Even though this is a very new blog, it’s already gotten quite a bit of spam in the comments. Some have been really clever, to the point where it’s hard to tell if they’re machine-generated or not. For this reason, I’ve put in place anti-spamming software. If you’re having trouble commenting (comments not showing up, etc.), please email me and I’ll look into it.
If you’re in the Twin Cities, visit the Source. Not only is it arguably the best FLGS in the universe, it now has several copies of the print edition of Blade & Crown for sale. I hand-delivered them last night.
This is a question that I think about perhaps too often: what is the ideal session length?
I’ve played in groups where we met for an entire day, I’ve played in groups where we met for an entire night, and I’m currently in two groups, one where we meet about once a month for about four hours each time, and another where we meet once a week for about two and a half hours.
Long sessions used to appeal to me, a lot. Especially in college, when most of my players were also my housemates, it was easy to start a game whenever and keep playing til whenever. College was a time when gaming was relatively easy to come by. In fact, I still have fond memories of how we’d often start designing cars for Car Wars around midnight, actually start playing around 2am and not get done until dawn. No drinking binges for me, but late-night gaming was free and easy.
After college, it became harder to find gaming. During the brief time I had an RPG group in Taiwan, we tended towards starting late and playing very long, but that only lasted a few months. Since college, sessions have tended to be much shorter. Since the turn of the century, I’ve been in two groups that met for longer than six hours at a stretch, but they both collapsed within a few months, partially because the sessions were too long.
Is it that people I game with are older? People’s priorities certainly change as they get older. House repairs, mowing the lawn, taking care of children, etc. were all things that we didn’t have to worry about so much during college. Schedule conflicts seem much more common now that my gaming friends are older.
But it’s not just about getting older. In addition, I think modern life has just stretched everyone thinner, regardless of age, such that none of us have as much time (or perhaps attention) for any one activity as we used to. I think that’s a big reason why boardgames are so much more popular than RPGs now: people want games that can begin and have closure, all within a few hours. Many boardgamers I know don’t even like long boardgames, which usually seems to mean anything longer than an hour!
So nowadays, gaming sessions tend to be much shorter. My weekly group meets for maybe three hours a week, and the monthly group tends to meet for about four hours each time, and that’s the vast majority of my gaming. There are exceptions, though: I go to at least a couple cons a year where it’s all about jamming as much gaming as possible into a weekend. But even there, it seems like a lot of people are trying to game as long and hard as they can in one weekend because it’s the most they’ll get all year — maybe even the only gaming they’ll get all year.
If I had my druthers, I’d probably still have those long, languid gaming sessions once a month, where we all meet in the afternoon, play until evening, take a break to have dinner, then continue playing until late in the night. I don’t know if my schedule could handle more than that, but it’d be nice.
The gaming I get now is very enjoyable, though. The sessions may take more planning and (perhaps) have less total duration per month than they used to, but the play is also more informed, more intentional and, really, more fun.
That’s all my impression of it — what about you? How often do you game now, vs. when you were younger? (Assuming you gamed when you were younger — perhaps a bad assumption?) Do you find the time is higher in quality now, if not higher in quantity? I’m curious if your experience matches mine.
Roleplaying is like improv, but better; it’s like a children’s game of make believe, but better; it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, but better. There are many things that roleplaying games resemble, but RPGs are different from all of them. When a group plays an RPG, they use a set of rules to guide the story, and to tell them what’s possible and what’s plausible, but the story that emerges belongs solely to the group who weaves it — the story is not determined before the group come together to collaborate, nor is the story determined by the rules. The people in the group describe their characters’ actions, and the game master conjures up the world that they explore. Unlike improv, there is no audience other than the people playing the game; unlike make-believe, there are rules that clarify what works and what doesn’t. And unlike any pre-written novel, computer game or even boardgame, the nuances and possibilities are endless.
RPGs are a unique artform. There really isn’t any other form of art where a group of people get together to spin a story, for their own enjoyment, while they are creating it. Theatrical improv gets close, especially when the audience is invited onstage and given opportunities to make suggestions, but even then, there’s a performer-audience duality going on that isn’t present in RPGs. Novels can offer the complexity of RPGs, but not the unpredictability or interactivity; boardgames give unpredictability without the fine-grained infinities of possibility that RPGs give.
Roleplaying games create art that is meant to be enjoyed while it is being created, by the people creating it. Roleplaying games eliminate the border between author and audience; roleplaying games eliminate the border between creation and appreciation. Roleplaying games are one of the most transgressive forms of art that exist.
These facts have all kinds of implications for how RPGs work, from use of music in gaming, to how genre emulation works and doesn’t work, to how we enjoy or don’t enjoy other people’s gaming stories. As with so many topics, I will explore these more in future posts.
Later in the travels, the PCs come upon a domed room with a single statue in the middle. The dome appears to be made of black stone, with very little gloss. It could almost be ancient iron, except that it is perfectly smooth. The statue is of a queen, sitting atop an armored horse, and holding out her hand and pointing at some indistinct part of the dome. A PC who knows their directions (in Blade & Crown terms, a successful skill check against Navigation) will notice that she is pointing exactly at the south pole in the sky.
The PCs might think to look at her pointer finger. It is unadorned, and sculpted in the same dramatic way the rest of the statue was carved. The PCs might also think to put the sapphire ring on her finger. If they put it on in just the right position, the ring will glow slightly and the inner surface of the dome will come alive with a projection of the night sky.
- The projected stars do not match those that the PCs know from the night sky. This is because they are from the other hemisphere of the planet, a region none of the PCs, nor anyone they know, has ever traveled to. Taking careful note of the constellations depicted will be of immense use if they ever travel there.
- The projection slowly drifts, faster than the stars drift in the sky. As they do, the circular base of the dome lights up with ancient runes that slowly scroll. In a forgotten language, they give historical commentary; the stars are precessing through the centuries, and the commentary is describing important events that happened when the stars were in their various positions.
- When the queen is asked nicely in her native language, she will describe the progress of the stars through the sky, explaining stories of how the stars came to be where they are. She will also make editorial comments: “This shows the sky when that ne’er-do-well, Kharus the Elder, tried to usurp the throne from my grandmother.”
- As the array progresses, small scrolls appear here and there amongst the stars, each bearing a few words. In an ancient language, they give astrological commentary: “Ill omen”, “Poor time to give birth”, “Only foolish warriors will be victorious”. The commentaries are eerily accurate.
- The stars do not resemble any night sky the PCs know of. As the star slowly circle, they appear to be winking out. The PCs may note a pattern as they do so: they represent a growing threat, encroaching upon towns the PCs hold dear. Each star is a castle or village being wiped out.
- An astute observer will note that the stars depicted are similar to the ones the PCs know, but shifted. Someone gifted in astronomy and mathematics will be able to tell that the night sky depicted is that of a world nearby, but not their own. And they will then notice that the queen’s mount is very much like a horse, but slightly different; the scales of its armor are actually its skin, and its teeth are sharp.
- When the PCs take the ring off the queen’s finger again, a ghostly, glowing series of symbols glow on the inside of the ring. PCs who know their stars will be able to identify them as the astrological symbols of the stars just shown on the dome. Even more astute PCs will determine that, if they can say the names of the objects in the sky so depicted in the queen’s language, the ring will project a display of stars onto any ceiling, dome or not.
- The stars shown in the dome precess as if passing through eons of time, because the PCs and everything within the dome actually are passing through time — the dome is a time machine. If the PCs can figure out how to make the projections go backwards, they can return to their own time. If they go back far enough, to the time of the queen herself, she will arise from her stasis (she was never actually a statue) and try to make sure the PCs haven’t damaged anything.
- As the stars slowly circle, the statue becomes translucent, then transparent. The longer the projection goes on, the more insubstantial the statue becomes. Surrounding the statue, the PCs can see motes of light that resemble the stars projected on the dome. There is just enough space for two more people to ride the horse with her…
- Every rotation the stars make, the statue will ask one question: “Are you loyal children of Soris?” “Do you bear the stigma of Kharus?” etc. It’s pretty clear how the questions are intended to be answered, but only a historian of the queen’s time will be able to say what the questions are really asking about. If someone answers questions as they’re intended, the stars continue to circle; if not, the statue slowly comes alive, and if the questions are answered wrong twelve times in a row, the queen eventually draws her sword and fights all comers. If they are answered correctly twelve times in a row, a small click will be heard from the dome, and a door will open just where her finger points. What could be inside? And how to get to it?
- The stars wink out and come into existence, slowly turning and evolving. The PCs slowly understand that the stars show true stars, but they are also linked to people in the world. If carefully studied, the stars projected may be used to predict how bright a person’s life may become, and how when it will be snuffed out. A lifetime of careful study may even allow prediction of people’s lives by looking at the real stars.
- As the PCs study the slowly turning projected stars, a royal astrologer bursts in, surrounded by guards, and demands to know what they are doing in this most secret, most holy of places.
A lot of gaming folks seem to be using their blogs as places to display and store their campaign worlds. Blogs have a lot of advantages for this kind of worldbuilding. If your purpose is to have audience interaction, then a blog can allow busy people to focus their attentions on whatever you’re developing right now. The biggest advantage of a blog for worldbuilding, I think, is that it allows your audience to see the work in process. Because a blog is organized chronologically, it can give a great window into how things evolve, how the creator develops them and where the creator’s attentions go. It’s very interesting to see the creator making progress on her world. It can also be illuminating to look back at your own process and see how your worldbuilding has developed. In short, blogs are a really good way of showing the meta-history of a worldbuilding project.
But overall, blogs are a less-than-ideal medium in which to present a gaming world. If you’re actually using a game world in a game, it can be a clunky format to access during a gaming session. If you want to find a specific topic, it can be hard to figure out where that topic is. If you’ve carefully tagged every entry with every possible label it might need, then you might be able to find the topic you want; and of course a search may turn it up. But really, chronological organization by when it’s written is not the best for something that needs easy access by topic. It can be difficult to hone searches in just the right way, and even then, what happens if you’ve written about the same topic in multiple posts? What if you’re in the middle of the session before you realize you’ve contradicted yourself? And what if you’re at the gaming hangout and you don’t have an internet connection?
Really, I think most people who put their worldbuilding on their blogs are either a) just giving a small sample of the world, the majority of which is actually in some format other than a blog, or b) mostly presenting the world as an exercise for their blog readers, not as a world to be used in actual play. Trying to actually run everything from a blog seems impractical, to me (though I’d love to hear examples of how it’s worked for you).
So if blogs are a less-than-ideal way to present a gaming world for actual play, what’s a better format? There are the old standbys of paper notebooks and drawings, of course. Lots of game worlds still work that way, and they work admirably. And many people use printed setting material: books, maps, etc. Those work well, too. But how many hours are lost having to search through a thick sourcebook, or even thick sourcebooks, trying to find just the right passage? We all know how rare indexes are in gaming books. And I’ve certainly experienced plenty of instances where the GM is poring through piles of hand-written papers trying to find the marginalia where they answered the question at hand — frequently in a completely different place than would seem logical. That GM has been me, lots of times.Paper isn’t ideal, and neither are blogs, so what works better? The best solution I’ve found so far is wikis. Wikipedia is the most famous, but there are lots more out there. With a wiki, you can of course search for any topic, but even better, you’ve got a hierarchical organization that can link topics together, drill down where more detail is needed, and keep all the information about a given topic on one page. It’s easy to make corrections and to add or subtract wherever you feel it necessary.
How do you actually use a wiki for gaming? There are lots of possibilities. The great Obsidian Portal website is a wiki system, complete with a wonderful Google Maps-like ability to locate important locations and zoom in using a graphic interface. I’ve only used it a small amount, but I found it okay to use. It’s nice to be able to share information so easily with other players (though if your writing style is verbose, there’s a good chance no one will ever look at it anyway). I personally dislike that it’s all online; what if I’m gaming somewhere that I don’t have an internet connection? Formatting in the Textile markup seems a little less flexible than other wikis, or maybe that’s just because most people don’t bother. I also don’t like having my personal work stored on someone else’s servers.
What about a wiki that you host on your own computer? Again, there are lots of possibilities. TiddlyWiki, for example, is a really simple wiki that can easily be stored as a file, sent as an email or kept on a USB stick for portability. And there are a lot of other notetaking apps and systems out there.
My favorite, though, is MediaWiki. It’s the engine that runs Wikipedia, so it’s robust, extensible and very capable. It’s also completely free, which is a plus. Installing it on my old desktop was a huge headache, to be honest, and then when I had to install it again (to put it on my netbook), it was a whole different headache. But now that I’ve got it all working, it’s a huge help. No, more than that — it’s a necessary campaign tool. I probably couldn’t GM my monthly game without it. (And I’ve occasionally tried — going back to paper notebooks and maps feels like trying to walk across the ocean when you’ve gotten used to flying.)
I’ll post more later about the process of getting MediaWiki running, and about how my current campaign wiki works. For now, go check out a really brilliant world wiki: the Almeopedia. Mark Rosenfelder originally created Almea as his D&D campaign world, but it’s become far more than that. It’s now one of the best sites around for conlangs, as well as just an amazing example of how deep a wiki for worldbuilding can go. To start, check out the article on Verduria, the focal nation in the world. Or begin exploring the ruins of Erruk.
Over at the Everwayan, John has been doing occasional updates on our Blade & Crown game. He gave a very nice illustration of Eric Stoltz as his character Red. For the record, here’s Meg Ryan as my character, Sirene:
Add medieval travelers’ clothes and a warhammer and that’s pretty much what she looks like.
I like games that use hero/fate/plot/benny/luck points. These points work differently in different games, of course, but they generally tend towards giving the players small amounts of narrative control as a reward for doing cool things. In some game sessions, though, hardly any players get or use luck points (I’ll generically call them luck points from here). Why does that happen?
There’s a very useful parallel with economics here. Luck points act like money in a game where they’re exchanged between players and GM. Money is ideally supposed to accrue to people who do things that society deems beneficial to society as a whole. And, much like luck points, money can distort the system and malfunction in a number of ways.
There’s currently about US$829 billion in circulation. What if, though, the government reduced the currency supply to 829 single-dollar bills? What would happen? The bills would skyrocket in value — it’d be foolhardy to use one in a vending machine, for example — and people would quickly shift to other currencies for most exchanges. Maybe we’d all be doing our daily commerce using bottlecaps, for example, or barter. And if the money all accumulates in one place (banks, or people’s mattresses, or wherever) and doesn’t flow easily through the economy, then the money isn’t really doing much good. If everyone acts like the money is too precious to actually use, then it’s not doing what it should. So, first point: currency needs to be in large enough supply for it to be of any use.
Second point: the value of the currency needs to map ‘correctly’ to the items it describes. When the government pays its workers 100,000 lupins a year, but a cup of coffee costs 1 million lupins, then the currency isn’t very useful and again people will probably turn to some other means of exchange.
What lessons are there here for luck point economies? First, there have to be enough luck points in circulation. If an entire game session only includes (say) one opportunity to use a luck point, or one opportunity to get a luck point, then players won’t use them. Luck points will have failed in their mission of encouraging certain kinds of behavior, because no one feels encouraged to do anything by a currency that doesn’t get used.
Second, luck points need to map accurately to what they do. If, for example, getting a luck point requires rolling a perfect `100′ in a D100-based game, or requires making everyone at the table fall out of their chairs laughing, but the only benefit it gives you is a +1 on the D100, then no one’s going to bother.
How do we encourage more active exchange and accurate mapping of luck points? I’ll explore that more in a later post.
There’s an attitude that worldbuilding is only a worthwhile goal if it serves plot. I have heard this argument, or variants on it, so many times that I can’t even pin down all the examples. At Convergence 2012, a panelist in the “Maps & Literature” panel said, “Don’t waste brain space on things that you don’t need for the plot”, for example. At Minicon that same year, I was on the “Building a World with History” panel and some of my fellow panelists gave the warning not to descend too far into worldbuilding at the expense of plot, which caused me to give a mini-version of this rant that you’re reading. It’s common to get advice on RPG forums that the only worldbuilding a GM should do is what gets used in the game, and that anything more is pointless. A search for “too much worldbuilding” will turn up dozens of examples, most stating that there is such a thing as too much.
The argument seems to go that the only purpose of worldbuilding must be to serve plot (whether prose fiction, RPG adventures, or whatever). Any part of worldbuilding that doesn’t directly contribute to plot is wasted effort, and we can’t have any wasted effort. Anything that is fun in and of itself, without producing real work, is frivolous.
Now, I’ll admit that there is such a thing as too much worldbuilding. If you have a novel due to the publisher in two days and you’re still working out religious conflicts that occurred 300 years before your novel is set, that’s probably a time when worldbuilding should stop. If you’re in the middle of an RPG combat, you probably shouldn’t be detailing architectural styles for a country the PCs have never been near. There certainly are times and places for worldbuilding, and when you’re on a schedule, it’s something that has to be balanced against the other demands on your time. Like anything, there can be too much of a good thing with worldbuilding.
But too many people take the argument to the extreme, making the argument that a world cannot be enjoyable by itself, if it doesn’t get used in some form of plot (prose fiction, gaming or whatever). Some people in the “Let’s Build a World” panels at WisCon, for example, seemed to indicate that if there’s no plot, all the worldbuilding we’d done was pointless time-wasting. That it’s impossible, or worthy of ridicule, to enjoy worldbuilding on its own. This, in a panel explicitly about worldbuilding, and equally explicitly not requiring any particular plot to come out of it. The panels were supposed to be about the pure pleasure of worldbuilding, with no intention of making something that would even last beyond the panel, yet people still felt the need to assert the primacy of plot. And gamers often argue the same with RPGs, namely, that any time the GM spends on worldbuilding is only useful if the players benefit from it; any time beyond that is wasted effort, or worse, self-indulgent frippery.
In case it’s not obvious, I believe that worldbuilding in itself is worthy. If you enjoy worldbuilding, and there are no requirements that your worldbuilding serve plot any time soon, why not just enjoy it? There are, in fact, plenty of examples of very successful pure worldbuilding out there: Karen Wynn Fonstad’s books, SimCity, the Encyclopedia of Dune, the Dictionary of Imaginary Places and many more. Heck, most RPG setting materials count as pure exposition without plot, and as I will explore in later posts, I find reading setting materials to be fun in itself, even if you’re never going to use those materials directly in play. RPG setting materials sell well in part because people enjoy pure worldbuilding without plot. (The hard part is admitting that we enjoy it, and accepting that that’s okay. Again, that’s a topic for a later post.)
There is also no reason a created world has to be for the consumption of others. It’s perfectly fine to create a world that resides on your computer, or in piles of notebooks, or whatever, and never gets viewed by another person. If it’s fun for you, why not do it? As long as you aren’t sinking so much time and money into it that it’s hurting your life, there’s nothing wrong with it. Heck, if building a world just takes a bunch of notebooks and a library card, it can be one of the cheapest and most stimulating hobbies around!
There are lots of exceptions. If the goal of your worldbuilding is to make money, of course, then that’s different. If you need to come up with a publishable picture book, wiki, RPG manual or whatever, then it needs to be comprehensible and presentable. And if it serves a particular plot (novel, narrative computer game, etc.), then yes, it needs to bend to those needs. And, of course, if you don’t actually enjoy worldbuilding, there’s no reason to do more than the minimum required. And if it’s background to an RPG, then it needs to take a form that your players can get use out of.
How well you present your worldbuilding is naturally an important factor here. Too many GMs subject their players to vast tracts of boring prose; and page after page of exposition, while the protagonist is hanging from a cliff, can ruin any novel. There are good ways of presenting worldbuilding, and there are bad ways, that is certainly true; and good exposition is a skill that can be developed. And, naturally, your audience will come to it with their own prejudices, so it’s important to know what methods of exposition work for the people you’re presenting to.
But the real stumbling block, I think, is exposition for reasons that are wrong in the first place. Too often, GMs force their players to wrestle with paragraph after paragraph of narration that is not only bland, but wholly irrelevant to the PCs. This goes wrong in two ways, as I see it: a) the GM has guilt that, if they don’t jam all the material down the players’ throats, then their development effort has been a dissipatory waste; and b) the GM assuming that the players’ enjoyment of all this material will equal their own. It’s the GM equivalent of “let me show you my character”.
If, instead, GMs understood that a) it’s okay to have setting material that the players never encounter, and that b) it’s okay to enjoy the worldbuilding in and of itself, without having to tell all of it to the players, I think players would get exposed to a lot less unnecessary exposition. And we could all get a lot more guilt-free enjoyment out of worldbuilding.
In the marketplace, or sometimes in other areas of town, there’s a man of indeterminate age who carries a great wooden box on his back. When someone asks him what he sells, he will take the box down off his shoulders. Through a remarkable series of contortions, the box becomes a portable tea brewing stand. That’s what he sells: fresh, hot tea.
The box contains a small jar of hot coals, a few simple tea cups, a tea pot, a larger pot of cool, clear water, tea tools and a paper packet of tea. With the contents of the box, he makes a tea that tastes clean and light. Anyone who drinks it immediately feels refreshed.
The man sometimes has a few tea cakes. The cakes are also very light in taste; in fact, the taste is hard to describe. Different people will alternately describe it as sour or sweet, like flowers or like honey.
The man doesn’t always have tea cakes, and he sometimes refuses to sell them to particular people. In fact, it sometimes seems that the cakes are for specific people; he will almost forcefully offer one person a given cake, while giving another person no cakes at all.
The man himself has short, thinning hair, a scraggly beard and teeth that are slightly yellowed (no doubt from drinking so much tea). He is wiry and muscled and dresses plainly, or perhaps he is just poor. He usually speaks in short sentences, if at all. His prices are very reasonable. If someone is clearly in need of refreshment, he will charge nothing at all.
- The tea has almost magical properties. Anyone who drinks it experiences a rush of old, happy memories, then feels the energy of their youth. (In Blade & Crown terms, let any player whose character drinks the tea describe one of their PC’s happy memories; they may then refresh a Trait related to that memory.)
- As one PC drinks some of his tea, the man says something wistful: “Yes, the tea’s almost as good as I could make it.” If the PCs inquire, he’ll mutter something about perfectly pure water that he got in the mountains, and a water spirit who no longer loves him.
- Today’s tea is a strangely weak brew. If someone asks, the man just lowers his head and shakes it slowly: “Sorry.” If someone asks further, he’ll explain that his tea won’t work if people are angry. He will not elaborate.
- When someone asks for his magical tea, he replies “No, no tea today. You don’t need tea. You only need here, and now.” He then packs up his box and sits in silent contemplation of passerby.
- “My tea is good, yes. But no one can match the tea of the Old Mountain Woman…” He then relates the story of a woman who lived above a tea plantation for many years. She came to know every tea plant by name, and would not pluck leaves; instead, once a year, she asked each plant to give her its single best leaf, and because she asked so nicely, they gave it to her. Until an evil man learned of her powers. He took her to each plant and ordered her to collect the best tea, which he sold to buy himself a palace. Next, he forced her to give him the second-best leaves, which he sold and used to buy himself an army. Eventually, he had conquered most of the world, and each plant had only a single leaf left. He ordered her to collect the remaining leaves; as she did so, with each leaf, one of his prized possessions was destroyed. Eventually, as she plucked the last leaf, she died and he was left with nothing more than a bit of moderately good tea. Tea almost exactly like the tea-seller sells, in fact.
- After the PCs drink some of his delicious tea, a well-dressed person comes up and accuses the tea-seller of peddling illegal, noxious beverages, and of making the tea wrong, to boot.
- The PCs notice that the tea cups nest perfectly within each other, and when you do so, a strange concentric pattern becomes visible. The outlines remind one PC of a shape their mother would sometimes draw in the air when they were little.
- After making a last pot of tea, the old man takes out a handful of tea and sprinkles it over himself with a grave look on his face. “For protection,” he says.
- The man gives one PC a tea cake, saying “Don’t eat it now. Wait til later.” When the PC later bites into it (it has a light citrus taste), they discover a note baked into the cake.
- Only a great prestidigitator can even begin to understand the permutations of his tea box. It always seems to open a different way, even when he’s removing the same objects from it. Perhaps he has a secret compartment or two that contain his stash of really good tea.
- He is able to tell fortunes with the tea, but strangely, he says almost nothing when he does so. Instead, the person drinking the tea will suddenly feel the urge to say something; if they say it, it will come true.
- The tea seller is usually somewhere in the marketplace, but not always. A mage believes he is slowly tracing a mystic figure across the city. To what purpose?