Theatre of the Mind

Irony. I has it.

This whole COVID-19 pandemic really sucks. I am extremely fortunate. I know this. My pandemic experience is not typical; here in the US or around the world. Throughout this crazy time I’ve been getting paid. I have a personality that does not suffer much from isolation. I have hobbies and interests that keep me occupied. I am lucky.

One of those hobbies is gaming, specifically roleplaying games. Back to the irony: I have played RPGs with friends more often during the pandemic than I did pre-COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, I couldn’t get my friends to commit to a game night if I gave them three months advance notice. Now it seems when everyone is stuck at home, they have more free time; or at least more discretion in how they use it. We’ve been using Roll20 and other free apps to run roleplaying games over the web, and it’s worked well, for the most part. It’s even allowed me to reconnect with one of my oldest and best friends who lives all the way across the country and play games with him, which is a very good thing.

The upside: since March, when everything started to shut down (at least where I am, in a state with a governor who isn’t a spineless suck-ass who puts loyalty to a fucking political party above a public health emergency…sorry, don’t get me started), I’ve run Star Trek Adventures and Slasher Flick, and I’ve been a player in a steady D&D 5th edition campaign. Like clockwork, I have played a game every week with 4-5 friends with no problems. We made a schedule and stuck to it. You know: like adults do, when apparently they don’t have the freedom of not being in lockdown to hold them back.

I hear you. Shut up, Piper. You’re getting what you want: you’re playing games, right? Why are you still complaining about it?

Because I miss gaming more than ever. Real gaming. I miss being around a table with my friends. I miss rolling dice. I miss passing the potato chips and ordering pizza. I miss the digressions and the jokes, and the bullshitting and catching up that takes time away from the game. I miss the pantomimed actions and the facial expressions, neither of which really come through well over a webcam. I miss a game free of technical difficulties. I miss having the need for a GM screen.

I miss my friends. Don’t tell them I said that. I’ll deny it. None of them read this blog anyway. But it’s true. I miss those fucking assholes with all my heart.

Because I am old, we have traditionally played games that are more “theatre of the mind” than actual map-and-miniatures games. Again, ironic; considering I’ve collected miniatures since I started playing rpgs, and since I (at least) am certainly a full-blown miniature wargamer as well. However; when running or playing in a roleplaying game I prefer to imagine the action and the setting, only resorting to hastily scrawled maps or pictures should they be needed to convey vital information or remove confusion.

Why do I prefer this? Because theatre of the mind forces things into a first person perspective. Things are happening to and being imagined by you, the player, not observed from a godlike, top-down strategic map that shows exactly how many 5-foot squares are between you and that bandit over there and what his initiative score is.

Let’s talk about that bandit. The bandit scowls at you, gripping his hand axe, his knuckles white. The once-fine weapon has been used as a tool, its blade notched and worn. He is lanky, malnourished, and unwashed; and does not have the look of one who enjoys his work. His leather armor is surprisingly-well cared for save for a shiny patch on his left forearm, where it is obvious he has often stropped his knife. Perhaps he, like so many in this war-ravaged land, was once a guardsman or soldier; now reduced to the life of a road agent, robbing and stealing to survive. The bandit stares through the eyes of a man with nothing to lose, for he has lost everything already.

I’d be willing to bet you have a pretty good idea of what that bandit looks like in your mind now. Guess what? I bet it’s not exactly the same as what MY bandit looks like. Sure, I provided all the necessary details (perhaps too many) to form a picture, but the picture was YOUR formation. What colors is he wearing? What color are his eyes? His hair? His skin? How long is his hair, if he has any? Does he have any scars? I never described any of those things.

In the tactical environment of online roleplaying, none of that matters, because as soon as you encountered the bandit the DM plopped down a virtual token with a generic picture of a guy who likely looks nothing like what anyone pictured from the description; but now becomes what the bandit looks like for everyone. Congratulations. Your menacing bandit has been reduced to a crappy piece of clip art. (And yes, I know you can make your own tokens and you’re not reduced to clip art; but once again, a token is a token; not a bandit, or a Deep One, or a dragon.) Your thrilling, imaginative combat has now degenerated into a strategic, turn-based board game. Which would be fine for me, if I was playing a board game.

My gripes are in no way reflective of the quality of the games I have participated in. We’re all working with what tools we have. I miss being around an actual table, although I would much rather play over Discord than not play at all. I’m playing in a few hours, as a matter of fact.

I just can’t wait until we’re all back together again.

6 thoughts on “Theatre of the Mind

  1. Dave Stone

    Fully understand what you mean Keith, especially if you have a vivid imagination, the brief description can make it all the more real to each person if they have conjured it up in their head.
    The comradery of gaming can be lost over a screen, all the little side adventures, funny quips that have people in stitches, or splurting their drink or pizza, can make the night that much more enjoyable, and is a vast difference to solo gaming or over a webcam.
    In these strange times we have to make the best of it, and hope that normality will return soon, if nothing more than for peoples sanity.

    1. The Angry Piper Post author

      Yeah, I agree. It’s a bummer; I have a lot of new games I’d like to try, but they pretty much require in-person play. I passed on picking up Gloomhaven for a ridiculous discount, because I had to face the hard truth that I probably wouldn’t play it with my friends anytime soon, if at all; and no matter how discounted it is, it’s still money I’m spending for nothing.
      We played some D&D last night and it was fun. I’ll take what I can get.

  2. Dick Garrison

    Strangely over the five month lock =down over here I played quite a few games with my youngest, Including Hott, cardgames CCG’s (his speciality) , and several very good board games, we also played as a family over the net with my other son and his girlfriend (Talisman), but this time I was off (the last month) I didn’t play a bean!, now I know my son was back at Uni (virtually), but even so, nothing!

    Don’t really know why this is, we normally have a few games over Christmas when the eldest comes home, but he isn’t this year, so will be interesting to see what happens.

    I think I’ve said this to you before, but I really miss going to a show!, even though I only went to one in 2019, now I can’t I really want to, but that is really the only thing I miss about not going out, other than that I really like it tbh!

    I totally get what you mean though about face to face interaction, but take what you can get when you can get it as “Linda Lovelace” used to say

    Cheers Roger.

  3. Matt

    Good post, and I even as a non-gamer I can see where you’re coming from in terms of missing gaming thanks to this bloody plague, especially as it’s been exacerbated by inept and sociopathic government.

    I’ve bought Cthulhu: Death May Die and am looking forward to painting and playing it (my girlfriend likes board games such as Risk, so she’s up for a game). Now I’m on your side of the country, if you’re willing to make the arduous journey to the depths of VT let me know.

    1. The Angry Piper Post author

      Thanks for the invite, Matt! I have never heard of that game, so now I’m resisting the urge to Google it with all my might, lest I buy myself (another) Christmas present!

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