Monday, November 8, 2010

Stop Making Sense

I often refer to my refereeing style as "just in time," which is to say, I only try to come up with stuff -- locations, NPCs, history, cosmology, etc. -- as I need it in the course of play. Until that happens, I try to remain as agnostic as possible. Now, it's true that, in between game sessions, I sometimes piece together the ideas I've thrown out there into something resembling coherence, but that's not always the case. A lot of the time I actively avoid doing so, both because, fundamentally, I'm lazy and that's work I don't need to do and because every rough edge I pound smooth is one I can't use later in order to prick my imagination.

A case in point is the Animal Kings. I invented them on the spur of the moment in order to deal with Brother Candor's clever use speak with animals, an often overlooked spell. The Cat King proved popular enough that, over time, I elaborated on the idea, establishing the existence of other Animal Kings, such as the Dog King (whose name will, of course, be "Rex") and the Rat Boss. Within the context of the overall setting, there's still no explanation for the existence of the Animal Kings; they simply are. Their origins, their relationship with the gods (if any), and so forth have no answers and won't have any until such time as it becomes necessary to have them and, even then, I may well punt and keep things uncertain, because, frankly, that's more fun.

In the past, assuming I'd ever even come up with something like the Animal Kings, I'd have worked out an extensive backstory for them in advance and made sure that it fit with everything else established about the setting. Nowadays, I just don't care. Making "sense" is a very minor consideration for me. Indeed, I've come to see such concerns to be the hallmarks of bad setting design. I mean, the real world doesn't make a lot of sense most of the time, so why should a fictitious one, especially one where magic is a reality? I'm reminded of the way that most constructed languages are much too regular in their grammar to ever be mistaken for natural languages. I feel much the same way about most imaginary settings.

On the blog, I've occasionally caught flak for not knowing things as simple as "What's the name of your campaign's world?" From my perspective, unless the characters are regularly traveling to other worlds -- which they might well do someday -- it's not really something I need to worry about. That's why I can't tell you the location of every major city on the continent where the PCs are adventuring or whether the gods are real or innumerable other little questions that a lot of gamers seem to think are absolutely vital to running a successful campaign. To each his own, of course, but I'm here to tell you that, after nearly two years of weekly/biweekly play, I simply haven't found a need to answer questions like that.

Honestly, I think that's the secret of the campaign's longevity: there are still questions to be answered and they're not persnickety, esoteric tidbits of the sort you'd find in the six volumes of Postage Stamps of Flanaess or whatnot. I fully understand the appeal of that kind of detail; I used to be addicted to it in my early days. But no more. Give me a sketchy, hodgepodge setting with lots of holes and unmapped areas and incoherence and I'll give you a campaign to remember.


  1. I was just trying to explain this philosophy to my game group yesterday during our regular bi-monthly session.

    One player in particular, who is also a DM, just didn't get it. He DM'd a game for us a few years ago (his first attempt at being a DM) that lasted for precisely 13 sessions because he had decided before we started playing that that was how long it was going to last. He had "chapters" and we accomplished the stuff during our session that he wanted us to accomplish.

    So, during a particular session, if we opted to do something that he hadn't expected, he would just declare that it wouldn't work: "The Duke does not want to speak with you again" or "Well, your characters would know that they wouldn't do that because it's not consistent with how people act in this world."

    Toward the end, we'd basically just show up and halfway expect him to tell us what our characters had done.

    It was sad, really, because he was very excited about the game and his world was, to be fair, quite imaginative. But, I really don't remember much about the actual game at all. There weren't any things that stood out that I remember all these years later.

  2. Regarding the Animal Kings, if the Dog King is Rex, I hope that you're going to introduce Sredni Vashtar as the Weasel King.

  3. James;

    There is nothing unusual in your style. This is generally the way worlds are made. Tolkien's notes and drafts show that he made up Middle-earth as he went along (heck, in the earliest drafts of "Lord of the Rings" the ranger that would become Aragorn was a hobbit). Having followed "RuneQuest" for 30 years I know this was how Glorantha evolved, and suspect the same is true of the "Forgotten Realms." I think the problem with a lot of game masters is that by the time they see worlds like this, they are already filled in and solidified, leaving the impression that before you set out you have to have every last detail codified. This is fine, of course, but having been a game master for nearly three decades I can't imagine doing that to my players. It is "their world too" and I think the details of it should be filled in as a kind of dance between player and GM. Anything else seems a tad one-sided to me.

  4. Seems right to me. That's the most literary way to do it. The other way is sort of more of a god-game way to go about things, where world-building is a game in itself.

    nothing wrong with that, but you trade mystery away a bit.

  5. I love your attitude about DMing your game. I have been seriously examining my own DMing style over the past few months and have realized that being more loose and less prepared is something I need to start doing again. When I was a kid, I spent 20 minutes or so getting ready for a DnD game. The game I have been running for the last few months has taken up way too much of my time to prep for... it was becoming a chore. I also feel that from the hip DMing will give me the freedom that I need to keep my players happy. I want to gauge their interest in what is going on as the session unfolds. I am returning to the style of DMing and DnD play that I enjoyed as a kid. It's deadlier for PCs, more fun to DM, and much more creative. James, thanks for your continued activity here on Grognardia.

  6. If necessity is the mother of invention, then the last minute idea is the father of spontaneous enjoyable creativity. The more planned and detailed and canonized things are, the more boring it can get for everyone involved.

    Man, it's like the definition of keeping up a good prolonged sex life...

  7. @PCB Not Ferretina the Weasel Queen?

  8. I think its funny. I see the games That I've run in the past start as sparsely documented, but as they ran along, they became increasingly complex. I started with a map and a few names, and went from there. That seems to be the experience with most people I know. The others use published settings where they don't have to sweat the small stuff, cause its already there. Develop as you go along, the other stuff will come. Then people will want to see it again and again. Though, to be honest, I love the idea of the animal kings. Yoink! It has now been stolen!

  9. Damn good advice. All too often I've painted myself into a corner, creatively speaking, by predefining aspects of my world that I didn't need to know; decisions I later regretted. Every time you set something in stone you close a door - why shut those doors before you need to?

    I also really love the whole Animal Kings stuff, it really adds to the unique mythology of your campaign.

  10. @Rubberduck: read the story in the link and tell me that you still want Ferretina

  11. A famous fantasy author( not sure whom. Possibly Moorcock or Leiber) said he always started by drawing a map of the world and write notes about it till he was ready to start a new book. I think that applies to GM'ing quite well.

  12. The worlds that seem the most real where not all thought out ahead of time. I think the best worlds are the ones that surprise the DM as much as the Players.

  13. I absolutely love the way you design your world. Oh, and I could not do that in a million years.

    As a matter of fact, in order to add things on a regular basis I need to know how things work. That is to say, I need the name and nature of the world, the origin of it and its gods, how magic works, etc. before I can add in the next level of detail such as the names of towns or why you don't see orcs very often or whathaveyou.

    I disagree that this doesn't leave room for mystery. Rather I think it enhances it. For example, the origin of the Elves of my main milieu is well known and there were only a set number of original 'settlers'. We can trace back the various lines (High, Wood, Grey, Sea, etc.) as descending from these first visitors from Arcadia.

    So, after a number of months playing the campaign, the PCs were in an artic wilderness and they encountered an Elf who claimed to be from a land of 'Snow' Elves in the South Pole region. According to the story of the Elves' arrival on my world, there are no Snow Elves. None of those who came to this plane were 'Snow' connected or related. So who are these people and how did they get there?

    As in Asimov's 3 robotic laws, I created the rules so, every so often, I can break them to tell a good story.

  14. I think the problem with a lot of game masters is that by the time they see worlds like this, they are already filled in and solidified, leaving the impression that before you set out you have to have every last detail codified.

    I think the situation is made worse by the fact that game companies like to sell these monstrous setting tomes and that further reinforces the notion that a setting has to be this elaborate, highly detailed thing that arises fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

  15. The other way is sort of more of a god-game way to go about things, where world-building is a game in itself.

    Yep. It's a lot of fun to do when you're not actually playing a campaign with others, but experience has taught me that it's often not the best way to go when you're involved in regular play with others, some of whom might just happen to have ideas of their own.

  16. James, thanks for your continued activity here on Grognardia.


  17. I think the situation is made worse by the fact that game companies like to sell these monstrous setting tomes and that further reinforces the notion that a setting has to be this elaborate, highly detailed thing that arises fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

    I totally agree with this. I've tried to build my own worlds or use pre-built worlds, and always the DM ADD set in and I would ditch it after a few months for something new. For the past year (almost) I've tried it your way, defining things only at the last possible minute, and you've made a believer of me. I just realized that the kingdom my players have been trying to save for the past ten months doesn't even have a name. As the time passes I get more excited for each session, not less.

  18. I was just thinking of posting about "just in time DMing" based on my last few sessions experience. But I'll let your excellent post stand in for mine.

    This can be a little scary because you have to be confident enough that you can a) come up with cool/funny stuff on the spot and b) cobble together all those impromptu ideas into some reasonably explainable framework. But what a rush when you pull it off. And double rush when you are riffing off of ideas your players are throwing at you.

  19. That's totally the way to do it. I get sickened by fantasy cosmologies that are all neat and clean and squared away with a "right answer" to things. DMing is like moviemaking; if it's not in frame then it doesn't exist.

  20. I think the key is to have something make just enough sense to get by. In my campaign, a horse is pretty much like one from the real world. This is not because I'm concerned with "realism", but because I don't have time on my hands to invent entirely new fauna and flora and environments.

    Large parts of my campaign map are blank with things like "Aztec-ish Kingdom/Jungle" and "Babylon/Brick City" scribbled here and there. The point is, instead of "world-building", most campaigns would be better served with building small kingdoms, with only sketchy details about the outside world.

  21. ...persnickety, esoteric tidbits of the sort you'd find in the six volumes of Postage Stamps of Flanaess or whatnot. I fully understand the appeal of that kind of detail; I used to be addicted to it in my early days...

    I don't know if it's ever been discussed around here, James, but once the elaborate prestige-hardcover AD&D books arrived on the scene, RPGs suddenly made 'worldbuilding' available as a separate game for solitary me. I lived in the boonies in high school and spent hours rolling up characters, playing solo combats, worldbuilding, narrating stories to myself - lost in a kind of happy, familiar melancholy. I couldn't play but I could be immersed in the fantasy worlds through the books alone (not AD&D as such: MERP and GURPS for me, plus large-scale hex wargames).

    OD&D is useless for this kind of solo play; the books aren't interesting enough on their own. But Gygax's 1e DMG kicks off a tradition of D&D books meant primarily for solitary reading, which doesn't end until 4e's purely instrumental approach. (Not coincidentally, 4e is closer in spirit to OD&D than to AD&D, while 3e was very much an AD&D-line game.)

    The Middle-Earth Role Playing books are wonderful solo reads, as are so many of the idiosyncratic GURPS 2e/3e books. (The 4e toolkits are mostly devoid of weird SJ Games flavour, alas.)

    Consider how important D&D was in bringing tribes of geeks together out of their loneliness and shame, it's weird/sad/vital to recognize how RPG books play into geek fantasies just as books, away from the gaming table. A real lifeline they can be.

    ps. You a Talking Heads fan, or just liked the title?

  22. One of the major problems with creating an elaborate campaign background is this: the DM becomes so enamored with his creation (in many cases understandably so) that he can't resist sharing it with his players. All of it. So instead of being like the actual inhabitants of the medieval world - most of whom knew almost nothing about history and geography, with most of what they thought they did know being ridiculously wrong - the characters are walking atlases and encyclopedias. Elves the mysterious and perhaps sinister inhabitants of a shadowy world next to our own? Nah, here's a color map showing their migration patterns and all major settlements, and a thousand word essay on their reproductive habits. Everybody - farm boys turned fighters, street urchins raised to be pickpockets, dwarven miners who have never before seen sunlight, halflings who haven't set foot outside of the shire in their lives - knows this stuff.

    That strikes me as more than a little ridiculous, unless the campaign world in question has near modern levels of literacy and education. Actually, considering the invincible modern ignorance of history and geography, it would still strike me as ridiculous. Do you think Britney Spears can hold forth on the migrations of the ancient Bantu? That's no more ridiculous than a pseudo medieval bar wench turned adventuring thief knowing some elaborate history of elvish settlement in a fantasy world. I mean, at least Britney can read (probably). And if the characters wouldn't know something, why should the players? And if the players don't know something, and may never know it, why bother to work it out in detail ahead of time? Once you create some beautifully written history of the elvish kingdoms, you won't be able to resist sharing it with your players - and the next thing you know, their characters are Encyclopedia Brown, Gazetteer Jones, and Silmarillion Smith. It becomes a bit absurd.

    All of which is to say that I agree with James, and I have always created my campaign worlds along these lines - with, I might add, never a complaint in thirty years about a lack of detail or a request for more information than the players actually learned in the course of their adventures. I sincerely believe that many DM's have a drastically inflated idea of the amount of detail that most players need, or want for that matter. "It's a fantasy world. It's sort of medieval or something. It has monsters and dragons. They have treasure. Go!"

  23. I sort of approach the "World of D&D" as I figure comic book writers have to work with the settings of iconic characters. Sure, Metropolis might be set up in a specific way in some old issue of DC Comics Presents, but if it needs to be changed for a modern story, that's long as it's kept internally consistent. Similarly, I might snag some details from Greyhawk or Mystara, but if I don't have everything perfect, I have to hope that folks are cool with the retcon.

  24. James, I thought this post was extremely apt. I too have gone from detailed worldbuilding to more of a piecemeal approach over time. But I feel like there is some paradox in your posts on this topic, because you also advocate exploration-based play, and I recall reading something about playing the rooms as written -- not modifying them on the fly to, for example, make things easier on the players. So it seems like you do have some things decided in advance, if there is anything pre-existing to explore. Are you moving away from that? Or do you like to have some specifics pre-set before game time, while you develop others? This would seem to be to be the tough set of choices.

  25. I find a lot of merit in James' holistic (or should I say organic?) style of DMing and worldbuilding. Especially since the geography of the setting is so immediate and limited, it creates a deep sense of mystery regarding everything that is beyond the edges of the map.

    However, I find a lot of merit in playing out fully designed and heavily detailed worlds such as The Forgotten Realms. First, it gives the players OPTIONS. While in a more organic game, the players (and DM) may appear to have limitless options, they have fewer concrete tools with which to work. An established setting can permit the DM and players to use the tools presented to develop characters, themes, and setting to a more detailed and perhaps meaningful level.

    Second, it can emphasize the overland exploration angle. With all of the blank spaces of the map filled in, the DM has one big gigantic playground with which to mess around, while the players have the opportunity to try to visit and experience every place there. For some DMs, this is overwhelming, but for others, its a lot like Conan's wanderings through Hyboria. As a player, I know that a heavily defined world intensifies my wanderlust, and as a DM, I feel like I have a huge toolkit with which to challenge the players.

    Thirdly, while a lot of the WORLDBUILDING is finished, a lot of the locales are open-ended. In other words, not every village, cave, den of monsters, dungeon, ruined tower, or crumbling keep is going to be listed, no matter how detailed the map is. The big, big details are there, but the smaller details are up to me, and that's what I like.

    DMing style is a lot about personal choice and preference, but also mood of the moment. I've found the "Old School" style is great for borderlands, rural, and wilderness gaming, but I need maps and mountains of detail before I run a city campaign.

  26. I like the concept of the Just in Time DMing, and I'd say that's an apt and in fact quite clever label for the way that I most often run games. However, the idea that stuff should purposefully not make sense sits quite oddly with me.

    I'm fine with leaving mysteries open-ended, and I understand the idea that because in real life there are a lot of unsolved (and even unsolveable) mysteries that it should be true for our campaigns too, but I disagree with it. Campaigns are not real life, nor are they really meant to be a good simulation of it. Mysteries in RPGs serve a similar purpose that they do in literature, not that they do in real life. That is, they're either red herrings, potential hooks for players to attempt to follow if they want to, or things that they're supposed to find out eventually. I don't see a lot of value in presenting unsolveable mysteries to players just because there's unsolveable mysteries in real life too.

    If the players really decide that deciphering the relationships of the Animal Kings (pretty cool idea, by the way) is what they're most interested in of all the things going on in your campaign, are you going to arbitrarily block them and tell them no just because you don't want them pursuing that line of inquiry?

    I realize that the distinction I'm making may well be moot, because most likely those unsolved mysteries *don't* really catch the PCs attention enough to be followed up on and they get left behind, simply serving as richness and robustness and the suggestion that there's more going on in the campaign than they can possibly uncover, which is all well and good. But I also think philosophically there's a big difference between saying, "I have absolutely no intention of filling in this detail no matter how interesting my PCs may or may not find it" and saying "I'm not filling in this detail until my PCs decide that they want to pursue it."