2005-07-05 : Setting and Source Material
Council Member Coyote:
[Firefly as source material for Primetime Adventures] brings up an interesting thread about source/setting playabilty.
It sure does!
Andy K. says that what you need to play the perfect Firefly RPG is this ruleset and this source reference. Is it true? What is it that we actually need, how much of what, in order to have a playable setting? For a very specific example, will the new official Firefly licensed RPG have setting material that isn't in the episodes - and will it be the stuff we need?
I'm a critic and a theorist.
For those of you who don't know, Council Member Coyote is a retailer.
Consequently, not only will we disagree about this stuff, but probably we'll each consider the other to be dangerously wrong-headed. (It also happens that he's my best friend from high school, but I doubt that'll stop us.)
Setting: a Brief Technical Description
If anybody has any questions about this, ask! Otherwise I'm going to go really fast.
Character, Situation, Setting, System, Color. The five elements of roleplaying.
A character is a fictional person with individual significance.
A situation is the arrangement of characters with regard to one another and with regard to setting elements. Logistical, emotional, moral, the whole spectrum of possible arrangements.
Setting elements are fictional things that aren't characters but that still have individual significance.
System is the process by which situations change over time.
Color is the specific detail that all characters, situations, setting elements and system have. Like, the difference between a setting element and its color is a lot like the difference between a brick and its color.
So some examples of setting elements. In Star Wars: the Death Star, the Force, the Jawas, the Empire. In The Professional: the stairs + hallway + Matilda's family's apartment + Leon's apartment; Leon's business arrangement with Danny Aiello's character; guns guns guns. In Firefly: Serenity, the Alliance, Unification Day. In Lord of the Rings: the Shire, the One Ring, Aragorn's bloodline, the Watcher in the Water. In Epidemonology: Cyrus' office, Joe's gun, the war.
Setting is anything that the characters can have some kind of a relationship with. See how that works?
For this conversation, let's simplify and say that setting elements can be created (by us or by someone else) beforehand, sitting available but out of play until we bring them into play, or else they can be created by us at the moment we bring them into play. There are some interesting (to me) technical details we'll have to gloss over to say this, but that's okay.
Firefly: Fetish or Inspiration?
As gamer geeks, we fetishize our source fiction. That is, our enjoyment of a game is based on how closely its details match the details of some ideal experience, not based on its own qualities. We crave to relive something we've seized upon as "the" enjoyable experience, so we ritualistically recreate the circumstances surrounding it.
Like: I watch Firefly. I enjoy the frission between Mal and Inara a lot, like a whole lot; it's one of the things that the show means to me. So when I sit down to play a Firefly RPG, as a good fetishist, it's not enough to have some kind of frission between some two characters. I need to recreate that frission between those characters. In RPGs, traditionally, the characters will be thinly disguised - how many Aragorns have each of us played, over the years? If we were fanfic writers instead of gamers, they wouldn't even be that.
Here's me: fanfic is, across the board, inferior to original fiction. Our fetishization of source material is creatively unhealthy.
In this Forge post back in December, in the midst of an argument with John Kim about source material, I wrote:
Every moment of attention you spend trying to replicate "Middle Earth" is a moment of attention you don't spend saying what you mean. The only person in the entire history of humanity for whom this was not true was J.R.R. Tolkein.
...I assert that insofar as your Star Trek or Buffy game said anything interesting, it did so outside the bounds of published Star Trek or Buffy material. It did so, I'll go so far, in defiance of published material. It did so on the sole strength of your and your fellow players' own creation.
Primetime Adventures would be an absolutely miserable game for playing "a Firefly RPG." Primetime Adventures is as poorly suited to recreating Firefly as My Life with Master is.
I'm quite serious. If you go into the game trying to celebrate Firefly, trying to treat it with creative respect, trying to recapture and relive the unique Fireflyness you love, Primetime Adventures will screw you bad. It'll be a constant dissatisfying struggle. You'll be trying to relive, but PTA will be forcing you to surpass, undercut, betray, deny, criticize and transcend at every turn. You'll be trying to recreate, but PTA will be trying to make you create.
(If, on the other hand, you're trying to create some original fiction as good as, and reminiscent of, Firefly, PTA's your obvious first choice.)
Over the Edge
Here's a story, secondhand. It's GenCon '02, the year before I first went, at the Forge booth. Jonathan Tweet comes by. He's like, "hi, I'm Jonathan Tweet, I designed D&D3." The Forge folks are like, "the hell you are! You're Jonathan Tweet, you designed Over the Edge and Everway!"
Over the Edge is one of the games we point to as a butt-kicker. No Over the Edge, no us.
The game text has like 15 pages of rules, which happen to be a historically significant instance of a formalist technical agenda and that's what kicked our butts. But then it has like 135 pages of setting material, pretty much a setting encyclopedia. It's all weird conspiracy, totally psycho, totally surreal, totally William S. Burroughs, pretty cool creepy gross stuff... But check this out.
In this Forge post, Ron Edwards wrote:
When I talked with Jonathan Tweet about Over the Edge, I had a sneaking suspicion that Something Had Happened in between his actual play of the game and the actual writing of the game for publication.
My suspicion was based on the paragraph when he writes about how the setting was developed through play, and how people (us, readers) should remember that the setting should not be used as a concrete set of parameters. This paragraph is utterly at variance with the rest of the book (with the exception of Robin Laws' essay), which is nothing but a concrete set of parameters in terms of NPCs, organizations, back-story, and locations.
I asked Jonathan about this, and he confirmed to me that just about all the setting content, like the Throckmortons, the Cut-Ups, the Baboons, Sir Arthur Crompton, the frats and sororities, Monique D'Aubainne herself, et al ... were created through play, largely through the agency of character creation and activity.
This means that the power, enjoyment, and fun of Over the Edge, as experienced by its creator, is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from whatever enjoyment/fun is being presented as "do this" in the text of the game - which, as Mike [Holmes] correctly states, is "Go to Al Amarja and encounter the wild stuff in this book."
(Read the thread for context if you like.)
Last summer sometime Ninja J and I spent a whole afternoon walking all the heck over Northampton. Among many other things, we talked about a beloved old game he'd GMed; particularly, we talked about how rich and alive its setting was, how detailed. His players ate it up, he said, they'd go on and on about how compelling, complete, fully realized the setting was.
Then he told me how he'd done it. He'd taken three principles - I wish I could remember them in particular, J please step in here, but they were like "nobody thinks that they themselves are evil," "the Grand Galactic Empire is procedurally conservative," and "nobody really enjoys their job" - three principles something like those, and whenever any of his players asked him about anything in the setting, he'd simply apply those principles to create the answer.
"I duck into a broom closet." "Okay. There are a bunch of reg-77f portbrushes in there, but someone hasn't bothered to replace them yet, they're all slimy and they smell." All the details you'd need to bring the setting home, give it weight and momentum, and yet J didn't precreate the contents of a single broom closet.
Now. When Jonathan Tweet ran Over the Edge for his friends, they created all those psycho setting elements somehow, right? Those procedures exist; his group did them. Imagine a nice solid set of guidelines and advice, real procedures effectively communicated for creating your own original Al Amarja as insane as his.
Over the Edge is wicked cool, but imagine how cool if he'd been able to give us that.
The question at hand, remember, is: what is it that we actually need, how much of what, in order to have a playable setting?
The punchline is: most RPGs' setting material (along with all primary source fiction, like Firefly or The Lord of the Rings) is the end product of a creative process. What do we roleplayers need? We need the starting point of the creative process instead.
Because what we're doing? It's creative.
Afterward: Middle Earth and Glorantha
So, right, so discounting fetishism, the reason to set your game in Middle Earth is to criticize Tolkein. Something he had to say bothers you, creatively, and you need a fair playing field in order to take him on. You want to test him, prove him right or wrong, on his own terms. "Let's play a game set in Middle Earth, but make all the protagonists women," you might say.
The fundamental Premise of Hero Wars is, "The Old World is over, and ..." in which the characters, saddled with their Old-World notions of right and wrong, must complete the sentence to re-make the world.
So if you're looking for one, there's one way in which having a large and detailed pre-created setting can serve your game very well.
1. On 2005-07-05, xenopulse said:
2. On 2005-07-05, Andrew Norris said:
3. On 2005-07-05, Vincent said:
4. On 2005-07-05, Matthijs Holter said:
5. On 2005-07-05, Sydney Freedberg said:
6. On 2005-07-05, Jay Loomis said:
7. On 2005-07-05, Sydney Freedberg said:
8. On 2005-07-05, Vincent said:
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10. On 2005-07-06, Matt Wilson said:
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12. On 2005-07-06, Chris Goodwin said:
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23. On 2005-07-06, Sydney Freedberg said:
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40. On 2005-07-06, Vincent said:
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42. On 2005-07-07, John Harper said:
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46. On 2005-07-07, Clinton R. Nixon said:
47. On 2005-07-07, John Kim said:
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49. On 2005-07-07, Christopher Kubasik said:
50. On 2005-07-07, John Harper said:
51. On 2005-07-07, Ninja Monkey J said:
52. On 2005-07-07, John Kim said:
Ninja go "Wrong!"*
Ninja go "... and further wrong..."*
*click in for more
53. On 2005-07-07, Matthijs Holter said:
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55. On 2005-07-07, Andrew Norris said:
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59. On 2005-07-07, Tom said:
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61. On 2005-07-09, John Kim said:
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63. On 2005-07-09, Hello Sailor said:
64. On 2005-07-11, Sydney Freedberg said:
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68. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:
69. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:
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71. On 2005-07-12, Sarah said:
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76. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:
77. On 2005-07-12, Sydney Freedberg said:
78. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:
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80. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:
81. On 2005-07-12, Elliot Wilen said:
82. On 2005-07-12, Sydney Freedberg said:
83. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:
84. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:
85. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:
NinJ go "Definition of "you""*
VB go "Oh fer..."*
*click in for more
86. On 2005-07-12, Elliot Wilen said:
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98. On 2005-07-21, Lee Short said:
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100. On 2005-07-21, Vincent said:
101. On 2005-07-21, Vincent said:
102. On 2005-07-27, Lisa Padol said: