During the last week, the RPG Bloggers Network brought an interesting post to my attention: “Discussion: Time Gaps” at Reality Refracted.

This got me to thinking about the hierarchy of abstraction, and how often we (GMs) move from one level to another in the course of a typical game session, and how we can use a seemingly inappropriate level of abstraction to manipulate time and mood and pacing and other aspects of the game, often without realizing exactly what it is that we are doing.

It occurs to me that if we, as GMs, actually understand the techniques that we are employing to achieve different impacts apon the game, then we can do so with more polish, finesse, and deliberation.

And that’s a train of thought that leads inevitably to this article.

The Six levels of Abstraction

There are six levels of abstraction:

  • the mechanical layer
  • the activity layer
  • the conversational layer
  • the abstract layer
  • the metagame layer
  • the reality layer

This article will look at each of them in turn.

0. The Mechanical Layer

This is the level of abstraction at which combat and other game-mechanics effects take place. Time is strictly regulated and events occur in a precise sequence with a precisely defined duration. It’s not abstract at all, in other words.

1. The Activity Layer

Operating at a slightly more abstract layer are skill rolls and other game mechanical effects that require interpretation by the GM and description of the results or outcome. While the content is more mechanical than abstract, these analyses by the GM are more abstract than mechanical. Activities in this layer bridge both mechanical and abstract.

GMs can also run combats at this level, in what I think of as a more cinematic style than that of the full game mechanics. How that works is generally different from system to system, but in general, each player gets a turn, describes what they are trying to do and rolls a die or set of dice to determine how well they achieve whatever they are attempting. As GM, I then adjust the result for what I know of the PC, what I know of the NPC, what I know of the circumstances, and interpret the result as a narrative.

Time in this layer is highly subjective most of the time – a single die roll may reflect or describe seconds, minutes, days, weeks, or even months of activity.

2. The Conversational Layer

This layer comprises all communications that take place “in character”. This might be conversations between PCs, between NPCs, or between both. Like the activity layer, these activities can bridge both mechanical and abstract layers, but they occupy three distinct loci of abstraction along this bridge: words accompanying a die roll against an interpersonal skill clearly exist at the edge of the activity layer; words spoken “in character” occupy an intermediate position within the layer; and a character describing what his character is going to say in the 3rd person is relatively abstract.

Combat can also occur at this level of abstraction, employing a shared narrative technique with no dice at all. This operates in a round-robin approach in which one player narrates part of the action, up to a point at which the GM is required to respond to the action; he then narrates the next part of the action, before handing the symbolic baton to either a new player or back to the first.

Once again, time ranges from the very specific to the very abstract; it takes no more time for words spoken in character to be uttered in game than it does for the player to speak them, while an entire 30-minute speech may be summarized and synopsized into just a few seconds at the abstract end of the conversational layer.

3. The Abstract Layer

The third level of abstraction is the most abstract of all those that contain in-game events. This is reserved for players describing character actions with no game mechanics required, and GMs doing the same for NPCs. “Lubo pours half his flask of scotch into the coffee” occurs at the abstract layer.

It should come as no surprise that there is a form of combat at this layer of abstraction as with all the preceding ones. The combat at this level is “abstract simulation”, and it can be a difficult one to describe in hypothetical terms, so I won’t try. Instead, here are a couple of examples that should make the concept crystal-clear: To simulate aerial combat between superheroes in my Zenith-3 campaign, I use “Blue Max”. I have a simple system to equate the aerial characteristics of each participating character to a particular model of aircraft, and mark off damage to a level that’s appropriate to their relative physical characteristics.

In the past, I have also used Chess, Orbit War, Starship Troopers, Hacker, Naval War, and Poker to simulate various aspects of combat and pseudo-combat. I’m forever on the lookout for a WWII-period naval wargame that’s not too complex for use in simulating fleet actions in space.

Using another game’s mechanics to simulate an abstracted form of combat in your game opens a world of possibilities. Consider using Poker to simulate a trade or diplomatic summit, where each player represents a particular faction, each hand a particular issue, each faction has a maximum amount of funds they are permitted to risk in getting their way in that issue, and the relative value of the hands indicates how closely the outcome fits with that faction’s desired outcome. It takes a little prep work to set up, but weeks of grinding negotiations can be simulated in a few minutes of interesting play.

These examples should make it clear that time is exceptionally fluid in the abstract layer. This is the layer that the original article at Reality Refracted addresses in its discussion of great passages of game time between periods of less abstract play.

4. The Metagame Layer

This is the layer at which Reality Refracted’s 6-month “jumps” take place. In essence, at this level of abstraction, the player is no longer interacting directly with the game world as it is; he is looking abstractly at the entire campaign and his role within it. Much the same device is frequently used in Novels, where some time may have passed between one chapter or section and the next.

In some ways, this is equivalent to the player telling the GM, “Wake my character when something interesting happens”.

When interacting at this level, players are no longer concerned with game mechanics at all; instead they provide some abstract goal for their characters and wait for the GM to respond. This response is usually in the form of a narrative, which the players or GM can interrupt at any time to move to a less abstract layer if warranted.

I’ve found (as a rule of thumb) that the fewer the players the campaign has, the more time can be spent at this level. I once ran a solo campaign (a spinoff from my primary superhero game) that rarely left this level, and there are some substantial benefits to it.

Time becomes a well-tailored suit instead of a straightjacket; you can skip over the boring bits with a narrative summary and move straight to the interesting bits. Because you are beyond any substantial game mechanics and working directly with character concepts and ambitions, you also shed most of the opportunities for cheating. Game play becomes a shared narrative experience between player(s) and GM, a co-plotting session that has as its ultimate objective, moving the campaign from point A to point B (sometimes by way of points C, D, and E).

Combat is possible at this level by the same mechanism, and there are times when this is the best option – for example, when describing the events of a war. When there are simply too many characters involved, even the abstract level can be too detailed; instead a general description of recent events should be employed when the characters are in a position to “catch up”, and the game should otherwise focus on smaller, isolated scenes within the overall battle. Very rarely does a field unit in combat have the opportunity to see the big picture; usually it has a very specific objective and limited opposition to overcome, and no idea how their little piece of the war relates to the overall flow of events.

In fact, much of the material in “This Means War!”, the article series that I wrote on how to conduct wars and large-scale battles in RPGs in 2009 is designed and intended to take place at the metagame level (parts of it are intended for the abstract and the activity layers but the principle remains). Most of the article is about translating the mechanical layer of the game upwards into a different abstraction than the usual.

Another type of activity that occurs at this level of abstraction is players planning how their characters are going to evolve in the future. In class-based systems, this can be “what class level are you going to take next?” or “what is the next feat you intend to take?”; in classless systems, the equivalent is a shopping list of future improvements in abilities. These are useful to the GM because he can work in small references to the character acting to achieve these goals, whether it be studying a tome of knowledge, attending a class, or whatever.

Three Types Of Campaign

Most people are aware of the concepts of Serial and Episodic campaign types, though perhaps by other names. In the serial campaign, there is strong continuity from adventure to adventure, while in the episodic campaign, each adventure comes to a full stop with a noticeable time interval before the next one starts.

Employing the Metagame Level as a framing device permits the characters and their circumstances to evolve “in between adventures”. The adventures themselves are still standalone events, each isolated from the next and with concrete start, middle, and end; but there is an evolution of the background and relationships. The result is a third campaign style, the “Semi-serial” or “Semi-episodic” (depending on which way individual adventures trend).

4b. The Temporal Compression Sublayer

There are a couple of sublayers within the metagame layer that are worth separate discussion. The first of these is the temporal compression sublayer. “It’s going to take your letter to the King at least three weeks to arrive, what do you want to do in the meantime?” is an example of this.

When I was first starting the Zenith-3 campaign, I permitted the players to ask me written questions that their characters were researching the answers to at the end of each game session. I would then evaluate the depth of research required to answer the question, and frame a (written) response at a level of abstraction that was consistent with the character and the complexity of the answer. The responses were categorized as “preliminary”, “incomplete”, or “final”.

An example might be “How is South America different in this alternate reality?”. A preliminary answer would simply state that the Aztec and Mayan civilizations fought off the European invaders. An incomplete answer would describe the process of the individual campaigns and devote a paragraph or two to the failed wars of conquest and how they were lost. Only when the “final” answer was received would rare photographs of the natives make it obvious that these civilizations were populated by Intelligent Dinosaurs who didn’t like to have their pictures taken – a piece of information so fundamental that it was taken for granted by the easily-accessible sources referenced for the earlier two answers.

Of course, a character can declare himself satisfied at any point and move on to fresh research – which is how it came as a rude shock to the players when they were captured by a hunting party of Saurians!

Most GMs compress time regularly, in other words make brief excursions into the metagame level. Whenever the GM skips over making camp, cooking a meal, setting a night watch, standing watches, cooking another meal, and breaking camp, he is compressing time.

At low levels in my D&D campaigns, I tend not to do this, making the players feel every step that their characters take, because it gives me the opportunity to sneak in bits of campaign background and flavor before it has substantial impact. As the characters go up in level, I will first time-compress overnight watches when nothing of significance happens, and then whole legs of journeys from one town to another, and then entire journeys: “It takes 3 weeks. You are there.”

4c. The Temporal Expansion Layer

It is equally possible for the GM to stretch time, describing a complex series of events in far more time than these events supposedly take place. This is frequently done to provide descriptions (narrative = abstract layer) of places, people, and events.

4c. The Campaign Briefing Sublayer

Another vital sublayer is the Campaign Briefing, which is necessarily couched at the metagame level, unless it is to be a full or partial novel in scope. Like the other metagame levels, this is devoid of game mechanics, but at the same time, inextricably linked to them in the form of house rules.

Every House Rule should not only be justified by the Campaign Briefing, but the overt consequences of the House Rule should be incorporated into the Briefing so that the players know what to expect, and how those rules emerge from the world concept, and shape the game world.

Some of this material can be excised and built into early adventures which exist for no other reason than to educate the players in this respect, and this is often a preferable arrangement – it avoids overload. When that approach is adopted, it’s fair to consider the opening adventures in question to be an interactive component of the campaign briefing.

This signposting of House Rules and shaping of the metagame experience should be characteristic of all activities conducted within the metagame layer. The campaign briefing not only establishes the important concepts and circumstances that will surround the PCs when play begins, it sets the tone and style for future metagame interactions.

4d. The Character Metalayer

The final metagame level to be considered is the interaction between characters and players. This interaction is where the player decides how his character will react to the totality of what he has experienced in the course of the game, and what he anticipates needing in the future.

This is the level at which the character’s hopes, dreams, aspirations, and ambitions are decided, together with a development and activity strategy designed to achieve them.

5. The Reality Layer

It is, of course, only a theoretical ideal that the character’s direction is shaped purely by the personality, circumstances, and experiences of that character. In the real world, everyone should know better; the personality and skills of the GM shape the game world, and the personality, ambitions, and skills of the player shape the PC. The reality of gaming is that there is a fifth layer, the reality layer, and there are some interesting aspects to it.

For example, one could ponder the relationship between real time and game time. The first is clearly a function of the reality layer, and the second relates to the other four layers. They operate independently, in theory, but the two are nevertheless connected. The more often a campaign is played, the lower down the scale of abstraction layers it will tend to be. When a campaign is played less frequently, the relatively mundane and trivial encounters that do nothing but add flavor are often sidestepped or ignored in favor of progressing the plot. There is greater pressure to make screen time count.

There is the relationship between a player’s mood and the actions of his character within the game. PCs can be used to vent frustrations, or to provide an escapist relief from real-world burdens.

And yet, strangely enough, combat at this level (ignoring fisticuffs between players, or players and GM) is identical to combat at the Mechanical layer – it is the rolling of dice and the consultation of character sheets. The layers of abstraction form a closed circle.

Every character is a bridge between the Metagame Layer and the Mechanical Layer through the Reality layer.

Using The Layers Of Abstraction

Some of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of any good GM are the players themselves. By manipulating the players, the GM can influence the behavior of the PCs under their control, altering the shape of the game as a result.

If you make the PLAYERS nervous, you will make the CHARACTERS more timid. If you make the PLAYERS uncertain, the CHARACTERS will become hesitant. If the players are overconfident, it’s the characters who will rush in where an angel might fear to tread.

One of the most powerful tools the GM has for manipulating players is the layer of abstraction at which events take place. Incursions into the narrative (metagame) layer, perhaps accompanied by illustrations or other mood-setting surroundings, can induce everything from an air of romance to fear or horror. Staying away from the metagame layer, or using the metagame layer to compress time instead of expanding it, increases the sense of distance between players and PCs, permitting a more impersonal approach to the problems faced by the characters.

Used properly, compressing time can make the players feel rushed or excited, while expanding time can build tension.

The Mechanical layer is anathema to mood and tone; by definition, it is completely impersonal. It follows that once a mood is created, some other combat mode is required to permit battle while sustaining that mood.

There have been past occasions where, in the course of a single encounter, I have employed all five layers of abstraction, zooming back and forth from one to another in order to build and release tension, expand on a complex situation and a fateful decision, or focus on a piece of gritty minutia.

There is a natural flow to how we as GMs move from one layer of abstraction to another in a game, something that each GM learns both from observing others as a player and from experience and experimentation. The timing dynamics of motion pictures, and novels, and TV episodes, are both similar and not completely analogous. We operate as much by instinct as by artistic design or highbrow theory.

Recognizing when it is natural to move from one layer to another, and then deliberately moving (even if only briefly) to a different layer again can have a profound impact on the game because it violates player expectations. If the object of the encounter at that moment is emotional, the emotions can be heightened; if intellectual, the time required for deduction and reasoning can be provided (you can even have a question-and-answer session between GM and player); if philosophical, you can induce a feeling of involvement, or an Olympian perspective, shifting player awareness completely away from the mundane battle to the wider implications of events.

The more often a GM makes a deliberate choice about the level of abstraction for a particular scene or sub-scene or encounter – or even a line of dialogue or exposition from on high – the better their game will be (assuming they get their choices right). Like the Wizard Of Oz, you have to work your magic from behind the curtain, where awareness of what you are doing will not distract from the effect of it. Afterwards, few of the players will be able to put their fingers on just why that game session seemed more vibrant, more exciting, and/or more real than others; they will simply know the GM was in fine form that day.

And isn’t that what we’re striving for?

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