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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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