Tuesday, March 29, 2011

To the Garden, the World, Anew Ascending

Learning to appreciate and like even the campaign worlds hammered out of your imagination as a GM is an easy enough trick—truly being immersed enough to “get” them on some visceral, emotional level is something much more elusive.

Yeah sure, I have enjoyed the act of ongoing creation that any half-assed campaign setting can give you, but the moments that I felt the vivid “realness” of them, truth be told, have been rare to none.

Worldbuilding for me as a mostly bottom-up creator has been mostly a process of “yes and...”: filling in a space here and there when the wanderings and machinations of the players create the need to do so--or better when they co-create a detail that I want to riff off. A gleaming, teetering tower made of bones looming over an ancient battlefield suddenly flashes into existence or an long-lost Amazon goddess of Pain and Retribution instantly has an elaborate player-known rite.

I enjoy this in the same way I enjoy watching improv. It gets some much needed exercise out of the brain and sometimes the funny bone.

Yet, something gnaws enviously at me when talk comes around about the tabletop experiences with the great top-down rpg world builders: how it was to play with a M.A.R. Barker in Tekumel or a Greg Stafford in Glorantha. How each not only felt a deep connection to the reality of their worlds, but could impart in others the same feeling of immersion in a fantasy world. Inevitably I alternate between questions like “how do they do that?” with “is that obsession fun and crazy, or just plain crazy?” But always I feel like I am missing something.

This week some of the Domain Game players though made me think that our shared world, Nowhere, may be vectoring toward such an experience. Nowhere on the face of it is a highly unlikely candidate. Nowhere is supposed to be the ultimate blank slate of a campaign experience, a playtest white board where virtually the only visible sentient life was exported by the diverse players—all representing expeditions whose cultures and backgrounds where creations almost completely of their own.

Sure I had a giant hex map with honed down to a fine five-mile hex zoom and a giant mess of half-baked charts, tables, and other exceedingly granular lists for filling them in, but not much else really.

All the poking, prodding, and barraging of literally hundreds of cascading questions by the tentative new explorers of this land changed that dynamic quickly. What kind of animals are found here? Are they herd animals? Is their hide good for tanning? What's the arability of the soil like? Is the wood here soft or hard? How big are the wooded clumps? What's the drainage of this rolling plain like? Can I find clay to make pots? Stone to make ziggurats? Gravel to make roads? Fodder for yaks? Etc. etc.

Each and everyone of those hexes were forced to become something so finely detailed that the realness started to feel unescapable. And right behind this physical vivid mental picture came the inexorable march of Big Mysteries. Who build all the monoliths and their extra-planar gates? Where did they go? What hand launched that golden barge off the coast? Who dug that canal and raised that metal dome? 

Behind the mysteries came the Great Themes. The largest of all a primal myth for us Americans: the eery emptiness and menace of true wilderness. Not the typical D&D wilderness which seems so very “busy” here an orc tribe, there a veritable monster condo of a cave system, but the true subtle danger of a blank slate world—that had the touch of someone somewhere lurking behind the next bush or hill line.

Samwise, master of the yak-loving theocratic Gibliki, nailed this in a recent intra-group email in a way I frankly never put my head around completely myself:
Nowhere is like a fresh undisturbed paradise of sorts, or like a pearl just waiting to be found and plucked (or admired for its beauty as it is)...In some ways it feels like no one else has been here before, or that perhaps people were here a very long time ago and then went extinct for some unknown reason. It makes me think of the show Life After People, in that the natural world continues to go on, and is happy to do so.

The Fog Of War way that you are handling the maps also leaves much of the wider world as an unknown mystery, and enigma, that wants to be found out with more exploration (if only we could make sure we feed everyone, and shelter everyone first). It makes you way what your wants and needs are, and more often the needs take precedent.

The setting makes me think of those explorers that first mapped out an unknown continent (even if those maps were horribly distorted). "Here be dragons." In some ways this feels like my first Hex Crawl (as I've never one a campaign like that). Even though you may know that there are trees in a nearby hex, you don't know what is lurking beneath those leaves and branches until you go and look around a bit.
Reading those words, made me feel like I had finally “got” it myself about Nowhere.

If you made it through this far in this great bit of navel-gazing and thinking out loud, I commend your endurance. And as always I am all ears when it comes to your own experiences as a world builder.

Did you ever feel that you real “got” your own world? Why? What role did your players play in this?


  1. I tend to build settings on two fronts simultaneously. I generally start with a big map, and I start tinkering on the gods, forces, etc. that are in the unfathomable planes of existence beyond the mortal realm. I think about kingdoms, and what they might be named, and if I should use similar sounding names or use different sounding names (and different languages) for each of them.

    On the bottom up side of things, I pick what I think is an interesting spot on the Big Map, and then I start a campaign. The details start filling in, after all of the questions have been answered by me as the GM or inadvertently by the players (who make suggestions even when they don't realize it).

    I'd probably have a very detailed world, if I stuck with one setting, and had less ADD with RPG things... hehe.

  2. A mix of long-term bottom-up answering questions through gameplay, and over the decades, the singular guiding principle that I had for Urutsk kept things from growing too 'weedy' to keep track of.

    I literally had dozens of games of various systems and eras to play that then were folded into the Grand Tapestry, forming a well-playtested setting with all the necessary history and reality of our Earth, as the parallels are intentional and planned.

    The effect is that of genuine authoritative knowledge and even if an answer on a particular topic hadn't previously existed, it can be sussed out by a brief thought of which cultures did what and when to have best created or removed some facet of the setting.

    From my love of 'The Big Picture' and my spotty and anachronistic reading of non-fiction (and a lot of PBS/BBC programming), I had the historical grounding to draw attention to certain aspects of the Peoples and Cultures which I depicted in new forms or in foreign combinations.

    Top-down has been the editing and pruning process even as it formed the foundational skeleton to which the meat of the setting clings.

  3. The home world for most of the characters in my old 2e game was like that. The players had as least as large a part in driving that development as I did.

    One example is when two players made brothers named Al and Ister Crowley. Of course, their mother was a witch. They saw her burned alive. And suddenly a little village had a ton of history where there had been nothing, and would have been nothing.

  4. @Samwise
    I wish I could do that, take a big map and zero in. My tendency is to way over-think it which is why I tend to gravitate to bottom up for sanity's sake. Give me a big canvass and I obsess too much and the whole thing starts to become as internecine as the Thirty Years War--on meth.

    "A mix of long-term bottom-up answering questions through gameplay, and over the decades, the singular guiding principle that I had for Urutsk kept things from growing too 'weedy' to keep track of."

    To me that sounds ideal, organic evolution from game play. Likely the best argument to the familiar dilemma that Samwise mentions about Gamer ADD. I have been trying like all blazes not to jettison my Hill Cantons campaign despite an urge every four months or so to do something radically different.

    The consistency and emergent story have paid off over the three years--even if we have never strayed more than 60 miles from the starting point in any direction. So far the HC world remains a very small and intimate place.

    I am a sucker for those wonderfully bad puns and word plays. A time honored tradition handed down to us down the ages from Arneson and Gygax.

    1. Actually, maybe "the Thirty Years War on meth" isn't a bad integrational approach if you want a living world. Imagine if you were suddenly plunked down in central Saxony and told that the Swedes and Spaniards were about to fight a major battle near you over some dude who got pitched out a window in Bohemia a dozen years earlier... What kind of world would you be in? From what I've read in Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, it might just about be like The Hill Cantons!

      So maybe ripping off history a bit is a very GOOD idea when you're trying to make the world more immersive. ;-)

  5. @ckutalik: I admire that you have run a game for that long at such a small scale of travel and tight interaction. I'm sure it is great fun to play in. :D

    WV: Weadusa

  6. @Timeshadows
    The density of the strange and mysterious packed into that little area is a bit on the ridiculous side, but I feel like that adds to it being part of the Wyrd.

    Weadusa? Weird Medusae?

    I forgot to mention that I like how you explicitly say you draw on broader knowledge when riffing. Something we talk about less in these circles than fictional/literary inspiration is the influence and inspiration from non-fictional sources.

  7. "I forgot to mention that I like how you explicitly say you draw on broader knowledge when riffing. Something we talk about less in these circles than fictional/literary inspiration is the influence and inspiration from non-fictional sources." -- ckutalik

    Thanks. :D
    --It seems that opinion is in the minority in certain circles in this little hobby of ours.