March 07, 2012

It’s the Squares, Man

Over at Gameplaywright, friend of the blog Will Hindmarch raises a discontinuity in RPG argument:

This discontinuity in arguments about RPGs fascinates me: miniatures-based situations get in the way of RP and narrative, apparently, while games encouraging players to draw frequent maps and diagrams do not. What is it about molded plastic figures or the precision of measured spaces that clogs the gears of narrative?

I ask as someone who did not use miniatures in any RPG capacity until D&D3.x and has found plenty of fuel and clarity for both narrative and roleplay in games with and without miniatures. Why is a map okay until we set miniatures on it?

Without buying into the idea that the play style facilitated by one set of design decisions can be objectively superior to those fostered by another, I do think a perceptual shift occurs when you go from map to battlemap. Costs and benefits pertain to this shift, and it’s up to the designer to take them into account in pursuing the game’s design goals.

Your classic hand-drawn dungeon map, either drawn by players or received as a handout, serves as a reference point for further visualization. When you hold it in your hand, you’re using it to picture the scene in your mind’s eye.

A battle map, rolled out or drawn by the GM on a table, shifts everyone’s visual focus from parallel visualizations to the representation everybody sees. If the group gets up from chairs set up around the room to stand over a table, that shift in physical position acts as a hard break between one mode of play and another.

The brain’s bias toward the figurative emphasizes this when miniatures hit the table. We’re keyed to respond powerfully to images of people, no matter how crude. Minis further shift us from an imaginative picture to a literal one, from interior vision to exterior object. As dramatic as this effect may be, I’d argue that it’s not the biggest issue

I’d argue that the most powerful difference arises from the importance of squares to any battlemap. An old school dungeon map may be drawn on graph paper, but its squares act only as an aid to the drawing hand. On the battlemap, they become tactically active, adding a board game component to the RPG experience. The focus shifts from visualization to making the right plays, many of which revolve around positioning, with the number of squares one can move another resource to be cleverly managed over the course of a fight.

It’s not the shift between maps to maps with minis that lies at the heart of this issue. It’s the jump from map to board.