Thursday, January 22, 2009

An Ancient Scourge

One might ask whether it is possible for players of "Dungeons and Dragons" (and other games of the genre) to enter into such an intensely personal creation. More to the point, can anyone besides myself referee adventures in Tékumel?
The above is a quote from the introduction to M.A.R. Barker's 1975 roleplaying game, Empire of the Petal Throne. I quote it because it's an oft-asked question with regards to Tékumel, one that's frequently given as an explanation for why gamers would rather read about this remarkable campaign world rather than play in it.

On one level, I think it's a fair question, but that's because I often think that every campaign setting should be an intensely personal creation, unique to the people who play in it regularly and almost unintelligible to outsiders. Now don't get me wrong: I love to read about other people's campaign worlds, but I don't think reading is a substitute for creating. To my mind, the biggest problem with most "pre-fab" campaign settings is that they tend to encourage the former far more than the latter, a situation aided and abetted by the production of ever more source material written on the (correct) assumption that many gamers will buy setting books they never intend to use. I think it ironic that many of the gamers who'd call Empire of the Petal Throne unplayable because of its six pages of history wouldn't bat an eye at buying, say, a Forgotten Realms book with ten times that information. Again, make no mistake: I love well-detailed campaign settings too and take a lot of pleasure in reading them. However, nothing I read, no matter how well conceived and presented, can compare to what I create and detail through play with my friends. It's in this activity that I think the heart and soul of our hobby lies.

I don't think pre-fab campaign settings need to be impediments to creation through play. Indeed, in some cases, they can be great spurs to creativity. I do think, though, that there's a danger inherent in such settings and that's the false perception that there's a "right" way to play in Tékumel or Greyhawk or Glorantha. Once this pernicious idea takes hold, you close yourself off to many terrific possibilities and contribute to the reduction of roleplaying games to an activity of passive consumption rather than active engagement no different than watching movies or television. This is the reason why analogies with those media tend to raise my hackles. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with wanting one's campaign to be as exciting and "alive" as the best movies or TV shows; it's that I don't think that worthy goal can be achieved by looking to those media as models rather than inspirations for good gaming.

This isn't a new problem for the hobby. As the quote above shows, it's been with us since the beginning. And, if the past is any guide, it'll be with us for a long time to come.

20 comments:

  1. I don't believe that in this particular case it's a question of pre-fab vs. design-your-own, but rather the issue, nearly unqiue to Tékumel among published game settings, of a near-total absense of familiar tropes. I agree with you main point, though, that heavily detailed campaign worlds tend to make for better reading than playing, at least for some groups, and that such can also act as a brake on group or GM creativity. I'm sure that this is never intended by the designer, but I can't disagree with the notion (also applicable to Traveller, of course,) that many (not all) RPGers get bogged down in the minutiae of a detailed setting, when that effort could be expended playing or runing in it.

    In Tékumel's case, this is a great shame - it really is the most unique fantasy setting ever created, and adventures fall out of it very naturally. My own campaign in it was unfortunately brief tue to an unplanned change in jobs, but it was both successful and well-loved by the players while it ran. It never would have hapenned at all if I hadn't made the decision to not worry about absolute fidelity to every scrap of cource material and just run it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, agreed that Tékumel is unusual because its base is so unlike anything most gamers are familiar with. As you say, though, eventually you just need to make the decision to run with it and have fun. My experience tells me that, more often than not, that works just fine, even when dealing with settings as sui generis as Tékumel.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I don't believe that in this particular case it's a question of pre-fab vs. design-your-own, but rather the issue, nearly unqiue to Tékumel among published game settings, of a near-total absense of familiar tropes.

    Again that was my group's impediment to playing the game. We were using the GoO edition, and the book is well detailed in what the setting was about. It was for my fellow players and I (I did not run it) a straitjacket instead of an inspiration to try to absorb something so different.

    I still have my copy of the game, and whenever I reread it it works great as an inspiration. On the other hand, if I had to try to run the game as fitting in to what the book told me the setting should be, it would be difficult all around. If the setting was less detailed, my own barriers to get into the setting would be lower.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The TSR/Different Worlds edition of the rules are probably the superior vehicle for geting people into Tékumel as a game; the GoO version is probably the best for getting people into Tékumel as a setting. I used the latter (I had previously run Tékumel using SPI's DragonQuest rules) and it worked just fine, but I had the players create characters specifically intended to do some dungeon-crawling as a baseline for the campaign. There was some intrigue going on in the background, but that never got very far thanks to the shortness of the campaign.

    Once it hooks you, Tékumel is probably the best setting ever designed for both dungeon crawls and political campaigns - that's one of the things that makes it as great as it is. But like I said, it's very easy to get hung up on the details. Once you establish a feel for the game (which you can do with dungeon crawls) it's very easy to make appropriate-ish stuff up as you see fit.

    But every Tékumel fan will admit that the setting is weird, which is another barrier preventing some folks from really getting into it. There are no familiar tropes in it at all, and the names (a key, I think, in getting a handle on any setting,) are difficult to pronounce intuitively unless you happen to have done some outside reading in the subject of liguistics/phonetics (which I have - largely due to Tékumel's influence.) Veiwing it in the light of a place to set rollicking adventures in the vein of Burroughs, Vance and maybe Merritt, it does works exceptionally well - but nobody is going to say that there aren't a couple of obstacles to getting there.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The more I think about it the more I wonder whether the issue lies not with weird names and exotic monsters, which have littered game settings since the earliest days, but with the fact that society is well defined in Tékumel material. Characters face a rigid hierarchy, ancient traditions, social and familial obligations, religion as an important daily focus, politics and, maybe worst of all for many D&D players, the death sentence for thievery!

    Relatively lawless games, where being a 1st level character puts you above most denizens of the world, are a lot easier to play and I wonder if many people find the perceived restrictions and obligations of Tsolyani society as spoiling their fun. A pity if it is the case, as these are the very things that give the world its feeling of weight and realism, despite the high-pulp craziness all around. Do players just want to be outlaws and restrict their family to "my parents were killed by orcs"?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Characters face a rigid hierarchy, ancient traditions, social and familial obligations, religion as an important daily focus, politics and, maybe worst of all for many D&D players, the death sentence for thievery!

    Got it in one. The aliens and weird history my group got. The social stuff I think outright intimidated, then annoyed, them.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "I often think that every campaign setting should be an intensely personal creation, unique to the people who play in it regularly and almost unintelligible to outsiders"

    I agree. The Old Schoolers however seem heavily reliant on published materials, modules especially, as guides for day to day play. This results in a common ground fruitful for discussion but hardly makes for a unique campaign. Putting dungeons at the core of gaming doesn't demonstrate to me that the spirit of Vance or Lieber is influencing many games out there.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Well, if one has never read fantasy much less R.E. Howard's stories, trying to play in Mongoose's Conan RPG is going to seem weird and full of difficult words. And back in the day that's why alot of people that tried D&D once and then went back to football or watching TV. It was too hard to learn anything about the world of the middle ages or to try to learn to pronouce words like Abraxas or Svirfneblin.

    I think the problem is people don't want to make the effort, and are afraid of appearing foolish or ignorant. Learning all the buzz words of Exalted or DnD4E is hard enough, but learning about Tsolyani culture and how to pronounce the words is too hard for most gamers today, they simply are not capable of it, or that least belive they are not capable and so don't try.

    The last group I played with felt uncomfortable with "in character" conversation or actions around the game table, saying that they prefered to play themselves and to save "role-playing" for "special moments." Never did find out when thsoe "special moments" were going to occur before I quit that group.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Putting dungeons at the core of gaming doesn't demonstrate to me that the spirit of Vance or Lieber is influencing many games out there."

    I completely agree with this.

    I feel that old schoolers have a potential to use a set of very freeform-esque rules to really play games akin to that of the old pulps, and instead games break down into room by room muggings of almost inconsequentially placed monsters.

    Too much modules and campaign settings have kind of impressed a "this is how we NEED to play" on far too many gamers.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Relatively lawless games, where being a 1st level character puts you above most denizens of the world, are a lot easier to play and I wonder if many people find the perceived restrictions and obligations of Tsolyani society as spoiling their fun.

    I'm sure that's part of it. Of course, even Tsolyáni society sets aside the Underworld as a place where "all bets are off," so that lawlessness that people tend to expect is present if that's the way you want to go. Indeed, I think the presumed set-up of EPT is absolutely brilliant for initiating people into the mysteries of the setting: starting off as clueless barbarians dungeon crawling at the behest of your social betters and working your way up to more the no less deadly world of politics and similar machinations.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Putting dungeons at the core of gaming doesn't demonstrate to me that the spirit of Vance or Lieber is influencing many games out there.

    The same principle applies to literature as to TV or movies: it's an inspiration, not a model. Lots of people ask, "Why didn't I see Conan going down into 10 x 10 rooms and fighting orcs to steal their pies?" The reason, of course, is that, while OD&D was inspired by Howard and Vance and Leiber and all the rest, it's not meant to model those writers or their worlds. D&D has always been somewhat sui generis and I think that's to the best. I doubt D&D would have caught on the way it did if it hadn't included lots of unique ideas of its own, such as the dungeon.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I feel that old schoolers have a potential to use a set of very freeform-esque rules to really play games akin to that of the old pulps, and instead games break down into room by room muggings of almost inconsequentially placed monsters.

    I agree that there's a danger of fetishizing the dungeon to the point of lunacy. However, I also think D&D was designed to support campaigns that have megadungeons as their starting and possibly focal point. The way the game is structured doesn't make as much sense if you take away the dungeon.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I guess I've been lucky with EPT, getting a lot of players aboard for the kind of skulduggery typical of the jobs folks in the Foreigners' Quarter get. The "barbarians" wedge into the setting (the social aspects of which are supposed to be freaky to such PCs) is a help. Citizenship often comes in one fell swoop with aristocracy, a "By This Axe I Rule!" kind of vibe.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I take my hat off to those who can sustain excitement for their players in dungeons. I don't think it's easy. But surely the way to develop a campaign "unique" and "unintelligible to others" is on the broader canvas of the surface world and in the handling of NPCs. Its an area I have seen no discussion of amongst the more interesting commentators.

    ReplyDelete
  15. On the "dungeon-centric" tangent: After my first session running OD&D for "new-school" players, I was second guessing myself for getting them stuck in what might seem a tired trope of a milieu. As it turned out, although they were grappling with some frustrations they found it an engaging challenge.

    Talking over things at the start of the second session, they professed ignorance of the Conan saga and rejection of the Orientalism I associate with so much S&S (along with "sci fi," so EPT is pretty much out). However, they endorsed the concept of adventurers as freebooters rather than "epic heroes with a destiny."

    They rejected a couple of "hooks" in favor of more expeditions into the dungeon. A curious thing I've noted before is how an underworld can take on almost a personal quality as a nemesis.

    I still hope in time to see them undertake adventures more evocative of fictional inspirations, albeit probably more Poul Anderson than R.E. Howard or C.A. Smith.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Its an area I have seen no discussion of amongst the more interesting commentators.

    It's a topic I'll try to discuss shortly, because, you're right, it's an important part of the megadungeon structure that doesn't get much elucidation.

    ReplyDelete
  17. There was a quote from Gygax I saw oncxe that really stuck with me, saying in retrospect that his plan for "how to develop Greyhawk" in the mid-80's had been to just keep releasing adventure modules, with some modicum of campaign-world info in each of them.

    Now, I realize that Gygax said a whole lot of stuff, and who knows if the is an accurate recollection or an actual plan or what.

    But I do think that it's a trap that publishers into -- frankly, settings (while not directly playable) are a whole lot easier to write and churn out and sell than adventures (which are the actual target of play).

    It's nice to fantasize an industry that didn't fetishize the campaign-setting products, but rather was dedicated to printing a series of interlocking (setting-wise) adventures.

    ReplyDelete
  18. It's nice to fantasize an industry that didn't fetishize the campaign-setting products, but rather was dedicated to printing a series of interlocking (setting-wise) adventures.

    It's a very pleasant fantasy.

    ReplyDelete
  19. re the centrality of dungeons: I'm slowly coming to accept this, but wondering if my next game (whenever it happens) shouldn't be set in a world that is all dungeon - with odd pockets of civilisation lodged in the tunnels, and everyone living off fungi and blind fish. Could I resist the temptation to eventually let the players outside?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Sorry to come late to the party. I have never had difficulty with Tekumel, and it remains (after Glorantha) my second favorite setting to game in. Personally, I think it all comes down to who you game with, and I am sorry--I am not going to pull punches here. There are a lot of idiots out there who see role-playing as a chance to do all the things they'd never dare do in real life, and these are precisely the people who cannot deal with a setting that puts restrictions on them, like Tekumel. After 30 years of being a GM to me it is simple; do not game with anybody you wouldn't want to invite over for dinner. For me this includes people who aren't up to the challenge of giving the unusual a try. That is in part what gaming is about.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.