Describing a Space VS Expressing a Narrative

“You’re in a dark tunnel about five feet across, there is a doorway ahead to your right but the tunnel also continues straight ahead, fading into the dark.”

My friends and I were playing our weekly roleplaying game session when, to my surprise, our GM made this statement this to us.

So Why Was That Statement Surprising?

We were playing Hot Circle, a game about evolving characters, interpersonal drama, and inner/outer conflict. It is a game focused on narrative, about people acting on what they believe about themselves and the world, often pushing those believes onto each other.

It is not a game about dark tunnels; it is not a game about space (as in area, not as in the star-filled sky).

And it got me thinking – about what I expected my GM to say, about what they actually said, and about what those differences mean.

I think there are two broad conversational meta-topics of any roleplaying game – Space and Narrative.

Space – the Previous Frontier

When focusing on space, GMs describe (and other players expect or ask about) their immediate surroundings, such as what they can currently perceive and what threats are currently facing them. For example, Pathfinder is a game very focused on space as it uses maps and has the range of abilities measured by feet.

The question underlining a space-focused mindset is utilitarian – “What is within my environment, and how can I use it to further my goals?” It focuses not on literal space but rather tools to be used (to the point where I almost named this mindset that instead).

This is the primary mindset TTRPGs were designed for when they first branched off from wargames. Success was typified by continued survival of characters, acquisition of greater resources, and an increase in power, all three of which are common in Dungeons and Dragons.

As TTRPGs grew more popular and varied though, a growing amount of games started focusing on the other TTRPG meta-topic.

Narrative – Creating Drama

Narrative often sees players having in-character conversations and describing what their character feels or does as if in a book or movie. Apocalypse World is one of the most well-known games with narrative-focused mechanics, called Moves, that react to the narrative, do their thing, and then direct the group back to the narrative now that it has changed:

When you go aggro on someone, say what you want them to do, and say what you’ll do if they don’t. Roll+hard. On a 10+, they have to choose: force your hand, or cave and do what you want. If they force your hand, you can do what you threatened, including inflicting harm as established. On a 7–9, they can choose to force your hand or to cave, but they can also choose instead to fight back or make a break for it, and now you’re doing battle with them. On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

Go Aggro – one of the moves in Apocalypse World that everyone has access to

The narrative focus tends to ask more dramatic questions – “What is happening right now, and why do I care?”

This mindset was not supported well in early games. If you wanted to do something tragic for the story, your character would often get punished for it in a way that wasn’t fun for you. Now though, there are hundreds of games that primarily focus on the narrative mindset over the space. The previously mentioned Apocalypse World has spawned an entire genre of games called ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’, other games like Nobilis, Microscope, Fiasco and many more now exist to support players who want to play with the narrative focus.

Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Yes…and no.

I argue that these two mindsets are mutually exclusive within a given moment. You can think about things from one or the other, but not both at the same time.

I also argue that some good games use both focuses in different ways in different times, typically with the combat (space-focused)/noncombat (narrative-focused) dichotomy. Shifting back and forth between these two mindsets in ways where they encourage and reinforce each other is what can make a game great.

Neither focus is inherently tied to complexity level (aka “crunch”). Burning Wheel is a very dauntingly complex game that is primarily focused on narrative, and The Black Hack is quite a simple game that is focused on space.

Additionally, both mindsets can result in compelling stories being created as a result of play, it’s simply a different kind of story.

However, when a game tries to focus on both narrative and space at the exact same time, in the same moment, then they trip each other over and end up with an experience that is less than the sum of its parts.

From the Ninth World Guidebook

Numenera – Caught in the Middle

Numenera is a game that wants to be everything. Fantasy. Sci-Fi. Post-Apocalyptic. Space-focused. Narrative-focused. All at the same time.

I’m currently GMing a campaign of it on sundays (uploaded to youtube here) and it’s been…mixed. Not to say the experience has been bad, everyone has been having a lot of fun – but the majority of that is due to the group’s interactions with each other and the details of the custom setting we’re using. When the game mechanics themselves get involved, things can sometimes feel confusing.

Let’s take combat as the primary example. The game says you can do anything in combat like a narrative game, but it only has rules for doing attacks with damage. It says that things like approach matters, but then gives all creatures a base proficiency (level) that equally applies to all interactions unless specifically stated otherwise. It says this is a weird new sci-fi-fantasy mix but almost all equipment comes straight out Dungeons and Dragons. It says it’s about discovery but there aren’t any specialized rules for discovering things.

Numenera is still a good game, but it is also has some glaring flaws and drawbacks. It’s also possible that the Cyper System that came afterwards fixes those. But of all the games I have played, it perfectly encapsulates the fact that narrative and space focus can absolutely work against each other if improperly designed.

Thanks for Reading! Click Here to Read Part 2

Here is a table of the typical differences between these two mindsets that I made during the writing of this post.

Describes a space from the point of view of a subject, but without a necessary response from a subject.Focused on a subject, often describing people acting or reacting towards each other individually.
Describes surroundings without relation to time, depicting stable static elements that are assumed to always be true during this scene of play.Describes dynamic actions that are fleeting and temporary, that have a start and stop, that usually have consequences and change things.
Focused on moment-to-moment minutiae, giving the players a lot of power to decide their pace.More flexible with time, skipping forward to the next interesting situation and sometimes even flashing backwards.
Sometimes keeps information about the area hidden behind a successful action to perceive or similar. Typically more open about surroundings and free and open with information.
Often intended to be studied, solved, overcome like a puzzle.Often intended to be felt, reacted to, engaged with creative and narrative imagination.