Shifting perspectives

edited November 2007 in Story Games
Here's two examples of a thing I've not seen discussed much:

I played a game of Cold City recently. The GM described the group entering a train yard, and didn't describe the yard (which wasn't necessary at the time). So I imagined a mix of Black Mesa and City 17 from Half Life and de_train from Counterstrike. Dusty, narrow, light from above somewhere.

A little while later, he sketched a map and described some more. Wide, damp, more rust. Almost completely different to what I'd imagined, apart from the trains. So I revisualised the place. Nothing I'd previous imagined needed to be discussed. I clarified a couple of wee details. I'd not done anything I 'couldnt' have. And the other players' actions and descriptions still fit.

A few weeks back, I played Dirty Secrets. One player was fond of, and good at narrating detail. The detail seemed almost tyrannical - before we knew a character, the player had defined them too much. It was also, for me, an uncomfortable amount of specificity - my brain turned off because it didn't have to visualise.

So what's going on in these two cases? And what examples do you have of the former, in particular?


  • This is something fiction writers have to work hard on -- providing enough details to create a striking image, but not so many that it overburdens the reader. If you read much 18th century English literature, you know that this wasn't a concern for writers and readers of the time; they were very happy with a chapter describing the protagonists looks, wardrobe and ancestry, and another chapter describing the ancestral mansion.

    I wonder if some of this is related to the rise of movies as a cultural medium, and the shift from a aural/verbal perspective to a visual one. If you read The Maltese Falcon, it contains a concise description of Sam Spade in it; nonetheless, I've never been able to see him as anyone other than Humphrey Bogart.

    It would be an interesting experiment to have different groups to stop, mid-encounter, and have everybody draw sketches of where the character are and what it looks like there. My guess is that there's a huge amount of variation that doesn't become obvious until it becomes significant mechanically or narratively.
  • For non-mechanical details, I fall back on Sorenson's Rule of Three: describe three things about the character/location/thingy. I prefer mechanically-relevant details to be explained immediately and up front, or have their revelations incorporated into the resolution procedures of the game.
  • For me, there is a sweet spot, but it moves around depending on what we're doing at the table.

    "It's a train yard. It's rusty and dark," is plenty, most of the time. If I need a boxcar with a ladder on the side, it's in there, no worries. The short version gives us a place to expand on as needed, without being pinned down. I think almost everything in my gaming these days is coming in as this light weight. "Serpent cult. Poison magic. [drawing of sigil]." Then the real stuff happens in play.

    Now, when we finally get a hold of the dark book of prophecy that we've been hunting for six sessions? Yeah, I can stand for someone to go on a bit about the look of the binding and what the paper is like and especially the kind of alien writing all scrawled in the margins. Maybe they even have some cool images cobbled together or a prop, even. Those can be great.

    Another nice middle ground for me is just having images. I did this with our game set in 1500s Venice. I had a really great period map and a bunch of pictures of the city that could have been taken then if they had cameras. Plus a bunch of family names. And that was about it. The real content came about in play. Some was in my head before we started, or in my notebook. But a lot of it grew out of the word and image seeds and it was great stuff. Doubly great because we made it together and gave it texture and context.

    And now that I think about it, I did try to do some kind of info dump at the beginning, but no one was invested and it was largely forgotten. A lot of it turned out to be a big part of the game, but that's because it grew as we went, not because we stuck to some pre-made, fixed thing.
  • Danny's last paragraph touched on something interesting. The examples of how you build detail are terrific, though, guys.

    What is the thing we do (and can it be honed, or used poorly) when we adjust our internal picture of an event? There's something about this that's niggling and intriguing me.
  • Posted By: Joe MurphyWhat is the thing we do (and can it be honed, or used poorly) when weadjust our internal pictureof an event? There's something about this that's niggling and intriguing me.
    I'm intrigued, but I'm also confused. Aren't we adjusting our internal picture of the events? Maybe something a little bit more specific would help me wrap my head around this subject.
  • Hey, Max.

    Have a look at my Cold City example above.

    I think what intrigues me is that adjusting our internal map is not something we do much in other artforms or media. A painting is a painting. An adjustment in a movie tends to be about the story, not the imagery. We might have to tweak the picture a bit in certain novels, I suppose.

    In RPGs, it's something do all the time, because our brains aren't linked up. And it's something we can be good at - keeping the picture low-res until a battle, when it becomes more detailed, say. It can also cause problems, when my image and your image aren't even close.
  • The examples given make it pretty clear what's happening, and that's why I'm intrigued. The OP made sense to me, but I'm confused by the later question:

    "What is the thing we do (and can it be honed, or used poorly) when we adjust our internal picture of an event?"

    The thing we do is adjust our internal picture. Right? What am I missing?
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