Theatre of the mind is a style of play in which the game world is wholly imagined by the players instead of being represented by game aids. That is, theatre of the mind games do not use miniatures, but also generally do not use props, maps, diagrams, or any other physical game aids. The emphasis is on players experiencing what is happening in their imagination.
Advantages of theatre of the mind:
- Players can visualize their favorite version of something
- Play can focus on climax, anticlimax, dramatic actions, and pathos rather than cold, hard measurements
- Expensive visual aids are not needed
Disadvantages of theatre of the mind:
- Participants may not agree on what has happened
- Players may disagree on how things and people are positioned
- Some players may struggle to visualize things without visual aids
- Americans often reflexively spell it "theater," which is commonly accepted for a movie theater but not for dramatic performances
The term theatre of the mind predates modern role-playing games, having been associated with radio dramas for decades before the release of original Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, and groups have played theatre of the mind-style campaigns since the earliest days of D&D, so it is no surprise that the term came to be applied to this style of role-playing early on. For example, the publishing company Theatre of the Mind Enterprises released supplements for Call of Cthulhu as early as 1983. In 1993, White Wolf Publishing released a live-action role-playing game named after the style, called Mind's Eye Theatre. By 2012, the term was widespread enough that Wizards of the Coast used it without definition in material for the then-upcoming 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, such as in the introductory adventure Caves of Chaos.