Friday, August 19, 2022

Like the Back of My Hand

In the more than four decades I've been involved in the hobby of roleplaying, I've played a lot of different games – and spent a lot of time exploring the settings associated with those games. I was reminded of this during the past week, because I'm going to be playing in a new Traveller campaign set in the universe of GDW's Third Imperium. As I was generating my character, I very quickly found myself imagining who he is and how he fits into the larger setting of the game. Indeed, it was quite easy for me to view the results of my random rolls through the lens of the setting of the Third Imperium and this, in turn, provided me with additional ideas about my character's history and personality. For example, the fact that he has a low Social Standing score and was repeatedly passed over for commissioning as an officer in the Imperial Navy suggested to me that he might have a grudge against the hidebound aristocracy of the Imperium. Of course, the rolls themselves suggested very little of this; I was simply interpreting them in this way because of my deep knowledge of the Third Imperium setting.

Later, I marveled a bit at this. I do know a great about the Third Imperium, having been a fan of Traveller since 1983. I was also heavily involved in Traveller fandom in the '90s, which eventually led to my writing for Traveller: The New Era and GURPS Traveller. Consequently, it makes a great deal of sense that I should know the setting as well as I do. At the same time, there's a certain sense in which this is profoundly weird. Knowing the minutiae of a wholly imaginary place is a peculiar kind of knowledge. It'd be one thing if I were ramble on at length about the Napoleonic Wars, the suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII, or the Russian Civil War, but it's wholly another if I do the same about the Interstellar Wars, the Psionic Suppressions, or the Imperial Civil War. I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with knowing so much about a fictional setting, only that I can't help but find it a little odd.

Of course, Traveller's Third Imperium isn't the only fictional setting about which I know a great deal. I also know a great deal about Tékumel, knowledge gained in no small part due to my refereeing a longstanding campaign in the setting, not to mention producing a well regarded fanzine about it. Just like the Third Imperium, I can talk at length about the intricacies of this imaginary planet, including its history and inhabitants – and do so with a confidence that might suggest, to the uninitiated, that I was talking about a real place rather than a fictitious one. That's a testament to the power of the imagination, to be sure, but, as I said above, it's also more than a little weird.

Am I alone in thinking this? For that matter, does anyone else possess a similarly high degree of knowledge about an imaginary place, particularly one designed for roleplaying games? I assume there must be, for example, Glorantha-philes who know as much about that setting as I do about Tékumel, but what about other RPG settings? I'd be very curious to hear what others have to say on this topic, as it's been on my mind quite a bit lately.

22 comments:

  1. Seems like a Tolkien Scholar except you probably had a ton more fun learning the nitty-gritty details along with friends.

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  2. I don't know, if you're weird, then so are the Brontë siblings. ;)

    (Literary experts can argue about whether that's a good example or not!)

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  3. I did...once upon a time. I got in on the ground floor of D&D 3.5 (buying the books soon after their release, my first D&D books since Basic/Expert, 1981) and the setting that followed soon thereafter, Eberron.

    I knew the houses, the leaders, the major players, the sites, the scenes, the history, until I eventually stopped playing/GMing in the setting around 2008. With each passing year, I forget a little bit more about it. Now, of course, I can't recall much about it other than a tidbit here and there, a stray name that I undoubtedly misplace, an event that I attribute things to incorrectly, etc., etc., etc.

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  4. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Karameikos and the "Known World" from the basic set. I absorbed those gazetteers were great sources of joy for me and I really took them to heart. I still run my 5E games in this setting because I can bring a lot of life to my game and it really shines through for the players.

    I also have the same type of knowledge of Marvel comic books circa 1980 to 1995. This helps me to run Marvel Superheroes RPG. I'm running a Marvel game right now set in 1986. Players ask me about other heroes and I know that "they're in space right now", "he's in Europe around this time", "he doesn't have that power yet". .

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  5. Absolutely weird, but also apparently at the same time normal. I know way too much about Eberron lore, or the Marvel and DC universes. Middle earth occupies more head space than it should. And my son has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the multiple Gundam timelines...

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  6. I know the feeling; it's what held me back from too much role playing. I've also felt the need to "rebalance" when I got too involved in any one game system. So, that sense of "weird" prevented me from becoming an expert on anything.

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  7. There's this great Dork Tower strip where Ken can't remember anything in daily, normal life, but then can quote game rules page, chapter, and verse. Similarly there's the old story about the guy who got into a discussion with people about pole arms, and they were amazed at his breadth and depth of knowledge right up until he admitted he had learned it all through Dungeons & Dragons.

    My own memory has always been notoriously bad, short term, long term, whatever. "Like Swiss cheese " one might say. But there are some gaming things I know better and can recall better than anything of the more mundane world.

    I know more about the Wilderlands and Mystara than I know about neighboring states. I can remember more details idpf the game campaigns I was in and ran in High School than of anything else I ever did, altogether, in those four years.

    It's not weird, it is perfectly normal. We concentrate on and remember things we spend time on, care about, and love.

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  8. I'm am embarrassed to say that I am more familiar with the Shadow World (I.C.E.) timeline than my vague recollections of real ancient history. It covers 110,000+ years of history and takes up 33 pages in the source book.

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  9. I had a similar cognitive wobble years ago. I realised that I knew lots of the places in the imaginary world Midnight from the old computer game The Lords of Midnight, despite it being completely made up. I also remember my Mum being really puzzled at 14yo me reading the appendices in Lord of the the Rings as she couldn't understand why someone would go to the bother of writing a fake history.

    I do think that it is a bit odd, but as others say above, it gives us all pleasure, so go with the flow.

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  10. I am fairly knowledgeable about Mystara and at one time had a similar knowledge of the Forgotten Realms. I've at various points also been familiar with several literary worlds (Wheel of Time's word, Midkemia, and so forth).

    So I guess that's all to say, I don't find it weird at all.

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  11. The worlds (and the RPGs linked to them) that I know best are:
    Glorantha - RQ
    The Young Kingdoms - Stormbringer
    The British Isles - Pendragon/Prince Valiant
    Middle Earth - MERP/Rolemaster

    My knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos is also pretty good but that could be seen as a facet of the real-world in the 1920s.

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  12. yeah, I have felt exactly the same about my noggin encylopedia of 3025 Battletech, which edges out my real knowledge of my favorite wargaming eras; the 7YW,the ACW, and the SpanAm. and even wierder, I know more FASA 3025 minutiae than I know my own Ornria Imagi-Nation campaign world...

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  13. I've learned & memorized a lot of historical names and places, so the fact that I also know a lot about the Birthright world and the Star Fleet Universe, plus a lot of different rules sets doesn't feel off to me.

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  14. It is the Way. :-) I know way too much about the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan, the Dragon Warriors world of Legend and the Fabled Lands gamebooks world as well, plus a bunch of my own homebrews. Places of comfort when the real world gets a bit too crappy, perhaps?

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    1. On your last point, I think that that is a big element of it. That the fantasy roleplaying and gamebook worlds are hazardous and random but within known limits. The real world certainly over the last 6-7y seems very much more hazardous and rigged so that we can't control anything really.

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  15. Aside to the main point, I have been thinking lately that the Psionic Suppressions era is overdue to be fleshed out in detail. The glimpses of it we've seen in a very few places make it seem like it would be an era of extreme interest and adventure possibilities.

    It is interesting that we invest so much mental effort toward fictional settings. I know more about Glorantha, for example, than I do about West Africa. I can close my eyes and visualize the world of Barsoom in more detail than Russia. I know more about Hârn than I do about Madagascar, despite both being about the same nominal size. In some sense, the fictional places have more reality in my experience than the "real" places. I've never experienced West Africa beyond a few photos and some brief history information, after all, but I've "walked" in the streets of New Pavis more than once.

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  16. It feels like this was partly the cause of the antagonism between historical wargamers and roleplayers from the ‘70’s and into the ‘90’s.
    Wargamers were conscious that the wider public viewed them with some disdain for being grown adults who played with toy soldiers, so they used their knowledge of history and the chess-like formality of their rules to project a sense of validity and seriousness around their hobby. The roleplayers, with their looser rule systems governed by GM fiat and based on niche fiction, threatened to undermine the veneer of respectability (some of) the wargamers had striven hard to generate*.
    The origins of the divide could be traced back to the early ‘70’s when David Wesley joined the army leaving Dave Arneson the freedom, when refereeing ‘Strategos N’ type games, to favour player inclusivity and story drama over historical rigour and studied tactics, resulting in a split with the more ‘traditional’ wargamers in the Twin Cities group.

    *Both Mark Barrowcliffe (in The Elfish Gene) and Harry Pearson (in Achtung Schweinehund!) recount personal tales of this divide in the UK (as did a fair few letters to the UK wargaming magazines during this period).

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  17. In my case, the BattleTech setting, up to the Jihad story line (3081). I've still got a fairly extensive collection, and I've prepared a heavily seat of my pantsable 3052 campaign for my gaming group.

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  18. James, please write about Traveller New Era in general and the work you did specifically. It's my favorite setting, which makes me an outcast among other Traveller fans. I'd love to get your take on things and memories of playing it. The strengths and weaknesses of the setting, how you regard your contribution with the hindsight of decades. Please!

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    1. I'll try to make a post about it in the coming weeks.

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  19. Surprised that nobody has mentioned Warhammer (both pre-AoS Fantasy and 40K)

    I know dozens of people who wouldn't play those games if you paid them but still revel in the lore, tie-in fiction and so forth, treating the arrival of every new Gaunt's Ghosts installment like the discovery of a lost Faulkner novel.

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  20. I probably know Dark Sun best, although it's not as deep. Followed by Battletech and Fading Suns.

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