcation between miniature games and Table top role playing games.

Besides with only one miniature to maneuver against the DM-it really just (for me) devolves the game into gi joes; with a side helping of basic math; liberally flavored with sideline "peanut gallery" gossip.

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