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 Punchline

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.

Now consider Ron Edwards' take on Hero Wars (more here, more here). Apparently, Hero Wars puts you into that critical position with regard to Glorantha from the get-go. In Ron's words:

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:

There might be some differentiation of some sort of agenda at order here.

My guess why some people don't get along with PtA is that they have trouble being spontaneous. It can be creative trouble—i.e., they can't come up with something on the spot—or resistance from a "that's not the way to do things right" perspective.

Now, you're talking about spontaneously creating setting. That's great, it's exactly my cup of tea; I've GMed for 13 years and mostly done it spontaneously. But the group I currently play with would not necessarily fit in there. Two of them think that setting needs to be detailed before play, so that it can be as internally consistent as possible. They like to use real-world research books about history, economy, geography, astronomy, etc., to make sure they're getting it "right." They are extremely uncomfortable with making things up on the spot.

I don't think this fits neatly with CA and TA, but there is something to be found here about people's notions on how the creative process should go and what its goal is.

- Christian


2. On 2005-07-05, Andrew Norris said:

"We need the starting point of the creative process instead. Because what we're doing? It's creative."

Thank you. I've been trying to explain this point, and for some reason I couldn't distill it down past a five-minute speech. Two sentences works a lot better.

I've been looking through my roleplaying library recently, trying to find useful "How to GM" essays, and this is the stuff that I need. So far, I've only found it in Dogs in the Vineyard, the Sorcerer supplements, and Aaron Allston's old Champion supplement, Strike Force.

I think even the much-praised Robin's Laws, when it comes down to "how to create", boils down to "Figure out what stereotypes your players fall into, and make sure your set-piece scenes include something to placate those stereotypes."

Books on how to write fiction offer a lot of useful information for the start of the creative process (especially for setting and non player characters), but they don't offer much help on how to carry out a collaborative creative process.

What I could really use is a book that talks about how to flesh out an intriguing concept, how to pitch it to the group in a way that encourages them to contribute to it (or modify it until it does catch their interest), and how to combine the various "interest points" that the group comes up with into a cohesive campaign.


direct link

This makes...
NinJ go "Robin Laws' Laws is weineriffic"*

*click in for more

3. On 2005-07-05, Vincent said:

Christian: a) How much of the material that they precreate comes up in play? b) What do they do when something comes up in play that they haven't precreated?

I actually don't care one way or the other about spontaneous creation vs. pre-play creation; either work. Both have their limitations. Real-world research is groovy.

But I have trouble taking at face value anyone claiming that they're both genuinely creatively engaged and also unable to come up with anything cool and consistent just now. Probably it means they aren't really engaged, and I need to share some of the blame.


4. On 2005-07-05, Matthijs Holter said:

I just read through "Dawning Star: Operation Quick Launch". It's full of good detail. All the while, I thought: This is okay, but it'd have been much better if I made it with my group. I don't see the point of trying to re-create somebody else's world; I want to create my own when I play.

However, lots of people don't actually want to be creative in that way. I mean, they don't want to make up their own stuff; they just want to play around with what other people have made up for them.

(Anyone who's tried building cool stuff with Lego while other kids were using their ready-made Playmobil toys will know what I mean. It doesn't matter if what you make doesn't look as cool to others as the pre-fab stuff. To me, if I didn't participate in making something, it usually can't be as cool).

Vincent, you say: "What do we roleplayers need? We need the starting point of the creative process instead. Because what we're doing? It's creative."

I think you're wrong in saying "we roleplayers". It seems to say that everyone wants to be creative. The evidence so far (in publications and sales) indicates a lot of people don't, and that those who do are actually a minority.

It's easy to claim (and I'm not saying you claim this) that gamers that don't want to create setting elements etc are just afraid, or brainwashed by traditional games, or plain suck at it. I'm not so sure. I think, for some people, it's just not what they want from role-playing.


5. On 2005-07-05, Sydney Freedberg said:

Excellent essay. I won't even quibble as I usually do—just fire off a few thoughts that come to mind:

Is the implication that we need mechanics for setting-creation and elaboration? (As you said, before or during play, each is necessary). I'd say "mechanics" includes any detailed procedure, whether or not it had numerical ratings and dice/cards/tokens involved; e.g. Dogs in the Vineyard's town-creation process is mechanics, not fluffy "GM advice." The only other game I can think of that tries to systematize setting-elaboration in any way is Prime Time Adventures. Do other examples come to mind?


6. On 2005-07-05, Jay Loomis said:

All good stuff here. You've done it again Vincent!

However, I must agree with some of the other voices that the type of creativity you're talking about isn't as common as you'd think. Again and again I've encountered gamers who want to be able to pick stuff from a published list and go without a lot of creative effort.

So, yes, we need a starting point for the creative process. But we also need the social guidelines in place to make everyone more comfortable with putting their creative butts on the line. Not that we can do that as designers necessarily (although we might be able to go part way)—but we can as fellow players.


7. On 2005-07-05, Sydney Freedberg said:

P.S. I think the more handy procedures and mechanics you have for setting-creation and setting-elaboration—plus a few good seed crystals to get the process going, like J's "nobody particularly likes their job"—the less of a problem it becomes for people to invent stuff on the fly.

So what we're talking about is facilitating people's creativity, which actually a high calling for "just a game."


8. On 2005-07-05, Vincent said:

Facilitating people's creativity, yes! Even, provoking people's creativity.

Matthijs, Jay: I learned long ago not to give any weight to what one person says that another person's objections are going to be. Raise your own objections, I'll hear 'em.

What I will claim is that roleplayers in general (not every single roleplayer) are being held back by the current state of RPG design. Maybe most of them are comfortable where they are, maybe not - until there are enough choices for them to make, and the social basis for them to make 'em informedly, we have no way of knowing.


9. On 2005-07-05, Jay Loomis said:

I don't object, as such, I agree with you. I am merely seeing your bias as a person who is clearly very creative and not ashamed to be so. So my non-objection is just that we should think about the people who are not as open and easy with their creativity as, say, the people who read this blog are. They are often the ones who are having trouble with fun in their RPGs.
To that end, as you say, facilitate and provoke creativity.


10. On 2005-07-06, Matt Wilson said:

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.

We played an excellent game imagined as a spinoff series within the Firefly setting, and it was awesome. It was still very much Firefly and a celebration of it. But not fetishy. Fetishy is weird.

I think as soon as someone starts publishing Serenity novels and the various crappy tidbits within start being treated as canon—you know, like when nerds start referring to the brand of tightpants that Mal wears as described in book 22— then it will become an unfun setting to play in. But right now it's an iceberg; the other 90 percent is totally up for grabs, and that makes it dreamy.


direct link

This makes...
MC go "Novels in pipeline now"*

*click in for more

11. On 2005-07-06, Talysman said:

hi, Vincent. I agree with a lot of what you're saying, here, but I disagree with this, specifically because I agree with the rest:

Setting elements are fictional things that aren't characters but that still have individual significance.

although this fits the traditional interpretation of "setting", Capital-S Setting is a little different, I think. at one point, Ron described Setting as being just one sentence, like a high-concept pitch for a hollywood movie. that's probably too extreme, but certainly Setting elements are much more generalized and are basically the "story physics" of the world. The Force and The Empire would thus be Setting in "Star Wars", but Jawas are Color.

in other words, Setting is exactly those creative principles you talk about later. Setting Color is the implimentation of those principles, specific applications of Setting in action.


12. On 2005-07-06, Chris Goodwin said:

Re: fetishization of Firefly.  I think there's a little of that going on, given that a few of us have seen the film, many of us are champing at the bit for it to come out, and there's not a lot of actual setting info out there.

Re: gaming in the Firefly 'verse, I don't see the necessity to try to play the original characters, if that's what you're getting at.  See, when we watch Firefly on DVD or whatever, we're not just getting Joss Whedon's vision.  We're getting Joss's, and Tim Minear's, and Ben Edlund's, and Nathan Fillion's and Alan Tudyk's and Morena's and Summer's and Sean's and Ron's and Adam's and Gina's and Jewel's and all of the set builders and costumers and....  I'm reminded of when my group and I played Amber.  We started with Roger Zelazny's vision, filtered through Garth's filling in additional details... and then it became our Amberverse through play.  There was no fetishization of Zelazny's work there, just a desire to take it and.... well, play in it, not just in a roleplaying sense but in a get-in-the-sandbox-and-have-fun sense.  That is where a Firefly RPG needs to go; not an idealized vision of the Firefly setting in concrete but a willingness to take it and run with it.  Anything else may as well be a Yahoogroup where you'll be Mal and I'll be Simon and she'll be Inara...


13. On 2005-07-06, Judd said:

This reminds me of something interesting that happened at the weekly Burning Wheel game a few sessions ago.

One player was just brainstorming on the kingdom of elves in the north where his PC hailed from and sent an e-mail, talking about an order of knights called the Order of the Grey Feather.

That week we played a one-shot set in an elven kingdom to the south.  There were a few PC's and NPC's from that person's PC's northern kingdom.  An assassin was contacted by a PC from the north, it was a member of the ORder of the Black Feather, the king's own killers, a myth, a scary story to tell elven noble children, elven ninja.

Another PC started in on the White Feathers, the diplomatic corps.

The player, after the game, expressed amazement that we took his idea and ran with it, making it into something new.

That, to me, is how players become invested in the setting, not by the longitude and lattitude dictated from the setting book but from the black spots on the map where they can throw in material.

Monte Cook's Diamond Throne setting is really interesting to me because while it has that definition and detail that d20 products are famous for the author purposefully left white, blank spots on the map for the players and GM's to come up with stuff all their own.  There are areas left vague or not vague but flat-out blank.  Neat.

A friend of mine was sick and I brought a bunch of gaming books to his bedside, asking him what he wanted me to run.  He chose Midnight, a d20 setting that I had gotten as a gift and had no intention of running.  But fuckit, he was bed-ridden for 3 months or more, I ran the damned thing.

He wanted to play a northman and was looking through that section of the book.  We came across this coupla paragraphs about this NPC, Vildar Esben.  Vildar had gone to the dark side before the dark side had even won the war.  He was a bastard, given eternal life by the only god left, the god of EVIL.

The player liked Vildar immediately.  I suggested he play one of Vildar's sons.

It clicked and we made up a whole world of story around Vildar and his many children, a really fucked up family.

I've written and said this before but I'll say it again, I want my setting material to inspire rather than inform.

The pictures giving inspiration can be just as valid.  I've had good characters come out of someone looking at a pic and saying, "I want to play THAT guy."


14. On 2005-07-06, Ian Charvill said:

Christian wrote

"My guess why some people don't get along with PtA is that they have trouble being spontaneous. It can be creative trouble—i.e., they can't come up with something on the spot—or resistance from a "that's not the way to do things right" perspective."

My observation from non-roleplaying circles is that no one has a problem coming up with stuff ever.  There are only variations on the theme of performance anxiety—and performance anxiety is a relationship problem.  It's not a problem they have—it's a problem they and I share.  Part of the reason why they're having a problem performing is the way I am acting around them.  My insight, such as it is, is that I am not a therapist and furthermore I am not in a therapeutic relationship with them.  The only thing I can have any reasonable ambition to change in that circumstance is me.  It's the way I act in relationship to them.

So what I'd offer is that Vincent's "starting point of the creative process" needs to be some variation on a non-judgmental group environment.

(If roleplayers have any particular problems in that area it's the overarching geek trait of hypercriticality.  It's not because of roleplayers or their texts in the strict sense, it's because of the subculture to which they belong.)


15. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs said:

"What is it that we actually need, how much of what, in order to have a playable setting?"

If setting is "anything that the characters can have some kind of a relationship with", the minimum of setting we can get away with is the elements the characters actually interact with. They need to be present at the time the characters interact with them. So just-in-time reactive setting design is the least you can get away with, in terms of preparation. I've played impro games like that; however, even PTA, Universalis etc require more pre-game setting design than this.

For some games, the illusion of a coherent, independent setting is important. "Can have some kind of relationship" is the key here; even if the relationship never comes into play, players and GMs want to know that it's there, ready when needed. In my fairy-tale historical Draug campaign, for instance, I have to be able to answer questions on the Napoleonic wars, 18th century farming tools, relationships between nisser and mermaids, etc. Sometimes these elements interact with characters, sometimes not - but they could, potentially, depending on our decisions.

In Draug, I don't want the starting point of the creative process. I don't want a toolkit that helps me make history and mythology for an imaginary country. I want to resurrect a time we could never experience, and give the fairy creatures the life they could never have in the real world. Someone else made that history and those fairy-tales, and I'm passing them on and channeling them, which makes me feel as a part of something greater than myself. In order to do that, I need everything I can possibly find, every little detail about every little thing, because I want to have the whole world inside me when I play.


16. On 2005-07-06, Vincent said:

Talysman: you're right, of course. Can you believe I said Jawas! Same with the guns in The Professional, etc.


17. On 2005-07-06, Per said:

Vincent wrote:
"Our fetishization of source material is creatively unhealthy."

HalleBLOODYluja! Somebody said it :)

Excellent stuff, Vincent, excellent, thanks.



18. On 2005-07-06, Sydney Freedberg said:

The Grey/White/Black feather thing is very neat. And I think it speaks to Matthijs's point—what is tremendously helpful to creativity is a seed crystal, or, to be more precise, CONSTRAINT: Instead of "here's a totally blank slate, do something," it's much easier to work from "here's a cool thing, do something that relates to it."


19. On 2005-07-06, Ian Charvill said:

Sydney, you wrote "here's a cool thing, do something that relates to it."

But you always, always have a cool thing already that you can do something that relates to it: the emotional memories of your life.  The parts of your life that you have an emotional investment in are pretty much the coolest thing that anyone ever has or could ever have.

So when you write "here's a cool thing, do something that relates to it" I'm guessing you don't mean that generally, but you mean some specific subset of cool things that would preclude the emotional memories of your life.  What specific subset do you mean?


20. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs Holter said:

Wrt guidelines/tools/techniques that help with setting creation: In "Itras By", a surrealistic Norwegian RPG*, players can draw "event cards". They then have to follow the instructions on the card, whether they want to or not. Some of these cards tell you to narrate things that can add new and important setting elements.

Examples are: "The Stranger" - someone approaches your character. Describe him briefly, and then hand over control to the GM. "The Task" - someone offers to help you out of your problems if you do something for them.

As Sydney says - constraints. Giving people the power to introduce elements, while at the same time giving them strict constraints, works wonderfully. It's much easier to work with "make a nemesis for the guy on your left!" than "make something that the guy on your left can use!"

* I know I talk a lot about Norwegian games. They're the ones I'm most heavily involved in, as a player, GM and/or designer.


21. On 2005-07-06, Eric Provost said:

Thanks again Vincent.

I was struggling with the Creating Setting rules in FH8.  I was feeling uncomfortable with them.  When I saw that you were posting thoughts on setting and RPGs I thought to myself "Oh good, Vincent's thoughts will clear my thoughts up, and I'll be able to re-write my setting creation rules."

The nifty part?  I discovered that my Creating Setting rules are actually Creating Setting & Color rules and I really dig them.



22. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs Holter said:

Ian, wrt non-judgmental group environment: Do you think total acceptance of new elements would work - a "don't say no" rule? Or would that just leave people flailing in a vacuum? One of the things I don't like about Universalis and Capes is that slight paranoia when you introduce new stuff - will the other players pounce on you, or run with it?


23. On 2005-07-06, Sydney Freedberg said:

In my experience, actually, part of the paranoia with Capes is that in fact there is a "don't say no" rule: You can narrate anything without anyone stopping you (most of the time), but they in turn can narrate anything without you stopping them. So if you want a "safe space" feeling, you might need MORE allowance for people to say "hey, wait, I don't like that," rather than less.

Now, a few posts back, Ian Charvill wrote about constraints: "But you always, always have a cool thing already ...the parts of your life that you have an emotional investment."

And yes, absolutely; in fact, I'd argue it's very hard NOT to bring in your personal emotional life to a game. (I spent years making up characters who just happened to have—putting it delicately—issues with anger management and with authority figures before I figured this out).

The catch is that all this personal emotional stuff tends to be
- (1) vast and inchoate, so saying "bring something personal to the table" is, as a question of practicality, not really narrowing things down much beyond "bring something to the table."
- (2) really personal, so saying "bring something personal to the table is, as a question of group dynamics, hardly less scary than "bring something cool to the table."

One of the great things about science fiction/fantasy as a genre, and roleplaying games as an art form, and therefore about their intersection in SF/fantasy RPGs in particular, is that they allow you to bring out real issues in imaginary cloaks, which can help create a "safe space" to deal with them. (Or you can cloak everything so heavily you never ever have to deal with the real issues, which is, well, lame; fetishization is, I'd argue, an extreme form of this avoidance, where you're not even making your own cloak, just borrowing someone else's).

And as I write this, I begin to wonder if the "seed crystal"—the initial Cool Thing which is placed on the table for players (GM included) to build off of—might in fact work better if it is NOT strongly charged emotionally. If, as I think Ian is suggesting, every player has a powerful store of emotional experiences to bring to the table, then the seed crystal doesn't need to provide the emotional intensity; it just has to coax the players' own intensity out. Which in turn means a seed crystal needs to be evocative but not overwhelming, so different players can see different things in it and respond in different ways.

Which, darn it, is just the Dogs in the Vineyard GM advice on plots scaled up for whole settings: As setting-creator or adventure-designer, don't have an answer in mind, just have a provocative question.


24. On 2005-07-06, Sydney Freedberg said:

P.S.: The need for a seed crystal to be "evocative but not overwhelming" may account for the popularity of high fantasy, Star Wars, superpowers, and even, to a lesser degree, Westerns: They all have some emotional content, but can be interpreted and tailored to all sorts of personal purposes.

Which, inversely, implies that really personal and idiosyncratic setting ideas—what would make most of us go "whoo! so creative!"—are actually much harder to play with: the emotional content is already fully loaded, and there are fewer ways to bounce off of them.


Cliches = useful!


25. On 2005-07-06, Sydney Freedberg said:

P.P.S.: Rorschach blots. I just realized what I'm talking about is the equivalent of Rorschach blots. Because the setting—and the characters, and the success or failure of their various actions as determined by die rolls of whatever—are all, obviously, Not Real; they exist only to trigger responses in the real people, which is where the actual content comes from.


26. On 2005-07-06, Ian Charvill said:

Hey Matthijs

Do you think total acceptance of new elements would work - a "don't say no" rule? Or would that just leave people flailing in a vacuum?

The starting point has to be a non-judgmental environment.  There's nothing wrong with a model of "that's excellent! Can we top that?"  Not judging something, and I suppose I mean not judging something negatively, doesn't preclude choices.  Especially if those "choices" are essentially arbitrary—e.g. the dice decide.

"Don't say no" though is the cornerstone of a lot of improv games, it tends to appear in the form "Never Negate".  And it doesn't leave you flailing around because as soon as one person has said one thing, the next thing has to build on that, so the vacuum exists for as long as it takes someone to say something.  If you have a commitment to the stuff being created by the other people at the table, then the vacuum is ephemeral.  So even in the extreme case, I don't think flailing around is necessary (that's not to say it might not happen for some groups).


27. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs Holter said:

Sydney, non-charged seeds, yes! But not so non-charged as to be useless - a friend of mine recently attended a seminar where each participant had to pick up a raisin and express their feelings towards it. I'm not kidding.


28. On 2005-07-06, anon. said:


Let me borrow an example from Matthijs's post about "Itras By".  What if instead of the card saying

"The Stranger" - someone approaches your character. Describe him briefly, and then hand over control to the GM

What happens if the card says

"First Love" - introduce an element that relates to the first time you fell in love. Describe the character/setting/situation element briefly then hand over control to the GM

Would that avoid "vast and inchoate" whilst avoiding "realy personal" by allowing people to introduce oblique elements?

PS to your PPS: Rorschasch blot?  Yes, but, isn't the shape of the blot really, really important to what it invokes in people?


29. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs Holter said:

"largely through the agency of character creation and activity" - another key point, I guess. The character isn't just your tool for exploring the setting; it's your tool for creating the setting as well. Whenever your character acts, he activates a setting element (or NPC/PC).

And character generation can easily be expanded to setting creation. In addition to answering questions like "what's your Strength?", you can answer "where does your enemy live?", "what's going wrong at your place of work?", "what was the last thing you read in the papers?"


30. On 2005-07-06, Vincent said:

I'm not sold on "never negate." Instead, it's really about managing permission and expectations.

Dogs in the Vineyard, for instance, manages negation pretty effectively in resolution - half the time or so, you negate, strongly. The other person doesn't mind at all, because you're playing by rules that've established rock-solid permission and expectations wrt negation.

Effective judgement and constructive criticism are essential to any collaborative creative project, RPGs very much included.


31. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs Holter said:

Anon: "Would that avoid "vast and inchoate" whilst avoiding "realy personal" by allowing people to introduce oblique elements?"

Definitely! It even allows you to bounce the ball back, by introducing something very ambiguous. "The first time I fell in love, I dreamt of a golden needle".


32. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs Holter said:

Vincent: Yes, but that's when the game is already underway. Before that, you have a non-negatable bit where you design your character, including possessions and relationships - setting elements, right? It's a different thing to negate use of existing elements, than to negate the creation of the elements.


33. On 2005-07-06, Ian Charvill said:

(I was the Anon a few posts above)

"Never Negate" is one thing that can work.  Another thing that can work is "You can negate only if conditions X, Y and Z are met".  This latter works better if X, Y and Z are arbitrary rather than personal.  "I can negate your idea because I rolled higher" rather than "I can negate you because I think your idea sucks".  If I understand it correctly the former is how Dogs works—there's a specific process invoking an arbitrary agency (random dice rolls) that decides who gets negated.

What proportion of stuff gets negated in your Ars Magica game—which I remember as being freeform?


34. On 2005-07-06, Vincent said:

Matthijs, in Dogs I'm talking about "block or dodge." When you see with two dice, you get to negate your fellow player's stated action. Simply, strongly, negate it.

I don't see "never negate the creation of elements" as long-term and generally functional. We oughta be working out some sustainable, flexible and reliable "here's how and when you may negate the creation of elements."


35. On 2005-07-06, Sydney Freedberg said:

Quickfire responses:

Matthijs: My feelings for a raisin? Yeah, not gonna do it.

Anon.: "introduce an element that relates to the first time you fell in love." Wow. That's tricky. For me, the mere use of the word "you"—as in "you, the real person playing"—does actually make me more self-conscious and self-protective, therefore less creative. Plus, "the first time you fell in love"? I can think of multiple incidents, each of which arguably is "first love" depending on how seriously various adolescent crushes get taken, so I still have the "vast and inchoate" problem!

Anon.: Rorscach blots - the shape is definitely important, BUT in unpredictable ways. Unlike Matthijs's raisin example, the stimulus has to be complex enough to stimulate something, but that response cannot be predicted with any confidence from the stimulus—in other words, we're into chaos theory now.

Vincent: Negation = necessary, yes.


36. On 2005-07-06, Vincent said:

Ian: What proportion? I have no earthly idea.

In my experience with fast-flowing hot groups, including my Ars Magica group, statements of negation take this form: "ooh, yeah, yeah! And how about this?" It's impossible to track the rise or fall of any individual's own ideas; once they're said out loud, they're all ours.


37. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs Holter said:

(A slight side track to clarify statement authority for myself and, perhaps, others):

There are several responses to a player's statement:

"No". It didn't happen.
"No, but". Something similar, or related, happens.
"Yes". It happens just as stated.
"Yes, but". It happens, but not in the way intended.

("No, and" and "Yes, and" are really just a "no" and a "yes", followed by a new statement).

In the traditional distribution of authority, this is who says what, in response to a player's statement:

"No". The GM ("You can't do that"). Resolution ("You don't notice anything").
"No, but". The GM. Resolution ("Your shot just misses his chest, and hit his arm instead").
"Yes". The GM. Character generation and other player-controlled processes ("Yes, whatever character class you pick is OK, because the rules say so.")
"Yes, but". The GM. Resolution ("Your shot hits his chest, but your gun is overheated and at -1 for the rest of the fight").

It strikes me that players usually have no statement response authority. They can't block eachothers' statements, except through the resolution system ("I hit you!" "No, you don't!" "Okay, we roll!").

Hm. Half-finished thoughts there.


38. On 2005-07-06, Judd said:


Polaris is a game that really takes the "Yes, but..." and makes an amazing, dark fairy tale game out of it.

We should have this conversation again when it comes out next month (Gen Con, right, Ben?).



39. On 2005-07-06, Matthijs Holter said:

Vincent: "We oughta be working out some sustainable, flexible and reliable "here's how and when you may negate the creation of elements.""

I agree - but do you see pre-play and in-play creation of elements as essentially the same, or would you agree that they can (or should) have different systems of negotiating credibility?

Systems that don't allow you to say "no" can still have strong judgmental effects. For example:

Game setup starts with a central node - a seed concept, just some words written in a circle. Each player can add a new node - a trait, a possession, a person etc - and a relation line to an existing node.

After a while, some nodes have lots of lines from them, while others have none - they didn't capture anyone's interest. They probably won't get much focus in play.


40. On 2005-07-06, Vincent said:

Matthijs: " you see pre-play and in-play creation of elements as essentially the same, or would you agree that they can (or should) have different systems of negotiating credibility?"

Oh. Essentially the same, but they can (not should) have different systems, if that's what suits your design.

A real live example is Universalis' tenet phase. It uses - correct me if I misremember, Ralph - it uses an abbreviated version of Universalis' regular pay / challenge / resolve rules to set up the game to come.


41. On 2005-07-06, Judd said:

Sorry if I'm chiming in nonsequitor shit but there are various pieces of this that have really gotten me thinking.

Particularly this:

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.

I think Sorcerer is the game that comes closest to this.  In that it takes so much time in the game's text telling how to set up a game and get to the foundation of your own world and what you want to say about the relationship between a sorcerer and their demon.

Setting writing has been what I've been doing lately, so this entry has really scratched an itch for me.

More responses to come, I think.


42. On 2005-07-07, John Harper said:

Matthijs: Your four responses just so happen to be the basis for my current resolution system for Danger Patrol. So, I'm very happy to see someone on the same wavelength.


43. On 2005-07-07, John Kim said:

Vincent wrote:
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.

Excuse me?  If the creative process you want is original world-building, then yes, RPG setting material is the end product.  But it's not like there is no room for creativity once the setting is created.  There is still room for infinite creativity within an existing setting.  As simple proof, the contemporary world is far more overly detailed than any roleplaying setting—yet I claim it is still easily possible to have creative stories within it.  Let's take an example.

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG was first published after Season Five of the BtVS television series.  Obligingly, the book provides all sorts of background details on the state of the series.  Now, by your logic, this is an end product.  Gamers may pick up and use this setting and these characters to create their own episodes, but that is simply fetishizing with no creative input.  But by this same logic, the actual television episodes in Season Six and Seven by Joss Whedon are similarly only fetishization with no creativity.

I don't buy it.  In fact, I think this is moronic.  I think the only way it sounds remotely plausible is throwing in a bunch of insults at geeks and fan-fiction is.  But the principle is baseless.

There is great and insightful creative work possible by taking a pre-existing setting and coming up with new material for that.  This applies whether you're creating a story in a contemporary or historical setting, creating new stories in a setting you previously created, creating stories in a fictional setting which someone else originated.

Sure, fan fiction is on average bad—but try reading the original fiction by the same writers.  It's just as awful as the fan fiction.  It's a simple consequence of the rule that 99% of everything is crap.  The stigma of fan-fiction is purely a consequence of the reader—i.e. you're looking at fiction by authors you would never even glance at if they came up with original stories.

If you remove the stigma of copyright infringement, then you'll see lots of good fiction using previously-authored settings, characters, and plots.  Nicholas Meyer's Seven Percent Solution and Mary Russell's The Beekeper's Apprentice;  John Gardner's Grendel and Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead; and so forth.


44. On 2005-07-07, John Harper said:

John Kim: Vincent's point is moronic? Wow.

Anyway... building on another creative work IS a creative process. Of course it is. You take what has come before, and you add something new. This is what Joss and Co. did with Seasons six and seven, and this is what you can do with a Buffy RPG.

No one is saying otherwise. I don't see it in Vincent's post. He says that RPGers need tools for the start of the creative process. Like, HOW do I add on to this other cool creative work? Or, HOW do I begin Explore, given this Situation, Setting, Color, and System?

What Vincent is slamming is the fetishization found in most fanfic. Not all. Most. And the same fetishization found in most (not all) of RPG materials based on existing creative works. Materials that give you an obsessive catalog of every detail of a setting, and zero tools with which to start adding your own creative input.

Those are the tools we need! Because playing an RPG is *about* creating that new stuff, as you rightly point out. The obsessive catalog is not only not sufficient, it can (sometimes, for some players) be a huge obstacle.


45. On 2005-07-07, John Harper said:

Here's an example of what I mean.

Let's say you're a writer on Firefly. You work with the other writers in a collaborative creative environment to break the story. Something to do with Inara's dark secret and Kaylee's past and how both of them grew up too fast.

The writers have used certain tools to collaborate and contribute ideas and criticize each other and do all that business of *creating* an episode of Firefly.

Now it's our turn, as RPG players, to pick up the Firefly RPG and create a new story. What tools do we get? Do we get *anything* even remotely like what the writers were using? No. Instead, we determine things like how strong Jane is, on a scale of 3-18. And how many hull points Serenity has. And how many days travel it is from Persephone to Cheyenne. And how much "damage" an Alliance stunner does. And, gods perserve us, what River's "carrying capacity" is.

The writers didn't need any of that crap to create new Firefly material. And yet, RPG books are full of it. Filled to bursting. THAT'S fetishistic. It's obsession over the trappings of the thing rather than the thing itself. In this case, powerful, character-focused action/dramas, as westerns, in space.


46. On 2005-07-07, Clinton R. Nixon said:

John (Harper), you're right in saying John (Kim)'s statements above are not right, but I think you've got it back'ards, too.

John Kim's (I hope hyperbolic) idea that episodes after the original episode of a TV show fits the same model of fetishism Vincent brings up is nuts, mainly because the same people are writing the characters. (Yes, this isn't always true. If the creative team is substantially changed, this often makes bad TV.) Think of the writers of a TV as a game group. (In Whedon-land, this is probably true. I'm watching "Angel" on DVD, and it's so their fantasy detective game.) The characters on the show are their characters and they own them, in the sense that that's them up on screen. That is, again in the sense, that our RPG characters are us, as we made 'em, and we can't make something (good) we can't imagine or identify with.

(I'm making a lot of asides, but that last concept is important. If you don't buy it, then you and I can't talk.)

So, if we come in later and play a Buffy RPG and I say "I'ma gonna play Willow," I'm pretty much just displaying my fetish for red-headed lesbian witches out loud. (Like I am right now.) I can't play Willow - Willow is part Joss Whedon, part Jane Espenson, part Alison Hannigan - and she ain't me.

If we sit down and play a game where our fundamental tenets are something like:

* We play in California, and in California, there's always two faces to everything. It's sunny, too.
* The supernatural is rough, but the real world is rougher.
* Whenever something happens to our character's life, a supernatural metaphor for it will cover up the problem.
* Only solving the real problem will solve the supernatural metaphor.
* Even nerdy girls are attractive in our world. In fact, they're the most attractive. (Also see: Amy Acker, "Fred.")

Well, then, we've got a game with the same themes and a lot of the same flavor as Buffy, but it'll be our game.


47. On 2005-07-07, John Kim said:

John Harper:  You seem to be arguing for an imitative approach—i.e. the RPG players should get the same materials and behave the same way as series scriptwriters.  That strikes me as equally fetishistic in a way.

In my opinion, concern for detail is a good thing.  When Firefly episodes were filmed, the film-makers didn't use numeric stats—but they would have had extremely fetishistic concern for visuals, since it is a visual medium.  Someone would have obsessive polaroids of set dressing and exactly reproduce them each time;  someone else would be fetishistically niggling over costumes; someone would be obsessively texturing a 3D computer model of an Alliance ship; and so forth.  These are the things which make it a work of art.  Watching the film-makers at work, some naive person might shout at them "Oh, who cares about how the shot is framed, what matter is the character-focused action/drama!"  And of that person would have completely missed the point.

Such concern for detail and continuity improves the artistic work, even though it isn't by itself original creative thought.  The later episode which uses continuity from the earlier episode gets to deepen its meaning by making subtle additions and changes to what has gone before.  The same is true, in my opinion, of the better role-playing adaptations.  There are few examples of such in game designs, but in my opinion James Bond 007 is among the best.  In JB007, for example, having a long list of cars with stats and descriptions aids the game.  It contributes to and comments on the source.

Still, by playing a roleplaying game, I am inherently doing something different than writing a television script.  If I wanted to exactly reproduce the patterns of the scripts, I would use the same approaches and write my own scripts.  But doing a role-playing game, I'll accept differences and indeed value them.  But I would also value effort to be similar, because doing so highlights and enhances the parts that I want to emphasize.


48. On 2005-07-07, John Harper said:

Clinton: Yes. I agree totally. I didn't really mean to say that writing a TV show and playing an RPG should be the same. I elaborated on my blog. Turns out I was headed into a rant with that comment.

John Kim: Huh? I mean, yeah. I agree with you too. But you went and shifted the ground. OF COURSE all those stats make sense in a James Bond game. The movies themselves are half car and gadget porn, anyway. And a hardcore James Bond game is gonna be partly a wargame, too. In the sense that the players are gonna try and bring all their resources to bear to achieve victory in their missions. So again, having all those stats and detail make sense.

But Jayne Strength rating? River's carrying capacity? Are you honestly saying that these things are vital to our act of playing a Firefly RPG? Cuz I just can't see it.

The stuff about set dressers and attention to detail? Totally out in left field. I don't see how it bears on this topic at all. We're not talking about quality production design. We're not even talking about rich details that add to the atmosphere of a game (or show). At least I wasn't. I'm talking about friggin' Armor Class ratings for the cast of Lost. What's the point?


49. On 2005-07-07, Christopher Kubasik said:

Hi Vincent.

I vote, "Not Moronic!"

Your essay reminded me of a time I played Over the Edge with some friends. I had screened Nake Lunch. The reaction was, "That was cool. But you want roleplay THAT?"

I said, "Yeah, but we get to make up our own weirdness!"

But being where my thinking was at that time, it didn't occur to me to toss the setting material. Still, I knew there'd be a problem with particular crew trying to get things "right"—so I made up my own set of Whimsey Card. I mean, Whimsey Cards times 10.  So Whimsical that you could realign the reality of Al Amarja by tossing one of these babies on the table.

It was a disaster. It was wild and crazy shit for about half an hour. But it was kind of like reality unspooling in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

Which I see now is kind of what I was trying to do. I created the Hyper-Whimsey cards to BREAK Al Amarja.

If I'd been armed with your essay, however, I would have set up my tenents as you described your friend did, and joined those with the elements out of character creation we would have ended up with something wonderfully weird—but, as you say, it would have been our Weirdness. Which was why I wanted to play the damned game in the first place—to escape all the cliches of fantasy and SF environments bogging down most RPGs and find out what our fantastical world, born of our specific imaginations, would have been.

You're fifteen years too late, you bastard. But good work anyway.



50. On 2005-07-07, John Harper said:

And just so we're clear: I'm not arguing that RPGs "should" be any which way. I like all kinds of games in all kinds of ways. I'm arguing that some RPGs *are* a certain way, and it baffles me, given their stated goals.


51. On 2005-07-07, Ninja Monkey J said:

See what happens when your computer dies? You get directly misquoted on a blog, then have to use your girlfriend's ancient iBook to post.

The principles of that world were these, if I recall:

- Everyone's doing what they're doing because they think it's the right thing to do.

- No one is incorruptible because you can convince them that what they really want to do is really the right thing to do. That cuts every way it can.

- Imperial bureacracy is so vast that anyone who wants to get anything done just does it, because by the time the forms for their malfeasance have been properly processed, it will be decades later and the character will probably be dead anway.

There were a bunch of aesthetic decisions, too: Imperial vessels are huge, vertical rectangles (they always appeared that way, despite sticking to the uplessness of space). Guns shot bullets. Spacecraft were held together with tape. Stuff like that.

It's how I've run games ever since. Characters have motivations and anytime the protags do something, I ask myself what the NPCs would do in this situation, given their resources. Sometimes it's simple: "Queen Elizabeth's agents will never betray her because she's got something on them." "Jean-Renard is a coward and will funnel his resources into violence only as long as it will keep him out of danger." Along those lines.

I've found that you wind up with NPCs that seem really real because they're not prescripted. You have a world that seems real because, even when you don't know what's under every rock, you know the kind of thing that should be there.


52. On 2005-07-07, John Kim said:

A few examples to clear a few things up...

Clinton: I disagree with you over ownership of ideas.  Specifically, at KublaCon 2004, I played Cordelia in an Angel RPG game—which seems to be exactly the thing that you're complaining about with your example of playing Willow.  I feel it was still a creative, fun, and meaningful process.  At the same convention, I gamemastered a Star Trek event where the PCs were Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the gang.

John Harper: Hard to say whether I agree with you or disagree with you about particular adaptations.  I gave James Bond 007 as a good adaptation.  I can cite lots of bad adaptations (like the Lord of the Rings RPG), but then again, I can cite a lot of bad RPGs in general.  For a Firefly RPG, I don't think I would have a carrying capacity for people.  But I would almost certainly have hull points or something for starships, which was one of your other examples.

Ninja J:  Your description sounds very much like how I often approach my games—having a highly detailed world and following what the NPCs would do.  On the other hand, I have often created this using canonical and fan-created resource.  For example, that is exactly how my Star Trek games ran.  But the rant here seems to be directly against having games do this.  As Vincent put it:

Vincent wrote:
Here's me: fanfic is, across the board, inferior to original fiction. Our fetishization of source material is creatively unhealthy.
and in response to me on the Forge,
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.
Unsurprisingly, I disagree with this.  There is no special magic or unique sacredness that attaches Middle Earth to Tolkien.  The time spent on details like replicating Middle Earth is worthwhile contribution to the result—just as researching history is valuable for someone writing a novel set in Victorian times.  It's true that these aren't original creative statements.  Rather they are craftsmanship which contributes to the expression as a whole.  By detailing Middle Earth in a game, I am making it my own.


direct link

This makes...
Ninja go "Wrong!"*
Ninja go "... and further wrong..."*

*click in for more

53. On 2005-07-07, Matthijs Holter said:

All creative processes consist of taking bits from other sources, perhaps changing them, and putting them together in new ways. Tolkien took bits of European myth and history, added a bit of his own, and put it all in a larger narrative structure.

Now, if he'd only retold tales directly from the source, that wouldn't have been creative, right? It's all in the transformation and new constellations.

The same be said of role-playing. Taking Star Trek elements, and doing new and unexpected stuff with them, is creative. Taking those exact same elements and trying to use them in just the same way as in the movies/TV series isn't.

Compare these two cases.

Case 1: We've made up some cool background stuff together, including some characters. I go, "I want to play that white-haired wizard with the attitude and the alcohol addiction!"

Case 2: Someone else has made a TV series, including some characters. I go: "I want to play Willow!"

From these cases, you can say nothing about whether play will have a creative element. I might play the wizard according to all genre expectations, and put nothing of myself into him. I might play Willow in a time of crisis and change, reverberating with my own issues, and make her develop and grow.


54. On 2005-07-07, Vincent said:


When you choose to play according to someone else's source material, you have to make a choice: do you respect the source material or do you defy it?

If I play Willow, it will be either to celebrate Willow as she was written, or else to criticize Willow as she was written. I can either play Willow to type, or I can make Willow my own. If I make her my own, it will necessarily be critical.

John (Kim), when you played Cordelia, what did you say about her as a human being?


55. On 2005-07-07, Andrew Norris said:

I'm trying to articulate my thoughts without putting words in anyone's mouth, so please read this charitably and assume I'm not.

I can't find the exact post (it's somewhere on the old site), but I remember Vincent giving a kind of mission statement for this blog. Something about how he's interested in roleplaying games that make thematic statements, and sure, there's other kinds of roleplaying games, but that's where his focus is. I tend to read all his posts in that light.

So if somebody (like John Kim) believes that celebrating, exploring, and extending the source material for its own sake is valuable and gratifying, I say, yeah, we know, lots of people do that. That's not an issue. We just want to do something else.

If somebody wants to instead figure out how to take a seed kernel of ideas and themes and spin that out into a setting and situation that deals with those themes, where do we go to get that? How does a prepublished setting help us?

I cringe to use the "S" word, but I guess I just can't see the point of defending Simulationism in one of the few places on the planet that's said, "Okay, we're going to talk about a lot of things, but one we're definately not interested is Simulationism." And Vincent shouldn't have to put a disclaimer in front of every post on his blog that says "These are my opinions, how about we discuss their implications instead of arguing they're false."

I apologize for the lack of constructive comment here, folks, but I'm hoping we can get past "Whether or not we agree" and to "Assuming we agree, what do we do next?"


56. On 2005-07-07, Christopher Kubasik said:


An excellent point. Yes, still, it's a little garbled in the RPG theory world because everyone's talking about RPGs. The fire walls aren't firm between different creative agendas yet.  (Which is a good and bad thing.)

In other words:

When I go to the grocery store and see a magzine on the rack covering Daytime Soap Operas, I can be pretty certain there will be no articles talking about how stupid one hour Science Fiction shows are, or asking why Sitcoms can't be more like Daytime Soaps.

And if I pick up a magazine devoted to Science Fiction movies and tv, there wont' be rants from people saying, "But you're missing the point of how cool tv could be if it was always serialized!!!"

Not so with RPG blogs and sites. (Or the comic book world, for example, where Comics Journal, which has only editorial disdain for adventure comics makes sure to spend time on adventure comic books—only to complain aboiut them, of course).

In the world of TV, everybody gets to watch what they want to watch, focus on what they want to focus on, and for some reason, that's all okay. Same thing with video games. Somebody might not like Ghost Recon, but he's not going to say, "That's not a video game!"

In the worlds of RPGs, for reasons that might never be solved, one man's focus is another man's threat to the very existence of his fun! Why this is true, I don't know. But to say something about what I want to play seems to be a tarring of how everyone should play.... Even though I could happily say, "I only watch SF shows on TV" and no one would bat an eye.

Vincent may have laid out the rules to be specific. And in the article above he excluded a lot of the fun other people had while playing RPGs. In part, maybe, because there's not a big label at the top saying, "The Site for Thematic Driven Play!" I really don't know.

But when anyone talks about RPGs, no matter how contrary to their own experience or fun (or almost because it's contrary to their own experience or fun), someone's going to come charging in and say, "Moron!"—despite the fact that clearly the person wasn't talking about the new guys expereinces or fun.

It's tricky.


[Tags fixed.—mgmt]


57. On 2005-07-07, Christopher Kubasik said:


I screwed up my tags. That'll teach me not to preview.

Anyway, last point:

Most people who want to read about soaps go read soap magazines. People who want to read about SF shows go read SF magazines. People who want to watch sitcoms watch sitcoms and don't stew that someone, somewhere else, is watching "Lost."

In the RPG world, because its all assumed to be one thing (RPGs), everyone shows up everywhere expecting to be welcomed with open arms. We havent' fractured yet into excplicit creative agenda organs. (Or, in the case of this site, the implications haven't really changed the reading and posting habits yet.) A good thing, a bad thing? I don't know.



58. On 2005-07-07, Matthijs Holter said:

Just trying to get my head around what we're talking about. We're looking for techniques - creative starting points - that can help us make the setting material we need to play, right? And we're trying to figure out both what that material is, and what those techniques are. And we're talking narrativist play. Okay.


As I understand it, what you need for narrativist play is:

- At least one engaging human issue
- Expressions of the issue(s) in the setting
- Things that constrain, provoke etc the protagonist(s) wrt the issue so they have to address it

So the essential setting elements are of two types:
- Expressions of the issue
- Protagonist activators or constraints

(But they're not characters; setting != character, right?)

Seems to me, then, that you have two choices of seed crystal: Issue or Protagonists. Issue seems awfully abstract as a seed, but it can be done. However, using protagonists will keep the setting focused on things the players can actually use.

So each protagonist is a seed.


The techniques should help us produce the essential setting material, starting with the characters. Perhaps they should be part of character generation, then? Several games already do this:

- Sorcerer's kickers
- PTA's sets
- Dogs' relationships and accomplishment-relevant traits

Many more games do so half-heartedly, through character ads/disads that are rarely used in play.


59. On 2005-07-07, Tom said:

Christopher writes:

> In the worlds of RPGs, for reasons that might never be
> solved, one man's focus is another man's threat to the
> very existence of his fun!

Here's a very shrewd guess...

Your previous examples (Soaps, Sci-Fi, TV shows, video games) are, for the most part, solitary and individual experiences.  There's a selection of choices and I pick from that selection and I watch/read/play/interact with it on my own.  I may join up with other people who enjoy what I do, but each of us is ultimately working with the media on our own.

Now, with pretty much every RPG, in order to use it, you have to play with other people.  First off, RPGs aren't as big as television or video games or whatnot so there's a smaller pool of people to draw from.  If I like Sci-Fi RPGs and you like Fantasy RPGs that's a threat to my fun because if I can't get enough people to do a Sci-Fi game with me then there won't be a game and there won't be any fun.  A gross oversimplification, but I think you see the point.  If I have a strong focus on something, then I need other people to have that focus as well.

And this interest/focus on the setting can easily be transferred to any of the other five elements.  If I like playing animal characters (a la Bunnies and Burrows), then I'm not going to want to play in a game where everyone is a robot...unless maybe I can be a robot bunny.

Further it's a creative medium too, so now, if there are certain things I want in my Creative Agenda, and other people aren't willing to support me in that, then the game will be a lot less fun for me.  Maybe we both want a sci-fi game but I want something that talks about betrayals and you just want to gun down space orcs.  Sometimes these agendas mesh well, sometimes they don't.  But if you can push your agenda strongly enough so that it gets adopted, then your anticipated level of "fun" will rise.  Creative Agenda can often get wrapped up in the various elements you want to see as well as the stories you want to tell.  So again, people need to be on-board with you or you won't have a game.

One might argue that boardgames are a hobby that require multiple people to play and that shouldn't they be just as fractured?  Well, yes.  But the level of creativity involved is much lower and the games are usually over and done with in an hour or less.  Longer running games (such as Advanced Civilization or any of the 18xx railroad games) often have very strong champions, because they need that buy-in from the other players.  They don't have vehement detractors, because those detractors usually say "it's too long for me" and it's not a point you can quibble over much.

So yeah, there's a scarcity model at work here and if people don't like what you like, that's one less potential player.


direct link

This makes...
EW go "It's true in boardgames too"*

*click in for more

60. On 2005-07-07, Christopher Kubasik said:

So, we're proselytizing to win converts?

I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm saying, "Wow."



61. On 2005-07-09, John Kim said:

Shoot.  Well, the recent database crash lost my reply to Vincent's question about my playing Cordelia.  I can give a link to my Event Report which I wrote up as part of my overall convention report on Kublacon 2004.  I don't feel up to rewriting my full reply though.


62. On 2005-07-09, Matthijs Holter said:

I'm reworking my now half-destroyed comments on setting co-creation into a game, which is due for IRC playtest this week. It's going to use world & protagonist setting seeds that players can grow concept leaves from, and yes/no/yes but/no but/yes and/no and resolution.


63. On 2005-07-09, Hello Sailor said:

The database went poof when I tried posting, actually. Let's try it again.

Anyway, I'm still around to catch up on this page every so often. I loved J's "three principles" idea for impromptu setting/color. I'm going to try having my players each follow a "minimum of one principle/statement" for their PC in the next game I run. It can go right at the top of the character sheet, where a certain game makes the statement "i kill puppies for satan."


64. On 2005-07-11, Sydney Freedberg said:

(partially reconstructing a dead post, partially improving it)

I'm going to set aside the whole "divided hobby" discussion (though, worthwhile as its own thread sometime?) and focus on the Technique issues about how to design.

Matthijs - "So each protagonist is a seed."

Yes! Beautiful. I often start stories or setting-design with an image of a cool character in my mind and then start filling in what that character implies or requires around them. (I wonder if Vincent started "Dogs" with the image of a Dog striding into town, gun in one hand and Bible in the other, and extrapolated the rest of the setting from there?) A character's a great seed simply because a person is (potentially) so complex as to generate a whole bunch of second-order effects: e.g. family, ethnicity, ideology, social class, even fashion.

I'd agree with Matthijs that "ideas," by contrast—e.g. naked expressions of Premise sitting out on their own like "Power corrupts"—are probably too abstract to make good seed crystals for setting. On the other hand, J's "three principles" campaign suggests that fairly abstract ideas can be great rules to generate HOW new concrete elements should evolve out of the seed crystal. E.g. for Dogs, combine the gun-and-Bible guy with a rule like "The biggest problems grow from a little seed of pride," and suddenly it becomes awfully easy to generate setting & situation elements.

Besides Characters and Ideas, what other potential types of seed crystals come to mind?

- Gadgets! Yes, this can get soulless (e.g. James Bond car fetish), but well-imagined technology can stimulate a lot of creativity. How much of the Star Wars universe is set up to justify guys with cool laser swords?
- Locations!
- Organizations? These can get fairly abstract, like "Ideas" (e.g. "Evil Galactic Empire"; "early Mormonism"), in which case I suspect they serve better as rules-for-generation rather than seed crystals. But if you think of an "organization" instead in terms of a vivid image of its representative member (e.g. a Storm Trooper, a Dog), that can be very vivid and specific. Maybe this is why "splats" are so successful?

I'm really wondering now if the Technique we're trying to isolate from various specific instances actually involves combining

(1) seed crystals: highly specific, concrete, vividly visual images—but with plenty of complexity and ambiguity to stimulate and allow growth in multiple directions
(2) generation rules: simple, clear, abstract principles that guide how new specifics are derived from existing specifics.


65. On 2005-07-11, Ben Lehman said:

This is really more an article about how to approach already existing setting material than an article about what makes good setting material.  Basically, more for players than designers.

Do you have anything to say on the other end?



66. On 2005-07-11, Sydney Freedberg said:

Ben: Really? At least, the point I got out of Vincent's essay was not "here's a way to use existing setting material" but rather "instead of trying to use existing setting material, let's think about how to take a few starting elements and create setting from them, including on the fly."


67. On 2005-07-11, Emily Care said:

Hey Vincenzo,

I'm late to the party here, but there's part of this I want to comment on: fanfic as analogous to strict fetishization of the subject material.  This is a simplification that doesn't hold up, and is a side issue that is detrimental to the point you're making.

Thanks to spending some time with Sarah this week, I've gained some sense of the mores of fanfic.  With only my limited understanding, I can already see that it is a much more fully developed world of fiction than it might seem off the cuff.  You say that any use of setting material will either be slavish or critical of the original, and I think that, in fact, the complexity of approaches would really surprise you.  Just as it is entirely possible for people to use setting as a springboard for creative expression of whatever stripe, so too can a pre-existing cannon become an elaborate set of constraints that the people writing within it's strictures use to develop entirely new, but compatible storylines and engage in sophisticated new narratives. The authors may also comment on the original and real world issues etc.  But the approach of the authors need not be critical of the original in order to play with it and extrapolate the source material to natural extensions of the work, or transcend it.

I see two major points you made in this post:

1) that it is a great goal to write rules & mechanics that create structures that help individuals create original setting that address the issues and topics that are important and

2) that truly creative endeavors will diverge in some way from their source material because the creative agents themselves will bring something of their own to it.

But neither of these require the idea that fanfic is by its very nature is non-creatively derivative.  Fanfic, fanfic rp, rpg, comics and all other narrative forms can be fruitfully engaged in while using a base text. But do they? And if so why & how? Other good questions to address.


68. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:

Ah! This was in one of my comments that I lost, in response to John Kim: when I say "critical" I mean it in the sense of "approaching critically" or "thinking critically about," not in the sense of being mean to. You can critically affirm someone else's work, for sure.

All of this you wrote - "...the people writing within it's strictures use to develop entirely new, but compatible storylines and engage in sophisticated new narratives. The authors may also comment on the original and real world issues etc. But the approach of the authors need not be critical of the original in order to play with it and extrapolate the source material to natural extensions of the work, or transcend it." - falls within what I mean by "critical."

As far as fanfic goes as such - what do I know? I suppose I could and should say "pastiche" instead.


69. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:

"Critical" as in "Critique". That's how I read it before.

Your example of Tolkein - "I love Middle Earth, but I want to play a female character because I think Eowyn is cool." - is one of my favorite examples along these lines. Or "Maybe the Southrons or Easterlings weren't always evil, and their fall was tragic and heroic." These all seem like fun things to do, and stuff I've seen people confront in Middle-Earth based games. It's a little wussy as criticism, though, because the players don't realize they're doing it often. But look, Tolkein was racist and sexist. It didn't make him less of an author, but it does mean that, if you're going to make your game fly with your (possibly geekily underdeveloped) moral sense, you have to take a stand.

And the moment you take that stand, that's when you make Middle Earth your own. Aragorn becomes a footnote in history, and you write your own. Then you're creating your own stuff, but you've all agreed to use Middle Earth stuff as backdrop. That's all it is, though. All the action's your own creation.


70. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:

In email to me, Ben Lehman used the word "challenge." As in, good fanfic challenges its source material.


71. On 2005-07-12, Sarah said:

In email to me, Ben Lehman used the word "challenge." As in, good fanfic challenges its source material.

All good fiction challenges its source material.

All fiction has a "canon."

Fiction which lacks some form of strong interaction with its canon is unlikely to be at all effective or engaging.

Narrative RP is a form of fiction.

Narrative RP which is effective and engaging is that which challenges its canon.

The existence of this "canon" is sometimes obscured by the fact that the players are all so attuned to it that they don't even particularly note its existence. Such canon is often only noticed when and if the group encounters a player who lacks the rest of the group's intimate knowledge of the shared canon.

The same dynamic is in play with the readers of fiction. This is the reason that translations of literature from other cultures are often heavily footnoted.  The work's intended readership does not require the footnotes, and quite likely thinks of the "canon" of the work as "just the real world."  To a foreign reader, however, the work may be incomprehensible without aid—even though presumably the foreign reader lives in the same "just the real world" as the original author of the text and his intended readership do.

Without a shared canon, fiction—of which RPG is a subset—just doesn't work very well.  This is true regardless of whence that canon derives.


72. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:

Sarah, can you give an example?

Specifically an example in which the players are not drawing from a pre-existing world (consiously)?

For instance, science fiction about a world where nanotechnology is so pervasive, one programs the world around oneself by speaking commands into the air. All objects are as much software as they are object.

I made this up just now. It draws on some neat stuff I've read, but it could hardly be called canon, particularly since, if I were to play in this world with other people, it would wander away from my inspirations significantly.


73. On 2005-07-12, Ben Lehman said:

The full quote was "good fanfiction either challenges the original source material or creates new material which is challenging."

Which is pretty much based on the conversation Em, Sarah, Charles and I had about this article.  We were talking about Middle Earth in particular, I believe, and Charles mentioned "hey, you could develop the Southrons as a new field of exploration" (not a direct quote.)  Since the Southrons are so underdeveloped in Tolkein, this is effectively creating new material to be challenging, rather than challenging the old stuff.



74. On 2005-07-12, Sydney Freedberg said:

And perhaps the Southrons thing would work because you have

1 - seed crystal: a few strong images of what they are and do in a specific context, i.e. their wars with Gondor, that are suggestive but leave a lot open and undefined
2 - rules, albeit implicit: a strong sense of how Tolkein's world works intuited from reading everything else (e.g. "the world is not what it once was" and "mortals were created good but fall into evil"—which are, I bet, intuitively underlying J's suggestion that "Maybe the Southrons or Easterlings weren't always evil, and their fall was tragic and heroic.")


75. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:


My point is that there's not enough material to challenge there, except that there's some implicit racism and sexism that is necessarily dealt with in one way or another when contemporary people play in that world. Making the Southrons at all sympathetic is a challenge to Tolkein's racist principles.


76. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:


That's precisely what I'm thinking.


77. On 2005-07-12, Sydney Freedberg said:


I suspect that the "rule" of Tolkein's world that is really upsetting to most of us could be boiled down as "people have free will, but moral predispositions are inherited"—which has some truth in it (e.g. child abuse tends to run in families) but in Middle-Earth ends up with entire races (Orcs, Southrons) being burdened with so much inherited evil that they are effectively irredeemable. It's not quite simple racism (that'd be "moral qualities are inherited," without qualifiers) but it's painfully close.

And the temptation to go through every fictional setting everywhere and reverse-engineer what an adequate set of "seed crystals" and "rules" would be is powerful, but I think would draw us horrifically off-topic. So I'll stop.


78. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:

Everybody realizes that what we're talking about here is premise, right?

The principles that underlie the setting, be they "nobody really likes their job," "Imperial bureacracy is so vast that anyone who wants to get anything done just does it," or "people have free will, but moral predispositions are inherited," they're thematic statements waiting to happen. All you need is to test and prove/disprove them via a fit character in action.

Pastiche, then, is fiction that simply reiterates the principles, test, and proof of its source material.


79. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:

Oh - and Sarah, I agree with you completely. I hope you're not surprised by that; if you are, I've done a bad job explaining myself.


80. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:

I still want an example of what Sarah's saying. I don't think "canon" and "premise" are the same thing. You can have canon and totally miss the point, thereby lacking premise.

You can play in the Aliens universe and think that it's about military hardware and wisecracks, not desperate motherhood.

You can play in the Star Wars Galaxy and think that it's about Good vs. Evil or starfighters and not choosing when to, and not to, fight for what you believe in.

Maybe you see something that I don't see in what she's saying, but I want to know what she's getting at.


81. On 2005-07-12, Elliot Wilen said:

I don't know if this should be classified as a definitional quibble, conceptual objection, or irrelevancy but I feel that pastiche is often quite creative. E.g., the original Star Wars movie was pastiche yet can also often be read as an ironic commentary on its source material. My favorite illustrative line is when Luke breaks into the prison cell and announces, earnestly, "I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to save you!"

Even more of this can be found in The Princess Bride.

Drawing on some dimly-recalled memories of college reading, it also seemed that Irish myths eventually reached a point of self-parody and commentary, something I think you can also find in American folktales such as Paul Bunyan.

What I am getting at is that in good pastiche the higher-level structures of source material can be absorbed whole and then recombined to produce new levels of meaning.


82. On 2005-07-12, Sydney Freedberg said:

To build on J's comment—I think the very process of deriving principles or rules from an establish work or genre (the canon) is in itself a creative act, and different people with different mindsets might well derive very different rules from the same source.


83. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:

Elliot: definitional quibble, I think. (And welcome! Are you by any chance the Elliot I went to Hampshire with?)

Sydney: sure. In examining a work for its underlying principles, you've approached it critically. When J says "You can play in the Aliens universe and think that it's about military hardware and wisecracks, not desperate motherhood... You can play in the Star Wars Galaxy and think that it's about Good vs. Evil or starfighters and not choosing when to, and not to, fight for what you believe in" he shows himself already beyond fanfic/pastiche/whatever the hell term I can safely use.

Do we all agree that some fiction simply reiterates its source material, without challenging it or commenting upon it? It merely celebrates its source material, without taking it on in any critical way?

That's the kind I'm talking about.


84. On 2005-07-12, Ninja Monkey J said:

That's the kind I think is boresuck. I go to a movie or read a book to revel in someone else's brilliance, and I'm pissed when there's none to revel in. When I play an RPG, I want the brilliance of everyone at the table, not some feeble attempt at recreating someone else's.

You can call that celebration if you want. You can even play like that if you want. I won't even stop you from enjoying yourself wholeheartedly. But that's one celebration I don't need an invitation for.


85. On 2005-07-12, Vincent said:

Uh... Have you noticed that it's the kind I think is boresuck as well? Or was that a more general "you" that I shouldn't think means me?


direct link

This makes...
NinJ go "Definition of "you""*
VB go "Oh fer..."*

*click in for more

86. On 2005-07-12, Elliot Wilen said:

Hi, Vincent. Thanks for the welcome. Nope, I didn't go to Hampshire.

I can't really go for the "celebration" vocabulary because it's just too vague. However I can certainly think of crappy fiction which tries to coast by on imitating certain forms. Now, I think that certain schools of literary theory nevertheless reject the crappy/good, imitative/original, mindless/meaningful, lowbrow/highbrow distinctions, often heading into subjective realms. If you buy that, then there might be a problem with your claim. For example, there are works which struck a chord when I first encountered them even though I now might see them as atrocious derivative crap. And then there's crap which somehow crosses over, in some viewers' eyes, into sublime camp.

I used to be very offended by this sort of theory but I find that I'm becoming more sympathetic to subjectivity these days. Which conversely means that I'm less sympathetic to notionally objective characterizations of art.

Or another take on things, if we regard history as a collection of objective facts, we can nevertheless derive a wealth of meaning through our own observations and by encountering the observations of others. Ken Burns tells the same facts you learned in 7th grade history—but oh, what a story! So in looking for meaning in a narrative, I don't think you can separate the form or, indeed, the reader.


87. On 2005-07-13, Emily Care said:

J wrote:
I still want an example of what Sarah's saying. I don't think "canon" and "premise" are the same thing. You can have canon and totally miss the point, thereby lacking premise.

I agree.  So let's look at Canon and Premise. If we look at Canon as the agglomeration of underlying and background source texts and cultural knowledge that informs a given work, we can see that all works have a canon.

If we look at Premise as the issues being addressed within and by any given work, we can see that all works will have a premise.  But we can ask about the quality of the premise, or its resonance for us, and we can make distinctions between what premises different works are operating under.

Eliot wrote:
For example, there are works which struck a chord when I first encountered them even though I now might see them as atrocious derivative crap. And then there's crap which somehow crosses over, in some viewers' eyes, into sublime camp.

There is individual judgement, but there can also be community standards.  "Mary Sue"-ism is a fictional practice looked down upon by the fanfic community.  It's when a writer uses a character to insert themselves into the world of the text, eg to get to hook up with Spok or what have you.  In rpg, pawn stance is often seen as less desirable, though ymmv.

Narrative structures that help people come up with engaging premises are what we want here. Be it the ground rules and social mores of a narrative RP community, or the rules of an rpg.  Having a specific text is not to blame, but it is imaginable that loyalty to a given work might cloud someone's judgement about what is really interesting about creating fiction.  Or a desire to use the fiction writing for a masturbatory purpose.  But what's boring about this is that it doesn't give others any way to meaningfully engage—it shuts others out from collaborating since it's a premise for one.  Just as front-loaded premise that's brought to the table by the gm, in the end, can be a lot less satisfying than having premise be brought by all.


direct link

This makes...
AN go "celebrating..."*

*click in for more

88. On 2005-07-13, Vincent said:

Emily: "Having a specific text is not to blame, but it is imaginable that loyalty to a given work might cloud someone's judgement about what is really interesting about creating fiction."

Lord. The thread goes from "fetishization is creatively unhealthy" to "it is imaginable that loyalty might."

Here's a story. Once upon a time I joined the Ars Magica email list out of Berkely. Shannon Appel, David Woods, David Chart, a bunch of others hung out there. The fourth edition was in the works. I read for a while, of course, figured out the rules and social order and stuff. When I felt comfy doing so, I posted.

I said, "y'know, if you want Ars Magica to not suck so very, very bad, here are the first five fundamental things you'll have to change."

They received me ... poorly. The end.


I'm totally willing to back off about fanfic: I grant that fanfic exists that doesn't fetishize its source material.

But I stand: fetishizing our source material is something we do a lot, something that most rpgs insist that we do, and it's holding us back - holding us back relative to my agenda and the stated purpose of this blog thingy. We need to work out a whole new relationship with our source material - that's part of what we're doing here. We need to learn how to treat it as what is, our tool and subject to our whim, not some sacred unchanging thing.


89. On 2005-07-13, Elliot Wilen said:

This is a bit of a shot in the dark but maybe it would help to explore the possibility of distinguishing canon & premise in various works and various genres. For example, I was personally never attracted to the idea of playing a game set in Middle Earth since the story of The Lord of the Rings dominates the setting so completely. (Although I would say that, for someone who has only read The Hobbit, Middle Earth could be quite interesting.) An old Forge Thread on Open/Closed Setting seems relevant. I'd say I feel pretty much the same about Star Wars, and about various Tolkien-derivatives concerning a "dark lord threatening free peoples".

On the other hand, after reading most of the Lankhmar books (various authors, varying quality of stories) I can easily imagine Erewhon as a setting for much enjoyment. It has a canon, but there are big blank spaces, and the built-in premises are fairly open.

Would that suck, and how?

Switching gears slightly, I am also reminded of something I came across on Harnforum. For those unfamiliar, Harn as a setting has an elaborate history and geography, but all official events are frozen at a particular point in the game world. What the thread was about was figuring out how the GM can take a seemingly static situation and develop it into scenarios for game play. And what it amounted to was, examining the source material, locating interesting cleavages, hooks, or lacunae, and developing them creatively. (The discussion is in this forum, under "GM Beginners' Guide".)


90. On 2005-07-13, Elliot Wilen said:

Other examples from fiction. And apologies in advance for hogging space.

Sometimes a creator gets into a rut in his own work, and you wonder why the heck you're bothering to continue. There are at least two general cases I can think of; one is almost always bad in fiction, the other can go either way. It isn't clear to me whether either can work in an RPG context.

The always-bad: the sequel that undercuts the original. Consider The Fly II and Aliens 3. Both start by saying, "Everything that mattered to the protagonists in the previous film is negated. Geena Davis dies. Newt dies, too." Maybe, maybe an RPG that did this to a preestablished world could work as an effective critique but I think in practice it would suck all the interest out of the setting.

Note that this is different from the grand operatic approach or the classic (comedy)-tragedy-comedy sequence. You could say that the end of The Fly II somehow redeems the tragic ending of the original, but only at the cost of doing great violence to a fine story's integrity.

The sometimes-good: the sequel that recapitulates the original. The best example I can think of is the now-obscure but beloved Macross series of anime (note: not the American Robotech equivalent which for all its faults did manage to carry out the comedy-tragedy-comedy pattern). The first series & movie adaptation was about culture triumphing over militarism, with culture expressed via music and a love triangle to complicate things. (Plus, there are giant transforming robots.) All of the sequels and prequels basically tell the same story again. However, the story gets told with different characters each time, with quite different treatment in terms of maturity and "grittiness", and in different times and places. There is also an explicit chronology and an allusive backstory that connects all the stories together. I find the ones I've seen to be both enjoyable and interesting. Yet it's hard to say that any of them are necessary beyond the first. On the other hand, the way that the themes are deepened through variation and additional revelation of the backstory enriches the work as a whole.


91. On 2005-07-14, Chris said:

But I stand: fetishizing our source material is something we do a lot, something that most rpgs insist that we do, and it's holding us back.
We need to learn how to treat it as what is, our tool and subject to our whim, not some sacred unchanging thing.


I've just started up an L5R game with some new folks I never met before...  one thing which bugs me to hell and back is that a lot of them will start going into side conversations about various metaplot NPCs and theirstories, instead of looking at their own.

Instead of the various NPCs serving as examples of cool stories you could tell, they've become the stories for these guys to fetishize, repeat, and chant over and over, basking in the coolness of the setting without daring to step up and put their own 2 cents into the creative basket.

In this regard, I'm definitely seeing the strength of games that provide a brief setting free of NPCs and metaplot.


92. On 2005-07-14, Ninja Monkey J said:

This is of major interest to me, as I am writing a science fiction game and the amount (or even existence) of setting is up for debate.

Also, Sydney, please see marginalia on this post.


93. On 2005-07-14, Hello Sailor said:

Vincent wrote:
But I stand: fetishizing our source material is something we do a lot, something that most rpgs insist that we do, and it's holding us back - holding us back relative to my agenda and the stated purpose of this blog thingy.

Total agreement here. The problem is that "fetishism" seems to be part of the inherent nature of a large chunk of the RP community. Getting people (as a group, not individually) to change their nature is nigh impossible.

I'm wondering if it's possible to figure out exactly what the appeal of "fetishism" is to many gamers (I don't find it appealling, so I'm at a loss to explain it) and find some means of channelling that appeal into something that enriches roleplay instead of holding it back.


94. On 2005-07-14, Emily Care said:

Is fetishistic adherence to setting indeed pervasive among gaming groups? How common an experience is it for people to have the players quoting chapter and verse of published world material and characters in a way that undermines the individual group's creativity?  My impression is that what happens commonly is for any given gm to cook up (yes I've been reading the ongoing judgements from the Iron Game Chef competition : ) an appropriate section/version of the game world for the particular campaign they are running. Customization of rules and mechanics by game groups is so rampant, I would imagine the same would be the case wrt setting.  That has been the case in the trad campaigns I have taken part in, but such experience of mine is negligible.

Does anyone have some nice extensive anecdotal evidence to confirm either my version or what V., Sailor et al are saying?  Ben? Ron?

If rigid adherence to the detriment of creativity is indeed the norm, then the rpg community might have a lot to learn from the narrative rp community's relationship with canon. It is much more sophisticated. There is no doubt for me that this is because specific texts as canon occupy such a central place in fanfic rp. "AU"'s, alternative universes, are de rigeur and explicitly noted in the introductory materials to any given fanfic rp. But also, the common understanding of the shared canon is not just fetishization, but is an intrinsic part of the system of play.  Uninteresting interactions with it are discouraged by the community through social pressure, but all play springs directly from the parent source.

However, the differences in design, play style and social context between nar rp and tabletop rpg are glaring.  In trpg, the negotiations between players are done in-game via resolution and other mechanics. In narrative rp, there are strict rules about the proprietary nature of how things are established as having happened. For example, strict concensus is practiced wrt what a given character does, or that happens to it: if I narrate my character punching your character in the face you narrate whether it lands or not, and if you fall down or get a concussion etc.  Also, much pre- and out of character plotting goes on, so all the players are on the same page about where the story and larger events are going.  Narrative rp has an elaborately detailed social contract, established in the application to play and other intro stuff. Although more cross-form knowledge is sure to be beneficial, I'm not sure how portable the techniques are between these incredibly different animals.

This is the longest thread in the universe, isn't it? I'm sorry to keep harping on nar rp, but there is a lot there to be delved into, perhaps I should do so in another venue.



95. On 2005-07-15, Pol Jackson said:

Vincent, you wrote: I'm wondering if it's possible to figure out exactly what the appeal of "fetishism" is to many gamers (I don't find it appealling, so I'm at a loss to explain it) and find some means of channelling that appeal into something that enriches roleplay instead of holding it back.

Say you have a group of gamers who love cars. They talk about cars all the time, sharing historical trivia, customization tips, and current news.

They're overjoyed when cars pop up in their roleplaying games. They happily digress into discussions of which car their character should use for hunting vampires, which car would beat which in a chase in 1950's Chicago, etc.

I would be bored to death; I'm not a car guy. But these hypothetical players are creatively contributing to the game. And in their group, they're having a grand old time.

Now instead of "cars", think "Star Wars". Or "Firefly", or "L5R", or, in the case of my group, "Hogwarts". If you get a group of people together who are enthusiastic about a topic, it can raise the enjoyment of the entire game. Does my example help explain the "fetishism" appeal?

Here's my point: You can't tell anything about the creative quality of a game simply by the amount of source material being used in the game. A Star Wars game, for example, might be creatively vibrant, whether or not the players know the model number of the X-Wings.

Do you agree? Because I think that your point is "we need to make souce material work for us, instead of being the engine that drives the game", or something along those lines. I don't think you're saying that "games that use lots of source material are always creatively stagnant". Am I right?



96. On 2005-07-15, Hello Sailor said:

Er, actually, I wrote that. My point was to toss out a brainstorm I'd just had to see if anyone could build on it, 'cause nothing more was coming to me.

Let's take your hypothetical group of car-lovers. If they want to spend time arguing which sports coupe released in the last 5 years offers the best speed/handling ratios to the aspiring vampire hunter, great. That's "table talk" and noone's trying to discourage it.

If that same group of gamers wants to engage in some narrative RP that happens to include chasing vampires in a sports coupe, then spending time looking up the speed/handling ratio of the Chrysmouth Speedster in the "Insanely Detailed, Gothic-Punk Sourcebook about Cars" is detrimental to that goal.

Change "car-lovers" to "LoTR fans" and "sports coupes" to "members of the Fellowship" and you'd run into the same problem. For narrative RP purposes, it doesn't matter if Aragorn or Boromir has the better speed/handling ratio.


97. On 2005-07-15, Pol Jackson said:

Er, actually, I wrote that.

Gah! So you did. My apologies. You also wrote:

For narrative RP purposes, it doesn't matter if Aragorn or Boromir has the better speed/handling ratio.

...Which is pretty funny. :)

I do agree. If what you're looking for is nothing but narrative RP, then yes, over-reliance on source material is detrimental to that goal. It may even be "creatively unhealthy" (as Vincent put it).

Here's what I think. I think that games where the players "fetishize the source material" actually have two goals. One of the goals is role-playing. The other goal is to create a social environment in which to discuss and celebrate the source material. This is likely done both through table talk, and through the game itself.

Does anyone agree? Or is my analysis way off base, here?



98. On 2005-07-21, Lee Short said:

I've posted my thoughts on this thread here.


99. On 2005-07-21, Lee Short said:

[Posted here, as I have been informed that you can't get to LJ]

When I read this, I reacted as I often do to your writing—you have valuable thoughts on where to take games in the future, but the analysis of past games is completely off the mark.  To be more specific, you have a talent for identifying elements that were missing in past games. Elements that improve the gaming experience.  Elements that would make great additions to new games.

I agree that the players should look at setting materials as a tool, not a restriction.  The setting should be theirs to play with and modify and expand upon.  If I didn't feel this way, I would hardly have written Clay of the Gods.

So when you say

What do we roleplayers need? We need the starting point of the creative process instead.

Because what we're doing? It's creative.

I'm totally there.

But when we look at the complete statement

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.

I find myself in complete disagreement with the connotations of this statement.  Ben Lehman's comment got it right:  The Lord of the Rings can be both the end product of a creative process, and the starting point of a creative process.  There's no reason at all it has to be one or the other.  In fact, the more brilliantly creative the setting material is, the more it inspires further creativity.  Brilliantly creative setting material can also inspire slavish imitation too.  But there's nothing that says it has to be used that way.

Let's use one of my own games to explore this in a little more depth.  I recently ran a campaign set in Glen Cook The Black Company world, set shortly after the conclusion of the first set of books.  I set the game in Roses, one of the cities that gets a lot of spotlight time in the books.  Despite Roses' prominence in one of the books, there is a great deal that we don't know about Roses.  During the course of my game, we collectively built our Roses, with setting building sessions for the first hour or so of each game session.  We built our Roses on top of Cook's Roses; we filled in a small part of the vast field of details that Cook does not cover in his books.  We used Cook's work as a springboard for our own creative work.

Do you disagree with this analysis?  I think so, but I can't tell for sure from the other thread.

But where we definitely part ways is when we get to this statement:

But I stand: fetishizing our source material is something we do a lot, something that most rpgs insist that we do, and it's holding us back - holding us back relative to my agenda and the stated purpose of this blog thingy.

I totally disagree.

The first part that I would challenge is the assertion that "fetishizing our source material is something we do a lot."  My response to that is "who's we, white man?"  In other words, I think individual experiences with this will vary a lot.  It's not something I've done or seen done much at all.  But then I've rarely played games in "stock" settings; mostly they leave me cold.  From Greyhawk and Blackmoor through World of Darkness and out the other side to the settings in Riddle of Steel and The Shadow of Yesterday.  Yawnsville, all of it.  I know other people who prefer to play in these stock settings—I just don't play them often, and never have.  So I've played a lot of games in homespun worlds, and alternative universes (based on both the real world and fiction).  To make a long story short:  my experience is different than yours, and the sum total of our two experiences adds up to just anecdotes.  People whose personal experience is closer to yours will be inclined to believe your version; people whose personal experience is closer to mine will be inclined not to.  If there's any real research on the topic, I'd love to see it.  In fact, that would be some pretty valuable market research.

The other part I disagree with is your claim that there's game text in "most rpgs" that "insists" that we do this.  In fact, I think that the topic of setting material and how it should be treated isn't something that's even mentioned in 90% of rpgs.  Or more.  I've never seen anything like "here, take this setting material and treat it as holy writ."  Now I'll also admit that "here, take this setting material and have your way with it" shows up pretty damn rarely—and I totally agree that this kind of text would be useful.  But you say that there's "holy writ" text in "most games."  I disagree.  Fortunately, this really isn't a matter of opinion.  Either the text is there, or it isn't. If it's there in "most games", then it should be easy to find several influential games that have it.  So I'd like to see some actual game text that supports this claim of yours.


100. On 2005-07-21, Vincent said:

Lee: "During the course of my game, we collectively built our Roses, with setting building sessions for the first hour or so of each game session. We built our Roses on top of Cook's Roses; we filled in a small part of the vast field of details that Cook does not cover in his books. We used Cook's work as a springboard for our own creative work.

Do you disagree with this analysis?"

Not a bit. In fact: just exactly so.

"My response to that is 'who's we, white man?' In other words, I think individual experiences with this will vary a lot."

Sure. I project my experience outward onto the world, making it very common; you project yours outward onto the world, making mine uncommon. So it goes.

I don't think that your "it's not as common as all that" is a deal-breaker to my "it's bad." If I'm railing against a rare problem, so much the better!


101. On 2005-07-21, Vincent said:

Oh, and this: "I reacted as I often do to your writing—you have valuable thoughts on where to take games in the future, but the analysis of past games is completely off the mark. To be more specific, you have a talent for identifying elements that were missing in past games."

That's great feedback and pretty useful to me. Thanks!


102. On 2005-07-27, Lisa Padol said:

Hm. Lots of stuff going on here. In no particular order:

PTA as a good rules set for Firefly: I'm not familiar enough with the show (though now that some of my friends own the DVDs, that may change), and I've only played PTA once (and it was a blast), but my off the cuff thought is that Vincent is right and PTA is the wrong rules set for it. This is a completely separate issue from setting, fan fic, and fetishes.

Okay, fan fic. I read a lot of fan fic in my teens and twenties. I think I'd find much of it painful (in a bad way) now, but I loved it then. Let us assume that my reading fan fiction was a fetish, and let us assume that we're all defining the term "fetish" the same way. Okay. I was reading a lot of junk. I was not in a street gang. I was not taking drugs that wrecked my body. I was not stealing. I was not having unprotected sex. I was not trying to take my own life or anyone else's. You know, there are worse things than reading a lot of possibly bad fiction.

Maybe I stayed up a bit too late reading. Then again, I did that with novels, too, from Barbara Hambly's Darwath trilogy to Gene Wolfe's New Sun tetrology. I kept my grades up, too.

Oh, and I wrote. Fiction, I mean. Okay, I wrote some really bad fan fiction that, if I have not actually managed to lose, I still do not intend to have it see the light of day.

And then, I wrote other things. Some of it was good fan fiction, of which more later. Some of it was analysis/critique of source material and fan fiction. I don't say that everyone who reads fan fic goes on to do this, but, I don't see that that's a problem. They enjoy it. Some people enjoy CCGs. Some enjoy fantasy baseball, which I comprehend as little as the non-fantasy version. Some folks collect postcards or antique cars.

For me, though, fan fic got me writing. And, when I wrote letters to fellow readers analyzing the stuff, it got me thinking. And, when letters flew back and forth, the ideas flew as well. This was no longer passive enjoyment, even presuming that something is wrong with passive enjoyment.

The good fan fic, the stuff I still have saved, was for Fort Weyr, a Pern fanclub. Pern, for any who might not know, is Ann McCaffrey's world of dragons and dragon riders in a wonderful telepathic union fighting a deadly menace. It isn't exactly deathless prose. Indeed, when I reread the first book, I was disgusted by stuff that just didn't bother me the first time. But, I came to the books at exactly the right age, and they spoke to me.

Now, Ann McCaffrey was well aware that Fort Weyr existed and published a fanzine based on her works. She requested that the club refrain from playing with her core cast and locations, beyond the very occasional Guest Appearance. Her request was honored, and I think this is a large part of what made the stories good. So, yes, there's definitely something to be said for not being a slavish/slavering fan girl, and yes, that ties into Vincent's point.

Nevertheless, a) slavish/slavering fan girls are not likely to do much harm, even to themselves and b) the slavish/slavering stage was what led, at least in my case, to producing some halfway decent writing. My Pern stories are not brilliant, but they're competent. Oh, and c) anyone who might have said to me, "But, why write a Pern fan story? Why not write something Original?" was totally missing the point about what made me tic, fandom, fanfic, and writing.

Okay, on to gaming. Some years ago at GenCon, I watched a few minutes of a demo of Eden's Angel RPG. The players were playing the core cast of Angel, and no one had to tell me who was playing whom. It was obvious. And, it hit me that the Buffy and Angel rpgs are very useful as introductory rpgs. People who have never gamed before sometimes wonder if they're doing it right. Give one of these people the Buffy RPG and say, "Okay, you're playing Cordelia as she was in season one," and suddenly, this person knows how to do it. The source material is a guide.

Sure, I would hope that this hypothetical gamer isn't replaying an actual episode. Sure, I would hope the the hypothetical gamer goes on to play other games. But if not, no big deal. For that game, that person understands what we're doing and why we like it, and maybe has a good time for a few hours. That's no bad thing.

I think Primetime Adventures is another good game to offer people who have never played an rpg before. I vacilate between thinking it's a better one to offer than the Buffy or Angel rpgs and thinking that it's a good next step after introducing someone to Buffy/Angel/Firefly/Stargate/other show specific game. But here, too, you have something new gamers can hold on to, something to reassure them that they are doing it right.

I think I agree that a successful Star Trek or Buffy game is successful outside the confines of the show, as Vincent says. I do not think that I agree that it is necessarily successful in defiance of the published material. One doesn't have to push heavy social commentary to have a decent Pendragon or Lord of the Rings game. Indeed, I'd rather play something that took Lord of the Rings at face value than something where the GM and/or the other players felt obligated to hammer in a revisionist view of Middle Earth. But, that's just my tastes.

I'm fairly conservative as a gamer, by Forge standards, I think. My default system is, and may always be, OTE. It works for me. I use things that work from other games, and I'm interested in a lot of what's going on at the cutting and bleeding edge of rpgs—but I like my comfortable little niche, even if it's not considered cool anymore.

Origamist John Montroll talked about the difference between people who only fold models and the people who design new models. I'm solidly in the first group. I have a great deal of respect for the folks in the second. Without them, I could not do what I do. But, I still have no desire to design models one day.

Without the Forge and all that came from it, I would stagnate as a gamer. I need it to exist. I even hope to run a PTA campaign soon, and to play in or run DitV one of these days. But, I doubt I will ever create an rpg of my very own. (I am ignoring the fact that I've worked on larps. That's a different kettle of fish.) I'm an end user.

Setting. Hm. I've recently concluded my second Cthulhupunk campaign (the first having started way before there was a GURPS Cthulhupunk). And, for the two campaigns, I lifted source material from everywhere. CoC. Delta Green and other Pagan Publishing material. NightLife. WoD. A Ravenloft scenario. Various movies and books. And, by collaging all of these ingredients together, I created art. Once I started running, the art got complicated, as I pulled in more elements and modified what I was doing, as the players did cool things that modified the world, and all of the usual stuff that goes on in any decent long running game.

I could not have done this with my own original setting. I have no desire to come up with my own original setting.

I have gotten better over the years at tinkering with other people's published works and tailoring it to the game and its players. I doubt I'm fetishizing any particular setting.

Any themes my games had just sort of happened. I never sat down and decided, "I will run a game with X theme." OTOH, I did decide, when playing with all of my background pieces, to say, "Okay, I'm using CoC, but Lovecraft got it wrong. The Outer Gods are not the be-all and end-all of creation. Sure, their worshippers say they are, but what do you expect?"

I don't think of that as revisionist. It might be, but I think of it as modifying one element so as to make the game as a whole more playable.

I really love Ninja J's three principles and the example illustrating how this technique can be used to flesh out a setting. I must try that.

-Lisa Padol


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