Saturday, 25 May 2013


(What follows is just me rambling about movement and time. There is no grand revelation at the end. If it was a joke, it would be one without a punchline. And it's long. With no pictures. you have been warned.)

There are pages in Japanese comics that do nothing but show time passing in a place. Scott McCloud has a name for them, which I have forgotten, and several examples in his book, which I have forgotten.

But I must have remembered the idea of them somehow because I realised suddenly on the bus to work how one of these pages functioned. And I can’t find a scan or picture of it so I may have actually created it in my head. I will describe it to you.

It’s night and it just stopped raining. Suburban, but somewhere near the city. A road, near houses, but not to a house. One of the weird little street s that go behind and around things and that lead to nowhere places people never go. The ones you notice as a child when walking around and then stop noticing as you grow older. A hedge on one side, houses in the darkness, white light in squares and empty domesticity inside. A cat slinks under the bush. There is traffic, somewhere, just in a corner where a road passes. The cars are irregular.

So I was thinking about this image that I thought I remembered, but maybe invented it took up one page of a Japanese comic, which I believe is about A5. I was trying to work out how I understood about the passage of time from just the information on the page.

I started thinking it was the things that are observed that showed me how time worked on that page. The things held in the panels showed the pattern of attention. That pattern, along with the physical objects, put me in the scene. It’s not just the things you see, it’s the state of mind you have to be in to notice them. To take them one-by-one.

Water beading on a leaf, the leaf bending as the droplet slowly separates as it falls to the ground. It’s slow and can’t be disturbed or the phenomena ends. It’s small. Precise. It happens only after rain or dew. So you have to be there, standing or moving slowly, to see it. If you are moving through the scene quickly you don’t notice the fucking water bead. You have to be observing and to be contemplative to see it. If you have a busy mind it doesn’t pop.

The Cat. The cat would run away if you were moving. Or loud. You have to be still and quiet to notice it in the darkness. If the cat is there and you are there to see it then you are someone still and quiet.

The cars passing. (I can’t remember how this was indicated on the comic page which suggests that this may be something I invented. Sequential movement of this kind can be hard to represent in comics.) You generally only notice the slow passing of cars in the night, in the damp, if you are moving slower than they are. You see the brightness of the reflected headlamps as they emerge, changing the colours of everything, then they pass hissing on the road. The shadows flow back behind them. Each car is an event that changes the environment like a tiny electric day, and moves rapidly and inevitably out of sight.

The bright, white slice of someone’s kitchen or living room, seen through curtains or blinds. Empty, anonymous and familiar. You’re not looking through, it’s just there, in you field of vision. And nothing’s happening inside. No noises, no events

The key idea here is that a piece of media that describes or creates a pattern of attention can, by a kind of reverse experience, instil a shadow or mild re-creation of that pattern in you when you experience it. That’s what much of cinema is about. That’s what much of comics is about. You can’t sit someone down for hours and make them wait. But if you arrange your images correctly, I the right rhythm or relationship to each other, you can make them feel like time has passed. Or hasn’t.

So obviously this lead me to the issue of travel in RPG’s.

RPG’s, especially D&D, are paratactic. I like that word. It means like a string of pearls. A bunch of things in a row, but they don’t necessarily have to have a relationship to each other.  The games like parts. Things broken up into parts.  Want to travel somewhere? How far? Roll a dice. Encounter! Where does the encounter take place? Probably half way between here or there. Beat the encounter and you are where you wanted to go. A journey mad of three things. Start point, end point and interruption.

And of course no journey in the history of human experience is like this. In fiction maybe. In records. In memory, perhaps. But journeys as you live them are not made of parts they are made of flow. Especially when walking and especially when walking in nature. The more technology you use to travel, the more paratactic it becomes. Airports are a great example. But if you walk outdoors, even in a city, there is only the slow endless changing of one thing into another.

I have never seen a game that captures this. Or tries to. (lack of experience perhaps, let me know in the comments.) Well why would you? The point isn’t the journey after all, it’s the destination. The places in-between are just in-between. Until a fucking monster jumps you, or you meet a hermit in the forest or something. Then it becomes another destination. A point on the map.

Computer games can do this really well. You can run through the space. Films a bit. Comics a but. Text can fake it, but text can fake everything but music and dance.

Tabletop games have trouble with it. The DM can describe it, but that’s not quite what I’m looking for. It think I’m searching for something else. Something you can play. That has brought me back to the that page of Japanese comics. We are trying to do something with the cognitive machinery of the game that it doesn’t really like doing.

 (Or at least it is not easy. Mediums have things they find easy and things they find hard. Name a happy poem that’s really really good. Now name a sad one. Poetry has trouble with happy, happy is for dance and for music. But still, it’s hard to name a happy song with words that’s really really good. Happy is movement. Complex word structures don’t deal well with happiness. They do sad really fucking well)

If showing people something in a comic that would only be noticed in a particular cognitive state helps mimic that state inside their minds. What things could you put in a game. What gameable things, could put people in the same mental state you would be in as you slowly ride a horse through empty scrubland, or walk through a forest in the morning. What inter-actable, observable elements can embody people in that state of mind?

Logistics isn’t enough. That’s something you plan before, this has to be the sensation of during.

I was thinking of linking two things and having the travel be a gameable moment where you have to manage the transition between the things as one turns into the other. Maybe that is stupid. Perhaps this whole series of thoughts is stupid.

What do you notice as you are walking that you rarely notice when you are not?

The nature of the ground perhaps? Incline definitely. How the earth holds your tread.

Things getting in your way. Nothing gets in your way when you are still, only when you have intend. Buddha (or indeed psyduck) has no obstacles.

The sensation of an unexpected heavy wind that presses against your body enough to shift your weight and your stance. It kind of awakens your nerve endings, enlivens you. You lean slightly into it. If you were daydreaming you are suddenly plunged back into the sensual experience of your flesh. Thoughtless but awakened and alive you feel the wind flatten your clothes against you and push you off your feet. This only seems to happen to me when I am walking.

What else?


  1. Gargoyles, angels in the architecture. Architecture in general. Those bricks make a line, then these other bricks are turned and it means something.

    1. The three-dimensionality of things as you move through/around them is interesting.

  2. How about: there is a table for weather and tables for specific regions, describing the kinds of locations they might encounter in a general way (Region: Blue Forest, locations: clearing, thicket, by a stream, by a giant rock) or whatever. The party has a general idea of the way to take. Carve each day into Night, Morning and Afternoon. Party establishes who is on watch and writes it down. GM describes the section(Night, Afternoon, Morning) of the first day of the journey and rolls the weather and stopping location. Next person at the table picks up from there, describes the next third of a day, rolls for the next player. Wandering monster rolls throughout and the GM waits for the appropriate time in thr current narrative to spring the monsters.

    Because I figure part of what makes what you're describing so hard to achieve is that it reuqires a lot of attention from players and a lot of natrative skill from the GM. If you've got to.speak next, however I'd think you'd be much more interested in what's happening so you can do a good job yoursepf. I dunno, maybe?

    1. I do like the idea of layered description and passing things round the table.

    2. How the air feels. This might just be confirmation bias or nostalgia or whatever, but Florida summer mornings just feel different than summer mornings in New York or Alabama or central Spain in ways that don't necessarily come directly from humidity or temperature, but I only notice when I linger outside.

    3. I demand either a random table or a poem or possibly both as one.

  3. All my current work is on local (megadungeon like) environments.

    I've done a bit of wilderness travel, military marching, etc.

    There is a loss of focus. You are doing your thing, and something happens and it's a long day and you're not aware of the leader, or where everyone is, precisely. You get distracted momentarily. Bored. Take a moment to meet your needs. Your friends are just over that hill. Over in that direction. You can see them.

    Even in combat. Sixth day. Same patrol. You can see everyone. Bored. Check your magazine again. Need to pee. Hold up. Looking around. Another day nothing happens. Formation gets looser.

    Personal goals. Going to walk to that tree. Screwing around. Do not recall any overland journey ever where someone wasn't going to do, had done or was doing drugs of some kind.

    socks. fucking socks. They are no shits very important.

    1. Travel is essentially non-interactive. You keep marching and hopefully there's something to do once you arrive somewhere. You admire all these little details, you introspect for hours, you screw around, because you're really fucking bored.

      I'm thinking that making travel gameable is against its very nature. Then maybe the fight against boredom can serve as a game.

      Just braindumping an idea:

      Once you know the route, decide how things might go wrong. Have a huge ass table of little details the characters notice. Give them one for every say hour of travel. Most of the details are red herrings, interacting with them just wastes time. A small few are signs of Bad Stuff that is about to happen and can be prevented if proper measures are taken. An even smaller few are trap options that will lead to big delays or danger, if interacted with.

    2. Every piece of wilderness advice i ahve ever read has had SOCKS in bold type. Always have extras, put them over your hands to dry out while you sleep, socks socks socks.

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    1. I would recommend some type of item-resource-management-travel-game. Travel, for me, is loss and gain. You see a beautiful view, but climbed a mountain to get it. Maybe you lose ten-foot-poles, or ropes, or something more abstract like "energy"...spells degrade, go off randomly. I don't know. Transition is difficult. Just go Hatter on the whole thing and scream out a "CHANGE PLACES" and force physical movement. Your players might hate you, but they'd FEEL movement.

  5. My new "just straight up use google earth for terrain" idea is working wonders for this sort of thing. How often people cross streams and styles and stuff is pretty neat.

    Also Abulafia has a bunch of benign encounter generators which are good for representing the monotony. I give them one per hour of travel.

  6. I know I'm a bit behind on this comment, but smells! how has noone mentioned smell!? You get to use them in this medium and they're one of the best things for conjuring up memories.
    (sound is good too, but i find that for what you're trying to evoke, images can work, but aren't ideal)

    The heavy clean smell of earth after a rain
    the crisp smell a river adds to the air
    The sharp coppery smell of blood
    Sound of wildlife rustling in the bushes. The sudden scent of lilacs as one disturbs a flower.