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My group is trying theater of the mind (TotM) battles instead of using a mat with miniatures. A challenge we're having is when someone casts a spell like entangle, which affects a location. On a map, it's easy to draw the entangle area, but I find it tough to track with TotM, especially in larger battles (think 4 PCs and 7 monsters in various spots).

With TotM, how can the DM track and remember everything going on, especially on the battlefield? I've been using a small map sketch behind the DM screen for my reference but am wondering if there's a better way.

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In general, the larger the fight, and the more tactical you wish to allow your players to be, the more helpful a battle map will be.

But, here are some suggestions that I and another DM friend of mine have used in the past, when Theater of the Mind made more sense.

  1. Make a small DM map.

    It doesn't have to be to scale, and it doesn't have to be perfect, but if you sketch out a rough schematic of the fight for your use, you will find it much easier to keep track of things. Then you can add things like entangle to this schematic.

    Bonus points for this idea because it can be done on the fly, and you don't feel any pressure to draw well, or have the map be fancy, because you are the only one who will ever see it. You can use X's for the bad guys, and O's for the good guys (with the first letter of their name inside the O so you know who's who).

  2. Group your enemies.

    Keep your monsters in 2-3 member squads, and have each squad have the same initiative, attack bonus, AC, ST's, HP, etc... This way, you have fewer monster locations to keep track of. This basically makes them act like a bigger monster, who takes damage from AoE spells multiple times, and reduces the # of attacks they have at regular intervals (as one of the creatures within the squad dies).

    Be warned: this makes the combat more swingy than having each monster go on their own initiative. If all of your monsters go at the same time, or small groups go togeather, they will do lots of damage at once. If they manage to go before the players, they may do more damage than they normally would, as the PCs may have been able to take out one of them before they went.

    On the flip side, if they go after the players, the PCs may get to do more damage, and kill more of them than would have happened if you had them all go on different initiatives.

    Not a huge deal, but something to keep in mind.

  3. have your players announce intentions rather than actions.

    Since players have less information in TotM than they do a battlemap, you are highly encouraged (here and elsewhere), to track intentions along with the spell used, rather than just actions. If your players want to block monsters A-C from closing in on their squishy party members, and they want to used entangle to do that, then have them say "I cast entangle to block monsters A-D from moving towards PC's X and Y", rather than saying "I cast entangle in front of monsters A-D". This way, you don't have to remember the location of the spell, only that Monsters A-D can't approach PCs X and Y without making the necessary saving throws, taking damage, etc...

    This will reduce the amount you have to remember, and make it easier to keep track of the fight.

My personal suggestion is the DM map, but that is because I enjoy tactical combat as a player. So as a DM, I tend to feed that to my players. I run my games with facing rules, lots of cover, flanking, lots of AoE/control spells, etc... But then again, I'm the type of DM who is going to gravitate towards a battlemap for anything more than a 3v3 skirmish.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Appreciate the thoughts on grouping monsters. The challenge with the DM map, I've found, is that I tend to lose sight of the TotM approach because I'm seeing the battle tactically. \$\endgroup\$ – Craig Oct 11 '17 at 1:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I went ahead and converted your list to a markdown-list, and note how the whitespace at the beginning of paragraphs keeps the list flowing. With that done it seemed like the <hr> elements didn't really need to be there, so I took them out. Of course, feel free to revert or re-edit--just wanted to show you how it's done. (Do keep the markdown-list, though: it's better for accessibility to use semantic listing rather than just typography.) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 11 '17 at 2:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like these suggestions, except your example in the 3rd one is really weird; You kinda need to know that the PC is using entangle there - so maybe it's more like "I'm going to cast entangle to try to keep the from closing in on Robin." vs "I'm going to cast entangle in front of monsters A-D." Abstracting it to "I want to block the monsters from closing with Robin." removes the element of "how" which is kinda important. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Jan 23 '18 at 19:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I recently bough Tlmof (DnD starter set) and I'm currently reading and memorizing it to DM it soon, and as I really enjoy theater of the mind gameplay, this question was something I was really worried about. Your answer is just great, and I guess I'll use the DM map, trying not to lose the TotM approach as @Craig talked about. \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Apr 2 at 8:52
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On the note of solutions that aren't just use a battlemap, but smaller (which is still an effective solution):
I ran across a rather interesting mechanism for Theater of the Mind recently: the DM brought in "spellcraft checks" (proficiency + spellcasting modifier) as the determinant for how many enemies you could hit.

Hitting 2 targets was guaranteed; DC 15/20/25 for 3/4/5 targets
Obviously, as a houserule, the # of targets was modified for particularly simple or particularly cunning creatures.

I enjoyed it because it puts emphasis on your character noticing the perfect timing for a fireball - rather than the player drawing the optimal spheroid.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for sharing this interesting approach. While I don't think it'd work for my players, I could see some groups having success with this abstraction. \$\endgroup\$ – Craig Oct 11 '17 at 1:41
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The 5e Dungeon Masters Guide chapter 8 section on combat contains a list of how many targets each AoE shape should hit when not using a battle map.

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Sometimes a large battle or a battle in a complex environment can just be too complex for me to run in TotM, but there are compromises that can be made between TotM and getting back on the grid.

Sometimes I'll use a whiteboard with no grid that I can draw on to represent walls, obstacles, and areas of cover and/or darkness, etc. It's not a scale drawing, just an approximation. We use tokens or miniatures to represent the approximate location of the combatants. Explain to the Players that the map and counters are just an aid to help keep track of all the details involved - who attacking whom, whose taking cover behind those pillars, or who's in that dimly lit area in the corner, but not a scale representation of the actual battlefield.

Another idea is simply to draw circles on the whiteboard that represent areas and objects in the environment such as "behind cover", "on ridge above the rest of the players" or "chest" for the player trying to break into it while the others do battle. Have the players put their tokens in the circle that applies to them based on the descriptions of the combat. Players can also group their tokens or minis around their opponents to indicate who their fighting instead of representing their physical location or orientation to their enemy. Reach, distances and things like grouping will still need to be described in TotM.

I wouldn't do this for every combat, but if you have a lot going on these compromises really might help everyone at the table to stop trying to keep up with all the details and concentrate on using good descriptions of the combat.

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