Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Conversational Spirals - Closure in RPGs

What is Closure?

In Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, McCloud discusses various aspects of comics, including panel transitions, the use of gutters, and the reader's engagement with the page. McCloud introduces the concept of "closure," which refers to the mental process that occurs when readers fill in the gaps between panels to create a seamless narrative. He also discusses the idea that comics allow for a non-linear reading experience, where the reader can control the pace and revisit panels or sequences as they desire. 

On a comic page, the reader's eye can move all over. They can revisit earlier panels, even earlier pages, and reread sections. Your eye flicks between the text and the images, skips quickly over several panels of transitional art, then lingers over a beautiful, detail-rich spread. 

This is different than movies where you're trapped in the director's experience. Short of rewinding or bothering your wife by asking "Who was that guy again?", you experience the narrative through the tyranny of time's straight arrow.

Tension Spikes in RPGs

In the forthcoming Mothership Warden's Guide, Sean McCoy attempts to set realistic expectations of what a game looks like by illustrating the rising and falling action and tension of a game. 

It's not out yet, but everything I've seen coming out of this book is absolutely A+ material.

Sure, sometimes you take bathroom breaks, but when you're remembering the game after the event, those moments evaporate away--you had an amazing, exciting time. Your brain provides closure to the sequences of the evening's play.

Conversational Spirals

As a conversation game, trad RPGs have this essential structure:
  • The GM describes something.
    • The players ask clarifying questions.
    • The GM answers
  • The players describe their actions.
    • The GM asks clarifying questions.
    • The players answer.
  • The GM describes the consequences.
But as the participants of the game do this, they slip in and out of different tenses and moods--effortlessly and without confusion (usually). There are pauses, re-establishment of details, zooming in to get clarification on someone's position, skipping ahead in narrative time, skipping backwards in narrative time, editing details, jokes, laughter. 


Like movies, RPGs have directors (multiple competing ones!) pushing you and pulling you into different experiences. Like comics, you can linger on some moments, skip past others, return to points for clarification.

It's not just spikes, it's like this:

RPG play moves like eddies in the stream, little vortices of conversations spiraling. They loop back on themselves, but ultimately move down the river of time.  

1 comment:

  1. Hi!
    Nice post. The spirals make me think of the term Maelstrom used in the french ttrpg scene.
    I thought the title referred to how a game session sometimes builds a narrative spiral of tighter and denser reincoporation, cukminating in a "cherry on top" moment when everybody sees how the ending was both unforesseable and inevitable. That's another kind of spiraling.
    Keep up the good posts!