My group has agreed that we will not use miniatures or tiles to play AD&D 1e. Instead, we will rely upon the "Theater of the Mind" style gameplay. This will be a major change for me as a DM, as I played 4e strictly with miniatures and maps.

I believe that we will still assign the group a "cartographer" (as the DMG suggests) but this will only be used (I assume) to have a general idea of tracking the players' movement over time.

My question is, what general advice do you have to somebody planning to DM 1e with as little intervention of minis, maps, etc. as possible?


3 Answers 3


Whiteboard Sketches.

In my 10-year-plus AD&D campaign we rarely use tiles and never use minis at all. But we did find that simple maps are very useful. Not detailed records of the adventure, or complex cartographies of everything in the world, but just really simple drawings of the location a combat scene was taking place in, for instance. Throw-away sketches, basically.

You will find that it is not necessary to draw really detailed maps. But if you still want players to be able to take advantage of situational modifiers, fictional positioning, line of sight, etc (which is a good thing), it still helps to have a general idea of where things are located and how big they are.

For this my group has started using a whiteboard and magnetic markers. Draw the room, sketch some objects, ask the players to put a mark where they are, and wipe the whole thing clean when it's over. Save a tree!

As far as time is concerned, it's not as important as some might think. Movies frequently compress time when boring stuff is happening and stretch it when exciting stuff is happening (especially to the hero). Your players won't fret if you do the same thing.


First off, you and your players have to be prepared to deal with a fair bit of description of a given encounter space (or you have to be willing to do a lot of "winging it" and allowing the players to invent details as you go). For some spaces, you can rely a lot on real-world experience (for example, if the encounter takes place in a bar, there are a lot of things people would reasonably expect to be able to find), but for others you need to be willing to put in a good effort at description or else find analogues. A wizard's workshop might be a lot like your school chemistry lab, for instance. Anything you can do to help everyone envision their location is going to help, and as you practice the skill it'll get easier.

You should also expect to be a little more permissive in allowing people to do tactical types of things (moving to block or support, for instance) without getting too deeply into the minutiae involved. This can be particularly helpful if they get themselves in a bit of a jam; they can try to find cover or get creative about something that'll help them.

Basically, making the transition from intensely tactical encounters to "theater of the mind" is a lot like going from a movie to a book. It's up to you to make the book sufficiently descriptive that the players can see the movie version in their minds.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When describing the layout of places, include enough detail that players can make informed decisions; This includes sufficient information for detailed tactical positioning if detailed tactical positioning is something you intend to make an important part of gameplay. I know it might seem obvious, but "level of detail should be proportional to the requirement for detail" is a thing some GMs new to the theatre-of-the-mind style take a while to get the hang of. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 31, 2014 at 4:39

You have to get used to some give-and-take, and you start developing a protocol. Instead of "OK, I see the little plastic rocks, they cover half my character so I get 1/2 cover" the conversation goes more like this:

GM: "The Bad Guys are doing their ritual in the clearing just past the crumbled old stone wall. Their sentry shouts a warning as he sees you charging up."

Player1: "How far are we from that crumbled stone wall?" Player2: "And how much cover would it give?"

GM: "Oh, if you spend a whole round moving you can get there... Except for Urist McAxedwarf, it'll take you 2 turns of running in the open to get to cover. Once you get to the wall, it'll give... let's say 1/2 cover."

The amount of time it takes to build out the maps is massive, and that's before you develop sufficient detail. Doing it narratively will give you much more time to devote to role-playing once you and your players get comfortable with each other. In 2 decades of tabletop I've only ever used vague diagrams to resolve some tricky questions--and that's been rare. It's never been an issue... until I started playing with someone introduced to tabletop gaming via Pathfinder. After playing with her group a few times, I honestly feel that minis took so much of the fun and imagination out of it.


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