Monday night’s game in Mystamyr – the seventeenth session – was a lot of fun and the party was involved in a big fight against Orcs and Goblins up at The Whisper Caves. But, about halfway into the fight, I did notice a very big shift once we were in full throttle battle mode using Roll20: we all pretty much stopped describing and slipped instead into full tactical mode.
We are playing using Mythras Classic Fantasy – d100 dungeoneering with the classic vibe and a whole bucket of tasty tactical options. For quite a few sessions now we’ve been moving deeper into descriptive “theatre of the mind” while dealing with a few social interactions. We snap out of that for combats, especially when they involve multiple “bad guys” because the group generally enjoys the full experience with maps, tokens, and a lot of tactical crunch.
About an hour into the fight on Monday, I noticed that I had stopped describing the scene. It was an effort to narrate the swings and blasts in the fight because in lots of ways, given the way Mythras plays, it seemed unnecessary. But when a player decided to add some back in I noticed the difference this made to my experience of play: I loved it!
I have noticed that if you give me a tactical battle map, tokens or miniatures, and let me run or play out a fight then I will slip (often without realising it) into a different frame of mind. Let’s call it Skirmish Mode – wherein I become focused on how to use the rules of battle to get the most effective outcome for the combatants. This stands in sharp contrast to when the maps, tokens or miniatures go away.
In Descriptive Mode, such as when running the Northern Isles game wherein all the rules are behind the screen, I focus on the details of the emergent narrative. Every detail, second by second, gets amplified in my mind and it’s as if I am in the scene. Roleplaying is easier for me in this mode of experience because I am there: in the imaginary moment, present in the character’s perceptions, and deciding based on their needs and desires. And it’s fair to say that my heart skips along happier when I am deep in the Otherworld.
There is nothing wrong with Skirmish Mode – the full tactical combat scene is replete with challenge and excitement as I try to milk the rules for all they are worth – but given a choice, I would choose the immersed Descriptive Mode any day. Of course, one provides for one’s table and tries to give the players what they want.
Therein lies the rub: I can run a fully tactical skirmish combat game like the best of ’em, but at heart what I really prefer is to live that fight through the eyes of the characters. On Monday, I had the cowardly Goblins begin to act like cowardly Goblins and, right there, I could see a few players expressions shift towards, “Why are they doing THAT?”
It’s a different style of play, just as valid as any other in my mind. But it is different. Once again, I realised that I really prefer gaming without Roll20, without maps and tokens, and without focusing on getting the most from the rules of the game. Your mileage may, of course, vary.