I finally have the phrase to summarize what an exploration oriented GM/player is about. This phrase describes how that differs from narrative oriented gamers and immersion oriented gamers. It is a something I have been wanting in games for since I started roleplaying: “The Illusion of Another Place and Another Time.” That’s it. That’s the thing that engages me in RPGs and pretty much every other form of media.
Exploration players/GMs are not narrative players/GMs. I have been confused for one many times and then when the differences show up, I get this confused look like “but I thought….wait how is this a good story?” Exploration oriented GMs focus on theme, tone, and atmosphere a lot and that seems to signal narrative/plot oriented GM to people so they swarm in thinking its about narrative. Its one of the reasons why I end up with narrative players who end up forcing the game into a narrative style because they can’t comprehend the difference. They will railroad themselves into mistaking internal continuity for plot hooks. They assume improvising doesn’t bear the limitations of the world. They think heavy description means greater importance. They assume and can not depart from their assumptions.
Because all GMs have a story in mind or they just make up the story as they go, right?
If the GM isn’t doing a story then its all up to us create an interesting plot, right?
The answer is no. Exploration GMs don’t do this unless they choose to run a narrative game. That is a style and not the only way to use Roleplaying Games.A Narrative GM will run a game with a story formed out of it or a story in mind for it.
An Exploration GM will run a situation within a defined world and assume that you are interesting in interacting and reacting to it.

It is very different. Its not about moving forward. Its about making decisions that have impact on the world, getting involved, and living with the consequences of those decisions.  It’s about taking x character in y situation and just letting what happens happens. That’s not the same thing.

On the player side, the engagement is completely different.


A narrative players wants cool characters moments, overarching goal, conflict to achieving that goal, and resolution in general. Even when its improved, ultimately the game will take the form of beginning, middle, and end.
Exploration players don’t care about these things. They want moments of living in the world, they want their character to add and be affected by what is going on in the world, and they want the freedom to address the situation and world as if it is an actual situation in an actual world. An exploration oriented player will find the tone and things unique to and yet mundane for the world inherently more interesting than a villain, goal, or plot. The freedom to see what happens and sense of the characters being a part of something rather than having the world as a backdrop for the character’s stories.
This is where the disparity comes in. Narrative players see everything as a means to have interesting moments, cool descriptions/quotations, and a satisfying conclusion. Exploration players see everything as a means of anchoring to the world and making it alive.
Some players want the freedom to express themselves in anyway they want.
Some players want interesting events and cool story arcs.
Some players want challenges and problem solving.
Some players want freedom to express their character in anyway they want.

Explorers want the freedom to treat the situation like a situation instead of a puzzle, plot point, or playground. They want the sense of another place and another time.

So the next time, you see the player go to the Inn and talk with the keeper asking about rumors, they may not be looking for clues but being engaged what they really want to be engaged by. The next you see a GM focus on tone and in-depth descriptions to evoke an atmosphere, it may not be because he wants a cool story. These behaviors may indicate someone who just wants you to add to the world, to the tone of the game, and to everyone else’s characters. Emergent interactions are what explorer’s seek; its what gives that sense of ‘world.’ It’s what turns the setting from being the backdrop for the character’s to being a living, breathing place with activities that go on without the characters. Exploration ultimately puts character’s second.

So if you notice this and you have no idea how engage a GM or player like this, remember for that what they want is the illusion of another place and another time.


4 thoughts on “The Illusion of Another Place & Another Time

  1. The right to dream..?

    Your term works. The subtlety of this point, and the real challenge of naming it and thereby being more readily able to share and identify it (even in yourself) likely makes our numbers seem so small.


  2. On point here and I would definitely put myself in that category both as a player and a DM. As a DM i focus on the world and the limitations that it imposes and the freedoms it gives. As a player I want to engage the world itself and not 100% the plot.


  3. Very interesting post to read, although I do have to ask what if you’re a player who wants to both explore an interesting world and have cool plot moments/conflict? Or am I just a awkward narrative-exploration player hybrid? 😉


  4. I like both the “styles” that you describe, but I tend to enjoy more immersive “live-in-the-world” style better. The style you named Exploration. As a GM, the best moments for me is when something happens because the player is in the characters skin and forces an equally organic response. Though I still struggle to achieve the ultimate expression of this style, I vastly prefer it in this medium…after all, if I wanted to play out a set story I’d play a video game or read a book right?

    Thanks for the great post Chepe!


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