Jan 31, 2012

The Long Narrative: Recurring Locations

While roleplaying games don't have a budget in the traditional sense, they do share one kind of scarcity with television and movies, which is the limited amount of attention and memory the audience has. If anything, this is more of a hard limit on roleplaying games than it is for replayable media like television and movies because one can't really replay or rewatch a section of a roleplaying game. Once it happens, it has to continue to live in the minds of the players and DM, with at best a few supplemental notes to assist the memory.

One way in which television shows conserve the attention of the audience is in the use of recurring locations / sets. Sitcom sets, for example, are often focused on a single apartment or house or place of business. The goal is to create a familiarity with the space. Familiarity places fewer demands on the attention, while allowing minor changes and alterations to stand out more clearly. Recurring locations push internal conflict to the forefront while unfamiliar ones emphasise conflict with external forces. That's why you know on Star Trek that when they stay on-board the ship it'll be a character-driven episode, and when they leave the ship it'll be more action-oriented. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but even when it's violated, the principle of allowing the background to appear familiar and boring so as not to draw attention away from the characters. People argue in corridors and grey rooms with chairs, they shoot one another in front of reactors and strange alien vistas.

Science fiction games, like science fiction shows, usually have a go-to familiar location - a space ship. The advantage of this location is that it travels with the PCs as they go on their adventures. For fantasy games this is more difficult. One of the cleverest uses of this principle comes from a video game, Dragon Age: Origins (the first one). Your character wanders around with their team for most of the game, and you get little side exchanges here and there, but the brilliance comes out when you camp. No matter where you camp, you get a consistent set up, with all the characters in the same places, and the terrain looking the same, and basically the whole place becomes extremely familiar. It's in the camp that you squabble and cajole your team of misfits into sleeping with you or at least teaching you how to use the cool armour you picked up in the previous dungeon.

Try it: Ask PCs to draw out what their camp looks like, who sleeps where and then whenever they camp for the night, pull out the map and use it as a point of reference. As a special bonus, your PCs have just drawn the basis of the battlemap you will use for night time ambushes and wandering monsters. You can fleck some trees or rocks around the edges for variety as needed. And because they'll get used to this set-up, times where they are fleeing across the moors being pursued and have to sleep out in shitty weather will stand out. As PCs grow more familiar with their camp, they will begin to use it as an opportunity to socialise with one another, and the consistency of the set up will help them to imagine the scene.