In this video, I share several potentially contentious opinions on maps and minis vs. Theater of the Mind, retro-clones, and religion in RPGs.
In previous posts and videos, I shared my opinions on turn order and lore and licensed settings. In this new video, and the post below, I briefly share my opinions on three additional topics.
I realize that some might consider these controversial. So to put a disclaimer on this upfront: These are all personal opinions and preferences, and I respect anyone that disagrees with these. Even for myself, these are not necessarily absolutes, and I occasionally enjoy playing games that stray from these preferences.
1) TotM beats battlemaps and miniatures
For this discussion, let’s assume we’re playing a traditional fantasy RPG such as D&D, Pathfinder, DCC, WFRP, or even Shadow of the Demon Lord. Some groups swear by battlemaps and miniatures, whether physical ones when sitting around an actual table, or virtual maps and tokens when playing online using a VTT. Other groups play using “theater of the mind”.
I recognize that maps and minis can have an edge when playing in a very tactical style. It’s easier to see where each person is, measure how far they’re able to move, and accurately handle special combat situations like flanking.
But they also have some significant downsides:
First, you need to have the actual map. In person, what usually works best for me when I do use maps is to have a simple wet-erase map and markers, so I can quickly sketch out major terrain features like mountains, buildings, etc. This can work online as well, but in practice tends to be more tedious, depending on the VTT in question. So preparing maps ahead of time tends to be preferable (whether you make them yourself or buy or search for them online). And that in turn requires planning out scenes in advance and doesn’t lend itself to a more improvised or sandboxy GM style.
But perhaps most importantly, I find that maps actually take away from the roleplaying experience. That might be counter-intuitive, as it seems like they add a level of detail. But in my opinion, using maps often leads to a more board-gamey experience, where players focus a lot more on counting squares and moving tokens around than on actually visualizing the exciting scenes that are going on around them. This can also lead to shutting down awesome cinematic actions. Think of swashbuckling scenes, with players swinging from chandeliers and such. With maps and minis, your character might fall short when you count squares, leading to a boring movement action just because you’re 1 or 2 squares away from where you want to be. With TotM, this level of precision doesn’t exist, and you can go with the “rule of cool”.
Playing TotM forces me to use my imagination to construct the scenes in my own head, and frankly what I see and feel there is a lot more exciting than even the best drawn battlemaps and minis. I totally recognize that the more tactical gameplay afforded by maps/minis appeals to many players, and that’s fine. But for me, this is actually the aspect I care least about in my games, so it’s an easy trade-off for me.
As a GM, it also helps greatly with prep, and even unlocks simpler tools. For example, while I think Foundry is an amazing VTT, I find that with many games, I prefer simply using Discord for voice/video and dice rolling via dice bots, in conjunction with Google Sheets for character sheets (often ones I’ve made myself). So that tends to be my default when running online these days.
And I find that without the pressure to create maps and select minis or tokens, I can enjoy a more open ended, improvisational experience. So that’s a win/win in my book.
I will admit that I occasionally run into encounters where players struggle to visualize the overall location or the relative positioning of each combatant. In my experience, that tends to get easier as the group gains more experience with this play style. But it’s also easy enough to sketch out a quick map when that happens. Not a battlemap, but just a few pencil strokes to illustrate what the scene looks like.
2) I don’t like retro-clones
I got back into RPGs about 9 years ago, after a 16 year break. Since then, I’ve enjoyed a broad spectrum of games, ranging from traditional games like D&D to indie and story games, and everything in between. As part of this, I’ve also flirted with the OSR (Old-School Renaissance) movement.
I do enjoy many aspects of the old-school philosophy, such as the relative simplicity, high lethality, the emphasis on rulings over rules, as well as player skill over character attributes. I also love the aesthetics of old-school games and adventures.
However, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t care for actual retroclones. Retroclones are games that recreate the rules of specific old D&D editions. Some of the more prominent examples are Old School Essentials (OSR) that recreates the D&D Basic/Expert sets (aka B/X) or Swords & Wizardry that recreates the Original D&D game from the mid 70s, also known as OD&D. There are many more.
OSE in particular is a masterpiece in terms of presentation. The book is well structured, has amazing layout, pretty old-school art, and (unlike the original D&D books it’s based on) does a great job conveying the rules.
But I simply don’t enjoy the actual rules themselves. There are awkward rules for handling turn order, there’s no unified mechanic for combat and other skill checks, there’s tedious movement, encumbrance, and resource tracking, arcane advancement with gold for XP, etc.
In my opinion, game mechanics have come a long way since the early days of the hobby, with objectively better approaches at our disposal now. I would likely feel different if I had any nostalgia for old D&D editions. But I grew up with RPGs other than D&D (such as The Dark Eye and Warhammer FRP), so that particular nostalgia doesn’t exist for me.
I do like some newer games that are old school in spirit, but with modern mechanics:
- Warlock! is a good example, even if it takes its inspiration from old-school British games such as WFRP and Fighting Fantasy. In my experience, it fully captures the vibe of those games, but with greatly streamlined mechanics.
- EZD6 is more modern, but works great with old-school adventures (in fact I’ve run some OSE adventures with it with great success).
- And I have a soft spot for DCC, which is probably the closest I’ll ever get to playing or running an old-school D&D game. While not a retro-clone, it is technically based on the 3rd edition of D&D, with strong influences from earlier editions. But it’s streamlined in just the right ways, and really has its own vibe.
That said: I’m glad that retroclones exist, and I respect that people enjoy them. They’re just not for me. :)
3) I’m not a fan of religion in my games
Religion and clerics might be considered an inevitable step in the development of any species, as it’s trying to find ways to explain the world around it before it develops the capability and knowledge to do so via science. In that sense, any fantasy world, even if it’s not exactly based on Earth, is likely to have developed some form of mythos and religion at some point in its timeline.
And I think there are some interesting stories to explore here. Based on Earth’s own history, a lot of conflict was motivated by religion (and still is, in fact - perhaps shockingly, given that we really should have moved beyond this by now as a species).
Exploring how the various factions deal with their religious beliefs on a fairly local scale can be interesting. Having a seafaring civilization pray to a god of the sea, or a mountain village worship some sort of God of nature can add some nice flavor. And every once in a while, I might be ok having an adventure that centers around a larger, more organized religion, such as a kingdom’s dominant church, who almost certainly would their own nefarious motives.
But I don’t like settings and adventures where actual gods interact with mortals. I really struggle with the suspension of disbelief here. In the best case, I can rationalize this as some sort of powerful being, that would appear to be godlike from our puny human perspective, taking advantage of this to get us to do their bidding.
As for Clerics: My preference is to not mechanically distinguish between Wizards and Clerics. In my head canon, they both tap into the same magical energy sources, whether they know it or not. The Cleric’s faith acts as their focus to channel the energy and manifest spells. I do (once more) have a soft spot for DCC, though, and its Cleric class that gains disapproval from their god when they repeatedly fail their spells.
(Which goes to show that none of the opinions I’m expressing here are firm, absolute requirements. They are preferences, and it depends a lot on the game for me.)
When it comes to far future Sci-Fi settings, my sense is that religion no longer has a place. So when I encounter Sci-Fi settings with a strong religious element, I tend to experience cognitive dissonance and bounce off. That’s one of the reasons I couldn’t get into Coriolis, for example.
I recognize that this is potentially contentious, and my intent is not to offend anyone. But my strong conviction is that humanity either finds a way to move beyond religion and the conflict that it brings, or we are unlikely to persist long enough as a species to expand into space and evolve into what might be considered a Sci-Fi setting.
So I prefer far future settings where religion no longer plays a role, or only a very subdued role (perhaps in form of ancient traditions that are kept alive; I can appreciate those, when separated from the actual religious beliefs).
To share another anecdote: I’m currently reading the Vaesen RPG, which is set in what they call the Mythic North, a fictional setting that’s loosely based on 19th century Scandinavia and nordic folklore. And I have to admit that I almost bounced off of it because I got the sense (perhaps falsely) that Christianity seemed to play a pretty significant role in the setting. There’s a Priest archetype for players, for example, and some mention of religious symbols repelling certain creatures. But a friend was able to talk me out of this, so I’m back to reading the book , and I think I figured out ways to portray this aspect in a way that’s compatible with my preferences. I really do hope to run Vaesen at some point!
I figure I’ve stirred up enough debate, so let’s stop here for now. :)
And again: my intent is not at all to step on anyone’s toes and tell them they’re playing RPGs wrong. In fact, one of the things I love most about this hobby is that there are so many ways to enjoy it - different games, different ways to play, and so on.
I’m really interested in hearing your opinions on these topics, so please feel free to leave a comment here or on the video.
I have a whole list of additional controversial opinions that I’d like to discuss at some point, so there will definitely be a part 2 of this Triple Takes series.