November 9, 2020

The Mind’s Eye’s Role in Tabletop RPGs

The Mind’s Eye is our canvas of limitless possibilities. This “theater of the mind” empowers us to collectively and concurrently experience art, music, stories…any shared part of the human creative diaspora. And for tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs), it’s the platform for our shared story experiences.

“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, there’s a constant back and forth in that “theater of the mind” you’ve all created together. So today’s TTRPG advice centers on how to use this all-important “theater of the mind” to 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 TTRPG relationships are no different. To that end, when you’re providing the prompt, it’s crucial that as the GM/worldbuilder you put yourselves in the players’ shoes.

You need to 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? Whether it’s in the encounter setups, the role-playing prompts, or the descriptions themselves, GMs need to have empathy for the players.

Practice getting in the habit of asking yourself these questions. Especially in situations where the players aren’t immediately gravitating 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. And 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.

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