As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, pretty much all of my GMing experience since returning to gaming has been using virtual tabletops. Overall, it’s been a great experience, allowing me to run games from home, at awkward hours, and make friends from around the world, as well as playing again with players who I started this RPG journey with over 30 years ago.
Initially, I ran the Lost Mines of Phandelver module on Fantasy Grounds using the official add-on. As a result I had all of the relevant digital maps at my fingertips. However, 9 months on we are beyond that adventure and into homebrew content – some of which either out of desire or necessity – needs to be run theater of the mind.
The problem is, theater of the mind isn’t necessarily ideal for a virtual tabletop environment. I mean, it’s not impossible or anything. After all, a virtual tabletop is really just a communications hub with a built in dice roller and ruleset. Theater of the mind should work, right?
Well it does and it doesn’t. The fact of the matter is that the very nature of a virtual tabletop means that players instinctively look at their screen expecting visuals – usually in the form of a digital map. If a map isn’t present then arguably the game seems less engaging. Take that away and it’s easy for the players to become distracted with anything from beer to kids crying and dogs barking. The flip side is of course that if a map IS present, often players (and also as a GM) have a tendency to over-focus on it, usually at the expense of narrative and immersion.
So, how can you balance things out and make theater of the mind engaging for virtual tabletop players?
Don’t ditch maps completely
This may seem like a strange thing to say in a post about moving towards more theater of the mind. What I mean by this is that you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. From time to time you’ll need maps. Usually for combat. If you are playing gridless systems like 13th Age, you may not need to do this but in general, gridded battlemaps do make life easier – especially when calculating area spell effects for instance.
Also as a DM you’ll benefit greatly from maps of key encounter areas. Even if they’re scrappily drawn on a piece of scrap paper, they’ll help you with your theater of the mind game – despite not showing them to your players. Unless you have a superhuman memory, having some kind of visual representation of how all the areas physically hang together is key to a smooth and consistent narrative. I love many of the 13th Age published and organised play adventures but often find them difficult to run due to the absence of maps for key areas.
In summary, you don’t always have to have a map available for players but try and have one available for yourself so that you can provide good narrative description of rooms and features (see next point).
Provide detailed descriptions of areas
With digital maps, it is often easy to fall into a lazy routine of just removing the ‘fog of war’ from a room and letting the players point at features on the digital map and ask what they are. Effective, but hardly engaging. If you are going to go theater of the mind then you need to enhance those descriptions somewhat. Sounds, smells, texture underfoot, height of the ceiling, roughness of walls, details of furnishings and types of doors etc. It’s more challenging than the users seeing barrels sitting in the corner on the digital map and just telling them what’s in them if they ask.
Use other visuals
Both of the virtual tabletops I’ve used (Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds) give the GM the option to share files with players. Using this option to share images of the monster they’ve just encountered, a picture of the lost valley they have stumbled upon or the magic sword they have just recovered from the undead mage they have just slain can really add colour to proceedings and provide a visual stimulus that isn’t a map.
Both of the tabletops mentioned above provide easily shareable images of the monsters from the D&D monster manual if you have that add-on installed (and are running D&D). For scenery and other fantasy artwork, Pinterest can be a great source as can Google Images.
Consider using sound effects
Background music and sound effects can really aid immersion and ratchet up the tension. Roll20 has this built in, with a wide range of background sound effects and audio tracks. Fantasy Grounds can be linked with services like Syrinscape to do the same thing. It’s less straightforward but there are tutorials out there showing you how it can be done.
Hopefully this article has given you a few ideas on how to move towards theater of the mind in your virtual tabletop games. Please leave any further suggestions you have in the comments below.