Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Wilderness Problem

The other day, Pandred left me a comment on the Sand's Block post: "I'll be honest I'm at a loss how I'd even begin to run such an area ..." that has left me wondering about my agenda.

My goal is not to create impossible-to-run scenarios that highlight my personal creativity, which has been developed over many long decades of eschewing public discourse and human interaction in favor of writing in a private domain while reading writers who preferred to live and die in a private domain ~ which is absolutely nothing more than practice, practice, practice.  Anyone can do it.  It just takes 30 years.

What I'm trying to do is to make the reader understand that a world-building process is not in the making of the whole world, or in the high-flying conceptions that so many role-playing designers try for, such as having all the people in the world believe in some notion about old gods someday arising and killing everyone, or that the world is divided into set groups of people with calcified social moralities that clash in great swoops of important world-changing battles ... but that actual world building is creating that tactile experience, that game feel, of actually living in an environment that can be reconciled with our day-to-day thoughts, making suspension of belief and immersion possible.

Listen, I know that many people don't like me, that I am arrogant and abusive, that I'm impatient, that I use words to cut people and that I am very opinionated ... but if you want to make your world better, you have to get past that and realize that what I'm telling you is what you need.  You're not going to hear this anywhere else.  No one else is writing about this.

D&D is a highly personal form of human interaction, scaled down to the fictional characters who directly connect with other characters and the setting in which they exist.  To make that setting seem real, you've got to grasp what "real" is.  You, dear reader, a human being, are not actually capable of grasping the world as it exists, except for how the various medias you consume appear from your limited, monkey-brain perspective.  You, I, and everyone else can grasp intellectually that these things are happening, that the world outside our personal experience exists, but you cannot subsume that into your emotional consciousness in any real way.  The events and art you're witnessing, that's telling you about things, only exists to you as wallpaper ... unless it is happening to you, personally.  In which case, if you were actually a part of all these events, you would understand too clearly how the media is wrong about everything.  It's packaged, prefabricated for your enjoyment.  It isn't real.

When you make your world, your tendency will be to create the prefabricated package, because you've been taught from a young age to see the package as "more interesting" than the real world.  The real world is going to work, opening the fridge to get food, getting in your car and driving, going to sleep at night ... and hundreds of other things you've done thousands of times.  This repetition dulls.  You don't want to create a dull world.  This drives you to try to create the media-fueled fakery that sounds really good on paper but just doesn't run well when you try to DM the hugeness of that conception.

You can't manage that conception in every interaction, in every possible incarnation ... and so it ends up being phony and false, which you're frustratingly conscious of, which taints your game-play and undermines your confidence as a DM.  Each and every time you try to "create a world" as though it is one great conception, you fall on your face ... because "a world" is more complicated than your monkey-brain can handle.  You weren't built for it.

I went looking for the example but the video seems to be lost. When John Stewart stepped away from his show, he walked the camera through all the back rooms of the studio and introduced the hundreds of people who were involved with writing, producing, researching and developing the show.  Behind the false front of one presenter, creating an easy to understand package, were tens of thousands of weekly conversations between an army of people we never got to see ... because this wasn't necessary for the package.  But when we set out to make a game world, we're now responsible for all that.  And trust me, we're not up to it.

For the D&D universe, this limitation has created a cliched standardization of game moments and events that have become embraced through repetition ... what we are most prone to recognize when we think, "Dungeons and Dragons."  The trope starts with a desperate attempt to capture the "feel" of the game with images and low-quality CGI, intended to impress with their packaged idea of what we imagine in our minds as the "thrill" of being a terrifying, murderous killer, with axe dripping blood ... but this fakery quickly descends into the actual reality of sitting around a table in anachronistic t-shirts, water bottles, prop mugs, painted miniatures and general clutter.

A world where even famous players of the game, whose careers hinge on their participation, sit around looking bored.

This is your game.  Not the bullshit imaged package that is used to sell you, that's been around since the original books, through pictures, tried to depict what the game should look like or what it was about.  That was marketing.  Your players are these five people (or six) sitting here waiting to be told what they see, and what they're supposed to feel.

The pressure on us as DMs is to make paper and pencils, imagination, possibility, doubt and fear feel good.  To enable the process of players feeling happy, or disoriented, or tense, we have to create something with which they can directly relate ~ not vast ideas like trade routes or world maps.  Those things exist for us, the DMs ... not for the players.  The players want something they can ... touch.  That they can directly understand, and manipulate, and ultimately change, so that it becomes something else.  This gives the player a sense of empowerment.  This makes the player feel engaged.

Game feel is about making the players feel powerful; or reminding them that they are not.

This is what I've stumbled across as I've worked through the fabrication of these building blocks on this series of game posts.  How does a space this small, that can be flat-out run across in just twenty seconds, exist as a living, thinking, relevant space in which the players participate as characters, both enabling them and potentially humbling them?  How do we, as DMs, think in such small spaces, when those small spaces are not dungeon rooms?  We're so used to putting the players in a 20 foot square box, adding monsters and shaking the box to make game play happen.

What I've done is demonstrate how the direct, full-on world operates in exactly the same way as the dungeon, by shrinking down the HUGE space of the world into these little boxes that can be ... understood.

Naturally, this is going to smash all conception of how to run such a place, as Pandred noted, because no one else, anywhere, is seeing the world this way.

Sorry for the emphasis.  I'm excited.  This shatters all conception of how the game is played.  After many long decades of fighting with it, I feel I have solved "the wilderness problem."  How do you run in the wilderness?  Build it so that the size fits the player.  Define what is relevant about a piece this size.  Then do it again.

It is all new.  And frightening.  It is enough to make a DM lose their sense of direction.  And perhaps, I am thinking, that is a problem.

My position here is weird.  Most DMs are oblivious to the wilderness being "a problem."  The wilderness exists as space that has to be crossed between dungeons, and that's it.  As you and I conceive it, in the real world, as that immense, inconceivable space that we would not want to be lost in, the wilderness in a fantasy world is just empty, blank space.  It is like the filing cabinet in which all the cities and dungeons are stored.  Like most other games, that space is irrelevant.

The contrary will seem wrong, or irreconcilable with their pre-conceived packaged ideal.  Comparing the above image is fundamentally no different than the WOTC's version of what a "game map" should include.  Names, circles, orientation ... and done.

I proposed that a world could be made out of recognizable, cookie-cutter building blocks, but with this recent Stavanger village series I'm turning that on its head and arguing how an individual block can be made thoroughly unique ... and with that, I fear I am leaving some readers behind.  A lot of readers, I worry.

Perhaps I'm going too fast.  Just now, I'm not sure of any other speed I can go.  This is as new to me as it is the reader.  A month ago I had no idea I would wind up here ... but that is why I start these series in the first place.  By making myself think something through, by explaining it to someone else who is not a part of my thoughts, my thinking clarifies and creativity kicks in.

We just have to see where this takes us.


James said...

This idea is a truly fascinsting one. I am going to begin working on using it in my game. The idea of giving each block its own feel makes too much sense. Similarly, definining wilderness may have similar benefits.

Charles A said...

This is gold. You're on to something here.

Ozymandias said...

Personally, I feel as though you're not going fast enough. It's like this is a long overdue development for the game. Best part: there's very little here that has to be limited to D&D. (I don't personally have an interest in playing other RPGs, but it's neat that your approach seems to be applicable across rule systems and genres.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you, all.

Oz, the suitability arises because I'm structuring my design upon game theory, dramatic art and psychology ... and not upon how a bunch of specific game inventors thought D&D should work. We are through the looking glass; all previous game supposition about D&D is discarded, as we consider first and foremost how to functionally build a system of challenge/payoffs (game theory), immersion (dramatic arts) and emotional involvement (psychology).

I'm starting to think what's needed is a game-based book, Worldbuilding II: Fortress Greyhawk, the joke being that Fortress Europe was destroyed in the second world war, but it really just doesn't work. All the same, I'm contemplating titles.

James said...

I think this, the tech levels and the trade system could form the backbone of a really great system.

Pandred said...

For a post spearheaded by my ignorance, I have to laugh: I thought this was your plan all along! It seemed so obvious that the system you described for Stavanger would have a wilderness counterpart!

This is great stuff, and I'm looking forward to more.

Discord said...

To steal one from Shakespeare: "Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold! enough!" This is an amazing series, and I can't wait to see where it takes you. I agree with everyone above that this would be an amazing world-building system to codify.

Justin Kennedy said...

So glad to hear you're going to make a book along this line of thought, partly because it almost certainly ground-breaking and deeply valuable to the concept of RPG's but also because I have absolutely NOT internalized the all the posts leading up to this one.

I pledge to buy two. One for myself, and one for whoever next happens to express interest in running a game in my presence after receiving the book.

Carl said...

As usual, your work is thought-provoking, Alexis.

I've been working with abstraction lately in a chase I need to run across a massive swamp. I think the concepts you're introducing here are similar to how I'm handling the swamp and the chase.
I was inspired by the chase rules in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Design Kit from way-on-back. The idea was to create a graph -- a data structure similar to the subway map you posted above and have the nodes or vertices of the graph represent "interesting things" that connected to other "interesting things" by way of paths or edges. Edges could be accessed by decisions/accomplishments in the connected vertices.
In the book, the author mentions that this same planning technique can be used to make mini-dungeons, towns -- pretty much any adventure zone. The concept has always appealed to me. I'm now getting down to applying it again and I like the results.