Friday, January 15, 2010

Blank Slate

One of the things I most like about the minimalist approach to world design I've adopted for the Dwimmermount campaign is the way it allows the players to join me in adding details to the world through play. And before anyone jumps up and notes that there's nothing new or original about this and that they've been doing that since 1978 or whenever, yes, I realize that. I'm not claiming to be innovative here. All I'm saying is that, by not having exhaustively worked out lots of world details beforehand, I gave both myself and my players the space to be creative on the fly.

Take two related cases in point, both pertaining to demihumans. Being a good pulp fantasist, I initially didn't give much thought to races like dwarves and elves, because I simply assumed they'd play a minor role in Dwimmermount, if any at all. Sure, there are the Eld, but I intended them as villains and, at any rate, I hadn't thought much about them either, since they likely wouldn't appear in the campaign until much later. But then not one but two of the players wanted to play demihumans. Since I hadn't disallowed these races as playable, I let them generate characters, though I'll admit I gritted my teeth a little, since their presence might "wreck" the humanocentric vision I had in mind for the campaign setting.

Thus were born Dordagdonar and Vladimir. In each instance, the player's portrayal eventually won me over and helped more firmly establish in my mind what other members of his character's race are like. Moreover, they've actually made me think about including other members of their races in the campaign, whereas I'd originally decided that, sure, they could play demihumans if they really, foolishly wanted to do so, but they'd be singular examples of their kind and I'd do my best not to bring up elves or dwarves in the campaign in any other context.

That's not what happened. No other elves have yet appeared in the game -- Dordagdonar's portrayal makes it clear he's unusual for his kind, who generally want nothing to do with ephemerals -- but elves now have a role in the setting at all because of the little details and ideas Dordagdonar's player has added to the game. A pogrom against elves by the Termaxians is now established history, for example, something that I'd never contemplated including, let alone turning into a possible hook for adventures, when I began the campaign. Likewise, Vladimir's player added that the dwarf became an adventurer both to acquire the funds necessary to create a son and to pay off the debt he owed to his father for having created him. Suddenly, the notion of dwarven adventurers, seeking out gold and precious gems made sense. The race was more than the butt of jokes and I decided that, while not numerous compared to humans, dwarves are probably not uncommon, with many pursuing the same avocation as Vladimir. And it was all because of things his player added over the course of the game.

I've said before that, as referee, I like to be surprised. I consider myself as much a player in the Dwimmermount campaign as those who sit around my table with character sheets in front of them. That's why I like randomness and that's why I don't detail my setting much in advance: I want to be surprised. For me -- and let me be clear: I speak only for myself -- it's hard to be surprised when I create too many details in advance. If I know who and what, say, elves are before the campaign begins, the possibility of my being surprised is lessened. It's not eliminated entirely, of course, but it's definitely lessened.

But if I have only a vague idea at the start and allow the players many opportunities to add to that vague idea, odds are much better that I will wind up with a conception of elves that's one I didn't expect. And I like that. This has happened many times in the Dwimmermount campaign: elves, dwarves, Turms Termax, Typhon, Tyche, the Thulians -- the list could go on. In each case, my original, vague notions have warped and changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically, over the course of a year of play. I certainly hadn't intended to portray the Termaxians as villainous at the start, for example; that portrayal simply happened in response to dice rolls, player reactions, and who knows what else.

That's the appeal of roleplaying games for me: the "spontaneous" generation of ideas I didn't plan. The Dwimmermount campaign, a year on, is much different than I expected it to be when I started planning, however minimally, for it. I think, had I prepared it in a more detailed fashion to start, it would be very different today -- perhaps just as fun but certainly not as surprising. I can't predict where the campaign will go next and I'm glad of that. Every time I think I know where the PCs will go or how they'll react, I'm delighted to be proven wrong. I want that to continue.


  1. exactly James,

    part of being a wise GM is understanding that your players' (as a group) will have as many good ideas as you

    every successful campaign/ homebrew is a combination of both player and GM creativity

    "A smart man learns from his own mistakes,
    A wise man learns from other people's mistakes." - anon

  2. Perhaps most surprising to me, in my own campaign, is how the party mage gets stuck into melee combat with the aid of a few spells (shield, mirror image, shocking grasp, fear and so on). I could never have predicted that. A seventh level mage packs a real punch with shocking grasp, providing he hits, I've noticed. Otherwise, my group is happy to jump onto the quests, but their direction within them is quite unpredictable lol

  3. It's cool tht you can allow that. I recently started/ran/ended my own minimalist campaign (3.5) and had no place for monks and/or half-orcs in my world. The base setting is very rustic and half-orcs are generally religated to living with their humanoid parents. Well, one of my friends who wanted to play managed to want to make a character that combined both elements into one.

    My initial response was to try to angle him away from that choice but I didn't as that would be against my initial plan for this new setting. His character ended up being a rather charming ray of light in the game with a back story born of colaboration between the whole group and myself. We all threw in on it.

    Rog came from a monastary from across the Southern Sea where he had been orphaned by his human mother and left at the gates of a temple. The monks, initially disposed to leave him to his fate were halted by a senior memmber of their order who looked beyond his prejudices and took the babe in.

    The half-orc was never formally instructed in the ways of the order, but from his place as grounds keeper, handy man, and laborer and through the kindness of the monks, he accumulated a better than passing knowledge of their ways.

    When humanod hordes threatened the temple and the people o the region, the temple sent him away across the sea so that he might escape any persecution.

    It was simple, worked the character in and we all had great fun with it. At times, Rog seemed even more civilized than the rest of the party, administering death rights to fallen NPCs and being the only one in the party to regularly bathe.

  4. I love stories like this. As you say, this is one of the unique beauties of rpg's especially old school flavored ones. The collaborative and sometimes random nature of these games often make the adventure and the DMs gameworld spin off in unexpected and awesome ways.

  5. One of the things I think, we as game designers, forget is that the GM is a player, too. He or she is there to have fun with their friends, by spinning tales of wonder and terror -- yes. But they also must be engaged in the process of playing the game. If everything is mapped out ahead of time, the GM ends up being relegated to merely reading from notes and rolling dice. They become a narrator/director, not a "player". Just as the players are there to deal with the surprise of a roomful of Orcs or a complicated trap, the GM should enjoy the surprise of what the players throw at him or her. In a sense, the players are "running" the game for the GM, as much as the GM is running a game for them.

    Contemporary games saddle the GM is considering "theme" and "plot twists." I know I'm personally guilty of that. (But if you're trying to model a TV show, and it's feel, you have to make sessions feel more "episodic.") It can become a chore. We're not committing literature here; we're playing games.

    The main reason OD&D allows us to tweek and create our characters so well is because there is actually very little information about the races (and classes, for that matter). Elves and Dwarves are only sketched out in the broadest strokes, leaving you with room to create your own unique version of each race. Maybe your gnomes are feral; perhaps elves in your campaign aren't forest-dwellers, but rather quite metropolitan... As I've been re-reading 3.5, I've noticed just how calcified the races have become, with reasons for adventuring, and world-views, and all manner of justifications. In the case of OD&D, less is more.

    I wonder what would have happened to the hobby if the OGL had been in effect in 1975. It would have allowed us to publish all kinds of homebrew campaigns as separate games, like we're doing now (or at least starting to). The hobby would have looked much different.

  6. James,

    I could not possibly agree more on this.

    I hope you edit together all you Dwimmermount posts into one chronological document at some point; it would be a great read.

    The only thing keeping me from running an ODD campaign of my own, more or less with a blank slate, or possibly emulating some of the Save or Die! ideas about incorporating published ODD material in order, is that I'm already in a great Castles & Crusaders game as a player that is more or less following the same principles of involving the players in world-building. Since we all arrived on a mysterious and oppressed island via shipwreck, the GM encouraged (with an XP bonus) to write character backgrounds and some information sketching out home lands. Each week one or more players writes a summary of the session, and these are edited together by the GM, along with notes on creatures slain and treasure gathered, into a campaign log. The idea is that new players, as they join, can read the log and get a sense of what is going on in the campaign quickly, and the GM also awards some XP for that, to help justify starting new players closer to the party's average XP. Plue we'll have a nifty record. some players just give deadpan summaries from their PC's perspective, but I've also tried to vary tihngs (including a newspaper clippuing from the Kobold Weekly News about a gang of burglars who killed an ogre and many of his roomies in an apparent home invasion--robbery was clearly the motive--, a scene where NPCs we've hired in the past discuss our exploits, and so on).

  7. >I like randomness...

    I'm firmly in the random/minimalist camp. I based a long running Gamma World campaign setting off the Williams arcade game Joust. From the initial idea of Knights of Genetic Purity riding Ostriches, came about 7 years of crazy mutant political science fueled nonsense.

    When I read about some referee's super detailed setting, or wanting written fleshed out character backgrounds, I feel stifled and confined. I love when everything goes into the hopper, throw some dice, consult random tables, and let the campaigns and characters rapidly evolve.

  8. This was lovely, James - maybe the single best justification for the old-school randomness ideal I've ever read.

  9. One of the things I think, we as game designers, forget is that the GM is a player, too.

    QFT. That's why I have really gotten to dislike using the term "Games Master" or "Dungeon Master". I'm not the master of anything in the game. Just a Referee, at best.

  10. I'm fortunate enough to still be using the same gameworld I used as a kid, so I have seen that world grow from a small town and a dungeon to world full of stuff. All in part created by players and character action. I really look back on it and it's a trip to see how it has grown over the decades. Hope you can do the same with your world many years from now.

    One thing about growning your own world - you know it by heart. Beats memorizing something another person created.

  11. Two thumbs up for this post: "world building" at its best is a collaborative effort between DM and players.

  12. Well put.

    We played in a campaign for the better part of five years. The DM had a map, a monster table, and an in-game item book that he had made. That was it. And every saturday we'd play from 10pm until 8am. After almost five years of playing the game, I had the longest living character - a level twelve elven fighter. The point, he was an amazing DM and he didn't keep any notes save that of monster encounters/treasures. So, kudos, big kudos for being one of these DM's Mr. James.

    (A side note, the in-game book we had was swift as hell. He picked up a blank leather bound journal, and filled it from page to page with stories and game stuff. It was given to us as a travel book written by an NPC.)

  13. Is it really being "surprised" that is enjoyable or is it the integrating of unexpected pieces into the campaign, a sort of satisfaction that comes from puzzle solving?

  14. Apparently the Forge-style game Dunjon has a rule which formalises the process you're talking about: if players create a non-human, their choice of abilities dictates what that race is like.

  15. It's like being in a band instead of being a solo artist, riffing off each other and seeing what emerges.