Thursday, November 12, 2009

Resisting the Urge

When I began my Dwimmermount campaign nearly a year ago, I intended it to be an experiment of sorts, an attempt to experience for myself what it might have been like to play OD&D in the early days of the hobby. Of course, I couldn't truly recreate that experience for myself, as I entered the hobby post-LBBs and I brought to the game lots of assumptions and knowledge born out of the hobby as I experienced it. Moreover, as I know well, there's no single "early days of the hobby." Rather, there's a morass of such things, many of them complementary and compatible and some of them not. Thus, my experience would, at best, give me only a particular experience of those early days and not necessarily a particularly authentic one.

Still, I thought then -- and do now -- that it was a worthwhile endeavor in its own right. As someone who entered the hobby after those glory days and whose tastes now are more in tune with them, I wanted to give myself every opportunity to appreciate the unique virtues of those times in the only way I could. I'd say that, by and large, my Dwimmermount campaign has succeeded in its original purpose. After 21 sessions (I'll post a session summary of the most recent one soon), it shows no signs of stopping and everyone is enjoying themselves, which is the only real measure of a campaign's worth. In addition, I've learned quite a lot about what works and what doesn't, both within OD&D specifically and old school games generally. And I've acquired a number of new methods and approaches that I somehow never learned in my formative years as a referee.

The process of "unlearning" is sometimes a difficult one, particularly when it comes to world-building. I am an inveterate world-builder. I love to create new worlds and am always turning over ideas for such things in my head. It's a great blessing in many ways but it's also a curse, particularly when running a campaign, like Dwimmermount, where I'm philosophically committed to letting things evolve naturally and not according to some master plan beforehand. Consequently, the setting of the campaign is still quite limited and fuzzy beyond a certain point. Indeed, only Dwimmermount, Adamas, and Muntburg have much detail at all and while the players have heard of the existence of other places, like Yethlyreom, City of the Necromancers, or Thule, the ghost-haunted island whose ancient inhabitants forged an empire for the ages, they've never traveled there or learned much about them.

The result is a very focused campaign and I think that's part of the secret of its success. Dwimmermount is the centerpiece of the campaign and it's where the characters go, week after week, in their quest for adventure. This has also made it very easy for me to run, since I know precisely where the PCs are headed and I can prepare accordingly -- or not, as the case may be, since, depending on how far the PCs have gotten, a megadungeon-oriented campaign may not require the creation of new material on a weekly basis, previously created material not having been exhausted yet. It's a very different way of playing, to be sure, but it's been quite satisfying and it's helped me clarify quite a few things in my own mind as a result.

But old habits die hard and there's a part of me that finds it difficult to restrain myself and not flesh out the world beyond Dwimmermount more than is necessary for weekly play. I find myself fiddling with maps, imagining other city-states and nations, creating exotic religions, and conjuring up strange vistas beyond the horizon. It's hard not to do this, because I enjoy doing it and because, for most of my time in the hobby, creating worlds was what referees were expected to do. Now, don't misunderstand: I am regularly creating a world for the Dwimmermount campaign. Every time I populate a room in the megadungeon, for example, I'm adding little details that give the greater whole depth and context that it wouldn't otherwise have and I enjoy this. The difficulty is that I find myself wanting to go beyond this and detail more than my players need -- or likely will ever need -- to play enjoyably in the campaign.

So far, I've (largely) resisted the urge to go hog wild and detail the entire world. There's simply no need to do so and I've come to accept that, the less that is set in stone, the better, as it gives me a lot more freedom in my refereeing. Every detail I establish before it's needed is a link in a chain that restricts my future movement and that of my players. It's better to be patient, focus on the here and now, and fill in details of gods and nations and other worlds only when there's an immediate need to do so. It's a very different way of creating worlds than I am used to -- or temperamentally inclined towards -- but it's also a very rewarding one and one, I suspect, that's closer to the way things were done back in the early days. Even if it isn't, I've learned a lot by adopting it and highly recommend it to others, if they've never done so themselves.


  1. I'd say this tension is fundamental to the hobby -- between wanting to define things (or have things defined for you) and making things up as you go along. It applies not just to background material but to rules as well, as there's a constant push-pull between "more rules, a more mechanically defined game world" and "keep it quick and simple, when the rules don't cover something make it up yourself."

  2. There is a false dichotomy going on here. There are lot of reasons why one could go into hyper detail about a campaign setting or just make it up all up as you play.But the idea that one approach is more restrictive doesn't hold water to me.

    The basic reason is that even you go into N Robin Crossby (Harn) or Tolkien levels of world building there is always more to do.

    No matter how much work you put into a setting if you use for a RPG at some point you have to make stuff up.

    Having run the same fantasy campaign for 30 years I have some insight on this. I am constantly finding new areas to explore both geographically and socially.

    The main point to remember is that people are infinitely variable. Each as unique as a grain of sand in personality, characteristics, and situation.

    Even in the most mundane of medieval village there are dozens of adventures waiting to happen if presented in the right light.

    Most lite backgrounds have a lot of assumptions built in them. In actual play they are not really lite because the referee is drawing on assumptions to fill in the missing pieces. In many cases this manifests as a culture and society coming across as a pseudo medieval society.

    I am not saying that you are using medieval society with the Dwimmermount. From everything I read it seems to me you are using the same bag of stuff used by many Swords & Sorcery author. You alter the names and select different specifics.

    There are plenty of good reason why people should choose to go with light background. Lack of prep time, or an idea that covers one specific region are some of them. That you are restricted in your future world building is not one of them.

  3. A method I like to use when running, whether a published CS or my own, is that of "set pieces." If I have an idea which I think is fairly cool, but no specific place to put it, whether in a dungeon or in the larger world. The piece might be a single encounter, an entire locale like a town or castle, an NPC, or a whole adventure seed, or whatever.

    I write it down (usually in bullet point format) and save it for later. Generally they aren't hyper-detailed. The flavor is usually improvised. At some point the PCs move into a new area (a new level, a new region, etc.) and I can riffle thru my notes and pick a set piece to spring on them.

    Sometimes a set piece lends itself to a particular situation: i.e. I wouldn't use a desert encounter in a swamp or an urban plot hook in the wilderness. But beyond that, I can stay loose and use what I think will fit without have to completely improvise.

    Once in a while I decide that this hook or set piece is going to be saved for a particular place or occasion, but as often as not they just float loose until the moment is ripe.

  4. Rob,

    My main point wasn't that detail is bad in any absolute sense or that it isn't possible to be creative even within a detail-laden setting. Rather, it's that I see little point in creating details outside of the context of play. If my Dwimmermount campaign lasted 30 years, you can be sure I'd have reams of detail, but most of that detail would have arisen through an immediate need rather than because I sat down one day and decide to draw up maps of the whole world, name all its nations, and decide which gods were worshiped where. My beef is not with detail per se but needless detail.

  5. I am a world-builder. From before I even knew what a "Khanate" or "Duchy" was, I was putting them on maps of my own design and coming up with stories and interactions. I totally understand the love of doing things like this—but I agree with the danger of it, as well.

    My own tendency is to be so excited about all the detail and background I've come up with that I want to share it ALL with the players. How that tends to come off, however, is me 'leading' them from one thing to another. A little of this may be expected in most games—but in my excitement, I fear that I either overwhelm the players with too much or I make them feel like they're just along for the ride.

    In reading the posts about Dwimmermount, I too am excited at the thought of letting a game world 'evolve' with the players own actions and perceptions of it. Its the game I still want to run some day. But for now, I will live vicariously through other 'ephemerals'.

  6. James, you shouldn't be worried about fleshing out you world. Its' your secret GM material and for your eyes only. Write and map out whatever you feel like and even if you don't like or feel it has any purpose to the Dwimmermount campaign just put it aside and don't think about it. In a month, two months or even half a year, the next time you look at it you may have a whole new perspective on how you can use it.

    You should never hold back on your creativity, just hide it from others until you feel it's time to reveal it.


  7. This resonates with me. A few years ago my gaming group collaborated on building a D&D 3.0 world. We came up with reams of cool stuff, and I'd say we almost spent more time worldbuilding than actually playing!

    The sad thing was that most of the wonderful material we generated about the setting never came into the game. We eventually reformulated and created a more focused campaign which worked better. Ever since then I've been a bit wary of world "creep". Worldbuilding is great fun, but I feel like it has to be connected to what's happening at the table for it to remain vital.

  8. I'm a world builder too. I love it. But I have found that detail is NOT needless detail. It can provide a depth that increases immersion and world-belief in the players.

    Maybe if I were better at making stuff up on the spot I wouldn't need to make up so much of my world to get this benefit, but I'm not good at making stuff up quickly. Therefore I benefit from knowing that the Kingdom of Thracia ruled this land for three centuries, and before that it was run by a Centaur herd of Druids, and before that by ... You get the idea. Because I know all this I can layer and add details to the world that really draw the players in.

    Quick examples. In a recent Keep on the Borderlands run ...
    - I described the Keep as a human keep build on an artificial hill. The bill was built of massive blocks of stone dragged from the mountains by giants centuries ago.
    - The road leading north into the mountains (to the Caves) was the old Ogre Road, and bones of the human slaves used to build it could still be seen sticking out of the mortar in places.
    - A merchant caravan from Al Sa'dune was long in the mountains with its cargo of silk jackets, white jade figurines and silver trade bars.

    Etc, etc. Because there's a structure and consistency to the whole edifice of the world, the players can perceive glimpses of it, and draw conclusions about the world. They enjoy this. A lot of it goes unused, but since I can't know which parts ahead of time I just go on preparing it all ...

    Sounds like work to some, but I find it fun.

  9. I find one of the benefits of not precreating stuff in the world that is not "on stage" yet is that it leaves me as the GM more open to incorporating suggestions & details provided by the players, without out the reluctance introduced by having player created stuff "contradict" any details that might exist only in my head. If, for example, a player decides his PC is from some distant land we haven't seen yet, it's awesome to have him be able to talk about what his homeland is like, without having to worry about stepping on stuff I happened to make up. It means that the world of the campaign can hold surprises for me, the GM, as well as the players.

    Captcha: "saityos": finally an operating system that satisifies.

  10. I agree whole hardly . Hold ing back on some of the mysteries and just let the players come to their own conclusions adds even more fun to the game. If a temple was built with massive stone rocks you don't need to tell them the exact giants who built it--or even say it was giants at all. Just "something" built it eons ago works on the player's imagination just fine.

  11. Some in the indy scene might call this "playing before you play". I think it applies equally well to players as it does referees.

    I used to do it all the time myself. I'd write elaborate back stories for each character, and then try to push those ideas into the game. Sometimes it worked, but more often it fell flat.

    Delta taught me the error of my ways on the player's side. He called it "organic character development". He sat down to character creation with no preconceived ideas, let the dice rolls give him a starting point, and then allowed what happened in play to evolve and shape his character. Somehow, his characters were always more amusing, more funny, more nuanced, and just plain more fun that what I was playing.

    If it works so well for players, why not so for DMs? I love world building too, but I'm now incredibly eager to try my hand at having as little to start with as possible. I think six people sitting around a table collaborating have a much better chance at making something interesting and fun than I do all on my lonesome. And I won't have to worry about selling the ideas to them, because they'll be our ideas, and we'll all already be sold.

  12. Firstly, I agree that too much prep can strangle the ideas you'd have at the table, and that the temptation to over-build should probably be resisted in RPGs. All that rich backstory was obviously necessary to JRRT's novel-writing approach, for instance, but he was working on his own and could assimilate influences and plot elements at his own pace. The same approach in RPGs can stifle interaction.

    Rob Conley makes a valid point, though, about the implicit rules of Swords and Sorcery settings, which are almost bound to be more constraining than explicit ones, both on the players and on the DM/creator. I'd add that players need a world in which they can act, and probably the best test of whether you have enough world laid out is whether the players are able to initiate a variety of actions and find them meaningful/satisfying. Can they engage with your world in ways that surprise you? (emphasis because I'm not just talking about having them run off in some random direction, but take positive actions that express their characters and advance the game to their own ends)

    Serendipitous veriword: gotesses. Not what I was expecting to run into in this corridor. I wonder if they're friendly.

  13. One of the nice things about not detailing every nut and bolt of a campaign world is that it allows the spontaneous creation of facts by the gamemaster and players. The world then grows as a consequence of play.

    I don't think anything can beat a world that has been allowed to grow in this manner. Players can come up with ideas that you would never have thought of but which make everything work, often better than your own ideas. After all role-playing is a shared endeavour, so shouldn't world creation also be?

  14. ...more strongly/at finer grain: how rich is the players' arena of action - in tactical options, meaning and implications, risks and stakes? Do they feel the potential of character/personal gain and loss, and do they think they can get out of the game things that satisfy them? The times I think I've got world-building most egregiously wrong are the ones where the players have been either paralysed by uncertainty or unengaged with the consequences of their actions. From the writeups so far it seems like the players in Dwimmermount have plenty of ideas about what to do in the setting and are exploring/experimenting joyfully. I'd be curious to see what happens when/if they face some tough decisions with foreseeable, unpleasant, long-term consequences (unlike the simple hazards of pit traps etc).

  15. My guess is that the extent to which a given DM chooses to world-build in detail exists on a continuum, upon which each DM finds his/her ideal balance point. Ultimately the idea is to have things fleshed out enough for the DM to feel comfortable with what the PC's MIGHT encounter or discover, while leaving things open enough to allow for maximum spontaneity and flexibility during play. I myself am both a world-builder AND a big improviser, and I don't need many details in place to start gaming. But I like to have multiple levels of continent-wide intrigue going on in the background at all times, just waiting for the party to possibly get involved with. If the PC's never get interested in the world-shattering plans of the Lord Mayor of Kaladar, and instead spend all their time exploring a dungeon in the Frey Mountains, well, hooray for that. There is always a balance between the pre-planned and the improvised which uniquely enables a given GM to function best, and I suspect that that balance / ratio is different for each of us.

  16. Rather, it's that I see little point in creating details outside of the context of play.

    Good point, a little different than what I thought you were getting at.

    The details are there in every campaign whether it is written one one page or a hundred pages. The difference is how much lies in the assumptions the referee is making and keeping in their head.

    Most people equate worldbuilding with lists of kings, data, and placenames. To me it is more than that. It also about who people are and how they act. Which has a direct bearing on the game as it is the starting point from which to play the NPCs.

    The question then becomes how much of this are you writing this down? How much do you keep in your hand? And finally how aware are you of the assumptions being made.

    The important point is to to be aware of the bag of stuff you are using both written and unwritten. Does it have the flexibility you want? What are the implications of your choices?

    For example if start a campaign with Castle Orden with Baron Feras and the villages of Nasan, Lightelf, and Ashdown, all run by knights. You are bringing in a lot of pseudo-medieval stuff despite your lite background.

    By being aware of your assumptions you change things more to your liking. Perhaps the Castle is run by a Praetor of the Republic and the villages run by it's Ordo.

    Whether you write it all down or keep it in your head is personal preference.

  17. I'll throw in here to note that Paul, Delta, and I have been gaming for about a decade now, and we've taken part in several collaborational world building experiments together,. Some were awesome, some were trainwrecks, and many were somewhere in between. (All were fun in their way, though. Don't get me wrong.)

    I might be so bold as to muse that the ones where we set more details in stone at the start were the ones that became problematic as they went on. The most successful ones were ones that unfolded as they went along.

    We had a couple of campaigns where we played round robin style, sharing GM duties and handing the tiller off to a new GM about every month or so. Very interesting in terms of world building. I'm not gonna start going off on how these went on this comment post, but maybe this could be some fuel for blog posts of me, Delta, or Paul on our own blogs...

  18. Maybe I'm the one one out. I hate world building, and almost never do it. Making shit up on the fly is the only way I can do it.

    I love reading stuff like Kalamar or Glorantha, but I just can't game inthose worlds. I wish I could. It would probably be the same if I made the world myself.

  19. I've just stumbled onto this blog recently and have found myself reading through all of the posts starting with the earliest (yeah, I'm THAT guy). I started on the D and the D back in 78ish. We had the Holmes set, and later the AD&D books and we played at a local wargamer club in Portland, Oregon (well, mostly my brother did - he is older than me by 2 years). That place was the domain of Grognards who played with the LLBs back in the day. Anyway, I only caught the tail end of experiencing with these ancient techniques and that's why I am so fascinated with this blog, I mean, how WAS the game played back then?

    The thing is I've been thinking lately about the point of this post as it specifically applies to the old ways. There seems to be a conflict between two points of view that are apparent staples of this style of play, and the details of the tension between these two concepts is interesting to me. On one hand you have grognards (or neogrognards) saying that they make up the dungeon and/or the setting and then the players interact with it without any "softening" or changing by the ref (because that would be dishonest). This encompasses things like having a monster too powerful for the players to defeat being a set encounter. On the other hand you have a principle of a planned LACK of pre-planning so that the ideas and actions of the players can be incorporated into what creates the game world.

    So some people are saying things are written in stone, and others are saying that some things shouldn’t be written in stone.

    I think I'm just beginning to wrap my head around the understanding that this dissonance is intentional (it is intentional, right?). I guess I would really like more information about where the rubber hits the road as far as what various DMs change in their campaigns as they go about the act of running a series of adventures. When do you change things? Between sessions? During sessions? Are there some things that are taboo to change? What level of adaptation is acceptable in your play?

    I think clear and detailed information about this would illuminate more clearly how the game was played back in the day or what constitutes the Old Skool style. I have a feeling this ties into the concept of forced story. I guess I’m just wondering where you draw the line for yourself.

    Sorry for the long post.

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  21. These all great comments, but still, I don't see the problem in creating details and backstories to you world. Look at Tekumel and Glorantha, both worlds were envisioned years before RPG's. Afterall, it works for writers to come up with back stories for their novels, why not GM's'?

    Mind you, I'm not saying ideas shouldn't be created on the spot as that's part of the "magic" of D&D and great things can come out of of it. But from my experience, the better GM's always had some foundation or pre conceived ideas about their worlds, while the others who didn't, seem to flounder and come of more awkward when they were trying to run a game.

  22. Dear James,

    It's interesting how, when you say you've spent your gaming career prebuilding worlds and now want to try your hand at building one dynamically as you game, so many people try to argue you out of it or to "prove" that your "opposition" to prebuilding worlds is mistaken. People are funny.

    Great post. I'm going to try this, too.

    Yours truly,

  23. James,
    Back in the heyday of my gaming days, we always used campaigns with written modules. Whether they were published or homebrew, they were always fairly fleshed out. I keep reading blogs in which people talk about megadungeons or letting the dice tell the tale. Can you point me to an article or post that gives someone more of an ideal how this is done. Every time I hear about these "off the cuff" settings it makes me wonder how the DM pulls it off without it feeling contrived. I don't mean that as an insult. I am really curious as to how it is done. I might think about giving it a go. I am just worried about getting caught with my pants down, if the players do something or go somewhere I haven't prepared for beforehand.

  24. "And I've acquired a number of new methods and approaches that I somehow never learned in my formative years as a referee."

    If I am right, we all would like to hear more about these methods/approaches.

  25. >It's interesting how, when you say you've spent your gaming career prebuilding worlds and now want totry your hand at building one dynamically as you >game, so many people try to argue you out of it or to >"prove" that your "opposition" to pre buildig worlds is mistaken. People are funny<

    And people are wrongly judgmental. I never said you shouldn't build your world from the top of your head at the game table.Only I feel it's better for the GM to have some cognitive ideas about his campaign. Even if that means your campaign notes say, " my game is set in an alternative earth inside Ancient China at the time of the third Roman Invasion by Emperor Nero"", gives the GM's something for his subconscious to work from then simply going at it with any thoughts or ideas at all.

  26. crow stated my point better than I did.

    The only that I will add is that every GM that is making stuff on the fly has bags of stuff in their head that they are drawing inspiration from. By doing what crow (and I) suggest you become aware of where you are drawing your inspiration from. Then either keep doing it or make adjustments.

  27. Making up a game world by the seat of the pants has deep roots in OD&D.

    So does elaborate world-building (Empire of the Petal Throne).