A pocket dimension (or parallel plane) is an amazing tool to use in any kind of game or novel, not just in fantasy stories! But how can you use it effectively without overwhelming your players or readers with new information? We interviewed Wolfgang Baur and Celeste Conowitch, amazing game designers, in our podcast—here’s what we learned!
What’s a pocket dimension?
In this blog, we call “pocket dimension” any kind of parallel dimension, regardless of its mechanics. At the end of the day, they all have a common theme: a place where the rules of the world change enough to be noticed. This change in the rules of the world can keep a story fresh, as the characters will be open to new and different things. And thanks to the mystery and fear that a pocket dimension can cause, it’s a great way to introduce plot hooks too.
Narnia is an amazing example of a pocket dimension. One way of accessing Narnia is through a wardrobe, and the change is immediately noticeable. The landscape is a winter forest, there’s a lone streetlamp, and a faun (as if a bottomless wardrobe wasn’t enough!). Other examples are the Upside Down from Stranger Things, Ravenloft from Dungeons & Dragons, and the Holodeck from Star Trek.
Why is a pocket dimension useful?
As GMs or writers, we’re constantly looking for ways to hook our audience to our stories. Well, a pocket dimension is a great way to do so! If the world around the characters is not the one they’re used to, they won’t be able to go on with their usual lives—adventure will come to them! Your players or readers will have to answer a question without you even having to ask it: what do you do when everything is so different from the world you know?
Pocket dimensions are amazing worldbuilding tools because they let you expand on your setting with “what if” questions. For example, making the dimension similar to the regular world but with a single difference (“what if there were dinosaurs everywhere?”). In RPGs, you can also apply this to game mechanics and rules, which can be extra fun if your players are already very familiar with the game’s rules. If you do so, you bring the narrative differences to the meta part of the game!
Using tropes effectively
Don’t be afraid to use tropes! Tropes are popular for a reason: they are amazing tools to use in your stories. Here are four tropes you can use in your pocket dimensions:
- Communication issues: different world, different people, different culture! Think beyond language—what parts of communication that we take for granted aren’t present in this dimension? What do they take for granted that a stranger might not understand?
- Mentor figure: the characters will probably need a guide to this new world. But be careful—if the guide it too useful, the plot will be too easy to resolve! Just like how we don’t know everything about our world, someone from a pocket dimension won’t know everything about it either.
- Key to go back: there’s probably a very specific (and potentially weird) way to go back to the normal world. You can make a full adventure out of this!
- “You have no power here”: maybe certain spells stop working, or they work in different ways. Or maybe problems can no longer be solved with fighting. For RPGs, make sure you’re not removing everything the players can do—games like Dungeons & Dragons are all about feeling powerful!
How to avoid info dumps
With so many new things to explain, it’s easy to start info-dumping your players or readers. Stay away from this as much as possible! Instead, show your them through action how the new rules work. If the pocket dimension has no gravity, don’t have the mentor say “there’s no gravity here!”. Instead, show people floating around and describe the feeling of being in a zero-gravity environment. Keep in mind that things your audience will find weird will be completely normal for the people in the dimension. So its inhabitants will probably not mention them unless specifically asked!
Foreshadowing is also a great way to set up new places, characters, and events. If you throw in clues that point to future adventures, you won’t need to spend as much time with exposition later on. A good way to do this is to give information to the intellectual character of the party. But make sure to throw in some red herrings too! If you’re taking them to a mysterious new place, chances are most information won’t be 100% accurate to reality.
Don’t make the pocket dimension too different
Yes, pocket dimensions are supposed to be different from the real world. But if they’re too different, your players or readers won’t be able to latch onto familiar elements and won’t relate to it. Unless you purposefully want to mess with your audience’s heads for something like a dream sequence, make sure it’s still somewhat grounded in reality. For example, if the pocket dimension doesn’t have gravity, don’t also add time travel, weird fey creatures, and weird goo that will kill you if you touch it. Stick to one major difference and work from there—it’s always better to go deeper than to go wider!
If the dimension is very different, though, you need to have a good mentor figure and good foreshadowing. Remember that you’re not only a storyteller—you’re also a teacher!
Listen to the full interview!
Who are Wolfgang Baur and Celeste Conowitch?
Wolfgang Baur is one of the biggest names in tabletop gaming, as the head kobold over at Kobold Press. He’s the creator of the Midgard setting, and he’s also worked on Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Court of the Shadow Fey, Scarlet Citadel, Southlands, and the Book of Ebon Tides. Check him out on Twitter!
Celeste Conowitch is also a game designer and the DM of the Venture Maidens podcast. She’s also the co-founder of Penwitch Studio, a full-time designed at 2C Gaming, and has worked with companies like Wizards of the Coast, Kobold press, MCDM Productions, and more. Check her out on Twitter!
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