Thursday, August 25, 2011

Do You Really Want To Know?

This is from Vornheim:

Once, demons ruled every universe, unchecked. Then came 12 sisters – medusae – they looked upon the demon kings and changed them to stone, and drove the rest away. The grey bones of this earth were hewn from the colossal statues of these demon kings. Or at least that’s what the 12 sisters will tell you.

Two of these sisters were in the city kit. Two others have appeared in my campaign already. One day I sat down and tried to decide where exactly the other 8 were. I figured they were all old and powerful and that it would probably help enrich and define the setting to figure out exactly what they were up to.

I knew one was an eel medusa, and at least one was a powerful sorceress, and...and after about 40 minutes I decided it was dumb idea and I didn't want to know. Or I didn't want to know yet.

It wasn't time to know.

Imagine a very simple gameworld.

It has four great powers--mighty sovereigns. The GM (and maybe the players) know who they are and know they are the most powerful and setting-defining entities in the game. They are:

King Arthur, whose sphere of influence grows each time monsters are beaten.

Dread Cthulhu, whose forces becomes more powerful whenever major magics are unleashed.

Queen Isabelle, whose mercantile empire benefits whenever new lands are explored, and...

The Lich King, whose armies swell whenever war occurs and soldiers die in droves.

The idea is: whatever the PCs do in this world can cause one or the other power to gain in strength, and can, therefore, affect events at the "domain level".

In turn, once these domain level events occur, they can affect what kinds of emergencies, quests, and/or opportunities the PCs see before them in the course of the game and, therefore what happens to them.

This is not an unfamiliar idea, basically here I just want to lay it out as one end of a spectrum, Most gameworlds are or can be more complicated than this, but the basic principle is:

knowing the important forces in you gameworld is attractive because it allows PC actions to generate new plot hooks for themselves merely by doing what they'd normally do

...every time the PCs do something dramatic, it can affect the fortunes of some great power, who then must realign and send new things at the PCs and the whole thing is like a self-generating adventure-creating machine.

(I thought my Dozen Gorgon Sisters set-up would do the same thing. My PCs have already fucked with four of them--killing two, this could potentially set up events for sessions and session to come.)

Another nice thing about making the game work this way is the story follows the law of dramatic efficiency--what's glimpsed in the first act becomes relevant in the final act, all roads eventually return to the center, Darth Vader turns out to be Luke's father and then it is Darth who kills the emperor, etc.

You can see some examples of people coming at these ideas from different angles here, here, and, to some degree, here.

The same ideas can be ported to different levels of the game: the great powers in question can be gods, or factions in a city or whatever. God A loves Hercules, God B does not, thus: the 12 labors, etc. etc.


appealing as this idea is--you can indulge your world-building impulses while simultaneously doing "real work" by putting together a machine that will generate stories for you, there's an equally interesting notion about how to do things whose essential mechanism pulls in the opposite direction. That is: the aesthetic of exploration.

Exploration in two senses:

Sense One: the PC's job is to discover unknown places and things

Sense Two: the world is revealed to the players (and often to the GM as well) the way it is in a book. That is, the explanation of each new aspect of the world is made a part of the story.

The second sense is slightly more complicated, but examples are everywhere. Here's MJ Harrison...

"With the mist dispersed the village smelt of smoked fish and salt. Fulthor and his party stood outnumbered and uncertain at the centre of an unarmed crowd. Hornwrack had put up his knife. Like the survivors of some forgotten colonial war (desultory, expedient, never quite resolved) the occupants of Iron Chine drew round him: thin intelligent women, a few bare-limbed children. There were no young men present, only some old ones who stamped their feet and turned up their heavy collars, faded blue eyes watering in the cold wind. They stared up at him with a defiant incuriosity and he stared back embarrassed, although he could not have said precisely why. It was a mixed community; at the periphery of the crowd a handful of the Reborn hovered like strange, long-necked animals, their delicate features coarsened a little by an unrelenting deprivation. What had they left behind them in the Afternoon, what mad sophistications exchanged for the smell of dead fish?" other words, the "PC"s just arriving at a place is a moment for storytelling. Even if the PCs theoretically already know about Iron Chine, the players don't, and so having it unfold in front of them is interesting.

The slow revelation, to readers (or, in this case, players), things that the characters supposedly take for granted is one of the great tools of storytelling.

It is also an important element in world-creation-through-play--the technique of building up details of a world the way pulp fantasy writers did--one short story at a time.

I didn't leave parts of Vornheim unfinished just so the GMs reading can have the joy of filling them in themselves--I also did it because having undefined-at-the-beginning is a fundamental part of how I see the city parts of a campaign unfolding. It's a cliche and a simplification to say "If I knew the whole setting I wouldn't want to run it"--what I mean is more precise: "If I had an exhaustive list of everything important about Vornheim, I'd feel my options for what I could do in any given session were limited--in an amorphous but palpable way".

What I want to point out here is, the essential mechanisms that makes these two approaches--intrigues and exploration--interesting are opposed.

The appeal of the "Here are the powerful forces and everything is a result of them interacting" method is the satisfying feeling it creates that all the variety and complexity of the campaign is generated from a few comparatively simple moving parts that are known from the beginning--or at least near the beginning. If wholly new elements are constantly being introduced, then the feeling that each development is a natural consequence of previous actions is spoiled or obscured. It would be like a chess game where suddenly new pieces were randomly dropped on the board: interesting, yes, but it would change the nature of the appeal of chess altogether. The feeling of a tightly interacting mesh of intrigue and consequence is lost. And the feeling that, if the PC found a monkey wrench, s/he'd know where to throw it.

The appeal of the "revealed through play" method is that it allows the players--and usually the GM, too--to experience sudden revisions of their view of the whole gameworld at any time. However, when the PCs have this feeling of constant untapped potential, they don't necessarily feel very up to turning the setting to their advantage.

So a game of intrigues and consequences and a game of exploration have fundamental differences, but it would be a trite oversimplification to say they're wholly incompatible.

It would also be trite and kinda not terribly helpful to say "If the world is too defined, then there's no room for surprises". The real question is to fix the boundaries at which one impulse genuinely interferes with the other.

Here's an example people know: Star Trek.

So in the beginning we have two powerful forces defined: The Federation (mostly earthlings) and (part of it? Perhaps it was unclear in the beginning) The Vulcans. They are on a mission of exploration.

So this'll be a show about exploration, not intrigue, right?

They go around to planets, meeting new things they didn't know were there. Important unconscious fact: most of the phenomena they discover are only relevant on a relatively small scale--one planet, one city, one family, one solar system.

However, eventually we are introduced to two new phrases: "Klingon Empire" and "Romulan Empire".

The important part is "Empire". According to Star Trek Expert Mandy, the Klingons at least were introduced as if they had always been there, and the Romulans too.

Suddenly, we have a paradigm shift in the way you look at the whole "gameworld". Space isn't just a disorganized jungle place that the forces of civilization (the Federation) hexcrawl through looking for unusual localized phenomena, it is also a (somewhat known--there's a "neutral z0ne") battleground between large political entities.

As time went on, more and paradigm-shifting revelations were made: Romulans used to be the same as Vulcans, Vulcans came to greet humans as soon as they discovered the humans had warp-capability, the Federation was formed after near-apocalyptic internecine wars on Earth, the Ferengi (another race that had apparently always been there) show up and they're despised by the Klingons, and on and on.

Now it's fairly safe to say that as of now we have a fairly defined set-up. It's hard to imagine a whole new universe-spanning empire or religion that had always been in the Alpha Quadrant and just never mentioned showing up by the early '90s. So what did they do? Advance into whatever quadrant the Founders were in and whatever one the Borg were in and into "fluidic space" where lurks Species 8472. Now we have three more political players introduced through exploration. Now every Star Trek political decision at the "domain" level theoretically takes into account all of these players.

And, during all this intrigue, the exploration--oh look the people on this little planet eat rocks and have antigravity shoes and hate all androids--keeps going. But it does so under a "ceiling" of how earth-shattering these revelations can be, in the scheme of things. In any Star Trek episode one has a definite feeling that whatever new thing's going on can only be so important unless it involves one of the Big Powers. Things are either new (and therefore novel but important) or important (and therefore involve the intrigues of familiar friends and familiar enemies).

This same dynamic is pretty clear in most sci-fi settings. In fact, it may be the only possible interpretation of the words "sci-fi setting". In the Warhammer 40k RPGs: we have intriguing powers--humanity, chaos, eldar, space orcs, and whatever other lead armies the WH40k people have put out and, in between and relatively quietly, we have all the novel weird, out-of-left-field stuff which you can surprise people with in the "exploration" game.

The Trek people eventually stylized Deep Space Nine and Voyager right along this split: DS9 spun endless plots by setting up a series of (mostly) pre-existing powers--The Cardassians, The Boringjorans, the Founders, The Federation, The Klingons, and the Ferengi--as moving parts, dropping in some crisis, and watching the balls bounce off each other for 40 minustes. Voyager stripped away all the familiar Star Trek intriguers and dropped the ship in the middle of a 3d hexmap full of the unknown.

I guess this goes back to something I've said before. If the players know too little about the setting, then they can't effectively move the levers of power or even just enjoy the feeling of the watching the machine work and the feeling that that causes have effects and the gameworld has dramatic closure once in a while. On the other hand, if the players--and the GM--know too much, then they get to a point where you can't just casually reveal paradigm-shifting-eye-opening-hey-look-the-Earth's-actually-round-and there's-a-whole-continent-over-here type things because the known world is already fixed in the players' minds. And that's fun.

I hear people go "Oh I want to do a campaign where the PCs are pirates and the enemy is an island nation of mad wizards who rule the seas with snailships" and I think that sounds hella fun. Then I think: but what do you do if one day you want to do an adventure where they go to the center of a hollow earth and fight the avatar of the crystal spider god who spins the web of all men's fates? Just wait and do it next campaign? Far too impatient for that.

What I would like, I think, is to extend that "first season" feeling as long as possible. The point where you think you know how the world works, but you're not so experienced that the world has to work the way you think it does or else fail to make any sense. It's tricky--there's the risk, on the one hand, of PCs having no fucking clue what's going on or what to do about it, and, on the other hand, feeling like Oh this guy again.

And there are as many ways to do it as there are GMs, I suppose. Tricky every time though, unless your players are all the same, and all wholly dedicated to one thing or the other. For my part, mine are as moody as their GM.


  1. I love the notion of exploration combined with intrigue. For me, it becomes a slow revelation for the players as they progress through the world. They discover these different factions and areas and they all have a part to play in the world. The slow revelation of things as plots unfold keep the games interesting for the players, and adds a bit of the unknown in how they might proceed. "Oh we could go do this one thing, but then this other thing happens as a result, which might not be so good either."

  2. & then of course, there are the PCs who say "I came up with an idea for a jellyfish medusa who rules the sunken city where my aquatic elf character comes from," & then that bit is all done for you.

    What I do is similar to your first pitch, except those forces are entirely supernatural & largely abstracted. Then below that there is a factional level, where those "in the know" can sign up. Then below that is the actual game world more people play in, with dukes & city-states & families & PCs. The actual game is episodic, but there is an over-arching meta-plot...though it might not be visible all the time.

  3. Nice distinction you made -- intrigue versus exploration. This is something I've been struggling with as I design (in all my years of play) my first sandbox. I've been looking to published materials and am still working out where to draw the line between them. I'm sure it is a personal preference where the line ends up.

    I've considered Vornheim, where a lot happens on the fly and things don't come into existence until the players interact with them, including relationship maps! Then I've looked at something like Carcosa that lays everything out hex by hex (although it still leaves plenty up to the referee by offering just a skeleton of ideas.)

    What I decided for myself -- and I still have to try it out -- is a little bit of both, governed heavily by charts. I don't want the sense that things only come into existence until the players interact with them. To avoid that, the charts (wandering encounters in the wilderness and powerful NPCs) have a logic that pushes a setting agenda. Perhaps spies from a neighboring country are attempting to kill the king and they have planted a double agent within the walls. Those spies are an entry on a small list of wandering encounters. When it becomes important to know who the spies are, then I'll row on the chart.

    The world will push hard on the PCs just like they do on the world. I have an idea of how the world will push back based off the logic of the chart, but there is still an element of exploration. Maybe the spy is one of the king's advisors, or maybe it is his son. Either result (they'd be more than two on the chart) would lead to interesting and varied places in the story.

    Anyhow, that my theory I'm hammering out.

  4. Stormy night on the east coast, catching up on some blog reading - this is exactly something I needed to read. Today. (Thanks). It's a good reminder not to overwrite (anything) and that white space is an important feature.

  5. Actually, at first Star Trek didn't even have the Federation. It's not mentioned till about halfway through the first season; prior to that, the Enterprise seems to be part of the "United Earth Space Probe Agency". There's an early episode where McCoy mentions Vulcan having been conquered. It's kind of amazing, the degree to which they were making stuff up as they went.

    Stargate SG1 is a show that did a pretty good job of explore, explore, explore, run-into-a-big-faction, explore some more.

  6. And a bad example in my view, in spite of it's popularity, was the X-files. They just made stuff up as they went along, and when they got tired of a thread, they just dropped it and went in another direction. The factions and meta-factions just got more and more convoluted without any hope of the "players" sorting anything out. After a while, it became too cumbersome to be interesting. So revelation and slow build, yes! But also coherence in some sense. Not sure this makes sense.

  7. My world is largely based of the simple "King Arthur, Dread Cthulhu, Queen Isabelle, Lich King" dynamic, but it really only includes King Arthur (quite directly) and Cthulhu (and I hadn't decided on how he would grow)

    The main country, of which the PCs are citizens, is threatened by all sorts of things within it's own borders. These things are in dungeons and haunted forests and the like, and exploring these places and eliminating these threats will make the Kingdom of Kamenal stronger. By doing these things they would meet Knights of the Round Table (I'm pretty shameless when I'm ripping things off) and gain respect in the Kingdom.

    For the opposition, I had not worked out a system which would allow for PCs to have an effect on. I think now, I would just make this "change." Tzeentch, basically, is my foil to King Kamenal. Spreading ancient magics and ancient technologies that threaten the chivalrousness of the Kingdom will hurt it and will power it's enemies.

    Your questions about how fast the players learn about the game world is important, and I'm not sure how to answer it. I hope the amount of information I have given them (which amounts to a world map with lots of odd marks and a three exemplary characters, one of good, one of evil, and one of their hometown) is enough that they know the world has some coherency, I am sure it isn't too much. I did decide to make a world for exploring when I set out.

    Anyway this was a great post, I'll certainly point people to this when they tell me they are making a setting. The questions it asks are probably as important as the basic culture or geography questions. "Sure your world is like ancient Rome, with chainswords and in the Unknown Armies system, but you should totally check this post out"

  8. I really don't like major disrepancies between player knowledge and character knowledge about how the world works. If the party hear mention of the Monastery of the Obscene Flower, I don't want them to ask me what they've heard about the place before, and I roll a die and tell them some tidbit. I've tried that, and in our games at least it puts a noticeable damper on the moment. I much prefer the characters to be as in the dark as the players are, no more or less. It makes them much more inclined to pay attention to the details of the world, even when they seem incidental at the time - it makes the setting feel more real. Or, at least, I enjoyed that stuff when I was a player.

    On the other hand, I don't like giving infodumps to my players either. If I've designed some big complex world, and the characters should logically have a certain amount of knowledge about it, I can't bring the players up to speed by giving them handouts to read at the start of play. Maybe I've been conditioned by players with short attention spans, but I just can't. I'm here to DM for them, not to give them shitty fiction to read. I experimented once with a "guidebook", but that was a wash, too - although I think if I'd added big pretty pictures it might have worked a little better.

    So, as a result, my preferred set-up when I'm designing a campaign in advance rather than by the seat of my pants is to have a fairly developed world with interplaying factions, but the players know absolutely nothing about it at the outset. They're from out of town.
    At the start of the campaing the PCs are only 1st level and they know very little about the world, so it's a game of exploration. A lot of information is common knowledge to the natives, so they can quickly get a basic grasp of the situation just by asking about it, yet they can still be surprised down the road by some fundamental fact that nobody thought to mention to them.
    As the players proceed, they uncover some factions and inquire about others, so that by the time they reach mid-level they should have a fairly decent idea what's going on, by which time they're in a position to influence events.

    There are a couple of other tricks I use in the sandbox I'm currently designing in my free time. The first is to divide the factions between those with only local influence, and those with a more "global" reach. Each region of the sandbox is typically dominated by a single major power - their territory - but has multiple lesser factions within it, not necessarily a part of the major faction. e.g. the wild Hairy Elves are of little interest to anyone outside the forest, but they also interact with the Underground Empire, which is a major entity. This way I can have a lot of different groups, petty politics and situations ripe for adventure, without either reusing the same people over and over, or muddying the waters of the overall sandbox by having too many factions competing on the global level.

    The other trick is to have one "paradigm-shifting revelation", as you put it, that is unlikely to be discovered until late in the game, by making it unknown to any but a handful of factions and NPCs. In my case, it's a metaphysical conflict that's the ultimate cause of most of the temporal conflicts going on in the setting. The main factions and their intrigues make sense without this knowledge (since most of them are ignorant of it anyway), but once the players discover it, it should hopefully throw the whole setting into a different light, plus open up a new set of NPC-interactions for the party to get in the way of and exploit.

  9. I call it my "Here There Be Dragons" principle. When I design a campaign world, I very specifically leave chunks of it undeveloped so that I have some empty parchment to play with.

    (Example: In my current campaign world I have five major political powers in the lands of civilization -- Seyrun, Barund, Arathia, Hyrtan, and Vennoc. But I very specifically smashed Vennoc up into dozens or possibly hundreds of smaller nations. So whenever I have some idea for a nifty fantasy nation -- ruled by eighteen generations of lich-kings all ostensible ruling simultaneously; secretly manipulated by drow sorcerers who live in the secret catacombs lacing the palace walls; a complex feudal system based on bear paws -- I can just drop it into Vennoc.)

    I jealously "protect" the borders of these "Here There Be Dragon" regions (because, of course, the whole point is that they never get fully fleshed out). But I've also realized that the principle is effectively fractal in nature.

    (Example 2: I know that Aratha is made up of a bunch of merchant-ruled city-states. I've firmly designed 3-4 of these. I know the names of 4-5 others. And then there are another 5-6 of which I know absolutely nothing at all. Why? Because when I get a new idea for a potential Arathian city-state, I want to have some room to slot it in.)

  10. Just had a thought. One way to possibly recapture the "first season" feeling is the conspiracy twist--the major powers turn out to be pawns manipulated by even-more-major powers.

    Cons: - you can't do it very often (more than once?) or it seems like a cheat;
    - if the tone of the game changes, the players may feel like the victims of a bait-and-switch;
    - if the tone of the game doesn't change, it may seem hollow;

    Pros: - might, if handled well, recapture the "first-season" feel;
    - might, if handled well, give the DM a way to tie up a few of the inevitable loose ends and unfollowed clues that accumulate in any campaign;
    - might, if handled well, give the game world an interesting way to advance as the PCs advance. So, once the PCs reach nth level the regional power is no longer very threatening--but the planetary/extradimensional/cosmic power behind the regional power is still big and scary.

    The biggest problem I can see is that if this is going to work, it needs to be a surprise (even if there are clues leading up to it), and if the PCs hate it, it's hard to take back.

    Still thinking out loud: maybe it would work better if it was presented as a choice to the PCs. Like, they start finding artifacts of the godlike powers in the throne rooms of the regional powers they topple. At some point, "leveling up" to take on the cosmic powers (and thereby reactivating the exploration aspect of the game) may become more attractive than going on to the next regional challenge.