Space in role-playing

Late in September I played in an excellent twenty-person live action as part of SAGA’s Nanocon. We had a number of colourful characters, a bunch of (spontaneous and set-piece) scenes that involved the entire cast, and a bunch of boisterous fist-fights (and a staking or two) to spice up the evening, but almost all my favourite scenes were small, two-person conversations in the quiet spaces between the big action.

This sense of space can be hard to achieve. Especially in big1 games, GMs and writers can feel the need to weave together multiple complex plot-lines, giving every player so much to do that they’re frantically checking their list of actionables every minute of the game, working out who they have to talk to next. In comparison, my character in September’s LARP had a grand total of two goals. I never felt particularly rushed, and I even got the chance to make my own goals as the night progressed.

This feeling of being over-stretched, of constantly being on your feet, was aptly described by Kamil Buchtík in a recent article on Nordic LARP:

[A few] players had more plots than they were able to play. They ignored some of them…but more often this lead the players to shallow play. They were more “doing” and less “acting and feeling”: Declare love, checked. Business meeting, checked. Confront the rival in love, checked. Break up, checked…

Space is a tricky thing to bring to tabletop games as well. Worse, you only have the one GM, around whom action revolves: it’s not as common to have two players skive off to one corner where they can have a quiet scene, and if that scene happens at the table you’ll have a bunch of players yawning, checking their phones and waiting for their scene to start. It’s a little discouraging.

Which is a pity, because I like that sense of space. It lets you sit back and reflect a bit, maybe even coming to understand your character a bit better. And sometimes the quiet scenes are the best bits of the session.

What is space?

Space is something that’s tricky to pin down. The abstract idea of “space” in a roleplaying game is really a vague description of the feeling you get when you have time to process what’s happening, to assimilate the recent changes into your character, and use these feelings as feedback in what to do next. At the table, I want to suggest that this manifests itself as what I’m going to call “quiet scenes”. Quiet scenes tend to:

Space around the game

There’s two types of space we see. First, space that we experience as characters: taking a leaf from film, we could call this diagetic space (i.e. space that the characters experience). Coupled with this is the idea that we as players can do with a bit of space now and again. This non-diagetic (i.e. not experienced by the characters, but by the audience/players) space takes a somewhat different form: often this means that we spend time between scenes reflecting on what just happened, rather than diving in to the next scene. McDaldno and Tegu, in Safe Hearts, describe how they see non-diagetic space when playing Monsterhearts:

When you play Monsterhearts, take breaks. Between scenes, give people thirty seconds to crack jokes and release some of their emotional tension. Throughout the session, at least once or twice, call for a water break where people actually get up and leave the table. When you finish a Season, actually follow the advice in the text and play a different game as a palette cleanser before deciding whether you will return to Monsterhearts.

Breaks give you room to breathe, to reflect upon how the contents of each scene made you feel, and to think more about the boundaries that you’ve expressed. If you are unsatisfied with the direction the story is moving in, breaks let you decide upon an approach or response - do you talk about it with the other players, play your character differently, or excuse yourself from the game? Maybe you realize that you need to say, “hey folks, that scene was really emotional and scary for me, but I’m glad it happened the way it did.”

Take breaks, remember to breathe, remember to reflect.

Matthias Holter, in Archipelago, sums it up thus: “Breathe in. Breathe out. Take your time.”

But what do they do?

This is kind of the clincher - why should we even bother putting these spaces in our games?

Games with space - games that let us explore our characters and their interactions with others - seem to lead toward a particular style of play. It’s a lot more about the characters as people, and how they relate with other people, than about their mechanical effectiveness. Rather than focussing on situations that leverage our characters’ mechanics, we’re focussing on situations that let them show their personalities and histories, and how they fit together.

Space in RPGs makes them more character-driven: our characters become richer and deeper and more complex, and that naturally drives us to act on our characters’ motives.

Nurturing space

By its nature, space is a difficult thing to protect and grow. Action trumps inaction: loud, boisterous scenes with lots of action, obstacles, bad guys breaking down doors, and a bunch of dice hitting the table will tend to win out over quiet, small scenes. Therefore we need to encourage space if we want to see it appear at the table.

For the players

I think these non-diegetic spaces in our game at least somewhat encourage the emergence of diegetic space. If we have even half a minute to reflect on what just happened, we start to see where we’d like the story to go: who we need to talk to now, what emotions we want to express, and so on. Of course, the GM still needs to encourage their players to initiate scenes (or suggest quiet scenes themselves).

A great non-diegetic space to take advantage of in campaign play is the down-time between sessions. Most of the time, the table regards this as “dead time”: nothing happens between sessions, we go about our daily life, then one week later we pick up where we left off. But this is a great time to start considering how our characters feel about what just happened. This might involve the GM emailing players and asking them questions, or perhaps the players just post little snippets of thoughts to the rest of the group. You’re not trying to continue play, just to provide some thoughts and reflections.

It’s sometimes hard to promote non-diagetic space at the table: you’re only here for three (or however many) hours per week, and you might as well make it count. Sitting around thinking almost feels like wasting that time. Techniques like McDaldno and Tegu suggest above are perhaps the best way to develop non-diagetic space - building small breathing-spaces into the regular back and forth of the game, extending already-existing breaks (between scenes, between narrative arcs, breaks in in-game time) rather than trying to create anything new.

One interesting example of a non-diagetic space in games arises in Matthjis Holter’s Society of Dreamers. A GMless game, every player takes a turn at setting a scene, with the theme randomly chosen. Since you often don’t know what sort of scene you need to set until you’re given your theme, there’s often a bit of quiet time as you work out what to do. The game explicitly encourages other players to reflect at this point, suggesting such activities as writing a letter to the group from elsewhere, writing an in-character journal entry, or “meditating on dream imagery”.

For the characters

Of course, these don’t work unless you have some sort of framework for quiet scenes within the game proper. You can always just say “I want a scene where I and this other character talk about our shared history”, but sometimes it’s hard to do that when you should really be saving the Dread Amulet of Zod and averting the destruction of the world. Some groups, used to this sort of play, will set these scenes anyway, but I think that lots of groups need a little encouragement. By adding mechanics that revolve around quiet scenes, you do two things: first, you explicitly put quiet scenes on the table as a resource for story-telling, and second, you encourage players to use these quiet scenes as a means to access special mechanics.

It seems to me that mechanics can be divided into three categories:

Leading in

These mechanics either require, or encourage, players to initiate a quiet scene following their use. Some mechanics do this by offering a mechanical carrot, others just by being there (and bringing attention to the fact that the players could have a quiet scene right now if they wanted).

As an example of a simple “permissive” scene without any reward, consider Archipelago’s ritual phrase “I’d like an interlude”:

If you have something you really want to narrate, that would fit just right after the current turn has ended, you can ask for an interlude. If the group agrees, you get a minute after the current scene has ended to narrate. Make it short – it’s not your turn, you’re just squeezing in with a cool, brief moment!

You can also see a permutation of this in Ben Robbins’ [Kingdom][], which introduces the idea of characters’ reactions to a scene:

Any player can briefly narrate how their character reacts to the scene. It must be a direct reaction to what just happened. Each player can make one and use it to do or show one thing.

You can also reward characters if they promise a quiet scene in the near future. For example, a character suffering short-term fallout in Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard must choose from a list of possible results, including:

Have your character leave the scene and spend some time alone.

By picking this option, you avoid having to pick from a series of somewhat more mechanically-limiting options, but this is also the perfect set-up for someone to come out and have a quiet scene with you.

Triggered within the scene

These mechanics are only accessible within a quiet scene. This means that you might need to define what a quiet scene is, perhaps cherry-picking those aspects of a quiet scene that are important to you. For example, Ben Lehman’s Bliss Stage is about teenagers who fight dream-aliens in giant robots made of feelings2. Between the action-packed dream-alien fighting scenes, the characters get to have Interlude Actions, where they talk to other characters about their feelings or see how their relationships are doing. By acting in a particular manner during the scene (as themselves, or with others), characters can trigger a number of mechanically beneficial actions, including relieving themselves of trauma they’ve accumulated in their battles and building trust or intimacy with their friends. However, you can only do this if you’re in an Interlude Action: you can only do these things when you engage in a quiet scene.

Another example of these quiet-scene dependent mechanics is, in a way, those found in Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. A number of the characters in Apoc World have moves that require them to be intimate with another person: two of the Brainer’s moves (“Deep brain scan” and “In-brain puppet strings”) both require you to have “time and physical intimacy” with someone, while the Skinner requires that they have “time and solitude” with someone. Both these conditions encourage quieter, one-on-one scenes. Each playbook in Apoc World also has their own “special move” that triggers when they have sex with someone - this encourages you to develop the sort of bonds that can develop into romantic/sexual relationships. Even moves like Read a person encourage you to sit down and have quieter scenes: while they don’t require that you fulfil all the requirements of the quiet scene that I specified above (or even require that you start a new scene), they still encourage you to sit down and talk to people, which in turn can reduce the “volume” of the action in a scene even as you push towards your own goals.

Leading from a scene

Finally, there are those mechanics that lead you out of a quiet scene, or result from such a scene. The most obvious of these are the refresh scene mechanics from Clinton R. Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday, which make an appearance in John Harper’s Lady Blackbird. From Lady Blackbird’s character/rules sheet:

You can refresh your pool back to 7 dice by having a refreshment scene with another character. You may also remove a condition or regain the use of a Secret, depending on the details of the scene. A refreshment scene is a good time to ask questions (in character) so the other player can show off aspects of his or her PC—"Why did you choose this life?“—"What do you think of the Lady?"—"Why did you take this job?” etc. Refreshment scenes can be flashbacks, too.

In this case, rather than “front-loading” the scene with a mechanical bonus, we put it on the rear - coming out of the scene, we provide a reward. These mechanics are functionally identical to those I discuss in “Leading into a scene”, but the flavour and tone of the interaction is (I think) significantly different. When you use a mechanical trigger to lead into a scene, you’re implying that the quiet scene is a reaction to the mechanical trigger. When the quiet scene is the trigger for the action, the benefit is a reaction to that quiet time you just spent.

Away from carrot-driven play

One possible unintended side-effect of the above rules is that players start angling toward quiet scenes not to develop their character and relationships, but solely for the mechanical bonus. Of course, players will always be aware that such scenes provide some form of bonus (or “carrot”), but in my mind there’s a big difference between:

This style of play, which I’ve previously called “carrot-driven play”, encourages people to think of their characters as pawns, driving them around the narrative playing field for bonuses rather than having them react as people.

It’s tricky to balance the mechanical bonus of a quiet scene against the possibility that people will abuse it. In an ideal world, your story- and character-oriented group would never consider such a blatant power-play, but this is the real world, with normal people and their flaws. If players start abusing quiet scene mechanics in this way, it suggests to me that you’re offering too much in return for a quiet scene. It might be better to tone down the rewards.

Another way to prevent this type of play is to veer away from the model of do-the-thing, get-the-reward. Games such as Bliss Stage and Luke Crane’s Mouse Guard strictly structure their quiet scenes: you have to have some form of non-action scene in between your regular story beats, and only at specific points. This imparts a particular structure to your game: by ensuring that it takes a given format, you can improve the overall quality of the story and crack down on an excess of quiet scenes, at the cost of flexibility.

Another solution is to remove the mechanical benefit entirely, just keeping a structure in place so people know that they can request quiet scenes (and how to go about it). Games like Archipelago and Kingdom do this well, and you can be sure that people are now requesting or initiating the scenes not because they benefit mechanically, but because they really want to drive relationship-driven play.

Conclusion

So it turns out I’ve got a bit to say on the subject of quiet scenes and space in your game. I think they’re a powerful weapon if you’re trying to build a relationship-based or character-based game, but they do need careful handling. Whether you want to encourage them with mechanical reward, draw attention to them with simple rules, or even enforce them with specific in-game structures, there’s a number of ways to bring this sort of quiet fiction to the forefront of the game.


  1. In Christchurch, anything over fifteen people is “big”. 

  2. This is the most concise and accurate description of the game I could give. If you like media references, think of it as “Neon Genesis Evangelion” meets “The Tribe” meets “Inception”.