Wednesday, February 1, 2012


From the 10,000 word post:

"Fundamentally, the first step is to present a setting.  Without burying ourselves in a long discourse about what settings might be presented, the principle purpose of the setting is to 'ground' the campaign in something tangible that can be incorporated into the player's imaginations.  If the player cannot visualize the setting. or how to move or interact within that setting, then the setting is worthless to your game.  Flogging a setting for the sake of novelty over the principles of interaction is a poor proposition, and will result in a sharp decrease of momentum once the novelty departs.  Your setting cannot exist for the sake of itself - it exists to give the players identifying markers upon which to play. "

Very well, let us bury ourselves in a long discourse about what settings might be presented.

Most obvious are settings which have come down from fiction authors, who have contrived lands and cities and gods and monsters which seem to fit perfectly with a D&D setting.  Tolkein has conveniently provided us with descriptions of Middle Earth, so that players at the table can picture the Inn at Bree, or the White City, or the Lonely Mountain.  The flavour, too, of the land is laid out so that each player at the table - who has read the books - can imagine how their characters might think or act in such a place.  And the same can be said for the other vistas, neatly listed for you in the infamous Appendix N.

Then of course there are the pregenerated worlds, convenient for your use.  These are even better than the post-fictional worlds, since the 'grittiness' doesn't depend upon a few mere books with inconvenient time spent on plots and characters that won't ultimately be useful to the DM.  The Outer World, Greyhawk ... even Dragonlance ... these offer so much MORE detail for your use.  Enough, in fact, that you may never get to read all the possible materials that might be of use to you - and a seemingly bottomless well is a good thing, yes?

Even better, if your players are equally familiar with the pregenerated setting, then they should be able to visualize it.  Better still, if the infrastructure of that world is sound and consistent, your party will be able to judge their actions against what they think the consequences will be ... that will be reassuring for them, and will increase their willingness to take risks.  Overall, that's good for the momentum of your campaign.

Why, then, should novelty be a poor proposition?

If you have travelled, or can conceive of travelling, to a vastly different culture, you can see the difficulty at once.  Let us say that we snap our fingers and appear in the deepest corner of New Guinea, or in a heavily populated part Ulaan Bator in Mongolia.  What are the social rules?  How should we behave so as not to offend anyone?  Are we in danger, or is this ultimately a safe place?  Upon what am I to base my expectations when I attempt to address the residents, or ask for a place to stay, or even to buy things from the market?

A common tactic that many adopt when finding themselves faced with these questions is to bull their way through.  Westerners are famous for stepping on toes and brazenly insulting locals by demanding that things be handled or taken for granted in the same way they are in rural Devonshire or suburban Ohio.  This has led a great many people into situations of great distress ... but that's what embassies are for.  Thankfully, there IS a Devonshire and an Ohio, where people understand why we might have acted the way we did.

But if we extend the question to a unique, isolated world scene that has popped out of a DM's imagination, what then?  As a player, how am I to judge what is right and what is wrong?

Often, a DM will take the trouble to provide a long list of contrived social moraes and institutions, which the players are to imbibe and hopefully channel through their roleplay.  The only thing is:  creating an entire cultural milieu is an incredibly daunting task - just consider the length of the Bible, or the complete Upanishads and the Vedas besides.  It's just not possible to create a new reality with a few pages of 'traditions,' based upon nothing more than the DM's imagination.  Thus, whenever it's tried, the proposed novelty relies upon the crutches of the social system we ARE familiar with - only with the uncertainty of where the DM's conception ends and where the usual social values begin.  Inevitably, the DM's vision fails and the world either dies on the vine, or the more familiar values assert themselves and take over.

There's a reason for this.  Our social values, norms, virtues and what have you, exist because they have proven to endure the test of time ... and that test has been thousands upon thousands of years.  Something that's been in existence for a few weeks in a DM's notebook can hardly stand against that.  Parties will return to the only behavior they know how to exhibit - their own - and the world will either bend to that behavior or the world will die.

Every author and filmmaker learns through trial and folly that there are some realities that must be adhered to when presenting an alternative "reality" to a modern audience.  Concepts like love, loyalty, right-and-wrong as we understand it, attitudes towards sexuality and family - these must be maintained or else your audience will depart.  It does not matter if it makes no sense in the context of the story.  If Spartacus fights the Romans, it must be for the sake of an American-style freedom.  If the poles of good and evil are to be maintained, the men who fight against Mordor cannot be demonstrated to be fornicators and idolaters.  There can be drinking, but it is happy drinking, and taverns are happy places.  Such are the expectations of the audience.

Yes, there is a disconnect here.  Our social expectations do include an amount of unpleasant, undesireable expectations - there are drunks in the world, and people do rise up against corrupt governments only to be as corrupt themselves.  Good and evil are outdated, outmoded - even ridiculous - concepts to many of us.  And still they won't work for your players, because that is not the game they want to play.  Even if your world is dark and gritty, it is dark and gritty only where those things are on display to be stamped out and the world made better.  Your players will still need fantasy and sunshine if they're going to keep playing.

What I am saying is that if you will have a GOOD world, that world will be recognizable.  I don't mean it follows the pattern of what your players see on their commute to work each morning.  I do mean that bad people will present themselves in the way you would expect bad people to do so ... perhaps lying in the beginning, perhaps apparently virtuous and well-meaning - but always with that moment of treachery that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt what makes them who they are.  And they will have familiar, appreciable motivations - greed, power, wrath, pride.  These motivations will likely not fall into the lusting, perverse categories.  Your players will not appreciate it.

Obviously this does not merely apply to people.  Rivers should be expected to run from the mountains to the sea.  The sea should be expected to have waves.  Grass will grow, and clouds will roll across the sky, and rain will be composed of water.  Oh, you can play around with these things ... but if you play too far from the norm, you will only exhaust your players.  Your world will become a laughing stock, as the rivers flowing up into the mountains will inspire first jokes, then exhaustion.  An uphill flowing river is a like a joke that is funny once.  After awhile, it loses its novelty and just becomes an inconvenient, tired thing that the parties have to be reminded of again and again, because they've forgotten.  You will smugly report that it is raining mustard again, and the party will stare at you with dull eyes and dull expressions.  "Yes, so, what of it," will be their opinion.

You will not make a good world with gimmicks.  That the mountains are grey or green or off-pink with purple edges will not make any difference in even the short run.  You won't get anywhere populating your world with weird and unfamiliar denizens.  Birds of  different feathers and conceived breeds do not inspire the imagination, they shut it down.  Your players will not ponder your concoctions any further than the questions, "can we kill it, can we eat it, can we sell it."  And in answer to those questions, your birds might as well be eagles and mackaws.  The human imagination ponders that with which it has already developed a fetish.  People like penguins and turtles and panda bears because they have grown up in a world rich with references to those things.  Your players will not get excited about your sznifloos, because they did not receive stuffed sznifloos for Christmas, years ago.

If you will insist on creating all these things to make your world uniquely your world, you are climbing an impossible hill that offers no view.  You're not tapping into the ready-made reservoir of player emotions already held in their minds for creatures that do impress them.  An ordinary hippopotomus may seem too mundane for your world - but everyone knows what they are, and everyone can guess what they would do when stumbling across one.  What does one do with a sznifloo?

Stop and think.  If you were a tailor, and a man entered to have a suit made for himself, would novelty be your primary concern?  Or would it be to fit your customer excellently, so that as he moved about in the suit you had made, and felt its sleeves upon his arms, and the reassuring grasp of the fabric about his shoulders, he marvelled at what a good tailor you were.  It is little understood by DMs that the actual world fits us rather like a good suit - with food that we can grow and eat, and animals we can domesticate or shepherd, and aspects we appreciate and adore.  True, the world is a nasty, scary place - but we have been fashioned biologically for this world, and it is that biology that makes it such a good fit.

Take the clothes made by others - novelists and game designers - and make alterations as you will, or mark your fabric and create your conception from scratch ... but set aside your grandious conceptions of novel artistry, and concentrate instead on just being a damn good tailor.


Arduin said...

For that selfsame reason, it's hard to do anything "foreign" either, like an Asian and/or Arabian style game; there's always some cultural backlog to fish through.

With that in mind, however, what do you make of the 'Tekumel' setting, which, while never exactly "popular", has accumulated it's share of fans o'er the years?

Alexis said...

I have no opinion about it.

Johnny said...

This may be the issue with my world. It might just be too weird, limited and non-standard to be attractive. Oh well. I have other ideas.

Dave Cesarano said...

Awesome post, very much agree. Gimmicks are cool but without some sort of touchstone, some familiar anchor that the players can always firmly grasp and understand, the whole thing will get old.

Culture is something one is indoctrinated in and is very difficult to shake. I've played D&D with Koreans and they approach it extremely differently from us. Even if they are fluent in English, their characters are still steeped in Korean culture and all of the emphasis on age-based seniority that it entails. Similarly, one friend who played D&D in Japan remarked on how the Japanese approach the worlds very differently from we Westerners. Things are handled in a very Japanese manner--for example, if your DM is Japanese, the local lord won't necessarily be so straightforward about hiring the PCs to go kill the orcs raiding the village, but will be more circumspect and a lot of pleasantries will be involved in any negotiations.

We bring our own culture and outlooks to the game. Although I have a lot of background in Japanese and Korean languages and societies/cultures, I'll probably never run a game set in those countries (not to mention in a premodern era) or in a world based on them. I fear I'd never successfully pull it off. I can imitate how a Japanese person does things in order to try to fit in and keep social harmony when I visit Japan but I can never THINK like a Japanese person.

Similarly, I seriously doubt many players will be able to pull off playing a samurai or yakuza accurately as well. What the game will devolve into is a theme park version of feudal Japan or Joseon Korea. While that can be fun, it is neither authentic nor, I fell, altogether respectful. However, doing enough research to earn a PhD in Japanese language and culture just so you can run or play in an Oriental Adventures game is so absurd it is pointless to expect out of a gamer or GM.

But those are mostly my own fears and anxieties coming into play. While the best I could ever truly run is a theme park version of medieval Japan or Korea, it would be more fun than trying to run an accurate game that my players couldn't really grasp or understand. I can see it now:

"Dude, no, seriously, did that guy just commit suicide?"



"Because it's what he'd do. You see, blah, blah, blah."

"Wow, I totally do not understand that. And I totally think that NPC committing ritual suicide for NO REASON was totally lame."

If you have travelled, or can conceive of travelling, to a vastly different culture, you can see the difficulty at once. Let us say that we snap our fingers and appear in the deepest corner of New Guinea, or in a heavily populated part Ulaan Bator in Mongolia. What are the social rules? How should we behave so as not to offend anyone? Are we in danger, or is this ultimately a safe place? Upon what am I to base my expectations when I attempt to address the residents, or ask for a place to stay, or even to buy things from the market?

Memories of my first visit to Japan or the three years I spent in Korea just came flooding back.

Johnny said...

I agree completely. As much as I love the Malay people, and spent months getting to know them, I don't know the first thing about running a game for them. Some of them may have seen the LOTR movies but that would be about it for their exposure to Medieval, Christian, European ideas - not to mention non-religious fantasy. I dare say it wouldn't work the other way either. To explain why wearing armor is nonsensical would take some doing.