Working With Scale

I was playing in a Pathfinder campaign session last week when I had an exchange about travel in RPGs. I had asked about the distance to a landmark I wanted to go visit (dubbed "suicide mountain" after our chances of survival), only to learn that a journey that I thought would take only a couple weeks would actually take a solid two months. I then learned that the country where we were staying, which I had pictured as being about the size of Ohio, was something more like the size of the entire American Midwest. The GM then told me, and the rest of the party, that we needn't worry too much about the actual size or logistics of the world. We would just fast travel to the place where we were going in order to save time. I suspect it was all the fast-travel that we had done that made me think the country was so small in the first place.

Before I continue: this post isn't meant to discourage that kind of play. The GM has his reasons for skipping over the months of walking. He wants to get to the story, and doesn't want to waste his time or ours with random encounters that don't connect to anything interesting. Those are valid points.

But that conversation got me thinking. I don't do fast-travel in my games; I make the players work for their destination, make travel decisions, deal with the nitty-gritty problems that come up when you elect to spend your summer on the road. Why? Because it has an effect on the players.

And that lead to an idea: as a GM, the thing I am most concerned about (and that I play with the most) is the sense of scale.

Kinds of Scale

Scale is all around us, but we're very rarely conscious of our sense of it. Everything has a size. If you don't mention it, your players will come up with their own ideas about how big something is. And this doesn't just apply to physical scale, either. There seem to be two main types of scale that you can make use of at the table:

  • Geographic Scale: This is the scale of the world, as the characters see it. It doesn't matter how big the world actually is, but it's how big it feels to your players. This encapsulates everything from the scale of the local terrain (the difference between being on a flat plain and being at the foot of a mountain) to the geo-political scale (the difference between being in a small, remote country and being in a vast empire).
  • Character Scale: This is the scale and apparent level of power of a character, relative to the players. A lot of this is obviously just the character's physical size, but it could also be their magical aura, their political influence, or their membership in a large or small organization.

Why To Use Scale

Immersion

We all have a sense of scale for the real world: how big the earth can feel when you catch a glimpse of some of its vast open spaces, or how small you can feel when you hear about the political movers and shakers making decisions that will affect you with or without your consent. The trick is making your players feel the same way when they interact with those things at the table.

Getting your players immersed in your game is all about making the world feel both realistic and engaging enough for them to lose themselves in the narrative. Having a good sense of scale is key to making the world feel realistic. At the same time, without that sense of scale, immersion becomes much harder to establish. If those vast open spaces are skipped over in a couple sentences, or if those movers and shakers always seem to bow to the party's whims, you lose the sense that the characters are just people in a much bigger world. Everything starts to feel out of place, small, game-ish.

Player Emotions

There's a trick in visual media: putting a camera below a character makes them look powerful and imposing, while putting it above them makes them look vulnerable and weak. It's a simple perspective trick, but it works because it distorts our sense of scale.

You can use similar tricks to make your players feel certain ways about the things in your games. Your players are more likely to underestimate a character who they know to be much shorter than average, while they might overestimate someone who is unusually tall or broad. There is a difference between having to cross "the valley of death" and having to cross "death mountain."

Frequent use of this technique also lets you occasionally subvert yourself and do the opposite. If your players have started to pick up on what you're doing, throwing one time where you flip things will shake things up and may make for an interesting session.

Guidance

This is related to player emotions, but it's a little more game-y. If you don't think the party should do something, changing its sense of scale (making the desert larger, the warrior more imposing, the organization wealthier) may make them change their minds about enacting their plans. This isn't really something I would do (I'm into letting the players dig their own graves), but not all GMs will be against giving these nudges to their group.

How To Use Scale

Describe People & Places

I've heard a rule of thumb that says to use two or three different senses when describing a thing to your players. When I'm trying to think of a description, I count scale as another sense.

With geographic scale, this comes down to making sure your players have a good idea of how big or small something is, which might take more than just giving them a number. I typically give them a rough estimate of size, but then I also come up with an example of something they'd be familiar with that's about the same size.

With character scale you can either work it into a character's description (if you're stressing physical size) or you might have them do something that demonstrates just how powerful or influential they are. Having a character defining moment early on is a fantastic way to establish the players' sense of an NPC's scale.

Make Them Feel It

Don't let all this stuff with scale just pop up in your descriptions. Make your players interact with it somehow. Make them experience it first-hand.

When the players travel in one of my games, I make them wait to reach their destination. For a month-long trip, I might take up a session or two with having them encounter different things (almost none of which will be violent or random) during the journey. By the time they get where they were going, they've felt how long it took them.

I typically either make a character somehow contemptible or obviously ineffectual (if I want them to feel that the character is "smaller" than they are) or I have the character force the characters to do something to show how "big" they are. Something as simple as giving the merchant a nervous tic, or making the king demand that the characters bow before addressing him, can set up a character's scale right from the first moments of interaction.

Change The Mechanics

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make scale important in gameplay. Nothing gets something across the players as quickly as making the rules of the game reinforce what you're trying to get across. This gives them no choice but to acknowledge it.

So give an advantage in the duel to the taller person, because they can outreach their opponent. Use some kind of influence system to give the players a reason to get on the grand vizier's good side. Present them with interesting choices where they have to take scale into account.

Your players will feel more at home in your game, and you'll feel more at home running it for them.

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