Friday, October 5, 2012

Open Friday: Level of Setting Detail

The first published setting for Dungeons & Dragons I remember seeing was probably The World of Greyhawk, which was long my model of the "perfect" level of detail in a published campaign setting. Its entries are short -- a paragraph or two at most -- and provide just enough information to inspire the referee while not leaving him without a net, so to speak. In recent years, I started to become a lot more enamored of the terseness of Judges Guild's Wilderlands setting material, but, on reflection, I realized that something a wee bit closer to The World of Greyhawk might have greater utility. That's why I'm very fond of the format Rob Conley adopted in Blackmarsh last year, which seems to offer a happy medium between the two approaches.

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about (taken from the gazetteer of the area around Dwimmermount):
2806 Elphame
Population: Unknown; Alignment: Neutral; Ruler: Linwa Nirmalan, Elf 8, N; Resource: Market
Elphame is the elven “capital” in the north, a secluded, fortified settlement closed to most outsiders. Its precise population is unknown, owing to the secretive nature of the elves, but is reputed to be in the hundreds.

2911 Gloris
Population: 300 Men; Alignment: Lawful; Ruler: Mayor Gillet Hodemer, 0-Level, L; Resource: Farm
Gloris is a small community whose inhabitants make their living by farming and trading with the friendly goblins of the nearby Makrono Marsh (see above).

3413 Ghaz Droonan
Built into the side of a mountain, the mighty dwarf hold of Ghaz Droonan stood for centuries as an example of the great works of the sturdy Children of the Earth. All that changed when a plague of unknown origins swept through its halls and exterminated its population. The source of the plague has never been determined and a foul miasma lingers still, discouraging any dwarf from ever returning.

3627 The Outyard
The Outyard is an immense subterranean complex hewn out of the Thunderhome Mountains (see above) and populated by giants. In Thulian times, the giants were kept at bay, but, in recent decades, they have become more active, raiding the settlements of Men and dwarves.

4004 Castle Greenholt
Population: 200 Men; Alignment: Neutral; Ruler: Nycaize Ouyquant, MU 7, N
Caste Greenholt is home to a powerful magician who has set himself up as protector of the Greenholt Forest (see above). Some believe this is because the forest hides a secret of the Great Ancients, while others believe he entered into a pact with the elves of Elphame (2806). Whatever the truth, the magician and his men do their best to prevent anyone from entering the forest without his permission.

4221 The City Out of Time
Whether this city even exists is open to debate among scholars. Legends claim that, on certain nights -- naturally there is debate as to which ones -- an ancient city filled with treasure appears for a short time before disappearing again. Legends also claim the city has magical guardians that slay any who attempt to make off with its treasure.
So what do you think? Is this too little detail? Too much? Just right? If these don't hit your personal sweet spot, what does? And how would you change these entries to make them more in line with your own philosophy of setting detail?


  1. I that's an effective level of detail.

    Pretty much I want a published world to give me enough that I know what's there and I can make up the rest, plus details that would take a lot of time to do myself. Draw me the maps and otherwise let me go, generally.

  2. I agree. I like this level of detail as well. It gives one just enough to have a "big picture" of the total setting, but LOTS of room to make it your own. I am using Blackmarsh as the template for my Old Isle Campaign Setting - although it will also include a number of fully fleshed out areas that folks game game with right out of the box.

  3. I'd usually use slightly more detail, but not much.

    Things I add:
    • Character sheets for principle leaders, and military commanders if there are any. This includes important items held by the group and personal effects, as well as cash-on-hand.
    • Stationed fighters, if there are any, and rough equipment detail. "300 Men" for me is usually more like "1100 Men, 100 Elves, 250 Troops (Men, Leather, Spear, Javelins (50%), Light Crossbows (50%), Light Horses, Bucklers, AC7, 1d8HP)".
    • Political affiliations with surrounding sites.

    I also never write prose when making notes. Prose is what comes out of my mouth at the table. For me, an outline format is enough to spur imagination.

  4. I'd say that's just right.

  5. To expand on what Matt said: affiliations or connections with surrounding sites are key. I tend to ignore settings where I'd need to study every single point of interest to understand the interactions between them; I want all the relevant relationships picked out at both sites, and if they're broad, also in the setting prose. Your 4004->2806 *almost* set me off on this, but it really isn't important at 2806 to know that rumor, and if you show up at 4004 not having heard it it can always turn into a false rumor or be made more complex.

  6. Despite the comfort and structure they offer, I think consistency and the adherence to a format are unnecessarily restrictive. Some entries warrant a paragraph, some a sentence; others still a separate map and key all their own.

  7. First off, thanks for the Shout out. I started to write a reply about why I use the format here but it ended up as a blog post. :-)

  8. Agree the "format" is more of an outline. If hex 0404 only requires for you to say Owlbear lair (2 adults, 2 chicks) 500 GPs. By all means write it like that.

  9. I talk about the issue in this blog post.

  10. Fair enough, Rob. I was just trying to answer the question as James asked it. I suck at that.

    FWIW, I do think a "statblock" format, with line entries for such things as doors, light, smell and hazards is extremely useful in regards to dungeon rooms/areas.

  11. statblock for Dungeon Entires! That is a pretty good idea especially for environmental conditions. I have to try that myself.

  12. The length is about right, but some of these are too "fluffy" for me.
    Take 4221 as an example: it's written in a sort of in-character approach
    that's okay for inspiration if I'm preparing ahead of time, but not
    very useful for when the players stumble over the city and I have to
    improvise it. In the same number of words, you could say what nights the
    city appears, how long it stays, what treasure it contains, and what
    guardians protect it. That's plenty for an impromptu visit, and if I'm
    preparing ahead of time I can change the details anyway, so it loses

    1. I'm with John on this. Maybe the intent is that the DM decides for himself whether any of this legend is true -- but we all know that it is. It would be a cruel DM who lets characters sift through legends and struggle through the wilderness only to say "ha ha, it was only a myth!" I look for concrete details that I can use right now in these descriptions. They don't need to be lengthy -- I prefer they aren't -- but I want them to be immediately useful. The legend is good because I can seed that into background events, but then I want enough more to get my brain started in the right direction when it comes to sketching a map and dropping in monsters and treasure.

  13. Just right. Any more information would be wasted on me because I'd never be able to keep track of it. This is just enough information to flesh out the setting and let the GM expand it however he wishes.

  14. Totally agreed that connections between sites are pretty important (and at least for me, they make things more interesting to read).

  15. I like what you have and feel it is adequate. However, my personal preference is to have exhausting detail on nearly everything. I understand that is not practical, but it is what I crave.

    One practical change I would make is to add a few notes about culture and architecture, or perhaps make a sylabus to the effect of "men in the north do this, southern elves do that, dwarves tend to do thusly..."

  16. I like the actual towns, but the more mysterious locations could make use of some freeform headings. Ghaz Droonan could be Ancient Population: 10000, Current population: 0 and that would be pretty helpful if people were more or less just passing through. City out of time could be Exists: on a blue moon. Even a glib answer like that is separated from on Friday the 13th or on a full moon. Gives the scanning eye soemthing to dig into.

  17. I kind of like both. I like the brief descriptions, a la Tegel Manor, and I also like detailed settings and products that really elaborate on a specific area, like the Gazateers. In the end, its just whatever appeals to me, which is hard to quantify.

  18. I tend to prefer listings that list the size of the settlement by descriptive size. Such as large town, small village, etc. For example, does "100 Men" refer to "100 able-bodied male humans," "100 humans of all ages and sexes" (about 20 families in other words), or "100 soldiers."

    [If soldiers I also like listing the makeup of the forces, ala Judge's Guild's Castle Book.]

  19. Dwarfs. Miasma. Hee.

  20. These are nice, though they are a bit high level. I like having some "zoomed in" detail also, like Carcosa does. An encounter that you can run directly from the book that has some unique color. In some of your examples above, like the Outyard, you still need to do some work to get a Giant encounter. Compare to this fragment from Carcosa, hex 1604:

    Village of 380 White Men ruled by "the Blanket of Defense," a neutral 11th-level Fighter.

    An imbecilic Purple cultist will attack passersby from his hiding place. He is strong and armed with a huge axe (+3 damage). He spouts only gibberish, and no one can reason with him.

  21. That amount of detail actually feels just right for me. I can plug in any Dwarf hold and call it Ghaz Droonan or any castle and call it Castle Greenholt.

    As an aside, what do you think of at least copying the Open Friday links to Google+? These are likely to induce discussion, and that would be another great medium. I understand yo don't cross post everything, but I think a good argument could be made for the Open Friday posts.

  22. I think these are just about perfect. I've been struggling with how exactly to write up some of my setting ideas for an over-the-top setting I'm trying to loosly put together, and I think I may adopt something with a similar tone for that project (rather than the overly detailed and "authoritative" way I was initially trying to write it). Rather than trying to define everything, I'll just give some ideas and general hints and leave it up to any future GM's to fill in the details and decide what's "true" for themselves and their groups.

    Thank you!

  23. I prefer those details not filled in because it lets me fill them in as required. Who cares if the right day is wednesday or thursday if it never comes up in play? Better left as it is, for me, because as its, it's perfect for rumours. If the rumours pique the player's interests then we can worry about detail.

  24. Looks about right. If I had to pick on them, I'd say they are slightly too flowery and could be a bit more practical.

  25. I think the most important is the title of each entry. The title needs to be evocative and hint at what type of place. I get tired of nonsense fantasy words. I like instead fantasy locals that hint at a an origin word that I understand.

    I don't always get it right with my predictions with the name, but at least I can make some sort of prediction. My favorite of the bunch above has to be The City Out of Time.

  26. The length and level of content is just right, I think. I'm far from an expert at this kind of thing, but it's about the same level of detail I'd go into.

  27. Nobody cares so long as it never comes up. But it may well come up, unexpectedly, in which case I have no option but to make it up on the spot. I can do that, of course, but the entry could be more helpful in that regard. If it gave specifics, I would have something to riff off when improvising.
    Contrariwise, having specifics doesn't prevent you from filling in the details yourself, since you can just selectively ignore what's already there, leaving you with just as much information as you would have had anyway. And creating rumours is as easy as reading the entry, then giving only partial or vague information to the players. Having specific, usable information in the entry doesn't impair you in any way at all, yet also allows for quick, easy improvisation. It seems like an unqualified improvement.

  28. I'd say they are almost good. Long enough to get the great picture, short enough to fit a lot of material on a few pages.
    However I'd prefer if every hex would give something to play with, to react to.
    2806: Ok, there's this hidden settlement. But if it's hidden, what shall I do with it? Why would it be interesting to me? If they would hide the riches of the elven traders they've accumulated over the years it would give some motivation to actively search for them.
    2911: A friendly village without any interesting features. The idea of goblins could be a good one - the goblins might be guarding the village against invaders. When a party runs into some goblins and kill them, the village might get somewhat angry.
    3413: Perfect. I need not know the size of the fort - I can draw a map as large as I want. The source of the extermination can be anything from some demonic plague to a wrathful wraith, the text doesn't restrict me.
    3627: Amost good, but something is missing. What happens if I enter the hex? What can I do there? Not neccessary, but a mention of the name of their leader would be also nice.
    4004: Great.
    4221: Almost great. But what happens if I enter the place when there's no city yet? At least there could be some ruins I could map, so I'd know the layout if the city appears.

    Some people asked for more details in the replys - you could add a bit more data if it doesn't make the descriptions much longer. For example the number of soldiers - you could enter it in the Population entry. "Pop: 100 (20 Soldiers)".

  29. You might want to think about marking rumours with a * or something rather than wasting space with "open to debate" type text. You could perhasp also mark some as completely false, just so the DM has a local myth to relate in a given area. Otherwise, I'd say you're about right in terms of text. Maybe a *little* bit too much.

  30. Is it just me, or does Disqus not display every comment? There are 30, but only 28 show up.

  31. I feel like, for this entry in particular, it CAN'T come up unexpectedly. If the party ends up in that hex and you're not prepared, just don't have the city appear that night. If the party is looking for the city, the vagueness of the entry actually gives you the out to put off actually encountering it until you've had time to fill in the details.

  32. I like this level of detail for most entries, but would like a few to be given significantly more detail. Just a few, mind, and maybe not any specific entry. Like, a single detailed dwarf hold that could be used for any of the listed dwarf holds as needed. That sort of thing could be really handy.

  33. As much as I like the Greyhawk setting, and I love it. I think that products like City of Greyhawk improved the setting greatly. I am also a fan of the Gazetteer series for BECM. That said, a broad overview product with terse entries is ideal as an initial product. It provides enough to whet the appetite of those like me who might want more detail later, and it provides enough information for those who want only the outline.

    I just found that Greyhawk's outline nature lead to detailed discussions and hermeneutic analysis of every word...or at least that is what my experience on the old AOL Greyhawk discussion groups taught me.

  34. It's not giving me an out, because it's not allowing me to do anything I couldn't do anyway. If I don't want to run the city before I've prepared, I can just as easily have it not appear that night whether that information is in the entry or not. I can always ignore information I don't want, so long as it's concise; what's harder is coming up with stuff on the spur of the moment.

    Also, the city out of time thing is just an example. Extrapolate that out to many or most of the entries in the setting being unusable without prior prep, and you have a less useful setting overall.

    Or, look at it this way. If a setting designer gives you a city that fades in and out of time, he's given you one idea. If he gives you the city, the circumstances of its appearance, its treasure and its guardians, he's given you four ideas in the same amount of space. If you don't want to use those ideas, then you're still no worse off than you were before with just one. Better information density = better value.

  35. I think that is barely sufficient for an overview, allowing the individual DM's to write and/or improvise the "modules" for each of those areas, as needed.
    But if I were writing it, I would include a bit more flavor. Like in the entry for Elphame, I might include a line or two describing the city, and its surrounding environment. I would also include a bit more data under "Resource", and perhaps another NPC or two of note.

  36. Nonsense. The more 'information density' (a convulated phrase that has nothing to do with play, fun and gaming) there is the HARDER it is to make it your own. This is because you are directly attacking it's 'pick up and play' value. If you cannot make it your own, its lifespan is limited. Very limited.

  37. I'm confused by 4221 -- you've given a physical location, but isn't the specific location of Brigadoon the least important thing about it? The same thing goes for Moria (3413) and Rivendell (2806) up above: why tie them to a physical location at all? It's not as if there's a fully worked-out migratory/geographic logic behind the gazetteer, so what does the physical specification actually win the GM, except the few minutes it takes to populate a Hexographer map?

    I'm also wondering why this section of the book gives so little information about the feel of the world. Disappearing cities, dwarven holds, elven cities, friendly villages, giants underground -- what makes these J-Mal's awesomesauce, rather than Property of the Generic Fantasy Trappings Office, is the feel you impart to them. Your excerpt feels to me a lot like 'trope 1 is here, trope 2 here,' but why would I turn to your book for that, instead of a Perl script?

    So I guess I'm in the 'too little flavour' camp, if one exists, and I'd want more...tetchiness, or something, for my $N.

  38. @dc516a290eee495eb5ed6f985387b9c1:disqus sez: "The more 'information density' (a convulated phrase that has nothing to do with play, fun and gaming) there is the HARDER it is to make it your own."

    This is only true for a very limited idea of how you 'make it your own.' It's not like it's suddenly less authentic if you provide 90% of the substance of an adventure instead of 99%; GMing isn't a parlour trick for heaven's sake.

    Lemme put it this way: the Gazetteer excerpt above is like the instruction 'write a poem here.' But you could say 'write here a sonnet with a break after the 8th line, on the theme of "mournful ghosts in a decaying palace,"' and the poem would still be entirely your work. You'd still be the creator in every sense. And you'd have an easier time in the early stages, because you wouldn't pointlessly fumble for the 'ideal' topic.

    If you're really unwilling to cede imaginative authority to a setting author even at that level then you're better off with lists of interesting vocabulary words and a blank map.

  39. What Wally said. Also, I've already said that it's a simple matter to ignore any or all of the extra information if you don't like it, leaving you with the same level of detail you would have had to begin with had the entry not included it. I've reiterated that in every comment I've made so far. Do you disagree?

  40. The level of detail is a bit thin for my taste, but acceptable. But I have one pet peeve with gazetteer entries and that's the whole "Unknown" thing. The number of elves living in Elphame isn't unknown -- it's kept secret from outsiders, but there is a specific, finite number of permanent inhabitants who live there. Why should that number be kept from the reader/GM?

  41. Yes I disagree.

    If you don't like dense information then you are better off with a blank map? I don't need to say much really, do I? Obviously, this is a ridiculous point of view.

    What James has done is just right. I could drop in _any_ city that I have into that slot _because_ the description is light on detail. Hell, I could even drop in Port Blacksand from Allansia (which isn't even D&D!), the City of the Invincible Overlord, the City of Vultures, Waterdeep... anything at all. Or I can invent my own. On the spot if need be. Who knows, maybe the city is in a snow globe that is really in a local wizard tower. It's up to me.

    It's a _springboard_ for your imagination. The more 'information density' included the worse this gets because, while it is possible to chop and change and drop what you don't want, it's much more likely that it will just never get used. Count how many source books full of 'dense' information you've ever bought and NEVER RUN and then go back and read Jame's decriptions. You could run those locations almost off the cuff... this is the ideal, because it speaks to people in /play/. Not in theory.

  42. I could also drop any city into that slot, or design my own, or invent one on the spot. I could do so just as easily whether the entry is vague, like the one above, or highly specific. You say you disagree, that the more specific the entry is the harder this is to do, but you haven't explained why. It's certainly not a problem for me, I don't understand why it would be for you.

    Many location keys are not very useful because they're overly wordy (example offender: Ptolus). These keys are flawed in the same way as overly vague keys - it's hard to run them impromptu - but for a different reason - it's hard to get the important information out of them at speed, rather than the important information being missing. Note that how specific the key is and how wordy it is are two different things. If you read my previous comments, you should see that what I'm arguing for is short, concise entries (the same length as the original) that CAN (not 'almost') be used off the cuff, because they give concrete information to help the DM in improvising.

    I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about in regards to people in play vs theory or whatever. My position is pretty straight-forward: when I buy setting material, I want as much of it as possible to be usable without additional prep on my part. That means brief, concise entries with concrete details, which I can use or ignore at my leisure. That way when my players inevitably go somewhere I haven't prepared I have some inspiration to draw on while I'm making stuff up, so that I don't have to totally freeform it every time. What I want is ideas. I don't need the setting to leave things vague to force me to come up with my own - I'm quite capable of adding, changing, or replacing whatever I want, wherever and however I like, no encouragement required.

  43. "What James has done is just right. I could drop in _any_ city that I have into that slot _because_ the description is light on detail."

    Again: why not just print a blank hex map? You can write whatever you want on it, so it's REAL imagination instead of someone else's work. If you don't care about the texture of the world James is *selling you* -- how else can you explain dropping in 'any city that [you] have'? -- then why not just start from scratch? Obviously you ideas are THE BEST IDEAS.

    Did you get pissed off at Mad Libs for insisting that an entry should be an 'adjective' instead of whatever word you had around? Heavens.