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Space and time in RPG setting and situation

pemerton

Legend
This thread is a sequel/complement to this one: Approaches to prep in RPGing - GMs, players, and what play is *about*

In that thread, I observed that:

A lot of discussion of RPGing - especially when framed through ideas like "the dungeon" or "the adventure" - makes some assumptions about this stuff that aren't always brought to the surface.

It's often assumed that setting is primary - the place that the characters will be exploring and acting in. (In D&D and kindred systems this leads to very precise rule about searching for hidden things, opening doors, etc.) With setting taken as primary, it is then often assumed that situation will flow from setting - eg the players will have their PCs go somewhere, or open a door, or confront a NPC, and that will trigger/enliven the situation.​

There are different degrees and sorts of detail that can be used to describe the place that the characters are exploring and acting in. D&D has traditionally taken a very specific approach to this: architecture mapped on 5' or 10' grids (though often with more attention paid to the horizontal than the vertical aspects of this), correlated to resolution systems expressed in similarly granular terms (eg feet per round movement rates; spell ranges and effects measured in feet; etc).

Together with granular attention to space, RPGing can also pay similarly granular attention to time: for instance, durations of effects (be they magical effects, injuries, burning torches, etc) or time spent travelling. When the movement rules for a RPG are based on a detailed map plus a distance-move-per-unit-of-time character attribute, granularity in both time and space becomes a necessity if the rules are to be followed at all.

In RPGing that takes a Character => Situation => Setting approach, as described in the earlier thread, the approach to space and time is likely to be different. A nice account of the sort of difference I have in mind is found in Maelstrom Storytelling (a moderately obscure RPG from the late 90s; the quote is from p 116):

use "scene ideas" to convey the scene, instead of literalisms. The scene idea is the scene concept, as imagined in the mind of the narrator, whereas that might be different from the literal elements of the description when the scene is presented. A ten foot fence might seem really tall to one person, and a little tall to another. But if the fence is described as really tall instead of 10 feet, everyone gets the idea. In other words, focus on the intent behind the elements in the scene, and not on how big or how far things might be. If the difficulty of the task at hand (such as jumping across a chasm in a cave) is explained in terms of difficulty, it doesn't matter how far across the actual chasm spans. In a movie, for instance, the camera zooms or pans to emphasize the danger or the emotional reaction to the scene, and in so doing it manipulates the real distance of a chasm to suit the mood or "feel" of the moment. It then is no longer about how far across the character has to jump, but how hard the feat is for the character. In this way, the presentation of each element of the scene focuses on the difficulty of the obstacle, not on laws of physics. It is the idea of how hard it is, not the actual measurement of the obstacle that is important. Everyone understands adjectives such as easy, hard, and impossible, but a whole range of arguments can arise from saying that the chasm is 15 feet across. By supplying the difficulty of the task, the player fills in the distance relative to their character's capabilities. The difficult of all things is relative to the character, not to objective science, and this is much more appropriate to narrative role-play. If the players enjoy the challenge of figuring out how high and far someone can jump, they should be allowed the pleasure of doing so - as long as it doesn't interfere with the narrative flow and enjoyment of the game. . . . Players who want to climb onto your coffee table and jump across your living room to prove that their character could jump over the chasm have probably missed the whole point of the story.​

What this difference does is downplay the pre-eminence of setting in establishing situation. Rather, character is prioritised, and setting can be "read off" the framing and resolution of situation as something of a byproduct.

The way in which difficulty matters can vary from system to system - eg in Maelstrom Storytelling (and somewhat similar systems like Prince Valiant, HeroWars/Quest and 4e D&D skill challenges), it affects the difficulty of the player's roll. In a system with fixed target numbers, like Apocalypse World, it is likely to set the stakes for the narration of consequences. In any system, the narration of consequences can also be an opportunity to establish more setting detail.

The passage in Maelstrom is focused on space, but the same approach can be taken to time. It is possible to narrate time in relative terms - "you've got as long as you need" vs "you arrive in the nick of time, with no chance for any preparation", either as an element of GM-imposed framing (in which case it is a way of establishing pacing and difficulty) or as a consequence of a check.

Examples of durations well-adapted to this sort of approach to time are found in 4e D&D (which uses the encounter and the turn as its most common units of duration) and Marvel Heroic RP, in which effect durations are generally described relative to scenes.

The earliest example of a RPG resolution procedure I know of that is pretty close to the Maelstrom passage is not actually about space or time, but rather vacc suit use in Classic Traveller. From the Vacc Suit skill entry in Book 1 (1977, p 16):

The individual has been trained, and has experience, in the use of standard vacuum suits (space suits) . . . A basic throw of 10+ to avoid dangerous situations applies whenever any non-ordinary maneuver is attempted by an individual while wearing a vacc suit (such as running, jumping, hiding, jumping untethered from one ship to another, etc).

DM: +4 per level of expertise.

When such an incident occurs, it may be remedied by any character with vacc suit expertise (including the character in danger himself) on a throw of 7+.

DM: +2 per level of expertise. No expertise DM: -4​

There are no rules for distances, suit thickness, rate of air loss, etc: just the descriptors (non-ordinary manoeuvres; dangerous situations requiring remedying) and the throws required. The participants can then construct the details of the situation around that, and add to setting as appropriate. (For instance, in one of my sessions the initial check was failed while approaching an enemy installation under cover, and I described an airhose being caught on a rocky protuberance.)

Burning Wheel is a Character => Situation => Setting RPG that is interesting in how it handles time and space. The core rules set out durations in ingame terms - hours, days, weeks, etc - and difficulties for action resolution are set by reference to somewhat granular descriptors, even relatively precise distances in some cases. But later-published GMing advice suggests considering difficulty in scene-framing as well as "objective" elements of setting, and then narrating setting to match; and later-published optional subsystem tend to set out duration in terms like "one session" or "one adventure" or "one campaign" rather than in imaginary hours, days, weeks, etc. That trend in the rules and advice is not a surprise.

An "objection" or "complaint" I've often read about Character => Situation => Setting RPGing goes something like this:

What if the player has their character activate their Wand of Secret Door and Trap Detection and the GM gives such-and-such an answer, and then some time later the player has their PC try and find a secret door in the same neighbourhood? Consistency requires that the answer that was given on the earlier occasion still hold good - but this shows that the GM-authored setting (either there are secret doors here, or there are not) has to take priority in establishing situation. In other words, a consistent fiction demands Setting => Situation

This objection/complaint rests on assumptions that don't have to be accepted (ie they are not essential for RPGing).

First, it assumes that using the Wand is not itself a type of check that can be resolved in a Character => Situation => Setting fashion. Once we abandon that assumption, we can see that the relationship between using the Wand at time 1, and then making a manual search at time 2, is simply a special instance of the general rules question When are retries allowed?

Second, it assumes both (i) that exploration is a significant aspect of play, such that we can anticipate attempts to (say) find secret doors fairly regularly even when nothing as such is at stake, and (ii) that we are resolving that exploration with a focus on space and time that makes the mooted inconsistency a genuine risk.

In Character => Situation => Setting, the search for a secret door will be a player's response to a situation that has been framed having regard to the character they have prepared and played; so something will be at stake. Resolving that situation will likely settle the question of secret doors as they pertain to this moment of action. Typically there will not be a revisiting; but if there is, and if the issue of secret doors once again comes into play, then again that will be because something is at stake, and the participants will be able to draw on the resources the fiction provides to establish framing, and narrate consequences, that ensure consistency with prior events. But those resources will probably not include a granular map and a set of rules for the passage of time that are typical of much D&D play.
 

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GMMichael

Guide of Modos
use "scene ideas" to convey the scene, instead of literalisms. The scene idea is the scene concept, as imagined in the mind of the narrator, whereas that might be different from the literal elements of the description when the scene is presented. A ten foot fence might seem really tall to one person, and a little tall to another. But if the fence is described as really tall instead of 10 feet, everyone gets the idea. In other words, focus on the intent behind the elements in the scene, and not on how big or how far things might be. If the difficulty of the task at hand (such as jumping across a chasm in a cave) is explained in terms of difficulty, it doesn't matter how far across the actual chasm spans. In a movie, for instance, the camera zooms or pans to emphasize the danger or the emotional reaction to the scene, and in so doing it manipulates the real distance of a chasm to suit the mood or "feel" of the moment. It then is no longer about how far across the character has to jump, but how hard the feat is for the character. In this way, the presentation of each element of the scene focuses on the difficulty of the obstacle, not on laws of physics. It is the idea of how hard it is, not the actual measurement of the obstacle that is important. Everyone understands adjectives such as easy, hard, and impossible, but a whole range of arguments can arise from saying that the chasm is 15 feet across. By supplying the difficulty of the task, the player fills in the distance relative to their character's capabilities. The difficult of all things is relative to the character, not to objective science, and this is much more appropriate to narrative role-play. If the players enjoy the challenge of figuring out how high and far someone can jump, they should be allowed the pleasure of doing so - as long as it doesn't interfere with the narrative flow and enjoyment of the game. . . . Players who want to climb onto your coffee table and jump across your living room to prove that their character could jump over the chasm have probably missed the whole point of the story.​
Well, snap. I deconstructed D&D and reinvented this wheel. Where I differ a bit is that I see difficulty as relative to the campaign theme, not the character.

An "objection" or "complaint" I've often read about Character => Situation => Setting RPGing goes something like this:

What if the player has their character activate their Wand of Secret Door and Trap Detection and the GM gives such-and-such an answer, and then some time later the player has their PC try and find a secret door in the same neighbourhood? Consistency requires that the answer that was given on the earlier occasion still hold good - but this shows that the GM-authored setting (either there are secret doors here, or there are not) has to take priority in establishing situation. In other words, a consistent fiction demands Setting => Situation
I don't know that Setting>situation and character>situation are mutually exclusive. But I applaud the observations that some assumptions don't have to be accepted.
 

Hmmmm, well, another way to handle the secret door thing is simply to accept that, once a fact about the world is established it simply remains true. It is ALWAYS true that fictional position is a thing (well, except in Toon perhaps) and this is where challenge originates from. Characters cannot be put under pressure unless something in the environment constrains them. Here I admit a bit of a question as to what separates 'setting' and 'situation', the line might not be completely clear. Still, some things are certainly coming out of the setting, like "there is a mountain over to the East you simply cannot climb" which probably contribute to putting pressure on the character at times.

In other words, SOME of this situation vs setting may be a matter of perspective. Not that I am outright abandoning the idea of 2 distinct categories there, but when I think about it, it almost feels like situations can often be simply a part of the setting that becomes tied up with the story. Cortex has scene distinctions, right? So it seems like the designers are almost asking you to draw that line rather explicitly.
 

Pedantic

Legend
The issue that I have, which I think is just an accepted cost of doing business in such a system, is that players have very little control over difficulty. That is, a large portion of exploration based gameplay is about finding ways to alter the difficulty of a challenge by changing one's approach or by making reference to some other established rule.

Once you've determined the chasm is so wide, that number becomes an object to be manipulated by other rules, but you can't change the nature of a "difficult" chasm. There is no to layer above the situation you can manipulate to change it, it's a given you will always be reacting to.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Hmmmm, well, another way to handle the secret door thing is simply to accept that, once a fact about the world is established it simply remains true. It is ALWAYS true that fictional position is a thing (well, except in Toon perhaps) and this is where challenge originates from.
Sure. But does that secret door exist on a specific grid reference on a measurable clock, or is it simply "in the room," and "whenever the PCs get around to it?"

Here I admit a bit of a question as to what separates 'setting' and 'situation', the line might not be completely clear. Still, some things are certainly coming out of the setting, like "there is a mountain over to the East you simply cannot climb" which probably contribute to putting pressure on the character at times.
I would like to know where the mountains are, yes. But some improv-style games, and maybe Dungeon World, might not really have mountains until a player comes up with them.

The issue that I have, which I think is just an accepted cost of doing business in such a system, is that players have very little control over difficulty. That is, a large portion of exploration based gameplay is about finding ways to alter the difficulty of a challenge by changing one's approach or by making reference to some other established rule.

Once you've determined the chasm is so wide, that number becomes an object to be manipulated by other rules, but you can't change the nature of a "difficult" chasm. There is no to layer above the situation you can manipulate to change it, it's a given you will always be reacting to.
Part of the point of the OP is that you don't need to establish that the chasm is so wide. It's just impossible-wide, or challenging-wide. Strap on a jetpack, and maybe the chasm remains impossible-wide, but the jetpack now allows you to roll something (or just bypass) that might be favorable to an impossible-wide-chasm encounter.
 

niklinna

satisfied?
The issue that I have, which I think is just an accepted cost of doing business in such a system, is that players have very little control over difficulty. That is, a large portion of exploration based gameplay is about finding ways to alter the difficulty of a challenge by changing one's approach or by making reference to some other established rule.

Once you've determined the chasm is so wide, that number becomes an object to be manipulated by other rules, but you can't change the nature of a "difficult" chasm. There is no to layer above the situation you can manipulate to change it, it's a given you will always be reacting to.
In Blades in the Dark, you can trade Position for Effect. You can push or take a devil's bargain for +1 die. A crewmate can assist you for another +1 die. You may have a special ability that gives you enhanced Effect. You can tick off appropriate gear in your loadout to modify either Position or Effect. You can do a setup move or a flashback to arrange for circumstances to be different—including, with a creative enough flashback, the inherent difficulty of the chasm (or whatever). That's rather a lot of control over the difficulty.
 

Pedantic

Legend
In Blades in the Dark, you can trade Position for Effect. You can push or take a devil's bargain for +1 die. A crewmate can assist you for another +1 die. You may have a special ability that gives you enhanced Effect. You can tick off appropriate gear in your loadout to modify either Position or Effect. You can do a setup move or a flashback to arrange for circumstances to be different—including, with a creative enough flashback, the inherent difficulty of the chasm (or whatever). That's rather a lot of control over the difficulty.
All of those are negotiations in solving a challenge, not in determining the nature of the challenge. The analogy to D&D is casting guidance, taking the Help action and so on*. There is no way to modify the need to roll or what the challenge is precisely, once a challenge exists at all. That is, a chasm can be jumped, circumnavigated, a rope thrown over, etc. The PC has both the agency to determine what resources they will bring to bear against the task, and what precisely the task is to begin with. Once you're in a position where you must roll, you open yourself up to future consequences.

The closest thing is the setup or flashback option, which provide something analogous to going from character->situation, in the way you can go from setting->situation, but are intrinsically more limited. The situation still has primacy in a way it does not when it's derived from a fixed setting. Because the situation is constrained intrinsically by the setting, you can use those fixed points to reframe a different situation before you start spending resources to resolve it.

*There is certainly a conception of setting->situation play that also doesn't allow for this kind of agency, particularly when a subsystem is invoked that creates a minigame with limited inputs, but I don't think it's intrinsic to the form.
 

The issue that I have, which I think is just an accepted cost of doing business in such a system, is that players have very little control over difficulty. That is, a large portion of exploration based gameplay is about finding ways to alter the difficulty of a challenge by changing one's approach or by making reference to some other established rule.

Once you've determined the chasm is so wide, that number becomes an object to be manipulated by other rules, but you can't change the nature of a "difficult" chasm. There is no to layer above the situation you can manipulate to change it, it's a given you will always be reacting to.
You should play you some hardcore BitD my friend ;)
 

Sure. But does that secret door exist on a specific grid reference on a measurable clock, or is it simply "in the room," and "whenever the PCs get around to it?"
I'm not sure I follow. It either was established, using the wand, that secret doors did or did not exist here in this location. From now on this is simply a truth of the setting. That was my proposal. Now, the counter to that is someone like @pemerton saying "yes, but now setting is getting in the way of my characterization" but in general I think neither of us really thinks that's going to be an issue, as the GM generally will pick scenes to frame. Should the lack of secret doors mean this particular location isn't suitable for framing whatever scene is needed, then it simply won't happen there, no contradiction will ever be possible, nor matter, dramatically. This does mean space is probably not treated very concretely in whatever game that would be (say Dungeon World).
I would like to know where the mountains are, yes. But some improv-style games, and maybe Dungeon World, might not really have mountains until a player comes up with them.
Right, but it could have been established at some point. Or maybe a player just made it up, and now the GM is using it to make the character's life miserable, either way.
Part of the point of the OP is that you don't need to establish that the chasm is so wide. It's just impossible-wide, or challenging-wide. Strap on a jetpack, and maybe the chasm remains impossible-wide, but the jetpack now allows you to roll something (or just bypass) that might be favorable to an impossible-wide-chasm encounter.
Well, there's an interesting element of the 4e-like game I hack on, which is that Rituals serve that function, that is to make things possible that were not possible, and/or to change what resources or character elements (skills) accomplish something. A 'jet pack' would be like that, now I am able to try to cross the huge chasm, but that doesn't mean it will be without cost. Well, maybe declaring that my equipment slots were taken up by 'jet pack' is enough!
 

All of those are negotiations in solving a challenge, not in determining the nature of the challenge. The analogy to D&D is casting guidance, taking the Help action and so on*. There is no way to modify the need to roll or what the challenge is precisely, once a challenge exists at all. That is, a chasm can be jumped, circumnavigated, a rope thrown over, etc. The PC has both the agency to determine what resources they will bring to bear against the task, and what precisely the task is to begin with. Once you're in a position where you must roll, you open yourself up to future consequences.

The closest thing is the setup or flashback option, which provide something analogous to going from character->situation, in the way you can go from setting->situation, but are intrinsically more limited. The situation still has primacy in a way it does not when it's derived from a fixed setting. Because the situation is constrained intrinsically by the setting, you can use those fixed points to reframe a different situation before you start spending resources to resolve it.

*There is certainly a conception of setting->situation play that also doesn't allow for this kind of agency, particularly when a subsystem is invoked that creates a minigame with limited inputs, but I don't think it's intrinsic to the form.
I think, at least in 4e, rituals serve the purpose of trading one challenge for a different challenge, at least some of the time. Resources could do that in BitD as well, sometimes. Dungeon World, maybe it has less of that, generally. I mean, some situations in these games are likely to arise out of "we're stuck here, we gotta get out" sorts of things, for example, and that might not be very negotiable. Such is life!
 

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