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.’
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.