image Ok, the last article I wrote on the physical space of the game was meant to be the one I’m writing now. I just got into a completely different mindset while writing the intro, and suddenly the intro was a full fledged article. In this article I want to talk about the revelation I had about the physical space of the game while my buddy was running a very last minute thrown together game. To get where this came from you’ll need about 4 sentences of backstory. The game I am currently playing in is very haphazard in regards to time and space, with only about two to three hours to play and a very small table to play on every other week or so. Since we haven’t really had time to make big preparations or get into a schedule that allows for organized play, we make do with whatever we have. During one of these games we drew out some maps and made some very basic paper minis. These grew into more than just a few minis and now we are using them for everything at the table.

Doing this made one thing incredibly clear to me: The space the game is being played in benefits from any prop, it doesn’t need to be polished.

The small paper minis and quickly drawn sets that we made to represent the game.

Really, No Polish Needed
Having detailed and fancy terrain and minis definitely helps a game feel more alive and vibrant, but it really isn’t necessary. The paper scraps and stick figure minis we made for the game made worked beautifully and had way more character. There was even a kind of magic to making them at the table.

Because Of The Conceptual Space
Games happen mostly in the minds of players but props and maps at the table add a strong and solid base for the story. They also focus the game on a central mental space.Keeping even these quickly drawn maps and stick figure minis redefines the conceptual space of the game. Since these things exist in the physical space, they are interacted with in the mental space.

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There are many different types of things(without polish) that can be quickly made and placed in the shared space to help codify the mental game space. There are also a few things to keep in mind when doing this.

  • The more pieces present, the more the players engage scenery. Having just one map drawn and placed in the area presents one mental space. Drawing many small maps that get moved around represent many areas and build the mental size of the world, as represented by the shared space. One room will always feel like one room. Five rooms will always feel like five rooms, whether represented by complex miniatures or quick drawings.
  • Tokens or way to represent characters are important. Having them present  increases the perception of how and where a player can move their character and how they can interact with the scenery.
  • Any physical way to represent big plot elements keeps things in constant mental space. Have you got an important artifact that the players just acquired? Draw it on a notecard and hand it to them. That will add a visual and a tactile element to it, even though it is just a bad drawing on an index card.
  • Even pieces of paper with names on it keep players thinking about what is going on in the game. For most of the NPCs in this game we used pieces of paper with the NPC names written on them. I drew some small info graphics (a sword, bow, elf ears, etc.) to represent some elements of the characters on some of the more important ones, but being able to pick up a piece of paper and go “oh Yeah, Nora Manning was in this train car with us” was vital to our chaining the story together.
  • Pictures, even horrifically drawn ones, help players conceptualize intent. This works for the players and the game master. Drawing something out, even if you are like me and don’t have a shred of real artistic talent, gives everyone a better idea of the element you are trying to represent.

    1216002036 Even this horribly drawn picture of my dwarf standing on his airship (complete with airbag salvaged from a parade balloon) adds a new way to interact with the concept.

  • Somewhat related, pictures about really unique elements help us visualize them in unique ways. An orc is an orc, unless the picture makes it badass.  We tend to make all of our mental images of a thing merge into a basic archetype. That means that when we imagine something, we normalize it to that archetype in at least some way. When we see a  truly unique picture of something, it overtakes our inbuilt mental archetype of that thing. Eventually, that image overwrites it or bits of it get incorporated in to our mental archetype.

When you incorporate something into the physical gaming space, you incorporate it into the mental space where the game is going on. The real revelation is that it doesn’t really need to have that much polish. Bigger and fancier props and minis make for a more engrossing game sometimes, but the quick sketches you can do on a piece of paper are often sufficient and have a charm all their own. The shared space of the game is powerful. Reinforcing it with maps and minis builds up something major for the players, but don’t fuss about it too much. The lesson here is to do something, anything. Don’t limit yourself because your models aren’t incredibly fancy or intricately painted.

So what do you use to reinforce the physical space at the table? Are your games filled with miniatures and lovingly crafted terrain and props, or do you draw it out most of the time? How detailed do you try to make it? What is the best physical prop you’ve ever had in a game?

Cup IMG: Remi Mathis | CC 3.0
All Other Images: My Crappy Cell Phone

5 replies
  1. JohnnFour
    JohnnFour says:

    Good stuff, John. “When you incorporate something into the physical gaming space, you incorporate it into the mental space where the game is going on.” Pure Gold.

    Have you read Understanding Comics by Scott McCleod?

  2. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @JohnnFour – Thanks Johnn! The game that I talked about in this article inspired me to put some codified thoughts about the gaming space down. It has always been one of my favorite meta-gaming topics. I’ve got a few more in the barrel, including one semi-related video-gnomet.

    I’ve not read it, but you are the twelfth person to tell me I need to do so. I’m going to add it to my Amazon cart today.

  3. Lee Hanna
    Lee Hanna says:

    One of the most fun I’ve had a at con game was last Origins. The GM was well prepared for a military game in which the vehicles had a role. He had made cardboard outlines for the vehicles, so we could see who was sitting where. The miniatures were merely bottlecaps, and each one had a circular sticker with the PCs and NPCs names and rank symbols on them.

    His opposition NPCs were represented by empty shell casings. It was a lot of fun to see them get knocked over.

    I say this as a dedicated minis collector and painter, you can have lots of fun with bottle caps and cardboard.

  4. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    I used to pimp my Traveller games by putting out a starship plan (I had a couple dozen 15mm scale plans of this sort). We didn’t have to use the plan, but it definitely helped the players connect with the game.

    Now I play Delta Green and Call of Cthulhu so props are mandatory.

  5. Vance
    Vance says:

    I use a LOT of papercraft terrain from FatDragonGames and paper minis from OneMonk. (Along with a bunch of normal minis, of course.) It’s pretty cheap, since I just print it out onto cardstock, and it’s become a kind of secondary hobby building terrain pieces. I love the look of fully 3D environments at the table, and my players really like it as well. I think it helps with immersion – in one of the games I DM, my wife and the wife of another player joined us as their very first RPG experience, and they both have commented several times that they prefer 3D environments to just drawing it out on a piece of paper.

    Not that you can’t have fun with just drawing it out, some really good gaming moments have come from that kind of play. But overall, my two groups much prefer terrain and minis they can identify without trouble.

    Since settling on this style of play, I try and throw every physical prop I can at them. Not literally, of course!

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