Thursday, May 12, 2016

Keep It Simple, Stupid

I remember when I first began working on the world I'm still running today.  This would be sometime around 1984 or '85.  I had lost all my enthusiasm for the campaign I had been running: a world without a name that consisted of six hand-drawn maps that made up a ring of land surrounding a central sea.  The north boundary to this land was the polar icecap, the south boundary was an ocean that would have filled the bottom hemisphere of the world and the remaining land to the east and west was part of a wide, imagined desert that offered the residents no respite.

I wasn't thinking about climate patterns then, as I would now.  A planet that was half desert and yet possessed of plenty of water and ocean would have to defy some rather immutable convection realities.  But I was 20 or 21, somewhat aware of these things but certainly not educated enough to model a believable world purely out of my imagination.  I don't feel bad about that; Middle Earth doesn't make much sense from a geographical perspective either, nor does Oz (which also employed the eternal desert idea), nor do most fantasy worlds.  Fantasy can ignore logic.  I don't say that I believed this or even considered it - only that, in retrospect, that is a very convenient justification for poor planning, minimal consideration of details and wish fulfillment.

I remember I did not abandon that world easily.  I had done a lot of work on it (well, what I considered 'a lot' in those days) and I liked what I'd done.  But it wasn't serving its purpose and the players weren't embracing the world like they should.

The inspiration for change came, I remember, from my saying that it would be easier to say that the city was Vienna rather than like Vienna . . . and within a week I was running the party in a new campaign, in Vienna.  The players liked it right away.  We broke out maps and began studying the lands around Vienna and though this was pre-internet we found lots.  I remember saying that it changed my perspective of game design from imagining a landscape to investigating a landscape - which in fact made the world deeper.  Whereas before creating a place was a drain on my creativity, suddenly this new world was a boost to my creativity - in that I began discovering all these things that had happened in places, all these reasons that places existed and all these things that places made.  This was a couple of years before I began thinking about trade tables - that came later.  Still, just knowing that a particular town in Austria makes toys . . . that is just interesting.

Having started on that world, however, soon ruined me for any other world.  Suddenly I was anxiously aware of how inadequate was my experience in the shallow worlds of other people.  It was somewhat like comparing checkers to video games - a metaphor that worked even then, as checkers were still a thing and video games like Galaga, Out Run and Rampage were blowing our minds.  All around me people were still wetting themselves at the prospect of getting kinged while I'd moved on to Gauntlet.

Let's just leave the subject of how far I've come since then.

I don't think it was the DMing.  I don't think it was the running at all.  I think what bothered me was all the infatuation with things that didn't matter.  What bothered me was the fantasy - the pile upon pile of imaginative crap that didn't add to the running and didn't make anything feel real, like we were there, like what happened mattered or that what we did made a difference.  My world didn't appeal to me in some special manner because it was more profound than someone else's world, but because it carried a feel that I wasn't getting elsewhere.  Video games aren't less real than checkers - they're more real.

Think about it.  The checkers are tactile but I'm being asked to believe this round, flat, featureless disk is an army or a person or some other thing.  Whereas I can see the person I'm trying to be in a video game; I can identify clearly what tools that person has and what working with those tools does.  There's less expectation on me to reach really, really hard to transform something dead and featureless and give it life.

I wanted to run in this world I'd created.  We all want to run in our own worlds, don't we?  We want to be players, we want someone who can ask us, what do you want to do?  We want to stretch our legs and say that we're walking down to the inn so we can have a chat with the bartender there about the road out to some ruin, the price of an ale and these kids today.  But what would that take?

When asked, the Player we might ask to step up will believe that running us in our own campaign will take understanding the whole world from top to bottom.  They think it will mean thousands of hours of work and somehow creating an adventure that will blow our minds.  They don't understand.  They just don't understand.

I don't want an amazing adventure.  I don't need someone who can describe a road up into the Alps with immense skill.  I only need someone to say that I'm at the start of the road and to say where it goes.  I only need someone to say after a while that there's a few creatures in the road that want to stop me.  I only need someone who can roll a few dice and run the combat with me, like the creatures where their player characters while I fight them with my player character.  Then I need an answer to my proposal to loot the bodies.

After that I need a dungeon entrance, a hallway, a few more creatures and a treasure.  Then I can haul this back to town and buy a few things.

That's all I need.  From there, my fellow players and I will help fill in the details.  We'll tell the DM what we're hoping to find and the DM can go ahead and help us find it - with a few obstacles, naturally.

Seriously.  Right, not left.  If new DMs would just start from there, they would gain a little confidence and a little courage.  They'd see a different way to put a few creatures in the road and a little different kind of hallway and perhaps two sets of creatures instead of one before we come to the treasure.

We can figure it out from there.  Later.  It doesn't have to be so damn complicated.  Players just want to run.  They just want to be there.  Stop trying to impress them.  Just run them.


Doug said...


I have a friend who hasn't gamed in . . . twenty years? . . . coming for a visit this summer. She's asked to play, and I'll accommodate her. Nothing special, just a few situations that will goad her into fighting, or arguing with NPCs, or running . . . but probably fighting.

She doesn't need the behind-the-scene information, and it's refreshing to not have to worry about it. She'll play, a couple other friends will play, I'll run. And play.

Samuel Kernan said...

I think you are really on to something with the making DMing simple to begin. The biggest obstacle between me and running games is always the feeling that I need a big, well-thought-out, complex situation to run in. Not that there is no use in that, but building up to it slowly is better than doing nothing...

Alexis Smolensk said...

Perhaps I have a better sense because I'm a Canadian.

We just had a city of 60,000 erased from existence; it is on the end of a highway, but since the highway has been closed by the fire, there are people still up there waiting for a flight out. Ft. MacMurray is gone; completely gone; and so far away from anything that there's nothing to do for those people but sit and wait.

I remember a time when that same small community was accessible only by air - and only by very small planes.