In previous articles I've written about why you might want to run combat in the theater of the mind, how you might run it, and how you might use an abstract map when a visual is needed to clarify what's going on.
In this article I'll dive into some of the specific combat abilities characters have that can make running combat in the theater of the mind difficult. When the topic of running combat in the theater of the mind comes up, critics bring up these edge cases to show how theater of the mind can't work. We know it can, since many people run their games exclusively this way, but these edge cases are worth investigating.
While the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is less tactically focused than some of its predecessors, it still has a lot of combat mechanics that can make it difficult to describe what is going on and how to make the most out of every ability if you can’t see the battle visually. For this reason, most DMs prefer to run combat on a 5-foot-per-square battle map with miniatures to represent monsters and characters.
If you do decide to run combat in the theater of the mind, you’ll have to consider how best to handle these mechanics. One approach is to round off the edges. Worry less about specific distances and focus on the intent of the ability and how it fits into the story. We don't have to perfectly place a fireball when blasting a room full of kobolds. A DM can simply adjudicate that the spell hits six of the poor creatures leaving only two who managed to escape the blast. If the DM and the players are all on board with this style, we might not have to worry about the details.
Another way is to have a conversation between the DM and the player before the game to understand what the player wants to get out of that character and how the DM can ensure that happens even without a gridded map and miniatures. Two words help define this conversation and how it plays out during the game: "trust" and "intent."
Trust and Intent
Proper adjudication of combat in the theater of the mind requires that the players trust the DM and that the DM has earned that trust. Without this trust, players can feel like the DM is cheating them out of what they would have had if only they could see the battle map and miniatures. Having that initial conversation between players and DMs can help bridge that trust. With trust players hopefully see that the DM is concerned with how the character operates during the game.
Intent works two ways. First, both players and DMs should agree on the intent of characters' abilities. Second, the player should clarify their specific intent to the DM during the game so that the DM can help them meet that intent.
Understanding the Character's Intent
As mentioned, we can start an exploration of intent with a conversation between the DM and the player of a particular character before the game begins. When a character decides to build a polearm-wielding sentinel fighter, they have an intent in mind for that character. They want to be able to protect other characters and hit monsters before they get too close, hopefully stopping them in their tracks. When a DM hears this and takes a look at the rules of the character’s abilities, the DM understands the general intent of the character. The DM can account for these abilities during combat in the theater of the mind by giving the character opportunities to use them and shine.
When a player playing an assassin describes their goal to the DM, the DM can recognize that the assassin needs to surprise foes in order to pull off their assassination ability. With that understanding, the DM can ensure the assassin has those opportunities.
Understanding each player's overall intent for their character can help the DM set up those situations and keep them in mind while describing combat using the theater of the mind.
If a character is in this sort of situation because of their own mistakes, good! If they're in a pickle because you failed to properly understand their intended actions, then they're not going to be very happy with you.
Common Edge Cases
When we look at the mechanics that can cause the most trouble when running combat in the theater of the mind, they often fall into a number of categories: movement, range, melee tactics, areas of effect, and terrain. I’ll dig into each of these to see how you can handle them when running combat in the theater of the mind.
Movement Edge Cases
Some characters move faster than others. Some move a lot faster than others. Rogues, for example, can use their Cunning Action to take the Dash action as a bonus action. Monks have a naturally higher speed than other classes and can spend ki points to move even further. Some races, like elves, have faster movement than races like dwarves.
Some players feel like these movement advantages get lost when we abstract distances in the theater of the mind. If they matter to the player, they should matter to the DM and, somehow, be accounted for when describing a situation.
When you have your initial conversation with a player about these abilities, ask how often they expect that extra movement to matter. An extra 10 feet of movement isn't the equivalent of a full Dash action but it should come into play sometimes.
When we describe an area when running theater of the mind combat, we might state that hobgoblin archers are about 50 feet back, thus those with the ability to take a Dash as a bonus action can get to them and still attack while slower characters would have to give up their action to Dash. Describing areas using specific distances, like an evil wizard being 40 feet away, gives opportunities for those faster-moving characters to reach them. If you know your monk wants more chances to use faster movement, you should take more time to put these opportunities in front of them.
If we decide to abstract out distances, it means that the extra 10 feet of monk movement likely won't come into play. Instead we're likely to say that enemies in the back are about two moves away. We might, maybe a quarter of the time to account for their roughly 1/4 increase in speed above the norm, give a monk the ability to get there in a single move to account for their 10 feet of extra movement.
Some players care more than others about this extra movement. Being able to take the Dash action as a bonus action is a powerful ability and should come up often, even when running combat in the theater of the mind. An extra few feet of movement, however, might not come up as often. Gauge your players to see how important it is to them and how you might account for it more often.
Dealing with range is usually not difficult when running theater of the mind combat. Participants in combat are often within range of most spells, ranged attacks, or other long-range abilities. If opponents are particularly far away, clarify that up front.
Every so often there's an edge-case with range that matters. Counterspell is an example. The counterspell spell has a relatively limited range of 60 feet, especially when compared to long-range damage spells. Sometimes this doesn't come up but some crafty players of casters know to move out of range of a counterspell before casting a spell like fireball which has a much longer range. In this case, and most edge cases frankly, the player can state their intent. "I move to roughly 40 feet away from the black-robed wizard and cast fireball on as many enemies as I can hit," is a fine statement of intent. While talking to our players about how we're adjudicating combat in the theater of the mind, we can let them know to state such intents clearly and we'll help them meet that intent.
Areas of Effect
Chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide offers guidelines for adjudicating areas of effect when running combat in the theater of the mind. These equations help us decide how many creatures typically fall into an area of a spell or effect. During our initial discussion with our players, we can describe these baseline numbers. A smaller blast like burning hands likely hits two creatures. A bigger blast like a fireball typically hits four. A long line like a lightning bolt can likely hit four. A cone of cold can likely hit six.
This helps players and DMs agree on the default expectation for any given spell but the circumstances can certainly change it. Large creatures aren't often grouped as tightly as smaller creatures. A bunch of small creatures might be grouped up such that more than four of them will get hit with a fireball.
Using areas of effect is another time when it's best if we ask players to state their intent up front. Instead of asking, "how many can I hit with a fireball?" we ask them for their intent. "I want to hit as many as I can with a fireball without hitting any of my friends." Of course, if the player's character is able to sculpt a spell, they might hit even more without risking their friends. We can account for that too by throwing one or two more enemies in a blast.
The circumstances often dictate how many creatures fall into the area of an effect and it's up to the DM to make this determination. The baseline examples in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are a good start but the rest relies, once again, on trust. The players must trust that the DM is adjudicating based on the circumstance and not stacking the odds against them. When we deviate from the baseline, we should have good reason, and we should deviate as often towards more creatures getting hit as less.
Terrain can play a role in how many goblins you're able to roast with your burning hands, too. Are there boulders they can hide under, or foxholes they can dive into?
Persistent and Moving Areas of Effect
Some areas of effect stay in place or move with a creature. We'll have to adjudicate this as well using the same questions to clarify intent. Spells like silence and antilife shell can be particularly troublesome since casters want to keep enemies in them as much as possible. Once again we might ask for the player's intent. Do they want to trap a caster in a silence? The circumstance might be that their target can likely walk right out of it if nothing is keeping them in place and we'll want to let the player know so they don't waste the spell. This would be true on a grid as well but the player might not see it if we don't have a map. A small room might make this impossible though, and we can clarify that as well. We might mention to the whole group that, given their intent to trap an enemy spellcaster in a silence, they will want to silence the area and surround her with melee attackers to prevent her escape. Again, we ask for the intent and help them try to achieve it. We can adjudicate the areas of these persistent effects the same way as one-time-use areas of effect like fireball.
Spells like spirit guardians persist and eat away at enemies within 15 feet of the caster at the beginning of their turns. We'll want to keep track of who is close to who so if the cleric is near a fighter and the fighter is fighting three bugbears, we know that the bugbears are within the spirit guardians. If we err on the side of hitting too many than too few, players recognize that we're working with them and not against them, thus building that trust we need to run combat effectively in the theater of the mind.
Walls are another trick. On a battle map we can figure out exactly how to place a wall of fire to separate a bunch of enemies from the rest of the participants. As always, ask for the intent. "I want to separate the archers from the rest of the group with a wall of fire," is a fine way to state intent. What goal does the caster have when casting the wall? How can we help them achieve that goal? What outcome will make the player happy without going out of bounds from the spell's intent and the story?
Walls are not discussed in the Dungeon Master's Guide description of adjudicating areas of effect so we're on our own to figure out how many creatures might be affected. I’d probably stick to the same sort of equations as the DMG and say that the number of creatures affected by the wall is roughly equal to the length of the wall divided by 10 (round up). A 60 foot long wall of fire, for example, could block off six creatures.
Tactical Melee Abilities
Melee characters, like paladins and fighters, often have abilities with specific distances wired into them. Paladins have auras of protection with specific distances and melee attackers of all types can fight with polearms, shield allies, and act as a sentinel in combat. These can all get tricky to adjudicate, but once again, we can ask for the intent and focus on that.
The player of a paladin can say, "I want to keep the cleric and wizard within my Aura of Protection." The sentinel polearm master can say, "I want to stay close to the cleric and 10 feet away from the hobgoblins so if they come in, I can smash them with my glaive and keep them there." Other characters might say, "I want to stay in the paladin's aura and shoot at the orc chief," or, "I want to stay close to our sentinel fighter and attack the same guy he's attacking."
If we find ourselves in a situation where intent isn’t clear, we could end up with players saying something like “I wanted to stay away from the goblins but forgot to mention that I wanted to stay in the paladin’s aura. Do I miss the paladin’s bonus to save?” In cases like this, we should remember that, while the players may have forgotten something, it’s unlikely the characters forgot. We’re mostly talking about experienced adventurers who will see things we’re not seeing. Thus, if we can, even if a player forgot to mention a detail like wanting to stay within a paladin’s aura, we can give them the benefit of the doubt.
Pushing and pulling can also be tough to handle. It's easier to see where you're going to push someone when everything is on a grid in front of you. When running combat in the theater of the mind, the intent of the push or pull matters a lot. What does the player want to do with the forced movement? Do they want to throw an orc over a cliff? Do they want to get the orc brute away from the wizard? Do they want to draw the enemy archer closer? What do they hope to accomplish with their forced movement?
These statements of intent, first discussed at a high level between the DM and player before the game begins and then specifically during combat, go a long way to clarify what is going on when we're running combat in the theater of the mind.
When in doubt, err on the side of favoring your players. They could resent you if they feel that their awesome plan has been scuppered by a lack of a clear grid or a lack of clear communication.
Our final grouping of edge cases comes with terrain. On a gridded battle map, we know exactly where any difficult or hazardous terrain might be. In the theater of the mind, not so much. This is an important thing for DMs to clarify. Where are the dangerous areas? Which areas are difficult to get through and what problems might that cause? What will it take to get past it or avoid it? How might it matter?
Often times terrain matters when it separates enemies from characters or otherwise gets in the way. Charging a wizard on a platform surrounded by lava requires somehow getting past the lava. Attacking archers firing down on the characters from a rocky bluff requires navigating the rocky bluff.
Other times hazards are around but don't necessarily come into play until they affect a creature. The characters might be fighting some stone giants on the edge of a cliff which doesn't matter until one of the giants tries to pick up the party's cleric and throw her over it.
Some terrain also benefits the characters. Make note of that too. If the characters can climb the bluff, they too can rain arrows down on their enemies with advantage. If there's a nearby cliff, the characters can try to push their enemies off the cliff.
We can write down these terrain details on 3x5 cards which we can keep in front of us and the players during the scene. If it is a particularly complicated scene, this will help us all remember that the terrain is there without necessarily drawing it out on a grid.
When In Doubt, Use the Best Tool for the Job
We've gone over a lot of the details for adjudicating complicated mechanics when running combat in the theater of the mind but the right answer might be to use a gridded map if you and your players prefer it. If your players feel like they can't get everything they want out of combat without seeing it all laid out on a 5-foot-per-square grid, maybe that is the way to go.
We can still keep theater of the mind combat in our bag of tricks and use it when these details don't matter too much. Many DMs choose to run combat in the theater of the mind for small, simple, and generally inconsequential fights. When things get harder and more complicated, they switch out to more detailed maps. That is the perfect way to go.
Build trust, clarify intent, and use the right tool that brings the most fun to the table.
Mike Shea is a writer, Dungeon Master, and author for the website Sly Flourish. Mike has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, Pelgrane Press, and Sasquach Games and is the author of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations, and Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Adventures. Mike lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Michelle.