Friday, February 3, 2012

Enough Fetish - Let's Play Instead

From the 10,000 word post, in reference to choosing a setting for a D&D campaign:

"No one appears for a football game in order to watch the field. The field is lacking as an entertainment medium. It's sole purpose is as a measuring device to determine who wins and who loses."

This, I felt, deserved a few words of its own.

Very often, in fetishizing a setting such as we read in books or see captured in a film, we tend to attribute a greater importance to that setting than it really deserves.  This is the meaning of a 'fetish' - to take an ordinary object and embue it with supernatural power, such as a cross or a book.  This supernatural fetish takes hold of a culture and continues to manifest itself in ridiculous traditions, such as having a President swear to be a good President with his hand resting on a Bible - as though the swearing itself means nothing if it is not supernaturally 'enforced' by the Bible's presence.

Consider a setting familiar to most gentle readers: Middle Earth.

Some Americans can indicate the location of Rohan on a map more easily than they can Romania.
Here we have a host of so-called 'well-known' places ... the Shire, Fanghorn, Mirkwood, the Lonely Mountain, Gondor and so on.  We've read the books and watched the movies and we perceive we have a definite idea of what these places are like.

But remember that Rohan does not look like "Rohan," not really.  Remember that what it looks like is New Zealand.

Fact is, as a setting rich with interesting places to see for D&D, it's actually pretty crappy.  If you don't believe me, get out your copy of The Hobbit and then copy out everything the book says about the Misty Mountains.  Don't embellish, just write out the actual descriptive words from the book.  Good.  Now how long did that take you?  A couple of weeks?  A day or two?  Did it take as much as an hour?

The reality is, there's almost nothing, really.  Tolkein knew he didn't have to extensively describe the mountains, because he was writing a book, and not an RPG setting.  He knew his reader would fill in the greater details from the reader's familiarity with mountains in Norway, or Switzerland, or Poland, or America ... or New Zealand.  That's why encyclopedias of Tolkein like this one are loaded with oblique references of what King Durin VI or Azog or Balin did that happened in the area of the Misty Mountains, but virtually not a thing about the mountains themselves.  The mountains ARE mountains.  There's nothing really special about them.

But is it different for an RPG?  I'll tell you truly, no.  I run the real world, and my setting does take advantage of a cultural reflection in people's minds of the Alps or the Urals or the Andes ... but most people have not spent great gobs of time in those places, and even if they have - we're still talking mountains here.  I have lived most of my life in and around the Rocky Mountains, and though I've camped overnight hundreds of times around them, and tramped up and down their slopes in summer and winter, I can't make the mountains themselves interesting or exciting for very long, not to people sitting around a kitchen table.

The mountains aren't important.  Middle Earth isn't important.  If you think that by running Middle Earth you will be running a setting that is amazingly more interesting than a setting of your own cobbled-together imagination, you will be amazingly disappointed.  We are talking about a big, empty map, with less words written about what's actually there than you'll find in the smallest pocket travel guide, and in the whole it won't matter.  What will interest your party isn't the magic word "Rohan," but instead the seventeen orcs standing fifty feet away.

Settings are deathly dull, in case you didn't know.  This is why a dungeon that presents empty room after empty room makes for a dismal night of running - even if the last room found is full of creatures and treasure.  What you really want is a setting where EVERY room is full of some kind of creature, and some kind of treasure (informational, if not pecuniary), because living things that threaten or cooperate are only about ten thousand times more interesting than four walls with a door.

Advice like this will not stop would-be DMs from scratching out walls and doors, one juxtaposed with the next, ad nauseam, as though the shape of a hall or a room somehow in itself creates excitement and drama.  In roleplaying this truly is a fetish - otherwise, how can you explain representations of a campaign environment like this:

The people who dug these passages - did they want to spend every minute of their lives on their feet?
Nevermind that a culture that would devise something like this would soon murder one another over arguments of who had to get up and walk half a mile to fetch the water for dinner, the actual contribution this set-up offers for dramatic momentum in a campaign is sincerely suspect.  I know, oh I do know, that DMs swear vehemently by such maps.  No fetishist in the world patiently carving stone into the shape of a woobie doll compares with a 17-year-old DM composing a map for a serious long-term dungeon crawl.  But is this necessary?  Are all the doors and the turnings and the choosings of lefts over rights and rights over lefts really conducive, or is it just habit?  Wouldn't it be better if the party could get straight to the matter of fighting and bargaining and chasing and fleeing from the creatures themselves, who were spaced apart by simple straight passages that did not require 90 minutes of navigation?  Or is it that the boring bits are a way for DMs to mock players who'd rather be going up levels than going down staircases?

Or as my offline party likes to say, "You have now gotten through the maze that allows you to reach the next maze."

So streamline your world.  Make it less about your world and more about the people in it.  A conversation with a wall is very, very boring.  A conversation with seventeen orcs, MUCH more interesting.


JDJarvis said...

"how can you explain representations of a campaign environment like this:"

with this:


and these

That said do we really need meticulously detailed maps for every adventure and start with them as if that itself will spawn wonder?

Frank said...

Very good point.

I think there is room for an enjoyable game that includes the puzzle solving effort of trying to navigate and map a complex dungeon. And I believe that that pastime can be part of a role playing experience. But obviously not everyone has interest in that particular kind of puzzle.

In my recent gaming it has definitely solidified that what makes for interesting challenges is intelligent creatures that have their own needs and wants that will intersect with the PCs in interesting ways.

On the other hand, I do also have a feeling that maps do actually matter at some level.

If one takes the attitude about maps to an exteme, one could claim a map isn't necessary at all, or maybe just a simple map that shows some basic relationships between the places where the interesting folks can be found. But whenever I contemplate such a map, I find my imagination shut down.

Clearly you don't think to this extreme otherwise you wouldn't be working on your awesome mapping project.


Lukas said...

One of my most memorable moments in a pen and paper game, and amazingly positive, was randomly taking the shortest path through an arbitrary maze created by the GM.

The whole thing probably was made better because the GM didn't get angry... at least that we could see. It was literally people calling out random directions and our characters sprinting down them.

Otherwise, I've been fortunate enough to have few to no 'mazes to get to mazes'

Carl said...

Hi Alexis,

Long time, no comment, but I've been keeping up with your blog and skimming the online campaign posts.

These last two "10,000 word" posts are great. I'm happy that you're diving into the art of world creation and you've some good stuff to say.

The point in this article that I like is how you're directing the would-be world creator to focus on the interesting aspects of the world they're creating. Interesting in the sense that it is interesting to the players. This is important, for what is often interesting to DMs are the hallways, doorways, forests and rolling hills. To the players, it is the denziens of these places and the loot that they carry.

Alexis, I had a realization about your maps as I was reading this article and the post Frank made about it. Your maps, as detailed as they are geographically, are focused on the relationships between the residents of those regions. Trade, war, economics -- these are all relationships between the peoples of these regions and your maps and the accompanying spreadsheets are the mathematical representations of these. Bravo, sir.

Thanks for keeping up the writing schedule.


Alexis said...

"Your maps, as detailed as they are geographically, are focused on the relationships between the residents of those regions."

Yes, that's absolutely true Carl. I am a mapmaker and a geographer, and I adore maps and the way the world hinges together, and its intricate twists and turns and bits.

But I do no make the maps for the sake of the maps. For images of the world, I have GoogleEarth. The maps are made for convenience in the campaign, and more for my use and the players' comprehension than they are made for defining their movements. For example, recently the party online travelled between two towns in Germany, Hamme and Arnsberg. If you look at my map (on the side panel of the Tao's Campaign Blog) you will see there's not a thing listed there on the map. But the towns are 26 miles apart (guessing from the map), and I conjecture there's a crossroads that would take one to Soest, in another hex, and so I put an inn there on the non-detailed crossroads, and add in whatever else I want to add on the spur of the moment. It is the way that the circle of features around the party's route determines what I imagine would be there, 'filling the hex,' and NOT some absolutist set of train rails that confines the party. Thus, if the party steps off the road, I know the vegetation, but that's just a spur to more imagination.

My proposed idea for a hex filling program would merely create more of this - I don't see it as manufacturing a dungeon-static hex, but rather creating deeper and more interesting patterns that would help my imagination on the spur of the moment.

Alexis said...

"But obviously not everyone has interest in that particular kind of puzzle."


It isn't so much this, as I have participated in many such adventures and ran many of them ... and back in the day, they were great.

The trouble is, I think, that parties are expected to enjoy this kind of puzzle FOREVER AND EVER, for there are many DMs who offer no other kind of puzzle, period. Moreover, we are treated to endless contests for D&D players to make more and more of this kind of puzzle, as though the puzzle itself is so iconic that no one would ever think to consider that maybe, just maybe, after running a party through something like this twice, it's time to pitch something other than fastballs.