One of the defining features of playing in a TTRPG is the concept of ‘Theatre of the Mind’ or, more simply, using one’s imagination to visualise a scene. A lot of the time this is a relatively easy feat given our extensive exposure to A) Real life, B) Multiple forms of genre-specific media and C) the human capacity to imagine the fantastical.
But when does scale really come into play?
When dealing with realistic settings or standard-sized enemies, we can lose ourselves in the story. Let the narrative flow carry us downstream to catharsisville with nary a care in the world. As soon as we break that basic convention, however, things get a bit rockier… or more turbulent I suppose to labour the stream analogy some more.
I’ve run a few games where the main antagonists were giant-sized creatures and had many more where they feature as a ‘large’1 portion of the story. Anyone who has run through Storm Kings Thunder will get where I may be going with this. In almost every instance, things start out great… the appreciation of scale is evident in the shining eyes of my players as they gaze wondrously at the oversized digital battle-maps or the proportionately huge miniatures of their enemies2 and as my eloquent scene descriptions emphasise that their paltry characters are nothing more than gnats before these mighty creatures.
The first couple of encounters are perfect, they are being swatted at by the tree trunk like clubs of their enemies and dodging between their lumbering footfalls, all the while bravely battling against the giant’s ankles or knees since that is all they can reach.
Then it all starts to fall apart…
When oversized creatures are predominant in a game it doesn’t take long for the players to find themselves within a settlement, whether a grand castle in the clouds, a cluster of mud huts in a swamp, or a gargantuan cave complex deep beneath the ground and it is usually around this time that our simple human brains begin to fall back on what we know best. It usually starts with a simple door…
Player 1: “I open the door.”
DM: “Ok, how are you planning to do that?”
Player 1 (now looking confused): “Oh, is it locked? Is there no handle?”
Player 2 (with a smirk): “Is it already open?… maybe only a little bit… which makes it not a door anymore, but in fact, ajar!”3
DM: “No, no, none of that… while it could be locked, you wouldn’t be able to tell yet as the door handle is 25 feet above your head on this 50 foot tall, 5 foot thick, door…”
Player 1 (looking dejected): “Fine then, I open the chest…”
DM (a single tear slipping down one cheek): “The chest stands against the wall, 12 feet of solid oak and with a keyhole large enough to stick your arm in… how would you like to open it?”
You get the point.
It is very easy to think of a door as, well, a door. With all the trappings of a traditional door in terms of size, weight, and all that good stuff. Once you begin scaling these things for 40-foot tall humanoids you start to see how hard it would be for someone at 1/8th scale. Certainly not impossible given the average superhuman abilities of your usual adventuring party but definitely not as easy as just declaring an action.
I’ve seen this trap fallen into by many a player, myself on multiple occasions and even in some of the best TTRPG podcasts I’ve listened to. Now, of course, we are all just wanting to have fun, and getting bogged down in scale isn’t everyone’s cup of tea4, but to truly paint an imaginary picture it needs to be consistent. Jack and the Beanstalk wouldn’t be half the adventure it is if halfway through he was just opening doors as normal or hopping over tables that in ‘reality’ he’d find it easier to go under instead.
Why the rant?
I guess the true issue here is one of immersion. When I DM I like to create a deeply immersive experience with rich lore and evocative descriptions that ensures everyone is sharing the same imaginary space. That way I can craft an engaging story for my players to lose themselves in without having to worry about whether or not their individual imaginations are all filling in the details in the same way. As soon as one person loses the sense of scale, or any other immersion-breaking situation5, the whole group can quickly follow and it can be very hard to get that back again.
While we aren’t likely to have issues with scale in Haunted: Beyond the Veil, the issue of immersion is never more important. Crafting a truly tense and gripping investigation is hard enough for even the most skilled of DMs but couple that with distractions and poor investment from even one player and the whole atmosphere can fall apart rapidly.
What pet peeves do you have with your gaming groups and how do you avoid them? I
desperately genuinely want to know!
Until next time…
1 See what I did there…
2 In the before times when people used to get together face to face to play games
3 Rocks fall, Player 2’s character dies… you’re welcome!
4 Even if it is a cup of tea several feet in diameter that you could use as a hot tub!
5 Seriously Player 2… turn your phone off!