The last post here was my first about tabletop roleplaying games. It got a lot of excellent feedback, and it quickly became apparent that a follow-up post was needed, so here it is!
To summarize the previous article
Space and Narrative are two separate mindsets that one can embody when playing a roleplaying game, either as a PC or as a GM. The space mindset typically focuses on immediate surroundings regardless of situation, as well as threats, risks and the tools to overcome them. The narrative mindset typically focuses on engaging situations, as well as character interactions, feelings, and dramatic tension.
Can you elaborate more on Space and Narrative?
The Space mindset is, ultimately, about success and failure, victory or defeat, survival or death. The game is a competition to be won, or at least ‘not lost’. In this mindset of competition (and in more than just games), everything can be exploited to further the goal of victory. Even other people (NPCs hopefully, not other PCs) might not be seen as more than tools to further ones own ends. Some more extreme examples of Space include:
- Trying to exploit the rules in ways that are clearly nonsense in the narrative (such as The Peasant Railgun)
- Portraying every room or tunnel in detail and how they connect to each other
- Describing what your character does based purely on what gives them the best roll.
- Looting every corpse, no matter the circumstances
- Picking a character’s class or race based on abilities and stats
The Narrative mindset is about experiencing what happens, and goals in this mindset typically relate to dramatic tension and satisfaction. This mindset typically engages directly with other people (NPCs and PCs), as the interactions between them are the ends themselves. Some examples of Narrative include:
- Wanting to break or bypass a rule in order to facilitate a dramatic moment
- Describing what your character does based on what they are feeling
- Skipping past several almost-empty rooms to the next interesting encounter
- Burying the dead with their belongings
In the long term people rarely just focused on one of the two mindsets, but rather flip between them depending on circumstance. When playing D&D 5e you might initially choose a Dragonborn because of the bonus to Strength that it grants (space) but then you can use that to inform what your characters personality would be like (narrative).
Neither of these mindsets are limited to tabletop roleplaying games either. In every game, some people are competitive and want to win while others want to experience the game itself, and most are somewhere on the spectrum between the two.
For another lens about roleplaying game mindsets – see this post about Stances.
What games integrate both Space and Narrative well?
Blades in the Dark is fascinating in how it combines the Space and Narrative mindsets to work together, such as:
- Downtime is almost board-game-y in how it works. You have a specified number of downtime actions you can do after each score, and they are specifically limited in scope and risk. Yet you are also the safest during it, and it’s the only time you can recover Stress. This is very space-oriented, yet it also narratively covers a timeskip or montage after the score for things to cool down.
- The Position (how bad will it be if you fail) and Effect (how good will it be if you succeed) discussion is a codified version of fictional positioning that allows players to retroactively change their description to get a more desirable position and effect. It also allows them to exchange a level of position for effect and vice-versa (if they can justify it in the narrative).
- Your crew can expand its territory by taking claims, which are represented through a physical grid of connected squares that give specific bonuses, yet the crew can also take claims out of order or from outside of their map entirely.
Overall, Blades uses its the Space mindset to encourage the behavior that also fits the Narrative mindset, and vice-versa, while rarely outright restricting anything.
Burning Wheel heavily encourages certain aspects of the space mindset, such as skill management and FORKing, while ultimately keeping the core of the game about the narrative mindset, the Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits of each character. It does this by making failure just as interesting and fun as success, and having your character grow through trying instead of through succeeding. (I’m not sure this applies to the injury and recovery system though).
Fate Accelerated is very narrative-focused, where your stats are all called Approaches such as Careful and Sneaky and the one you roll depends entirely on your description and fictional positioning. It also uses Aspects, narrative keywords like ‘Rifle Hanging Over the Fireplace’, that can be called upon to modify an action roll. You can even add new Aspects or compel another player character to act based on a certain aspect of their character. In this game space serves narrative, but it does so in a way that achieves its goals.
How can this help me?
As an rpg player in any role, the awareness of these different focuses helped me understand what I prefer, both in general and in a given moment. This understanding helps me to know which of the two ‘languages’ a GM or another player is speaking at any time, and which a game system expects from me. Once I understand it, I can lean into it and make my own cooperative additions to the game.
As a GM, this really helped me control my descriptions better. If I wanted to focus on narrative then my descriptions of a room would be more evocative, focusing on feeling and senses. If I wanted to focus on space then I would describe more specific details such as a room’s size, layout, or inhabitants. It also helps me with pacing a game, as I consciously choose what to skip over and what to focus on in descriptions. If there are a bunch of mostly-empty rooms in a narrative game I can just say ‘you pass through a series of mostly empty rooms before coming to a…’ and so forth. I don’t need to describe things in moment-to-moment, and am free to lightly move the PCs along past the uninteresting things to the parts of the game that are interesting.
I found this especially useful when learning a new game. When preparing my current Numenera campaign, I recognized that the rules and expectations were all about delving into dangerous spaces, surviving the situations they subject you to, and discovering their secrets. So I kept my NPCs fairly simple and my world relatively static, I didn’t focus on complex plans or series’ of events. Instead I poured my energy into building the best space I could. I filled the space with numenera-style weirdness, in this case either isolated micro-narrative-situations, or strange space-related threats. I saw what Numenera wanted me to focus on, and I tried to do exactly that.
I hope that this understanding helps you do the same with your games.
And finally, what did I actually expect my GM to say in the example from the previous post?
Something along the lines of this:
“You go through the long, dark tunnel and peek through an opening at the end. Inside is a man-made torch-filled room full of dozens of people, with more doorways behind them. Many are talking casually, laughing jovially, and lounging in chairs, there’s even a small table of food. Most of them are wearing hooded black robes.”
(We were infiltrating an underground death cult church service).