Reflection Nebula - inversion

“Negative Space” sounds like the sort of thing that pretentious art critics fill the air with when they have nothing of substance to contribute. It’s not some antimatter or “mirror, mirror” universe, either – though it can be either or both those things if you want. It may come as some surprise to those with little or not experience in art extending beyond an “I like/don’t like it” that Negative Space is actually something rather important.

Negative Space – and this is my personal definition, and not something to write on an art or design exam – is space without details or specifics that surrounds the focus of attention and provides a strong contrast with that focus. Despite the fact that it contains little or nothing, Negative Space can be incredibly important and can serve a number of useful functions:

  • It can serve as a visual barrier, preventing attention from straying away from the desired focus of the composition;
  • It usually heightens the importance of the desired focus;
  • It can be used subtly to provide context without distracting specifics;
  • It can contain a second image relevant to the first;
  • It separates important elements and prevents them from ‘running into each other’; and, finally,
  • It provides an empty space that the viewer fills in subconsciously, giving the actual focus greater substance and substantiality.

I’m going to take a very brief look at how Negative Space achieves or performs these functions – trust me, it will be useful later in the article.

Visual Barrier

It’s natural for the human eye and mind to follow the edge of an object within an artwork rather than launching it’s focus of attention into an empty space. It’s natural for us to pay attention to anything that is sharp and focused and more or less ignore anything that is blurred and fuzzy – something photographers and movie directors have been exploiting for a century or more. It’s present in advertising as well – quite often company logos will appear in greater focus on a background image that has been blurred ever so slightly just to tell the mind what to pay attention to. In both cases, the negative space, the background, is serving to contain the attention of the viewer. It takes a deliberate effort to shift that focus away from wherever it is supposed to go.

This effect also shows up in all sorts of other ways. It’s the product of evolution, a pro-survival trick – focus the attention on what matters and ignore the rest. There is a famous psychology stunt designed to test the value of witness statements in a general sense: Get a bunch of people all dressed in a similar way and get them to dance around on stage, and give the audience some task that will require them to focus on those performers, such as counting how many of them there are. Most observers doing so – nine out of ten of them – will fail to notice another person in a gorilla costume quite openly walking across the stage in the background. That’s how powerful negative space can be as a barrier.

Heightened Focus

In both art and survival, the payoff comes in the form of greater attention being paid to those things deemed important. And yet, that greater attention can be strangely myopic as well – if people do something attention-getting and unexpected, more attention will be paid to their actions and less to what they actually looked like, something else that contaminates witness statements all the time. Height, weight, color of clothing, color of hair, even who did what to whom, and in what order – these can all go by the wayside.

Magicians use this all the time to misdirect audience attention – they will get people watching something, like what one hand is doing, and not paying attention to what the other is up to.


Providing Context

Negative space doesn’t have to be empty, it just has to be devoid of details that grab the intention. Color and impressions of space or movement can all be inserted into the negative space and used to provide context. Patterns and effects are more attention-getting, and so are harder to use in this way, but tiling of a motif serves the same purpose. In July of last year, I used the image to the right to illustrate an article. The flea is intentionally attention-getting, to the point that looking closely at it reduces the background to a generic patterned backdrop. Only when you focus on the background does the fact that it comprises silhouettes of camels become apparent. It took me more than a dozen attempts to create this image, because I wanted to make the camels more visually apparent and they kept getting lost in the white space – in the end, I had to make them larger and somewhat visually distorted, and flip the image of the flea left-to-right, to give people a chance to see the camels.

Some people will see the camels more readily than others. There’s a natural human variation. It will also vary with circumstances and a number of other factors – there are times when I don’t see the camels at first, and I know they are there.

It’s even possible to conceal an entire second image in the negative space – focus on it, and what used to be the positive space becomes the negative space of this new image. Consider the example of Rubin’s Vase, where the negative space forms the image of two men facing each other.

Element Separation

Comic books are sometimes described as “sequential art that tells a story”. The typical page from a comic raises the use of negative space to a high art – not only is negative space used within each panel, but the gutters between panels form a “higher order” of negative space that separates the two images in time – because people can only pay attention to one of the images at a time – and space. You read one panel and then move on to the next, creating a mental impression that the events depicted in the second occur after the events in the first.

Some people have trouble reading Japanese Manga because the pages are printed in reverse order to what Western eyes are used to. You start at the “last page” and work your way forwards. The panels flow from right to left, as well. I’m quite sure that it is just as difficult for Japanese readers to enjoy American comics, even assuming no language difficulties.

One issue of a comic named Alpha Flight featured a battle between two white characters (and I don’t mean Caucasian) fighting in a snowstorm. Almost the entire story was told through the shape of the panels alone – in other words, through manipulating the negative space.

These are all extreme examples. In more traditional art, such as objects on a table, the negative space helps to separate the objects.

Tabula Rasa

Human minds aren’t really equipped to deal with empty space. When we encounter it, our minds try and interpret the space as containing something. Some optical illusions rely on this to shape part of the negative space to such a degree of success that we can see something that just isn’t there, such as is the case in the Kanizsa Triangle (shown left), created by Italian psychologist and artist Gaetano Kanizsa in the 1970s. The mind creates an object – a white triangle, point-down – out of the negative space to ‘explain’ what it perceives as interruptions of the other parts of the image. In other words, it separates the negative space into two planes, one triangle-shaped and in front of everything else, and one flat and behind everything else. In fact, there is no white triangle, but this nonexistent element of the picture becomes the dominant focus of attention as soon as it appears.

The mind extrapolates from cues within the event or scene to “fill in the blanks” – which are then taken as actual fact even if they contradict what is actually seen. This effect also manifests in witness statements – people naturally try to place the event they have seen into a context, and will actually (entirely unwittingly) modify their recollection of events to conform to that context. If someone else strongly suggests an alternative context that makes more sense to the subject, they will “rewrite history” in their mind to contain supporting details. The only hope an investigator has of finding out what actually took place from eyewitness testimony alone is to get those statements as soon as possible after the event, having kept the witnesses isolated from anyone and everyone else in the meantime. The Wikipedia article on Eyewitness Testimony makes fascinating reading for anyone unfamiliar with recent developments on the subject.

Implanting subtle cues of any sort into the negative space helps give that space a context, a starting point, and the mind goes on to fill in the blanks to incorporate that context into the focus of the image.

The Manipulation of Negative Space

There is always going to be negative space surrounding any image or perception. This negative space can be manipulated, if the artist is smart enough to do so, to enhance and compliment the focus of attention, and to manipulate the impressions received of that focus of attention.

Expanding the concept

Why is such a useful tool not recognized and employed in other creative fields and applications? What could we (as GMs) do with it if we adapted it for such use? And wait a minute – “Less Is More” – isn’t it already there, under a different name? And how does Negative Space relate to “White Space”?

Less-is-more vs Negative Space

To some extent, the principle of “less is more” is an attempt to focus the attention on the essential elements of whatever is being perceived, whether that be in narration, description, or visually by deliberately omitting anything that is not relevant. The assumption is that the details that are actually conveyed become stronger impressions of the scene when the reader/viewer does not have his attention distracted by a flood of irrelevant information. This can be viewed as an attempt to create negative space within the frame of reference.

The flaw with this approach is that it explicitly defines the resulting negative space as “everything that is not essential”; this can be coped with reasonably well when we’re talking about a modern setting with a contemporary world, but begins to fall apart quickly when the fantastic enters the setting, although perhaps the principle can still apply if the definition of “essential” is expanded. In my article on Mystery Plotlines in RPGs, The Butler Did It, about half-way through the article I quite selected passages from Isaac Asimov’s foreword to Asimov’s Mysteries in which he discusses the union of Mysteries and Science Fiction, and the perceived impossibility of uniting the genres – a perception that he resolved by specifically expanding the definition of “essential”. And, to keep from overwhelming the reader at the key point of the story, he shifts as much as possible of the additional “essential” information elsewhere within the story. After all, it may be essential that the reader has this information, it is not essential that they be distracted with it when there are other things that they should be focusing on. Context is therefore defined as both negative space to the description of events and essential nevertheless.

By explicitly defining the negative space as “everything that is not essential”, though, we forego the capacity to manipulate that negative space. We let its shape be more-or-less accidental and incidental, rather than treating it as a deliberately manipulable element. Negative Space in design and in art is never accidental and never incidental – not in the hands of any serious artist, at least – so “Less Is More” is a less-refined principle than the concept of a deliberately-structured Negative Space analogue.

White Space vs Negative Space

I’ve seen the same thing happen in Magazine layout, which is where the term “white space” originates. The concept that the gutters between columns and at the edges of a page where capable of more than simply defining the boundaries of the columns began to seep into the field in the late 70s and early 80s. In fact, it could be employed to create shapes out of white space was radical and innovative at the time.

The concept quickly evolved to integrate illustration, completing the transition in concept from “white space” (where there is no visual content) to “negative space” (where there is no text), by placing the artwork wholly or in selected parts within that negative space in more creative ways than simply having text wrap around it in a box. This was a consequence of the introduction of elements of Graphic Design into the world of Page Layouts in previous decades. “Time”, “PC World”, and “Seventeen” (to name three magazines completely at random) all look different; they employ different fonts, different layouts, and have different objectives.

Sometimes these layouts became artistic statements in and of themselves; sometimes they went too far and became more important than the substance of the article they were intended to support and enhance. Over time, these excesses have been recognized and pared back to more functional designs.

Ultimately, White Space is concerned principally with the positioning of content elements with respect to each other and the page boundaries; employing it simply to generate the capacity to incorporate an additional featured content element is as far as it goes. Like “Less Is More”, it’s a forerunner of the actual principle, but is one which is further along the path to a full realization of the potential of Negative Space within the select field of page layout and typography.

It can also be said that progress along that path was arrested over the last two decades, as the designers began to grapple with the internet and web page layout and the ever-changing potentials technology has provided for dynamic designs. The best designers have migrated into this field, and technological improvements have continually raised the bar of what is possible to keep them there. It will be a decade or more, in my opinion, before design catches up with the capabilities we already have – assuming (hah!) that the technology doesn’t change again in the meantime.

Negative Space in RPGs

So, since Negative space is neither “Less Is More” nor “White Space” – both principles that have been considered and discussed elsewhere in terms of RPGs – for example, this article on game prep at Stuffer Shack – it is worth exploring just how the principles of Negative Space can be incorporated into various elements of the RPG hobby beyond mere page design, to the benefit of both individual games and the hobby as a whole.

There are eight aspects of RPGs that come to mind.

  • Negative Space In Narrative
  • Negative Space In Descriptions
  • Negative Space In Characterization
  • Negative Space In Maps
  • Negative Space In Adventures
  • Negative Space In NPCs
  • Negative Space In Rules
  • Negative Space In Campaign Planning

It was somewhat surprising, when I started thinking about each of these, that to some extent Campaign Mastery had already started this exploration, though without any overall direction. I feel like I have discovered a new unifying principle that amounts to a paradigm shift in my perceptions, and have the impression that I will be exploring the nuances and implications for a very long time to come – and that I will never look at some aspects of the hobby in quite the same way again.

Of course, that doesn’t do our readers much good without some specifics, so let’s look at each of these. There may be more applications of the principle in each of these fields, and some of them may not be as groundbreaking as others, but this will at least provide a starting point.

Negative Space Layers1

Negative Space In Narrative

In narrative terms, Negative Space is about adopting a layered standard of information detail. We can keep the basic principle of “Less Is More”, but refine it to encompass a broader interpretation of ‘essential’, and differentiating between different strata of essentials, to which different standards of detail apply. This transforms the “negative space” from the concept of leaving out everything that is not immediately essential into the concept of providing information which fills, and employs, that negative space so as to manipulate the context of the “essential” that is provided in full detail.

The result is a pyramid structure consisting of at least three layers, possibly four, five, or six:

  1. The uppermost level contains the immediate essentials, less anything that is not immediately obvious to the characters. This is the peak of the pyramid, the part that is most sharply defined.
  2. The second layer contains conditional information – narrative detailing facts that are essentials, but that may not be immediately obvious, and hence will only be detailed under certain conditions (the PC making the right skill check, for example, or asking the right question). Before then, it will only be hinted at – but it should be hinted at, so that players will know that there is more information available which may be relevant.
  3. In the third layer we have contextual information. This should already have been provided to the players, so all that is needed here is a general reminder that associates that information with the narrative being delivered.
  4. An optional fourth layer provides psychological, magical, scientific, spiritual, or other specialist context or perspective to those of the appropriate skillset or experience. To avoid forcing the player into adopting a position predetermined by the GM, effectively negating player free will, this should be kept broad and general, leaving it to the player to decide how this perspective or context will influence their specific interpretation of the narrative. The player can always ask more specific questions, which may or may not require die rolls / skill checks. Because this is character-specific context, it is often better delivered by note, permitting it to influence the character’s roleplay without explanation to those who do not share this perspective. This practice makes this layer character-enhancing rather than character-detracting.
  5. The fifth layer is also optional, and exists to provide metaphysical, philosophical, and moral context or perspective that only applies to one specific race or species. This information should already be known to the player (or at least available to them), so only general reference is required concerning the relevance. Like material from the fourth layer, this is often better passed on by note, though there may be times when it is better to actually take the player aside and discuss the specifics with them. It is rare for skill rolls to be required to access this additional information, which is why it forms a distinct stratum from the fourth layer.
  6. Finally, a further optional layer contains metaphysical, philosophical, and moral context or perspective that is generally available or applicable, or which the majority of players may assume is generally applicable. Once again, this should be broad and general, if present at all, so that while players can assess the stakes and the context, the choice of how the act or react to it is left to them. This information may be overruled in specific individuals by content from the fourth or fifth layers.

It should also be noted that each piece of conditional information may also have associated elements within the fourth, fifth or sixth layers.

I tried to represent all this in a diagram, but it wasn’t as clear as the text explanation, as you can see to the above right. But the general principle should be clear from the text.

Negative Space In Descriptions

A similar approach applies to creating negative space in descriptions: decide what’s important to be specific about, what’s important to touch on in context or in respect of specialist knowledge, and what’s important to touch in with respect to past events or locations within the campaign. In particular, any changes to the setting since the last time the characters were here should be at least mentioned in passing, even if they aren’t immediately relevant, because they convey the impression of a dynamic, changing, world. Finally, and analogous to the deeper layers described above is anything needed to establish the mood and tone of the circumstances under which the description is being delivered.

There is always debate about whether the mood & tone information needs to come first or should be the last thing mentioned. The latter ensures that it is the foremost thing in the player’s minds, the former enables it to color the description. My preference is to try to achieve both – use general terms at the start, and provide one or two contributing specifics at the end of the description. But that won’t always work. And anything that you want the characters to specifically act or react to, like a charging mercenary, should be mentioned both early and in more detail at the end.

Still more importantly, the witness behavior described earlier should be taken into account. If there’s a charging mercenary, characters will be less prone to note details of the background until the immediate threat is resolved. It’s important to then provide the missing description, usually with an opening phrase along the lines of “only now do you notice…”

Some GMs require the players to make some sort of perception roll at the start and use those as a guideline to how much of the background detail should be included, but there are so many combinations of circumstance and subtleties of obviousness that no hard and fast rules can really be provided.

Negative Space In Characterization

The best way to provide negative space in terms of characterization is by abstracting qualities rather than delving into specifics. Don’t tell people about the personality, find a way for the character to reveal his personality through speech and actions. I’ve discussed this in detail in a past article, Look Beyond The Box, without realizing that this was in fact incorporating and using Negative Space in the characterization – but it is. The more broadly you can define the characterization, the more you can employ it to reflect other aspects of the character when those questions come up; and by using them as a starting point, or character seed, you ensure a consistent characterization even in aspects of the character that weren’t defined at the time.

Combining this principle with the techniques offered in The 3-minute (or less) NPC, which relies on building Negative Space into a character in a selective and controlled (and hence manipulable) fashion, and you are well-served.

Negative Space In Maps

Former site co-owner Johnn Four has actually addressed this specific subject, in the third entry within his series, “Maps Have Three Parts”, or at least started to look at the topic.

Old-time maps simply left what they didn’t know, blank, at least they did if they were intended to have practical value. Some maps may have been drawn speculating on features that were not known to exist. I have employed the same principle many, many times in my games. I have covered part of the map with post-its, for example, and removed them one at a time when the PCs reached an appropriate area. On another occasion, I printed one map with holes that matched the locations of selected rooms and corridors on the second map; the latter was given to the PCs, and the second glued on top in panels containing individual rooms and corridors. On still other occasions I’ve created a narrative in advance and drawn the map to contain it as the PCs discovered it. On one occasion, a map was drawn and covered in clear contact plastic, and furnishings cut out from cardboard and blue-tacked to that map – enabling tables to be knocked over and chairs to be broken during the barroom brawl that we knew was coming (actually, it was a high-end restaurant similar to that seen in the opening of the second Indiana Jones movie, but you get the idea). I will usually draw my terrain maps electronically, then mask off the parts that are unexplored or unknown using a mask contained on a separate layer; this enables me to apply transparency selectively to the mask. In my fantasy campaigns, any given geographic feature shown that the PCs have not been to in the past is 2d4+d5-3 2km hexes away from where it is shown, in a random (d36 times 10) direction – or some similar approach is employed – because aerial surveys and precise measurements over such distances were simply not available. I have even generated a map where each feature was an “object” in its own right so that I could move them around – then gave the PCs three slightly-contradictory versions of the map to work from.

Negative Space contains the unknown, and provides room for errors in the making of the maps.

One final tip: aside from space filled with wall, in a structure like a castle, there are no negative spaces – the negative spaces that surround a given room are all other rooms or corridors. Plan and draw your map accordingly.

I once created a castle map, cut out each room and corridor, and interposed a minimum one-square gap between the pieces. I filled most of the resulting wall space in, extending the corridors as necessary – but used some of the gaps for secret tunnels.

Another time, I created a maze with very thick walls – then subdivided the space within the maze into rooms. Throw in a couple of secret passages through parts of the maze (which had been drawn in at random during the maze construction) and hey presto – a wonderfully confounding and confusing complex!

These are just some of the many things that can be done with negative space in maps.

Oh, all right – just one more. Create a map electronically, leaving empty (transparent) spaces between terrain features. Create a couple of other maps electronically with other terrain features. Then place the first map over the top of the second, and over the third, and over the fourth, and so on. The result is a map with a few fixed features (from the first map) and morphing or unstable terrain in between them. This trick works well for doing different seasons – Winter, spring, and summer/autumn are the three I normally work with, because these can have very different water flows. But it also works when two planes of existence are colliding :)

Negative Space In Adventures

Every adventure needs to have negative space, for the PCs to fill. What you need to know are who the key NPCs are, what they are trying to accomplish, how they are trying to achieve this, and how those factors are going to intersect with the PCs lives – everything else should start out as negative space, to be filled in as necessary.

Practicality and the exigencies of good play may require some of those spaces to be populated with narrative or minor encounters in advance, but these should always be selective and prepared on-spec – never certain to actually be used. Don’t worry, if the villain has a good speech in the current adventure that he never gets to give, you can always recycle it at some future point for some other villain.

Each time you start working on an encounter, or a description, or a scene within an adventure, you should always ask yourself how much detail you need to prep in advance – and what you can get away with making up on the spot, or in between adventures when the characters head in an unexpected direction. Some people like to describe this as giving the players as much room to maneuver as possible; I like to think of it in terms of giving them enough rope to hang themselves :)

Negative Space In NPCs

Wait, we’ve already covered this, haven’t we?

Not completely. I’ve talked about Negative Space in characterization; but this is more about which NPCs you need to prep in advance. The vague and abstract you can make these until you need them, the more time you have to devote to other things – and the more latitude you have when you do need to actually specify them in detail.

One of my early AD&D campaigns featured a monarch who was small, and mousy, and nervous, and cowardly, and a little inept in many ways (while very astute in others). He was served by a hulking brick of a fighter, 6’7″ tall, four feet across the shoulders, with a broadaxe almost as wide as he was. Whenever the monarch had to appear in public, he dressed up as a manservant and dressed the fighter up as “the King”. This arrangement gave the pair the best of both worlds. (Everything worked out fine until the warrior got himself killed in a drunken brawl with a storm giant in a tavern – then the PCs had to be called in in a hurry to scare up a replacement or resurrect the old fake). To anyone from outside the Kingdom, it was protected and ruled by a mighty warrior who thought with his biceps – but was gifted with the occasional canny insight. Anyone acting on this perception were behind the eight-ball even before setting foot in the Kingdom, because they seriously underestimated the monarch who actually ruled there. (I got the idea from The Wizard Of Oz).

When characters are just starting out, they need to know the local monarch’s reputation – which may have absolutely nothing to do with the real monarch. Apply this principle to every NPC in the campaign, and save yourself a LOT of work – while giving yourself a lot more room to move.

Negative Space In Rules

I can hear some people already: “Deliberately leaving things out of the rules? What are you, nuts?”

And yet, I’ve already hinted at this principle in Top-Down Plug-in Game Design: The Perfect Recipe?, in which I advocated a modular game design with a central framework. Leave out that magic system – then offer several alternatives. Leave out the combat system – then offer a couple of variations with different levels of detail. Leave out the skills system – then offer three or four variations with different levels of detail and different approaches – one or two of which have a matching xp system, replacing that module of the rules. All you need to do is specify in advance how these subsystems are going to connect with each other.

Negative Space In Campaign Planning

Every campaign needs negative space. This is space in which events and encounters are intended simply to establish the general framework and context of the campaign, in which dya-to-day normality is presented to the players and the foundations – technological, spiritual, theological, psychological, and metaphysical – are explained and demonstrated to the players. NPCs who are going to be important get introduced, initial relationships established, and the pieces of the jigsaw layed out ready for assembly into the “real” story.

This takes the principles explained in the discussion of sci-fi mysteries and expands them to cover the entire campaign.

Right now, in the Zenith-3 campaign, the players are in the early stages of Adventure number 7, “Mixed Emotions”. This adventure will carry them through to the conclusion of the first page of the multipage campaign plan. How many significant events have their been in the campaign so far, and how much is negative space? Answer: Including the parts of this adventure that have not yet been played, there have been exactly nine important developments. Two of those were the introduction of new team members. A third was the establishment of their new base of operations and the politics that come with it and with their new role. A fourth was a still-unidentified group who set out to test the new arrivals. Fifth was the establishment of a non-aggression pact with a villain named Voodoo Willy, who always makes sure he’s more valuable to the PCs where he is and doing what he does than he would be if they followed their instincts and locked him up. Sixth was the obtaining and emplacement of Mana storage devices throughout the base of operations. Seventh was the restoration of the parent team’s space-going base of operations. Eigth was the development of a commercially available psionic shield. And ninth has been a redefinition of the relationship between the parent group and the PCs that gives them a great deal more liberty – and a great deal more responsibility. Everything else has been negative space, laying groundwork for the future, or simply exploring the repercussions of the PCs current situation. As the campaign proceeds, the pace of significant events will increase; we’re still in its early days.

The same is true of my Shards Of Divinity campaign, where there have been a few significant events, but mostly there have been excuses provided to get the PCs to wander about, exploring their environment.

Where To From Here?

So far, I don’t think I’ve done more than scratch the surface of the principle of Negative Space applied to RPGs, but I’ve presented as many specifics as have come to mind thus far in this article. At this point, the principle is more of a perceptual shift, changing the way I think about everything that a GM does and has to do; that altered perception has not yet had time to manifest into practical applications of the principle. Right now, all I can do is bear it in mind as I go about the multitude of tasks involved in GMing and see what develops…

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