Battlemats are Television
Back in the earliest days of TV’s popularity there was a very real concern that it would be the end of radio. After all, given the choice between being able to see the action and having to use your imagination there’s no competition, right?
And they’re right – there is no competition. Imagination wins every time.
That’s where we are with battlemats and miniatures play, right now. While it’s tempting (and easiest) to sit back and watch the action unfold on a slab of pre-printed cardstock it’s just not that same as picturing the action in your mind. For a start, it limits your actions.
Let’s say you’re using a 5×5 battlemat. On the battlemat there’s a sarcophagus in the centre with pillars set into the four corners. It’s all there – you can see it – and the players’ actions are defined by the environment. If there’s a combat they’ll move around the pillars and perhaps treat the sarcophagus as difficult terrain. A wise GM might even allow a +1 attack bonus for higher ground if the hero is stood atop it.
Now, let’s play with our minds:
GM: You’re inside a 25′ square room. There is a sarcophagus in the centre and pillars set into the four corners. One of the pillars looks particularly worn and uneven. There’s arches to the North and East.
Player1: The lid isn’t moving is it? I hate it when that happens.
Player2: Is there any rubble underneath that pillar I can use as ammo for my sling?
Player3: Can we push the sarcophagus? There might be stairs down…..
… and the game plays on. We’re visualizing the scene and interracting with the environment in ways we just don’t do with a static battlemat. Of course, there’s nothing with using a battlemat and minis to stop us doing any of that, but let’s face it – we don’t. As a GM it’s liberating as well – I can add details to the scene based on the players’ questions, adding rubble, chandeliers to swing from and more. If I want to add a chest hidden in a shadowy corner, I can. Try doing that with a battlemat and you just look like a fool who forgot to put it in when you laid down the ‘mat.
Going back to the TV & Radio comparison. I remember and love the old Classic Radio Series where we can sit back and visualise the action. I can picture Superman, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Dick Tracy and the rest as they battle bad guys in full glorious imagination-o-vision. My idea of what they and the locations look like might well be different to how you visualise them, and that doesn’t matter. We’re sharing the narrative and each one of us is investing a little piece of ourselves into the tale. With the advent of TV, that piece of injected imagination died.
Except, of course, it didn’t. Radio as a media form is bigger and bolder than ever. Internet Radio has hit the intertubes in ways that TV could only dream of with new streaming stations appearing every hour of every day. Heck, you can even make your own. All those Classic Radio Serials (or a fair chunk of ’em, at least) live on with sites such as the OTR.Network Library offering literally thousands of shows for free listening pleasure. I recommend spending a few hours sitting back and giving your imagination a workout.
It will make you a better gamer, I swear.