December 10, 2012

Conceptual White Space

So you're trying to flesh out the setting of your game.  Maybe you're just trying to describe a sleek, futuristic office building that your Shadowrunners are breaking into.  Maybe you're trying to describe the barony that your medieval fantasy heroes are travelling through to stop some bandits.  Maybe you're describing a ruin that your pulp heroes have discovered in Axis-fortified North Africa.

I'm going to give you some quick tools to build verisimilitude with a high degree of efficiency.  That is, with these tips, you can make the setting feel rich and real without writing volumes; or if you're inclined to write volumes, you can still use these tips to make every word tell a story.



There are a few concepts I'm going to bring to bear here that were developed by other people.  First, the idea of No Myth Play.  This requires a quick definition of a business concept: JIT.

JIT means Just-In-Time, as opposed to "just in case" is a supply method wherein production and shipping are streamlined and stock and storage are sidelined.  In early industrial production, you would stock lots of things just in case.  Today, if you go to the mechanic and need a part in your car replaced, unless it's a very common part (tire, air filter, belt) you'll need to have it ordered.  In most cases the part will arrive the same day, and the repair will be completed by close of business.  The mechanic can work on a broad variety of vehicles this way, not just Toyotas.

No Myth Play uses the idea of JIT to define setting.  Instead of stocking up on setting details "just in case" the players decide to visit the city of Tor Ira or or make a Gather Information check about that Lady Vashtanni, the GM builds these just in time for the game's need of them.  In extreme no myth play, the GM runs the entire game extemporaneously, and the players may even define their characters entirely only as needed.  I'm no good at ad-libbing to that extreme degree, but I'm sure some GMs are.  But the idea is still useful!

The second concept I want to use is from the arts.  It's got a lot of names:  White space, negative space, and ma are versions of the idea.

Technically white space is just the space left blank.  But in the arts, there's an understanding that white space defines the shapes within it, and the nature of the space and location of the shapes within it are full of information because the imagination uses the white space as well as the shapes to understand the whole picture.

In psychology, we know that human memory is written as an outline of shapes and cues that evoke greater concepts.  The brain has a compression algorithm (now I'm using computer terms!) where it stores information in relationships and collections of concepts (Jung called them archetypes).  Example: You don't actually have a videotape of your last birthday party; you have a collection of concepts of events that happened, in a rough order.  Your brain fills in all the detail by imagining things according to its concept-algorithm to fill in the gaps every time you attempt to remember it.

When I say "white space" here, I mean the unspoken setting details that you don't mention, but which are implied by the details that you do mention.  Your goal as GM is to convey the most information per word of "greybox" text yo use; in part to keep the action going and in part to increase the feeling of depth and verisimilitude for your players.  (Greybox text is an old-school term for the narrated parts of the game, where the GM starts reading from a "Read this to the players" text box, typically shaded grey, included in the module.  Even outside modules, most GMs write descriptions for important NPCs, settings, items, etc. and either ad-lib from them or read them aloud verbatim.  This is an effective GM technique, in my experience, because it ensures you get a lot of well-thought-out detail, allowing you to employ consistent motifs and genre cues.)

What does all this have to do with GMing?

When you're designing a setting, character, or history, you can use big, archetypal concepts laden with meaning and dripping with implications and leave the details to the imagination.  This is a very specific linguistic technique.

Proper nouns:  Proper nouns give you details!  Our real world linguistic geography defines a lot of a player's imagination.  When a player imagines battling the soldiers of Blackmoor he imagines heavy cavalry with lances and kite shields.  When he imagines battling the soldiers of Al Qadim, he imagines scimitars and camels.

Cue words:  Let's say you choose to name your fantasy world with bizarre, alien words with too many consonants and apostrophes and hyphens, such as "Trizz'rin Jo-Tuuni."  The goal is to sound exotic and remove some of those real-world connections (the first time a player suggests that his character strap himself with delayed blast fireballs and suicide bomb the evil Caliph's court should probably be the last time...).  But by using such exotic words, you're failing to define white space with your proper nouns, but you can still define it with cue words that surround it.  Hearing of Songmistress Trizz'rin Jo-Tuuni of the Sweltering Shoals gives us a sun-tanned exotic, musical culture with women in positions of authority.  The crumbling entryway to fourth mystic Trizz'rin, located in icebound Jo-Tuuni hints at an ancient and mysterious culture of magic-users who hid the entrances to their ritual sites.

Consistency:  If the duke is named Gregor VanWasser, then his wife should be Astrid not Estella, and his castle should be Wasserheim not Caer Mogin.  The more you can make similar things sound similar, the more players can assume about the unstated.  You can even make some intentional patterns:  All the companies controlled by the evil megacorporation Aries International have the names of Greek gods, so that when the 'runners encounter an investigator from Athena Financial Group, they will connect it to the pattern and you won't have to say anything!  They'll also imagine a whole series of other companies that could be after them...

Just in Time Planning:  I can't handle fully extemporaneous GMing.  I plan my sessions pretty extensively.  But I still don't plan stuff I don't need.  If the next D&D adventure is going to take the players to the city of Messina, I will spend a page describing the city, and then outline a few places that the PCs will probably go, the area that the battle encounters will be in, and the NPCs they will interact with.  I can leave the rest blank so that the players' imaginations can fill it in with their vision of Shakespearean Verona (or scenes from Assassin's Creed games, depending on their taste in entertainment).

If they go "off the rails" I have to start writing in the white space.  But all those white space assumptions help me, too.  The city name and design conjure a Mediterranean city-state with scheming nobles and wealthy merchants with Italian-sounding names.  I may not have made Countess Angela Cavallo's whole court up, but I can invent a courtier they can bribe for information, even if I wasn't planning it; and I can take advantage of all the consistent details, proper nouns, and cue words I've used to help this ad-libbed courtier feel like he was part of my notes all along.  He would have an Italian name, like Giancarlo Pacci.  He may be from a wealthy merchant family. And he's bribe-able because his family was betrayed in a business deal that the Countess did not help protect them from, and they're resentful and desperate for coin.

Now, I could have detailed every important NPC, named every street, and decided if a city this size could support three cobblers or four...  But why?


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NOTE:  I've been posting consistently for months now, so now it's time to think intentionally about how I want to organize my post schedule.  

I'm going to start posting consistently on Friday mornings now.  So if you want to develop a nice, predictable habit of reading my blog, you can start checking here every week on Friday.  

If I post more than once a week, I'll schedule the first post I write for Friday, then any bonus posts will come out as I write them, which means they'll come out earlier.  Alternately, if I like them enough to use them as a Friday post, I may schedule them for the next Friday.  

This also gives me time to make edits to the post after I "finish" it, which I tend to do a lot.  

EDIT: June 2, 2015:  I've moved from Fridays to Mondays, since more people read blogs during the week than on weekends, according to both my blog stats and blog posts by people who blog about blogs.  Blog.