Monday, April 6, 2009

Round... About?

I recall the very first time I sat at a game table with a battle mat. The DM drew a long, 20' wide passageway and asked us to place our figures in marching order. Someone asked if one of the squiggly lines was just a mistake, since it exceeded the grid marks by a 1/4 square in several places, so the DM used a folder edge to redraw & conform the line to the grid. Instantly, I knew he was going to map out everything ahead of us as we moved through the dungeon. I was stunned by a sense of loss, where everyone else seemed to think of it as a convenient innovation.

Previous to crossing this dividing line, I had endured years of getting lost on maps made for their difficulty. Frustrating though that often was, my sense of loss at the battle mat was my sense of adventure being sucked out of my brain. I quickly became bored, as we were constantly watching the DM draw the map in front of us, often erasing huge portions, like a lecturing professor who thinks they must write everything they're saying out loud. During these moments, I went off the grid, so to speak. I spent time imagining the shock of the character's as a great hand constructed the walls of their world ahead of them. I tried to imagine exactly how that absurdity would work. I recall also being particularly amused by the theological implications resulting from moments when the DM would reconsider his map and make painstaking alterations to his battle mat pen work.

Undeniably, the supplies we've used to create our worlds have conformed them to subtle metaphysical rules. Millions of pages of graph paper have conformed the adventuring experience to a basically square experience. Anthropologists describe the world we westerners live in as a square world. Our houses and streets are relatively square. Whereas, many tribal cultures live in a round world, where their most basic structures are round (by no coincidence, Gary's college work was in anthropology.) Of course, the popular interpretation of this difference is that round is organic and natural, and square is artificial. This also correlates well to the idea that pen and paper gaming is natural and computer gaming is artificial, as if pen and paper gaming wasn't also constrained by limiting conventions.

Robert and I disagree a bit on this. I'm a computer geek, and I believe there is hope for a more fluid and virtuous computerized fantasy role playing experience, even if I suspect that I may be doomed to begrudgingly admit he's right. Computerized play may never admit to the beauty of direct interpersonal experience. But, we do watch movies instead of attend the theater, and there was a time when theater in the round was considered the best way to holistically experience a play. Still, I'm recently drawn to experiment with virtual tabletops, such as Fantasy Grounds or Battlegrounds. However, it appears that one of them might not allow you to mask parts of the map, which means you have to chunk your map up into presentable parts in order to limit the player's view. And how do you chunk up organic settings like the fluid turns of caves? In any case, the move from smooth hewn passageways into caves, perhaps carved by erosion or burrowing, marks more adventure. Imagine the surprise possible where monsters live in the square spaces and humans live in the caves of the dungeon - the grid/non-grid exepectancies reversed.

Sometimes you know you're getting into some adventure when you encounter a pattern that can only be interpreted on a large scale, which only had a loose structure on the small scale. Now, just how do you discover this on a battle map or when using a virtual table top? The magic of gradual realization is lost in such mediums. For example, consider this map on the right here. Imagine the odd spiral of chunks as gigantic stepped pillars. The ceiling is too high for light to touch, thus the chunks appear on the map as walls, not gigantic stepping stones.

You can see how I am gradually realizing the extent of my agreement with Robert, even if I am stubbornly pro computer. But what does this mean?

I see the rigid artifacts of our gaming materials, wherein we see that we have already conformed ourselves to a grid, in the same way as I see the effects of computing on gaming, or movies on plays. It doesn't mean there isn't a magnificent art to delight in. It just means that different signs and methods are used to reproduce Peter Pan's magic. Our magical Pan may be strung up on stage, while on TV he's framed by a rectangular viewing port, yet his flight appears free of attached strings. There's a trade off. And to end these thoughts, since they could sprawl into the gigantic "extense" of another 30 columns of text, we can be certain there were critics of theater in the round, who must have seen within it the hand of the devil... perhaps descending upon the audience... from above, where balconies no longer protected the aristocratic viewer... who could be seen by anyone looking through the play....

“Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.” - Exodus 23:20

My thoughts go out to Dave, tonight, may peace be with him.


grodog said...

Excellent piece, Eric. Mapping is a wonderful game tool, stream-of-consciousness PC diary, and perhaps mostly-lost art form. It's definitely worth discussing further!


Lord of the Green Dragons said...

"Computerized play may never admit to the beauty of direct interpersonal experience."

May...? I dare say when/if it does, we will be so like the computer that it won't be "interpersonal" any longer. The TV was the first step towards that end. And though I can see some of its worth, I am sure that Marx, if he had foreseen its advent, would have added it to his "Drugs for the Masses," categorization.

As for the rest, there's no squared off areas in one's imagination, except what you make for thyself.

bubbagump said...

There is indeed something lost when a battlemat replaces the early methods of mapping, and still more when the computer takes the place of both. I have tried both computer gaming and battlemats, and I find both lacking in numerous ways.

That said, I would contend that neither is inherently evil. For example, many gamers these days find themselves unable, for various reasons, to find a group with whom to play. Computer gaming provides an outlet that, however inadequate when compared to the experience of playing face-to-face, is nonetheless better than nothing. Similarly, I have often found a battlemat to be a useful solution when games become bogged down over mapping issues or when the map has already been "discovered" by earlier play.

In keeping with Rob's "drugs for the masses" comment, it seems to me that both computers and battlemats are indeed drugs - that is, they are medicines to be used when necessary and otherwise left in their bottles.

This relates well, I think, to discussions elsewhere on this blog. Old School gaming, as it is sometimes called, is to me more a philosophy and approach to roleplaying than a set of rules. But though the philosophy and approach remain sound as they are, they can nonetheless benefit from input and methods that originate in the current era. Not everything in the modern gaming scene is bad or evil. Rather, as the Old School mantra once was, we should use what works and cast aside the rest - even when that means using a method that is new and different. The focus is on creating an enjoyable gaming experience for all regardless of the means, not on doggedly holding to one method or another, no matter how time-tested and true. New is not always bad.

And thus it is that the Old School philosophy still holds true even when applied to computer gaming and battlemats: if it enhances play, then it's good; if it doesn't, then it's bad. The original method of mapping is much preferred (by me, at least), but it has it's place. So do battlemats and computers. To each his own, and let the enjoyment of those at the table (or the monitor, as the case may be) be the gauge.

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Morality aside, anything that impinges upon the raw expression of the imagination is actually what is at stake here. Before RPGs there were board-wargames. B-Wargames had maps. Every player playing the game got to see that map. Is it any wonder that when the final immersion in play came along and the actual map in RPG (D&D) was "taken away" that there was no longer a separation taking place in the game? That separation can be defined by knowing and not knowing (as in real life, that is discovering as opposed to omniscience),imaginative immersion
as opposed to god-like overviews. This is the genius of RPG. EGG even had to describe in the PHB how a neophyte to the game might have to imagine this, thus describing a process which in every case we had "naturally" and at one time exercised, each and every one of us, as children. The greatness of that immersion cannot now be artificially remade back to a point when it all its glory and genius it made a rapid, no-holds-barred departure therefrom and with the eagerness of an imaginative child.

The Acrobatic Flea said...

In my game we just use the battle-mat when there is a "battle" pending (the clue's in the title). I've never heard of a DM mapping out the whole dungeon as the players went along as you describe.

That said, the mat is invaluable for fight sequences.

To "aid" my players with mapping I don't even allow them squared paper - it's all free-hand on blank paper. I thought about finding some charcoal sticks for them to use to draw the maps as well, but decided that might get a bit messy :)

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Yeh, battle-mats can be useful, but as I don't use minis, hand drawn sketch maps have been my mainstay graphic tool for combats.

Anonymous said...

This post was one of those rare few that actually caused me to sit down and consider my own method of thought. Do I think in rectangles rather than in circles? I suppose I do. Time to incorporate some "roundness" into my campaign. Thanks for the great essay!

Benoist said...

I've been using miniatures and 3D scenery extensively through my Praemal Tales.

I was really dreading this lack of imagination, this obsession about tactical movement and such, from the players as well as myself.

It thankfully did not happen.

This is due to a bunch of reasons: First, I made clear from the get-go that the Dwarven Forge terrain, the minis etc were support to imagination, not an actual depiction of what was going on in the game. That meant that this wall might not look exactly that way, these stairs would look different in the actual game world... and I would actually mark those differences through my descriptions as DM. The players "got it" from the start and didn't feel restricted by the decor and squares on them.

That was a huge success in that regard that comforted me in the opinion that, for those of us who are visual people to begin with, these props are great help.

Second, I would build the terrain in advance and cover it with sheets of blank paper in a pattern that would allow me to uncover what the PCs would actually see as they wandered further into the dungeon. This too was a great help. No redrawing of the map because I made a mistake.

I could go on, but I guess my main point is to say that, given the right organization and the right pointers to the people around the table, as well as the right people around the table to begin with, these types of visual props can light up imaginations instead of framing them.

We sure need to be aware of the automatic pitfalls of such props when handled badly, however. That much is sure.

I have a question though. I've personally never played at a table where one of the players was required to draw the map from the DM's description. This strikes me as very hard to do because it frames the descriptions themselves, and because it basically can take a player away from the world itself to concentrate his attention on graph paper. How do you make it work?

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

We never made the players draw the maps, we drew a fast sketch map, not to scale, to let them note what they saw in a non-mapping combat environment.

The map was used for relative assessment of direction and positions of enemies in relation to them. Mostly X's for opponents, etc.

Benoist said...

Alright! That's exactly the way we were doing it when playing AD&D back in my day.

Benoist said...

I also must precise, as I read my first comment here again, that, though props were sparks to the players' imaginations as well as my own, it *did* change the nature of the game by virtue of being the means by which the spark was lit.

I.e. the support became a hybrid of verbal and visual supports rather than purely verbal.

So I don't mean to say there is no change in the way the game's played. There clearly is.