This is RPG-ology #44: Left Hand, for July 2021.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Left Hand, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].
I went to school with a girl who could not tell her left from her right. I tried to help her with it. With which hand do you write? She was ambidextrous, and never thought about it. Your watch is on your left wrist. But it was not always so, as she just put it on at random each morning. I had never seen the trick of finding the letter “L” with your fingers, and ran out of ideas. She managed to get her drivers license by constantly repeating, “Left is by the door.” I guess she’ll never drive a motor cycle.
Oddly, I don’t use any of those tricks to find my left hand. In the past when I was uncertain, I would imagine I was reading something and see where my eyes went for the first word. I suppose it’s good I can’t read Hebrew. But today my awareness of left and right is so ingrained I don’t think of it at all.
I do sometimes confuse east and west, however. It has made for some complications in game sessions, when I had to go back and help redraw a map because I described the wrong direction. In designing NagaWorld, E. R. Jones intentionally reversed east and west, in an effort to make the world more alien. Although it does have a tendency to confuse players to some degree, most of the intelligent ones resolve it without resorting to such compass rose inversions. Either they follow the magnetic compass and conclude that the sun rises in the west, or they orient to the sun and decide that the magnetic poles are reversed. Such directional tricks do not make a world alien by themselves.
Interestingly, I never confuse left and right from a character perspective. That is, as the players are mapping their characters’ movement through a hall, I can always recognize whether a door or landmark is on the left or the right of the characters, regardless of which way they are facing on the map. As they move across the map, I’m moving with them, facing the way they face, so it’s quite natural for me. But it’s often confusing for the players, who can’t always distinguish character left from map left on the fly.
I think it may be related to the different ways in which we think.
I’m going to ask you a space relations question, and then give you several answers which I’ve gotten to it. But before you read the answers, stop and consider how you would answer it. The point of this exercise (as we did once before) is to see that different minds process the same information in different ways.
Pick a random person within sight—preferably someone not facing directly toward or away from you. Now find that person’s left hand. I don’t need to know which is their left hand. I need to know the mental process you went through to find it. If you’re alone, you might be able to do this by imagining someone in the room with you (don’t make her too pretty—I don’t want to lose your attention completely here); if not, stretch your legs for half a moment and find someone so you can try this—or do it later, and see how your approach compares to these.
Done? How did you do it? The way I do it, consistently, is in my mind I move myself to their position, and then match my left hand to theirs. But one of the most intelligent people I know does the reverse: he moves that person to himself. Another individual told me that he knows what left hands look like, and matches that image to the person. Still others look for clues, such as rings or watches (and hope they’re interpreting these correctly). I suspect that some of you match one of those techniques, but others have discovered many more. I also suspect that before today most of you never really gave any thought to how you think about directions.
Yet directions are very important to the re-creation of our worlds. Most of us are using two-dimensional maps to represent a three-dimensional reality, so we’ve already lost part of it on paper which we have to rebuild in our descriptions. We want our players to “be there,” to see the world around them. So we have to convey directions not just as information but as a representation of that reality. It helps us do this if we understand how we ourselves perceive and comprehend space in the real world; it also helps if we can learn how our players perceive it, so that we can present it to them in terms they understand.
In the back of the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons there was a brief section about other planes of existence. The material was sketchy, but provided an idea of universes unbounded north or south, east or west, up or down. Yet at the same time it was clear that these planes bordered on each other such that if you went far enough north or south or east or west you would eventually cross a boundary into another universe; and they were stacked such that there were levels above and below if you went far enough up or down. It was this incongruity that caught my thought. My ultimate resolution of the matter was to see that in each of those planes there were six spatial dimensions, and that the indigs, those who had always been part of that world, could as easily perceive each of those as we can tell up from north. But when our characters were there, they were as limited as we, and their minds resolved the six dimensions into three, two of which appeared as up and down, or north and south, or east and west. The confusion that is easily caused by indigs telling player characters that they’re going the wrong direction, they need to go this direction which to the characters looks like the same direction is great fun; seeing landmarks that appeared to be in line with each other ahead diverge as they are approached would be fascinating. And of course it would mean that to reliably reach any place in that world the characters would need a native guide no matter how good their own mapping and direction skills are.
I would like to run a game in a world with four spatial dimensions, maybe calling the fourth “in and out” for lack of a better name—that way the world would have length, breadth, height, and depth. But in fact it is not easy for players to handle a world in three dimensions which cannot be resolved to two easily. Such three dimensional thinking escapes us more often than we think.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, when the Enterprise escapes into the nebula to confuse the sensors of the other vessel, Spock announces that an analysis of Kahn’s strategy suggests two-dimensional thinking. If Kirk can think three-dimensionally he can gain an advantage. So what does Kirk do? He drops the Enterprise below, and then rises back up to the same level to open fire on Kahn from another angle—two-dimensional thinking. Three-dimensional thinking would have been to take the Enterprise below, tilt it such that it was at right angles to the original plane, and open fire when Kahn crossed in front of them.
But we can’t really map in three dimensions without using cross-sections or levels or something of the sort, so my dream of doing a four-dimensional game world may have to remain unrealized. More’s the pity.
I’m one of those people who has an innate sense of direction. I generally know which way to go to find my car when I leave the store, and can usually get back to any place I’ve been before. When I was maybe eight or nine my parents lost me at the Bronx Zoo, and I went directly to the gate through which we had entered and waited for them. My fourth son has this same sense. I never worry about him getting lost in stores or malls or parks (abducted, maybe, but not lost). It’s a sense of where you are in relation to everything else. When I’m in your world, I want to have that same sense, that feeling that I know where everything is around me. It’s up to you to give that to me. And you can’t, unless you already have it yourself.