August 17, 2020

Theater of the Mind in Tabletop RPGs

The Mind’s Eye, our mental canvas of limitless possibilities. And for tabletop role-playing games, the platform for our shared story experiences. This theater of the mind empowers us to collectively share and, in many ways, concurrently experience art, music, stories…any shared part of the human creative diaspora.

“A stout bush sits atop a tall mountain, looking over its domain. It sways in the breeze with a purpose, proud of its place at the highest point in its world.” You can see a bush in your mind, right? Or at least, imagine what that concept feels like. When you’re playing stories, regardless of whether you’re the GM or a player, there’s a constant back and forth in that Theater of the Mind you’ve all created – the shared canvas of what’s transpiring in the story.

So today’s tabletop RPG worldbuilding advice centers on how to bring your worldbuilding back to the all-important Theater of the Mind and how you can best setup your players to see and experience what’s taking place in the story.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Most great relationships have empathy at their core. And tabletop role-playing game relationships are no different. But specific to worldbuilding, it’s crucial that the GM/worldbuilder put themselves in the players’ shoes. Whether it’s in the encounter setups, the role-playing prompts, or the descriptions themselves, GMs need to practice having empathy for the players.

Take the time to imagine what it would be like to act off the information you just gave. Was it enough? Too much? What’s missing in order to have a wonderful story flow? What questions would you ask of yourself in this prompt, setup, or description?

Practice getting in the habit of asking yourself these questions, especially in situations where the players aren’t immediately gravitating either to a reaction, choice, or reasonable follow up question. The more you practice being a player in your own story for these situations, the more empathy you’ll have for your players. And the more you’ll be able to improve how you provide prompts, choices, and descriptions too, just by putting yourself in their shoes.

Immersion as the Key

Think about what you’re feeling when the story is really flowing: you’re immersed in what’s going on, the choices, the laughs, the bad-ass rolls…and the outside world for the moment seems like a distant memory. Everyone is caught up in the story, what’s happening, and what’s going to happen next. People are playing off each other and you’re feeding the momentum with your setups, prompts, and descriptions.

Your worldbuilding is perfect fodder for those moments. Your preparation creates the ideal catalyst to keep them going. So when you’re trying to have theater of the mind be your main platform in your tabletop RPG, you need to keep everyone’s story immersion top of mind.

Positively contribute to the flow. Even if it’s a bit chaotic, feed the momentum with the fruits of your worldbuilding. Don’t steal spotlight, distribute it. Fan the flames, don’t douse them. Follow the laughs. And find ways to sprinkle bits of your story-world into the moment in ways that add to the experience, not detracting from it.

And most of all, don’t be afraid to practice. No GM, so far as I know, is born with the innate ability to facilitate a story at a master level. It takes time, patience, dedication, and energy to improve. Have the courage to take this advice and try it out in real-time in your tabletop stories. The more you do, the better you’ll get over time, and the better stories get told. And everyone gets even more out of the experience.

If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know!