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Less is More

In which I contrive a rationale for my own sloth

The reason I’ve stuck with RPGs for 71% of my time on this planet is because knights and wizards and spaceships are sometimes more thought-provoking than my day job. A by-product of having my thoughts provoked is not taking Chimera’s development or marketing as seriously as some might like, and I’m therefore guilty of letting deadlines slip while I fiddle with the game to the point of annoyance. The truth is, I’d rather enjoy a good tweak than rip a final PDF by close-of-business on Friday.

But the not-a-dickhead part of me does feel bad about these things. Chimera’s 5th Printing still has a few weeks to go, the Core Rules volume has a 17-page hole, and the fabled Swords of Telm, having taken a back seat to Chimera’s redesign last fall, needs a complete overhaul. It’s a lot of pending work, and my OCD demands closure.

Given that I actually want to finish these (and other) things, it’s clear that I need to reconsider my approach. Zak’s recent post about writing settings couldn’t have come at a better time.

Lessons I Forgot

This is what I take away from what Zak wrote: When you’re creating a setting, describe it in game terms, not narrative text. Instead of lengthy paragraphs about setting history and barbarian migrations and the ecology of the skeleptron, use quick capsule descriptions, encounter tables, and game stats. Don’t tell your readers about a person, place, or thing—show them, and do it in a way that’s immediately useful to a GM.

Boring book

Useless

In retrospect, this borders on obvious, but if you’ve read enough RPG books, you get used to “how things are done,” and of course, you tend to follow suit when you write your own stuff. As I read Zak’s point, I realised that I already knew exactly what he was talking about, even though I needed him to remind me so it would gel in my I-know-what-I’m-doing head. How did I know? Consider:

  • The combined 128 pages of Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert (B/X) provide massive creative potential in the densest ruleset I’ve ever read or used.
  • I wanted to run a campaign set in Hârn, possibly the most detailed commercial fantasy setting ever. The campaign never got off the ground because I couldn’t get the random encounter tables together.
  • My most successful AD&D campaign took place in the Forgotten Realms. I set it in a corner of the map that TSR hadn’t written much about, and the limited info in the grey box gave me just enough to create in my own direction.

In Practice

Zak’s post reminds me that successful campaigns are helped by focusing more on the “what” instead of bothering very much with the “how” (as in B/X), and that the amount of published material has no real bearing on a campaign’s quality (in fact, my experience tells me that the relationship is inversely proportional).

Clearly, game-based content is much more valuable—to your readers, to a GM, even to you— than pages of narrative text. But what does that really mean?

Well, for starters, describe your setting in “GM-speak.” Populate areas in the setting via encounter tables instead of six paragraphs explaining what lives there. Suggest your setting’s history with spot descriptions instead of four pages droning on about names, dates, and events. Flavour the setting through class availability, character abilities, equipment tables, and magic items instead of flowery prose hinting at the real-Earth analogue your made-up world is supposed to be.

In short, provide a skeleton that GMs can flesh out on their own instead of telling GMs what’s important to you, the author.

Why This is Brilliant

This approach provides many benefits:

Customisation
Every GM interprets material relative to his creative preferences. He’ll discard anything unnecessary, incompatible, dull, or dumb. At the same time, a GM will always invent whatever’s missing. Even GMs who say they’re pressed for time do this, so the best service a setting designer can provide is a solid foundation for the GM to expand on.

Usability
A campaign setting is a gaming tool, not a reference book. A GM should be able to use it during play, instead of pull it off the shelf, put on his reading glasses, and thumb through the pages to find out if, yes, the Great Snotman Exodus did occur in 485 MT. You’re playing a game, not holding a history seminar.

Flexibility
Like many GMs, I prep my games with a rough idea of an objective, the opposition, and a few details. I get in trouble when I try to be too clever with plot twists, character motivations, and sweeping historical epics, mostly because my players come up with better ideas than I do. I’ll describe something or roll a random encounter, and they’ll assign a level of significance to it that never occurred to me. The result is always better than what I could have created on my own. This is easier to accomplish when the setting is described in game terms, because the players can develop the setting through play just as much as the GM can through planning.

Time
We all realise that narrative prose takes time to write, but it also takes time to read. So let’s all save time: If you’re a setting designer, you’d rather release good material that GMs can use instead of slogging through lots of blah, blah, blah. If you’re a GM, you’d rather get right down to running a game instead of studying for your next session like it was a final exam.

Focus
Narrative approaches are useless at the gaming table. Ever read aloud to your players? Ever stop the game to provide over-long setting exposition to clue in the players about what their characters would already know by virtue of living there? Ever get annoyed when, while trying to explain something about your setting that you think is important, your players are doodling, making forts out of d6s, or arranging the minis in unconscionable sex positions? Right. Forget the long histories, endless descriptions, complex plots—if these are important to a playing group, they’ll develop naturally; otherwise, you’re focusing too much on boring clutter and not enough on playing.

Final Words

I’m excited about this approach. On the plus side, it’s faster, more useful, and suitably open-ended. On the downside, it relies on imagination and inventiveness—a GM running a setting created this way won’t be told what’s going on and how things will end up.

For the Busy GM, though, this seems like the most rewarding path. I can’t really see a downside.

Thanks, Zak, for sharing this insight.

Categories: Worldbuilding Tags: ,
  1. March 24th, 2011 at 14:43 | #1

    I have been glad to see the support this idea is getting. As we’ve been starting up our new campaign, I’ve been rushing to adapt the L1: Secret of Bone Hill module info into a usable format for our homebrew and I “borrowed” the format I had started to use for my Forbidden Jungle write-ups, which in turn had evolved from a format I had settled on for a previous (aborted) setting.

    In essence, due to my hurry, I was sort of forced to focus only on the most important game-necessary stuff, turning four paragraphs from L1 into two sentences, then developing tables and adapting stats only for what I expected to use right away. The idea is that the pages will be “living documents” and I will add as things develop in play or as I think of new stuff, but the boiled down approach is exactly what we’ve been trying to do in our rules book and so it’s fitting right in as I use the same editing philosophy in my setting write-up. Three or four sentences for a region, a random encounter table, and a list of the contents of the most prominent hexes, some of them with a few NPCs or specific monsters, tell me a lot about the area without needed three pages of prose and is far more useful in a game.

    Inspired by some of the stuff in L1 and also a little by Carcosa and some other things I’ve looked at recently, the new format is looking good so far and now I’m thinking it can serve as a base for a systemless Forbidden Jungle setting if I ever get around to it. The fact that a lot of the online crowd supports the concept (at least in theory) adds to my motivation to make it happen.

  2. March 24th, 2011 at 17:06 | #2

    @Lord Kilgore [T]he new format is looking good so far and now I’m thinking it can serve as a base for a systemless Forbidden Jungle setting

    Good point–this approach naturally promotes a system-agnostic approach. Even though I advocate description in terms of game stats above, you can easily use common conventions (e.g., I think we all know what a sword +1 is) or suitable adjectives (e.g., “Chong is a strong barbarian warrior,” or “Sneaky Peat is a cunning and unscrupulous hedge wizard.”). Outside of that, random tables can be adapted for any system.

    I like your format, and I’m eager to play around with a few formats of my own. I’m thinking that I’ll get more mileage out of fleshed-out encounter tables (i.e., not only what’s encountered, but details like “the horsemen bear the arrow-pierced serpent device of House S’kumbalé,” or “they carry 3d4 silver coins of foreign origin,” or even “if slain, there is a 40% chance that the owlbear’s dying wail attracts 7-12 stirges from the canopy above.”). Basically, stuff the GM can run with…my spidey sense tells me more random tables are on the way.

    Homework: check out Judges Guild “Wilderlands of High Fantasy” (original version). As I recall, it has information about pretty much every hex on the City State overland map in the quick format you describe. Anyone have any input on that book as a template?

  3. Gregory MacKenzie
    March 28th, 2011 at 08:47 | #3

    Over the last few years I’ve gotten used to the pace of your changes to the rules. It really doesn’t bother me. Do as you like. :)

    With regard to the less is more approach I am in favour of including prose myself. I would often write prose, which I read to the players to set the tone for a particular adventure, and often at points throughout the adventure as appropriate. My intent therefore is to create background, immerse players in the setting etc. We’ve come to something of a metaphorical fork in the road. New eras require new paradigms I suppose due to the “brevity” and an otherwise fast pace.

    JG used to supply endless tables to allow GMs to add filler to the content of their work. I find this sort of thing anathema. I value the tables for their content but not the intention of their usage. Randomization made me think about the actual value of the content, which if it were supplied in this fashion, devalued it. I did find the tables useful in that they made me think about details which while seemingly unimportant contribute to a setting. Don’t get me wrong, I find much of the older material engaging and vital probably due to their being closer to the genesis of gaming.

    I recognize that it would be easier to create “generic’ materials which GMs could tailor and populate as required with your proposed tables rather than stick to a particular rule package. TSR left one of its modules in this state, which meant that every GM who ran it customized it from a particular selection of provided encounters.

    Well, that’s all my mind can carry today…

  4. March 28th, 2011 at 10:05 | #4

    @Gregory MacKenzie : I don’t advocate the complete revocation of narrative material–just that it not over-work the GM who prepares it or turns off the players who have to absorb it to understand the setting. There’s nothing wrong with flavour text to get players immersed.

    This approach really addresses the larger problem of making another author’s setting your own. The more that’s written about Furyondy or The Sea of Fallen Stars or Agrik, the harder it is to make those places and things my own, as a GM. If I’m writing a setting that I intend others to use, I think it’s important to give them the opportunity to customise or tweak it to suit their preferences. I’m not saying wholesale changes, but enough of a personal stamp without breaking continuity in other places.

    Conversely, I’m not saying that I plan to package up my notes, encounter tables, and a bunch of NPCS, rip a PDF, and distribute it as a cohesive, complete, or even sensible setting.

    Sure, this approach can help me work faster. But it also avoids redundant work, is potentially more accessible outside my playing group, and arguably promotes the creativity of GMs in the audience. IOW, I think I’m doing right by providing a solid foundation others can build upon for their own purposes and in their own style.

    In many ways, the Hex-Based Campaign Design method supports this approach; coupled with a narrative Campaign Mug Shot, it could form a solid and usable basis for a playable campaign. Same too with the Campaign Design method included in Chimera Basic–they’re all skeletal constructs that require further fleshing out.

  5. Gregory MacKenzie
    March 28th, 2011 at 11:10 | #5

    Erin D. Smale :This approach really addresses the larger problem of making another author’s setting your own. The more that’s written about Furyondy or The Sea of Fallen Stars or Agrik, the harder it is to make those places and things my own, as a GM.

    There’s something else at work there, if you are a new GM, new to the RPG hobby that is, you are likely to have little objection with running campaign materials as they are. It’s only when you get down the road do preferences start to influence decisions.

    I’ve also noticed your interest in the creation of campaign materials, collecting it into a toolbox for the GMs guidance etc., is a consistent theme in your rule development. :) Really, in one sense your campaign rule set is an information product in its own right, and need not necessarily be coupled with Chimera although it is partly driven by current Chimera rule development.

  6. March 28th, 2011 at 12:18 | #6

    @Gregory MacKenzie Yeah, you’re right (and apparently peeking at my notes for future development). Though, in my defence, I’d have to say that my over-riding goal these days is to save time (well, more precisely, my time). Right now, that means rules-lite, both for game action and campaign development.

    As a new GM, though, I’m not so sure I’d be inclined to take things at face value–B/X is wonderfully scant on detail as a rules system, and (even though I love the Gazetteer series) the Known World as outlined in X1: Isle of Dread was plenty compelling for custom expansion…

  7. Gregory MacKenzie
    March 28th, 2011 at 12:49 | #7

    Erin D. Smale :@Gregory MacKenzie Yeah, you’re right (and apparently peeking at my notes for future development). Though, in my defence, I’d have to say that my over-riding goal these days is to save time (well, more precisely, my time). Right now, that means rules-lite, both for game action and campaign development.
    As a new GM, though, I’m not so sure I’d be inclined to take things at face value–B/X is wonderfully scant on detail as a rules system, and (even though I love the Gazetteer series) the Known World as outlined in X1: Isle of Dread was plenty compelling for custom expansion…

    Our genesis is in different era’s, since I started playing in the late 70s, we almost always made up our own stuff right from the start. All we had was the three brown books and we had to send away for copies of the JG materials. We mostly made it all up based on the dungeon example in the rule book. So, I’m looking at this from a different point of view. Apart from making myself look like a relic of a bygone age, when the later TSR modules came out they were “luxurious” in having content the GM didn’t have to work at. Acceptance of the de-facto material within was normal. In the early days we would use the same characters and jump from adventure to adventure with little worry about the world we were in. The idea of a “campaign” was all secondary to the “Dungeon Adventure”. Well before we’d even heard of a TSR module we did have a few Judges Guild materials about, and we did play them pretty much as they were. Just try walking in the door of Tegel Manor! Zany and dangerous! I try to keep that early notion of fun in everything I do. However, things have changed so much as the hobby matured. People pretty much always buy the modules for ideas, even if they never use them as they are. Often in a canned adventure, if it doesn’t suit your sensibility, your pretty much going to adapt it. But, if you don’t want the work, my thought is play it as it is. Expansion of a module, if we liked it, just came after the Dungeon was completed, which if you were the DM was practically never since players inevitably kicked it before then. I always kept adding new unexplored bits on.

  8. Gregory MacKenzie
    March 29th, 2011 at 11:32 | #8

    Erin D. Smale :@Gregory MacKenzie (and apparently peeking at my notes for future development)

    I’ve been staring at goats… or remote viewing… :)

    My approach to things tends to be organic. Time saving is a pretty good goal in and of itself. Whatever you have to do to get playing. Your sensibility is a good fit for the times. Just ignore me, I’m an old crank.

  9. March 29th, 2011 at 13:18 | #9

    @Gregory MacKenzie : First off, don’t forget that you’re my favourite crank. :D

    Second, none of this is to devalue good narrative–I’m just saying that it’s conceivably best left to individual GMs instead of setting authors.

    Not always–I particularly enjoy your work, going all the way “back” to Gnasher’s Tomb to your more recent Vale of Osril and upcoming Time Agents material. They immerse the reader with imaginative detail and logical consistency. You also have a grasp on balance between “descriptive” and “useful for play”–enough to get a good feel for the setting, and then some, but never tedious.

    But lacking that balance, most settings take the “encyclopedic” approach (admittedly, pretty much all my World of Trid outlines follow this pattern). After reading Zak’s article, I’m questioning that approach, especially since it takes more time and makes it harder for GMs to use.

    I’m now thinking that GMs might be happier (and I more productive) if I lay a foundation for interested GMs to take their own organic approach. Let them flesh it out with their own narratives, as it suits their style and group’s preferences.

  10. deimos3428
    March 29th, 2011 at 15:26 | #10

    I think you need to go for a “Gazetteer” style description, but whether that means the concise World of Greyhawk Gazetteer style or the far more verbose Known World Gazetteer series is a matter of preference.

    In any event you’ll want to present a somewhat more skeletal version to the world than the fully developed version of the author’s personal copy.

  11. Gregory MacKenzie
    March 30th, 2011 at 08:07 | #11

    Erin D. Smale :@Gregory MacKenzie : First off, don’t forget that you’re my favourite crank.

    :) Thanks for the compliment on the writing! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the ol’ stuff.

    I think the idea of the Gazetter was one TSR borrowed, intended as sort of a travel guide. Probably, it is the only real way of covering a large campaign in a format, prior to the home computer era, in an understandable way. I use small index cards (recipe box) and whenever I feel the need to detail a particular location on the map, (usually when players are going there) I scribble something appropriate. Usually these are fairly terse descriptions. After a while they begin to build up into what one might consider a Gazetteer. A Gazetteer lends consistency to the campaign as a whole, which is it’s principal value.

    I can see what you are talking about with regard to personalization of content because often I’d review some material in a TSR Gazetteer, and unless I was willing to buy into the campaign wholeheartedly, and run it, the usefulness of the content was moot. Taking something which is very personal and making it universally appealing is difficult. I suppose as an author I’d hope people would be intrigued enough so to adopt and play the material. It’s a crap shoot though because ultimately each GM has to bring it to life themselves, modification is inevitable I suppose. As an author it’s hard to know when a publication is favourably accepted short of a review.

  12. March 30th, 2011 at 09:33 | #12

    @Gregory MacKenzie : Usually these are fairly terse descriptions. After a while they begin to build up into what one might consider a Gazetteer.

    This is precisely what I’m after. During the RPG Bookshelf Purge of 2010, I found several binders of 2-page adventures, sketches, and notes-in-the-margins. I realised that these were the core of my successful campaigns, even though some of them were set in published settings. Less on the author, more on the GM.

    I suppose as an author I’d hope people would be intrigued enough so to adopt and play the material.

    Yeah, I’d like that too, but I realise that most GMs really do want to personalise the material. I would, and I have with pretty much every setting I’ve used. I’m just not that compelling of an author. Besides, most GMs are GMs because they like to tinker. I say, let’s work with the disease ;)

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