Theater of the Mind tips?



Hey, everyone! I am preparing to play Ghost Mountain, and rather than learn the ropes of Roll20 (in addition to teaching ICRPG to them), we decided to just use Zoom and try Theater of the Mind style.

I have never done RPGs this way before; I usually use a white erase and stand ins for meeples. I’m going in blind (no pun intended) and could use some tips.

I also hope I can do music well on Zoom too. :grimacing:


For some good advice from @Runehammer, check out his Patreon podcast, Mainframe #21: Theater of the Mind.


That sounds like the best possible resource. Is that a Patreon paywall thing? I’d pay some dollars for that boon.


The first tier is $1 a month and gets you access to all of his podcasts, which are great for GM training.


I think I will definitely do that, thanks!


I usually try to keep obstacles vague with a simple check to overcome. So rather than say there is a fire and multiple ways around/through it, I just say it’s blocking the path and it takes a DEX roll to get through unscathed. Also, I just keep telling people on their turns whether they are CLOSE/NEAR/FAR so they can consider their options. Also, as long as they’re in same room, I let them reach each other like they are NEAR. If outside, I just ask if they are staying together (CLOSE or NEAR) or splitting up (FAR) from each other. Really be descriptive on things that deserve it, like each new area, awesome loot, or creepy monsters. I hope this helps lol


It does! That’s sort of what I was thinking. I think ICRPG with it’s loose Index Card style could lend itself well to theater of the mind style. As a DM I can have my cards out and use those to organize my mind.

I am most concerned with how to do puzzles, as having Treats in my design is what I love to do. So Im gonna have to work on describing Treats in ways that still give players that “aha!” moment where they get to “Do the thing!”

Would you recommend having a normal map in my notes and going by that even though the players will never see it? I wonder of that’s the traditional D&D way.


While not the same, this thread touched on descriptions a bit.


I typically still have a map handy as a guide. I may do up to 3 passages at a time (no more), keeping them labeled for players as right, left, middle so they can be like “ok right didn’t work, let’s go back and try the middle one”. I can also label the map with enemies and elevation changes so i can describe to players "you see three tunnels, the left one is dark and you can’t see a thing yet, but hear some scratchy noises, the middle is lit by torches and descends a slight ramp, and the right goes straight for 20ft and then you see flickering shadows as it turns out of sight.

As for puzzles, i try to give rhymes or sayings that they have to decode. Other times, I have them make WIS/INT rolls and each time they roll high enough, let some hint slip out, like “you do notice a section of wall is cracked” or “everything is covered in dust except that one book on the table”.


@Paxx is right on with that link as well! Definitely play into the combat descriptions to keep them engaged.


Editing cause I am skipping words as I type.

In truth, theater of the mind is a much more free form experience, to be consistent, have maps of rooms and notes on smells, texture the feel of the air as it passes your nostrils…but be forgiving of the players location in that room…they are each imaging it a bit differently.

Id avoid having them do left, right, left…but their point of view as the enter something, as they hear or see something new.

Id also avoid giving them complex locations. Or visual puzzles. The puzzles will need to be verbal. But you are filling their imagination with stimulation. If the puzzle is visual, it needs to be simple, and that you have given very obvious clues about…int rolles to remind them type things.

Also, let them come up with things…
Player “I duck for cover” GM, “ok there are a few food crates, but they look flimsy, they stacked up on each other to about 3 feet. So you concealment, but probably not cover per say. Now what do you do? “

@Kindred is right about handouts…index cards, mini maps… shared google Slides or free roll20 with nothing but dice roll and showing images of key things works ok…but if it is audio/video on you only, be really forgiving.


I have a buddy of mine who plays D&D with a group of friends from all over. They use Zoom. The DM keeps the maps and minis. The players watch via the app. However, I like Theater of the Mind as much as maps and minis.


One tip I have heard is to NOT use music over Zoom. Everyone is already having to work at hearing each other and it is harder to manage people interrupting and talking over one another when you are on a conference call. Adding music just adds to the audio confusion.
Your call, of course.


We did a test game last night. Music is possible, but when the game got going a few players said it was too loud for them and volume went up and down depending on if people were speaking.

Turn order is also a bit confusing because you can’t rearrange video squares like Roll20. I decided to “spotlight” the video of whoever’s turn it is to remind everyone who’s turn it is.

And I just have to be very mindful of my descriptions, so they have all the “tools” they need in order to make choices. What the room layout is, where they are in relation to the room, the enemies, and each other, etc.

I won’t get THAT detailed, but as much as I need to for them to have the decision making tools they need.


Thanks for the observations. As you continue with this process let us know what else you learn.



Theater of the mind is a lot harder over voice than at a real table. I use to play exclusively this way and even my tactical players were able to do it. But I had real things to point to, like, ‘the orc is as far as I am from the TV.’


  1. Have a board/piece of paper, just in case someone doesn’t get it.

Having a whiteboard like you said, helps. So you might not want to give up on roll 20 just as a drawing board, just in case someone is unclear as to where something is (if you’re playing tactical). You can draw a quick ‘you’re here’ and ‘the fallen tree is here’ and ‘the orc is here’. Kinda thing with X’s or whatever.

Some guys just CAN’T picture things. I don’t know why. But it does happen. I almost never run into this type of player but they do exist and it’s just a fact of nature.

You can replace this paper by pointing and body language and comparisons to things in the actual gaming room if you’re in person. I’m a very gesturey-actory kind of GM so when in person I rely on this one sometimes.

  1. Describe things in simple clear terms. If your game is tactical you have to be as specific as needed. The tips in ICRPG are actually really good, remembering to describe distances, and where things are in an unmistakable way. “Enemy at 2 o’clock from you” or etc.

Think of sizes and distances in relation to things your players understand. I’ve had players who are engineers and these guys could guess size, weight, crazy things, just from a few words. But I find that kind of language kind of boring, personally I recommend saying things like, ‘the Orc is one and a half times as big as you.’ XD

Comparing stuff to the size of your players is usually a decent measurement. Comparing positions is the hardest thing. You can use cardinal directions ‘to YOUR north’ or clock faces “at 6 o’clock” that sort of thing will work for most people unless they have the above-mentioned spatial-imagination disability.

  1. Keep it simple, and rely on your players to remember changes. Describe the things that are most likely to be interacted with, so if you describe a room, mention the exits, one or two flavor details, and objects that can be used in battle if you expect a battle in the room, like a torch on the wall, barrels in the corner, or a table that can be turned over, but try to keep the number of these things small.

During battle, if a table gets flipped and used as cover, you might actually forget all about this! Say you have an orc running at player blah and they’re like, ‘wait, aren’t I behind the table?’ usually SOMEONE at the table can remember what happened and be like, ‘yah, I do think you were on that side of the room’ or whatever. It’s no shame to get help. If everyone forgets I generally rule in favor of the player.

You can also just take a tiny note like draw a box and a curved arrow, your brain will remember what it means.

Also, if you can’t show a paper or board drawing to the players, at the very least you can have a scrap of paper for just yourself, so you can draw simple stick-figure style boxes and x’s to help you know where things are when describing them if you need it.

  1. Use visual reminders (and other senses if you want). To keep players immersed in their imagination and seeing things clearly, remind them from time to time what things look like, even if you described them before. Sneak them into actions.

Ex: The troll looks down at you and says, “Blah blah blah”. (Reminds that the troll is taller)
Ex: He brushes back a lock of gold hair.

You don’t have to over do it. Just do it from time to time.

This is also a good fiction tip that I almost never see used in books. Some books describe a character once then for like the next 10 books you’re supposed to remember, but that’s not how the mind works typically.

Tips 1 - 3 are really more important for battle or tactical areas, you don’t have to go overboard on every single place you describe or etc.

  1. A good piece of advice I picked up from a youtube GM was: “Make a summary of the place, then add one or two sensory details.” This works really well, it’s a mixture of tell and show. Remembering that imagination can fill in the blanks.

Ex: You enter a shadowy graveyard, row upon row of cracked and forgotten headstones. In the center stands a large marbled angel with a blindfold over her eyes. The air is damp and all is silent.

Then say a skeleton pops out of a grave - you don’t necessarily have to be tactical or specific! A skeleton pops out, the player might say “I hide behind a grave” or etc. you can see how positioning doesn’t really matter here.

Some players LOVE and WANT tactics so they may ask you outright ‘where is he in relation to me’ this is when you can use those directional instructions, bare minimum you can say ‘he’s near by to your DIRECTION’ or ‘he’s DISTANCE to the DIRECTION of you’.

Or you can be super specific if you like that. "He’s two rows of headstones away, and standing at 8 o’clock/northwest of you.

Anyways! I hope this has been helpful.

P.S. Theater of the Mind is my preferred method of play, even at a table! I never use mini’s I think they ruin the game (for my tastes personally). I’ve played games without maps etc. many, many, many times, over many years. It has never been a problem and players don’t seem to care at all.

When I do use miniatures I consider it a different type of game. I’ve done lego games and used warhammer figures to play rpgs, but when I do, I do it like a child. Walking around with the figures, rather than using them as placeholders. For me it’s just a weird mix that doesn’t feel right or natural, to have mini’s used for a grid or something, while narrating a game, it makes me focus more on the mini’s etc. and be less likely to imagine things for real in my head, perhaps.


Totally awesome writeup!!! :herocoin:

Welcome to the Forums @Trevor


Thanks Paxx, I appreciate it.


Agree with @Paxx this is a top notch write up. I need to maybe push myself to go more TotM till I can master the tech hurdle better for gaming online.


This was an amazing write up. TOTM is how I stared back in the late 90s. And I still really love the style. Minis are gray and I use when we meet in person as my players like the tactical side of things. (Ex military guy, super brainiac, meta gamers). Lol

But I am now running a TOTM Altered State game and remember why I loved it.

I’m gonna start adding some visual aids I think. Like pictures to get the cyberpunk vibe across as it is kinda new for us.