Place and Space in RPGs

Setting Specifics

Geographers spend a lot of time thinking about space and place, and all GMs are geographers, whether we know it or not. When you’re creating a world, a dungeon, an adventure, or even just a bar, the difference between space and place can be really essential, because it can help you shift the direction of the game or help the players out with hooks. So today I’ll talk about what the difference is, and how you can use it to create a more focused world.

Spaces are locations you move through or dwell in, but don’t care about. Some examples from real life include airports, bus stations, and hotel rooms. Odds are you can’t remember the details of any of the ones you’ve been in, but you’ve probably been there. Bars, restaurants, classrooms, other people’s houses, any place you are is a space. It’s a location that contains stuff.

A place, on the other hand, is a space that you have a relationship with. It’s your bedroom, the quiet space in the park where you took that girl that bunch of times, the coffee shop you work in, or your office. It’s a space with a story that relates to you, somewhere that provokes a feeling. You have a bond with it. Some spaces try really hard to be places, like shopping malls. They spend a lot of time and money trying to get you to emotionally invest in them, rather than just sort of show up and leave. GMs can learn a lot from shopping malls.

Dragon Age map

I love how this map separates places from spaces.

How often do you have a dungeon or area, that PCs just navigate without really investigating or being interested in? It’s just some area where there are things to kill and stuff to acquire, and your elaborate and interesting backstory goes entirely ignored? That’s because to you, the dungeon is a place, but to them it’s a space. It’s something that they’re going through in order to get to somewhere else. Sometimes it’s not the dungeon, it’s the town. Either way, it can tell you what they’re really after. Maybe they care more about getting the MacGuffin and getting on with whatever they’re doing than what the MacGuffin actually is or does. The way they treat their environment can teach you a lot about how to pace the game in a way that motivates them.

Here’s another example, how often is some adventure hook set aside because the PCs become fascinated with some location that you hadn’t even imagined would be a thing, they’d just go there and leave? But they want to go back to somewhere they’ve been and investigate further, or the one-off village you created on the fly becomes their base of operations. This sends just as strong a message. It says that they’re invested in this place, and it gives you the opportunity to do things with it that you might not otherwise be able to do. It’s an invitation.

I say “They”, but what’s far more likely is that for any location, you have some players who consider it a space, and some who think of it as a space. Everyone has different values they’re bringing to the table, so they’re naturally going to treat locations differently. It’s not quite as simple as “Roleplayers want to stay in towns and strategists want to get out into the dungeon,” but that’s one way to look at it. The result is a recognition of the need to create opportunities for everyone in any location.

I do this by tailoring descriptions. What I get a sense of what the characters are looking for in a place (not a space), I start emphasizing those features in descriptions of things I want to be places, and downplaying them in those I want to be spaces. Whether it’s history, interesting people, new items, or even details of architecture, I try to include them. And it’s not just characters, it’s players. Characters’ interests will shift and change, but the characters are ultimately guided by what the players are trying to get out of the game, and that’s not going to change too often.

Players are looking to create meaning, whether that’s having meaningful relationships and interactions, or meaningful accomplishments. They’re in the business of creating places, and as the GM, you can use those places to help them create more meaning. Or mess with them. Really, it’s practically one and the same. Share a place your players have become unintentionally attached to in the comments below!

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