Friday, November 6, 2009

Settings And Abuses Of Settings

Rusty Battle Axe left me this query on the last post, and I finally have time to take a swing at it:

”I'm always struck how much easier it is to create once a campaign starts moving. I always found that there is this essential tension between creating a world that exists apart from PCs and also being conscious of the fact during creation that this is a campaign setting that is meant for players. It is both "indifferent" and "all about them" at once. I'm curious to know your thoughts on that.
I do beg to differ, though it's really a quibble. I don’t believe that the campaign ‘setting’ should reflect the players at all – as Axe says, the world exists apart. I see it that way for a couple of reasons. For one, there are too many possible players with widely different personalities for the world to cater to everyone, and for another, I am used to a world that is largely indifferent to me. I feel that a D&D world should be likewise – that it shouldn’t ‘cater’ to the players in terms of its construction or how it functions.

But, on the other hand the campaign itself, the weaving of enemy motivations and encounters that formulate the sessions – this should very definitely be ALL about the players.

I told you it was only a quibble.

What does ‘about the players’ mean, exactly?

I have never liked the term ‘referee’ where it is applied to RPGs, fundamentally because I’m not one. Whereas I have on occasion interceded on a player’s behalf to defend them from another player, I don’t do this as an authority figure, but as another person in the game. My players learn from experience that I never take any opportunity to ‘punish’ players for wrongdoing, either for their behavior as players or as human beings. If someone offends me, I demand an apology. But my role as DM doesn’t include spanking bad players.

Now and then, a player’s own actions will incur the wrath of NPCs ... but I usually try to mitigate that wrath by giving players repeated opportunities to mend their ways. I’ll have the bad guys threaten them, and then I’ll have the bad guys break their thumbs, and only after the player repeatedly acts like a bozo will I actually have the bad guys kill.

In very rare occasions a player will incur an assassination attempt. I don’t invoke assassins lightly, and I usually make the assassin the same level as the player when the player committed the offense – which usually means by the time the assassination actually occurs, the player is one or two levels higher than the assassin. But not always. Sometimes a player is very arrogant and very deserving, and the assassination happens very quickly.

Sometimes a player will raise some evil spirit that comes looking for payback. This usually involves a one-on-one combat for about three rounds before the player gets help (I like to be fair). It takes a fairly blatant act of blindness or stupidity to create this scenario.

In almost every other situation, I will give my players a chance to run ... even when circumstances dictate they really shouldn’t get that chance. This, too me, is intentionally arranging world events to suit the players. It doesn’t change the setting, however. It may be that the only place for the players to run is straight out into the desert, where they can expect to die soon without a lucky encounter roll. But I will make the roll.

Life and death is only the most obvious situation. There are hundreds of less obvious things that I do, that I am very careful never to tell the party about.

Running even a sandbox campaign requires that certain details are worked out in advance of the party. Strangers must have motivations and plans which the party will not discover until a later date. There must be a room designed on some level, even if it only in my head, beyond the door that is yet unopened. And I’m a human being – I am not above subtle changes in the next room based on what is happening at a given moment.

I love irony. If I can make my world a bit more ironic by changing the number or variety of monster in the next room, I will. I’ve tried running a world where I’ve steadfastly obeyed the dice on every occasion and the result is an adventure that lacks continuity, rhythm and the steady, demanding build to a climax.

In the same context, I’ve also ‘rushed’ a party through a potentially boring travelling campaign in bypassing encounters and events, just so that I can get them from point A to point B in a minimal period of time. Now and then, I’ll have someone teleport them. Most times, I’ll simply calculate the number of days and move on.

As I say, I draw the line at the world itself. I won’t move cities, I won’t have monsters die from spontaneous heart attacks, and NPCs don’t just give over magic items out of the goodness of their hearts. I will move things along to keep the campaign from getting boring, but I won’t furnish the party with a ring of teleportation just to get them out of one jam.

This sounds very much like I’m changing things all the time, whereas I’m really not. In my earlier campaign incarnations, twenty years ago, when I didn’t have maps and developed house rules, or the solid campaign design I have now, I was forced to make spontaneous changes constantly. The campaign I used to run simply didn’t hang together as well as it does now, I was not as well-versed in a wide variety of subjects the way I am now, I was not as adept at creating complicated plot weaves and so on ... and I had to take short-cuts.

And now very often I read on other blogs about how these short-cuts cause a world to be more ‘imaginative’ or ‘fluid’ ... further supported by arguments that forethought and foreplanning make a world stale and predictable. I find all this a kind of ‘praise of half-assery’ – where it makes an argument that magic and mysticism can’t been developed thoughtfully and intricately and then laid out ahead of time, on a grand scale, because it sounds like ‘work’ and this is all supposed to be ‘play.’

Creating a world is very much ‘work’ to me. When I step out of the room, I say to my wife, “I’m going to go back to work now.” I take the whole issue seriously. Players depend on me to be clever and as precise as possible, and D&D is a huge, cumbersome system that defies my attempts to take into account every detail. That’s why I love it. It is labour. It is effort. We don’t call them ‘plays of art.’ It is a Work.

It is only during the session that I refer to the game as ‘playing.’ And during the session, I apply my hard-worked world to making things as much fun as possible ... through driving my players through every emotion from fear to excitement to hilarity. For that I make changes on the fly. I’m thankful now that most of those changes are tweaks rather that sweeping shifts.

I cannot begin to imagine why every DM doesn’t want to work so hard on their worlds that their fingers bleed. I cannot imagine why, once they’ve created their worlds, they seem to treat them with such disdain. I continue to be puzzled when I see long time players announcing that they have a ‘New’ campaign they want to run. Didn’t they work hard enough on their old campaign? Couldn’t they find any respect for the things they worked on?

Are they incapable of falling in love?


Badelaire said...

I'll definitely agree with you that the best campaign settings have a good measure of elbow grease mixed into them.

However, a lot of GMs, and more specifically groups of players, suffer from a lack of appreciation of the GM's labors.

I know I went through this during college - putting tremendous effort into documenting the setting and creating all sorts of source material...that was pointedly ignored by players who told me "I don't have time to read any of that - just tell us what we need to know".

A shame, really. I'd love to have a group of really hardcore, dedicated gamers, rather than people who just enjoy playing the occasional RPG for the fun of it. People who actually will put effort into it commensurate to the effort the GM is willing to put into the game.

Anonymous said...

Badelaire... I've been precisely in your shoes before and my first insitnct was also to "blame these stupid players". Upon deeper reflection, though, I realized that the parts they didn't care about were the parts they shouldn't care about... or put another way, they didn't yet have a reason to care.

For instance, I may have put all of the elbow grease into building and teairng down thousands of years of ancient civilization to justify the pacement of so many ruins and so much loot... but my players just wanted the ruins and the loot and a compelling arc to get them there. Having gone through the motions, though, when I suddenly needed a detail to give an item or a person some significance... or when they went down a path of inquiry I dodn't anticpate I was able to react. When it came up, and the players noticed or appreciated the internal logic they admired the the shiny tip of the iceberg having no idea the work that lay beneath it... all of the paths and details yet to be explored (and perhaps never).

Now I liken my campaign world to the sets created for the filming of Bladerunner or the LOTR trilogy... whole 3D locations that the camerea (or the players actions) may only get to see a small portion of.

The Rusty Battle Axe said...

Thank you for taking the time to answer. My point was that, while I do create my campaign setting without consideration to players as if it were an entity unto itself, the reality is that it is a setting that is meant to be played in. I don't see this as either/or. I see this as both/and.

After a long layoff from gaming, I am creating a new campaign setting and it is a huge amount of work. I think the work is necessary and I find the satisfaction in the task. It is nice when players say "Wow, that was great" but I think it is not realistic to expect most players to fully appreciate the 90% that they are not seeing at any given moment in the gaming session.

When I say "about the players" I think of a sports stadium, built for a single purpose--an athletic event. Without the event, it is a meaningless structure. In that sense, it is "about the players." So the structure is created with a purpose and without it, the game cannot be played. But despite having the unique purpose, the actual structure--the field, the stands, the locker room, the lights--is totally indifferent to the actual activity. It doesn't care who wins or loses, what the score is, or the number of fans in attendance. There is both purpose and indifference at the same time.

Badelaire said...

I won't call them stupid - at the time I was pissed, but later I saw the logic of what they meant.

Really, part of it is about honesty and communication. Building a world that goes unappreciated can be discouraging, but if the right communication happens, you're right - suddenly the players can "get" what's going on below the surface and appreciate it a lot more.

And on the flip side, if the GM "gets" that the players are really just in it for the fun, they can dial it back a little and focus their "work", such as it is, on building an atmosphere conducive to that fun.

So yeah, it's not a matter of blaming stupid players (although sometimes they can be a little dense...), as it is more a mis-communication of goals and motivations for playing. BUT, it can often been taken for the former, which is when you start to get frustrations and bad blood.

Alexis said...

Ah, Axe, I understand.

In that case, I do not have a mere quibble, I have an emphatic disagreement.

If I had no players, if every person on this earth besides me ceased to play, I would still work on my world, and probably with the same vigor.

I love it, you see.

The Rusty Battle Axe said...

@Alexis: Thanks for the response. I'd rather clearly understand each other and respectively disagree than talk past each other. I wouldn't create a D&D type of world without the intent of playing in it.

On the flip side, since the age of five, I have create a giant metropolis that only I have seen. Details include the color of the fire hydrants, the number of lanes on the highways, population densities, heights of downtown buildings, sports teams, etc. Somethings have been updated, reflecting my "more mature" knowledge of the world and my research into cities. Other things remain as they were when I was five--for example, "Fluffy Lake Road" (a memorial to a family pet now long dead). All this built for no other intent than the love of building it and perhaps the lack of an intervention by professionals when I was a child. This giant city, along with a giant pile of history books and a few guitars, is what my children will inherit.

Alexis said...

You do understand.

Rob Conley said...

To me referee mean the person adjudicating the interaction between the players and the setting. I can see you point about refereeing between players but remember the origin of the term in the context of RPGs comes from Welsey's Brausteins where the player were not only competing with each other but with the environment.

Arneson's game introduced the players cooperating with each other (as well other RPG concept). But he was still refereeing the action of the players within the environment of Blackmoor.