Goblins in the gutters


This is the 7th post in a series about the hidden work of the GM in tabletop role-playing games. This time we’re talking about comics, closure and cognitive processes. The illustration above is from the 2014 D&D Monster Manual. Not sure which of the dozens of credited artists created this!

To recap that 6th post:

  • A game’s Is consists of the mental model of the fictional environment maintained by the Game Master.
  • The Is doesn’t really exist.

Is… not?

A film is (Kermode & Mayo listeners say it along with me) a series of still images that together give the illusion of movement. It’s a compelling illusion, as illustrated by that (probably apocryphal) early audience running in terror from an on-screen train, or the way the 48FPS version of the Hobbit films made bewildered audiences feel like they were sitting in front of a film set.

Role-playing games provide much the same sort of illusion, although not one that operates visually. In an RPG the participants say things to each other, and all these statements come together in the imagination of each participant, and the result is a mental model that feels compelling and complete.

But let’s dig into that a little. What is really going on?

As a starting point, let’s look at a role-playing game that is entirely focused on “constructing an imagined world”. It’s an incredibly popular RPG, but not one you’ll ever find in a game store. This RPG is called guided meditation.

In a guided meditation such as this one, the GM describes the environment and also assumes some control over the player character, declaring most of their interactions with the environment. In many games, the GM will invite the player to choose how they act, but these actions will always be incidental, leaving unchanged the overall GM-declared progress of the player character.

The primary responsibility of the player is to envisage the environment: to create a mental model of the space and saturate it with as much sensory detail as possible. Crucially, the GM does not try to declare all of these sensory details, but encourages the player to use their imagination to fill in the imaginary world around those elements the GM does describe.

(Obviously this game only works thanks to the social contract established between the players in advance, in which the player entrusts the GM entirely with all significant action of their player character, and with the overall path of the game.)

In a game of guided meditation, the player and GM both work to imagine a rich, full, detailed account of the imaginary space. And it works! However, consider the amount of effort involved to achieve this: a degree of sensory deprivation and a great deal of sustained and purposeful focus for each environment entered. Moreover, some would suggest the player’s receptivity is important to achieve the effect, and a receptive player is by definition not a proactive player. In other words, the techniques of guided meditation are incompatible with the priorities of most role-playing games, most of the time. Or, even simpler: it works but look at the effort involved!

The play of an RPG rarely affords anything even close to this space for visualisation and mental modelling of the imaginary space. Clearly, this level of detail is not needed. Nevertheless, I would contend that players and GMs don’t really feel the absence. Everyone participating experiences a complete-enough imagined space; the things left unspoken are not experienced as blank spaces or gaps, but are either not noticed at all or seamlessly connected by our own imaginations. This phenomenon is called closure.

Closure and the mental model

In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talked about closure: “the phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole”. He was talking about what happens in the gaps between panels, as the reader connects two images and builds an understanding of a whole. By way of example, here is (in my opinion) the greatest panel transition in the history of sequential art:

The same principle is at work in games – and, in fact, in everything. Comics are a particularly good medium to look at because they diagram of this principle by their very nature, but it works everywhere – when we read a novel, we assemble meaning out of the information given even though countless details are left out. When we watch a film, we assemble meaning out of the events we see, even though they are rarely presented as long unbroken sequences of action – we have learned to interpret cuts as a way of moving through an imagined world. And so forth.

Closure is not just about transforming raw data into a mental model. The specific moments we are presented with, and how they are given to us, themselves impart a bunch of extra information to us. Think about how you feel when you’re watching a dramatic TV show, and you see a character you know well driving along a road, listening to the radio, steering around a bend. If you’ve ever watched TV before you get tense, because you know that character is almost certainly going to end up in a car accident any second now. This raw data isn’t worth including unless it sets up something else.

All of this applies equally to role-playing games. The imagined world, the mental model, is assembled out of tiny units of information. Instead of the still images of comics or the descriptive passages of novels, in RPGs the information units are spoken phrases: “there is a door in the south wall”, “I hang back”, “there’s a bad smell in this chamber”, “I try to look intimidating”. There is a huge amount of undefined territory between each of these phrases, but we rarely stop to elaborate on them – they give us enough to imagine the world our own way, and to achieve some level of consistency with what other people imagine. They give us enough for closure.

Similarly, the specific moments we hear give us information. If a GM gives detailed size estimates of a room, we are being told this environment is confusing and we should get the grid paper out and map it. If a player gives a detailed description of where their character is standing in relation to other player characters, we are being told that they expect trouble – or they intend to start it. If a GM describes a busy market square in general terms and then mentions a beggar and describes their sign and beard and tattoos, we are being told this beggar is in some way relevant to the adventure. (Many GMs have run afoul of this last phenomenon, when an improvised NPC catches the player’s attention so thoroughly the entire planned adventure falls by the wayside as they chase this fascinating new character around and shake them down for answers.)

Our imaginative space, our Is, is something we are constantly doing as we play. It is a cognitive process. Although often supported by written notes and other such material, the Is must be strictly a mental model, and the natural limit of working memory is around seven items. This means the contents of the Is change from moment to moment as the GM’s attention turns to different aspects of the fiction – we are constantly picking things up and putting them down again.

(We handle greater complexity by efficiently swapping information through long-term memory or written notes, and by “chunking” elements together for simpler handling. Most GMs are very good at these skills, but they are only ever workarounds for a fundamental boundary of our cognitive systems.)

If the Is consists of a selection of pieces that are constantly being picked up and put down again, then we have discovered something important about it. The Is can never be a dispassionate mental account of a imagined world. The Is at any moment must always be, of necessity, the set of pieces the imaginer has chosen to pick up.

The Is cannot be what is there in the fiction; it can only ever be what the holder deems important about the fiction.

The Importance of Goblins

So where have we got to? We know the Is isn’t a beautiful 3-D model that sits in our heads like a model train layout. It isn’t real! Instead, the Is is a jumble of pieces that we imaginatively connect to each other as required, dropping them again as soon as our attention wavers. What does that mean for our hidden goblins?

In a singular-Is game, the GM holds the authoritative model of the world in their head. What this means, it turns out, is that they are constantly choosing the half-dozen things that are important about the fictional world and holding on to them, and letting everything else slip. If they are diligent and don’t mind making players wait, they might make notes and set reminders to give themselves more things to juggle at one time. More likely, they don’t do this, because where is the incentive? Much easier to let it go, and then check later on to review what might have happened out of the characters’ view.

Either way, we have reached a hard limit on any principle for the care and feeding of hidden goblins. Is the hidden goblin important? Like, really important? Top six of all things important? If the answer is yes (for example, good old Strahd), then the GM will want to count on them. Otherwise, it’s out of (player) sight, out of (GM) mind.

In sum: any hidden goblin rules and guidance must begin with the obvious-in-retrospect question, is this hidden goblin important enough to care about? That creates two subsequent questions: If they aren’t that important, how do you hand them off? And if they are that important, what do you do with them next?

(To be continued.)

5 thoughts on “Goblins in the gutters

      1. Billy says:

        It read really different all in one go than in sporadic trades. But also I had read it before ages ago so that influenced the reading, too.
        I got it lying around if you don’t…

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