The other day we did some role playing sans-battle board. Now don't get me wrong, I like battle maps, especially the beautiful detailed ones we see from companies like Paizo, but bringing the entire scene to life in your head has it's own kind of charm.
The players were lowering a huge drill from a space ship to a moon. (It was veeery realistic). Once lowered, they had to fend off some aliens while the drill completed it's work. We didn't represent any of this on a battle map, and while my descriptive skills could use some work, the scene was still relatively effective.
This method sacrifices some clarity to leverage the creativity inside each players' mind. Like reading a book vs. watching a movie, each player has their own vision of a scene, constructed on their own. While this can lead to occasional inconsistencies, the vision they create will often be more powerful than anything I can visually present them with.
Another advantage is that each player can have their own slightly different vision. One player might picture a hard sci-fi scene like from The Expanse, while another pictures things looking like a Mecha Anime. Yet another player might picture things blurry and washed out like a 70's sci-fi movie.
These sorts of inconsistencies are great, since they're generally compatible, and each player gets to enjoy their own favorite flavor of the setting.
Battle maps are great for highly tactical combats. They help speed up combat by sky-rocketing clarity and eliminating confusion. Many of them even look great, giving everyone a consistent view of the setting and situation. When only using descriptions, a lot of time is spent re-explaining complicated scenarios, and battle maps can avoid that by providing instant clarity.
Still though, when I think back on games I've played with lots of battle maps, the maps are what I picture. I can't remember the details, but I picture my character icon and my friends when we were clustered in a hallway getting blasted by a cone of cold. I wasn't ever forced to really picture things, so I just used the imagery in front of me.
In other games, my memories are far more personal. An AD&D 2nd game I played years ago had scenes that still stick with me. I can picture our party standing on top of a temple as a dragon swoops in and attacks. I can see us fighting a dragon in human form next to a waterfall. I can picture us facing off against purple whale-like creatures outside a performance hall. Are any of those memories completely accurate? Well there's no way, but they're mine and I like them.
Ideally, I'd like to use both styles in the same game. This can be confusing and jarring though, especially when the game relies on geometric mechanics. Is there a spot open to flank? How many can I hit with my area attack?
My solution for this is for the GM to be lenient and not terribly accurate or realistic. If the GM's busting your balls about geometry they won't show you, you're just going to want the battle map back. Perhaps the would-be flanker might suffer an opportunity attack if they move into position, but if you start describing which diagonal squares are and aren't available, the purpose has been defeated.
Perhaps a game could use battle maps for complicated encounters - ones with many different enemies, environmental mechanics, switches to pull, or boulders to drop. But then use Theater of the Mind for simpler more iconic fights. The boss monster standing ready for you on a floating platform could be easy to run without a board and fun to picture in your mind. One player might ask, "Is there's enough space on the platform for my character to jump over too?" All the GM has to do is say yes. The dimensions of the floating platform aren't that important, and we don't have a battle map forcing us to worry about them.
Again, I have a lot of fun with battle maps, but I also think Theater of the Mind has a place, even in crunchier games like D&D. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments below!