The nature of fiction

2 September, 2008 at 6:48 pm (definition, rpg theory) (, , , )

In this post I will muse about and offer a definition for fiction, as it exists in roleplay. First I will cover a mathematical description of possibility (or believability or acceptability or some better word). After that I will discuss how possibility works in play.

A possibility space

Take any person immersed in some work of fiction (reading a book, watching a movie, roleplaying,… ). That person has a mental notion of what is true and what is possible within that fiction.

So, I will define fiction as a set of propositions about some world (imagined or not) and possibilities assigned to these propositions.

(Proposition claims that something is true. I have previously discussed how to make truth a meaningful concept in the context of roleplaying.)

Assigning a possibility to a proposition means saying, for example, that a proposition “The princess is not married.” is certainly true, or impossible, or other similar descriptor. I found it useful to use numbers in place of descriptors. More precisely: Impossible proposition has possibility 0. Certain (or necessary) proposition has possibility 1. Any possibilities between these two are possible, with higher number meaning that the proposition is more possible, or more likely true.

The scale between 1 and 0 is used because both probability theory and fuzzy (multivalued) logic use the same scale. Fundamentally the scale does not matter. Note for the (even more) mathematically inclined: Possibility is a function from the realm of propositions to the closed interval [0, 1].

One should note that what was defined above was possibility space of a single individual.


So, take a number of individuals enjoying a work of fiction together. Playing an rpg or watching a movie, say, and maybe even talking about it. If one of them suggests something, the others might consider it a natural outgrowth of the fiction, or a sheer impossibility, or anything between.

Group possibility of a given proposition being true is a function of the personal possibilities regarding the proposition. The function must fulfill the following criteria (in the order they occur to me):

  1. The function’s value is 1 if and only if the personal possibilities are all 1.
  2. The function is continuous (given the normal way of measuring distance in n-dimensional and one-dimensional real number spaces).
  3. The function’s value is 0 if all personal possibilities are 0.
  4. Increasing the value of any personal possibility may not (while keeping the others fixed) descrease the function’s value.
  5. Decreasing the value of any personal possibility may not (while keeping the others fixed) increase the function’s value.

(4. and 5. can be combined by saying that the function is increasing with regards to every personal possibility.)

The above characterisation defines a number of functions. Nomenclature: F is used for the group function’s value, f(i) for ith person’s possibility. For example:

  • F = 1 if for all i f(i) = 1. Otherwise F = 0.
  • F = minimum [f(i)], i goes through all the players.
  • F = f(1)*f(2)*…*f(n), where n is the number of players.
  • nth root of the above, or geometric average.
  • F = (f(1) + f(2) + … + f(n))/n, where n is the number of players. In other words: The arithmetic average of f(i).

The group possiblity F is a measure of how readily the group will accept the given proposition into fiction or how certain they are of the piece of fiction being true.

One can interpret possibility as being the probability of the given thing being true within the fiction, though that definition is not exactly true and there are flaws. Another possibility is to consider possibility as the truth value of the proposition. For more on this, consult a random book about multivalued or fuzzy logic.


Roleplay is the process of creating shared fiction. There usually are other standards for good play, many not related to creating fiction, but all roleplay does hinge on shared fiction (if you personal definition of roleplay includes solo play, consider it to be shared among one person).

Bruce has previously discussed creating shared fiction and the role of anchors, so I will not repeat the stuff too elaborately. The key point is that even though players usually have similar fictions in mind, the details are very distinct. One significant part of the activity of roleplaying is constantly aligning the fictions of the participants so that they are reasonably similar. Generally, the more similar the functions are, the smoother the game goes. In some styles the differences do provoke people to add interesting details and force the others to scramble for it all to make sense. Games with a game master and mystery only they know are like this, as are games of the Mountain Witch where all player characters have a secret no other participant, not even the GM, know.

As far as the model goes, establishing an anchor (shared fact) fixes certain possibilities to certain propositions; typically, possibility 1 to the anchor and 0 to contradictions and other possibilities to whatever is implied by them. Any change to the fiction will alter this spread of possibilities, as will out-of-game hints and references, as will time as people forget things. The fiction is very ephemeral thing, constantly shifting around.

Shared imaginare space

The part of fiction that affects future play is called shared imaginary space, as coined by Fang and later used and altered on the Forge. Material in the SIS has high possibility, maybe even possibility 1, because it is used and recognised by the participants.


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As the witch wills

12 February, 2008 at 10:12 pm (Burning vikings, Burning Wheel) (, , , )

This session was shorter than the previous ones due to wgaztari’s university stuff.


Game starts as everyone gets up, with a bit of retconning due to Mori first visiting Nässla and only then going to sleep.

I neglect to mention several rolls and both gains and expenditures of artha. They are a legion; artha is flowing as it should, dice get rolled often enough for my tastes. Thalin wants more. Maybe so.

Scene 1

Brunhildr and Halvard wake up. Brunhildr goes bathing in a nearby stream. I resist the urge to do the classical scene at this point, which might have been a mistake. I may get another opportunity. Anyway. After getting back she goes to get some food. ksym (plays Brunhildr) asks where Leif is. Of course he ust came in and is taking food at the same time as ksym is. Brunhildr very accidentally knocks his food to the floor (ksym gets fate artha for playing thug and moving the story forward). Leif is outraged. One of his soldiers challenges Brunhildr to a duel (this happy event involves  Brunhildr’s instinct to punch anyone who touches her without warning; she misses, having no brawling and soldier having some; this involved a roll). The soldier is pretty good at what he does: Relevant numbers are solid (black) fours, including stats and weapon skill. Not quite in league with Brunhildr, but still potentially deadly.

The duel was fought along more-or-less historically accurate model. I assume the “less”. A cloak was set on the ground. The one to first step off it, drop blood on it, be disarmed or dead loses the duel. In this particular case, this allowed using the rather elaborate Burning Wheel Fight! rules and disregard positioning, as both combatants preferred their weapons. I asked ksym if he wanted the long form combat; he did, though struggled a bit with it. When dueling, ksym quickly noticed how damn important armour is for survival and how frustrating it is to use a sword against an armoured opponent (the opponent used an axe and had lighter armour than Brunhildr). I once allowed ksym to probably save his character by expending a persona artha; this was a minor breach of the rules, I would handle it in a different way if the situation came back again. After a number of attacks clinging of armours and everyone noticing just how chaotic the combat system really is, Brunhildr managed a successful disarm. The opponent rolls steel due to losing a duel to mere woman and fails it. He stands and drools. Some witty banter and one attack on head that is handled by armour, Brunhildr gets a choice: She can slay the opponent then and there. It is clear that she did after having won. It breaks no rules but certainly will give her a fierce reputation. Result: Off with the head. Ksym gets fate and persona artha (IIRC, at least fate). A lot was used in the duel, too, so net effect on artha was probably mildly negative. This is one of the good gaming moments and I got to give ksym artha as a recognition.

Scene 2

Before the fight breaks out two important things happen. First: Halvard and Leif bet on the winner. Leif loses, gives Halvard a loan (one PC actually has a resources exponent to use again). Mori returns to the hall (catching the attention of two magpies due to failing a foraging roll; lame consequences), succeeds at inconspicuous (nobody pays significant attention to him). He flirts with Gilla and poisons the gobletful of mead (or something) that the winner of the duel is to drink. Nothing lethal, just something that will cause a mild fever for some days. ksym first intends to not drink it, but decides to go with it after I bribe him with a point of fate artha (slight breach of the rules, but stealing an idea from FATE/SotC is generally not a bad idea; worked fine this time).

This is an opposed test: Poisons versus health. Mori’s poisoning is successful with two successes over Brunhildr’s health test. I read this as giving -2D on everything for one day and -1D on the second. Both players agree. ksym burns a point of fate artha to open-end the one six rolled and reduces the effects of the disease to -1D for the next day due to mild fever. Both players are happy.

Pretty eventful morning, I must say. When Brunhildr gets back and talks to her daughter, it becomes clear (dice are rolled to find this out) that Mori was there and talked to her (about her seeing spirit or spirits, among other things). The poisoning is not discovered. All players know, of course. It’s fun.

Scene 3

Next in order: Gathering information. Halvard and Brunhildr have a cunning idea of setting up a trap for Nifur the giant. It involves finding a suitable place for ambush, which involves finding someone who knows the local area very well. This is a circles roll. Halvard gets Leif to help as it is for common good. Brunhildr also asks around. Helping dice are a powerful thing; success. Failure would have meant that the hunter who knows the area like his backyard just tragically lost his brother by Brunhildr’s arm. Failures complicate, not block. Too bad the roll was successful.

Halvard asks around for someone who knows about giants and gets directed to a witch who lives in a nearby spruce swamp with a nasty reputation. That’s Nässla. He, too, gets two magpies following him. Gets fate artha for throwing one with a rock; misses, though Nettle doesn’t really appreciate it, which probably did not show enough. Mori found out the magpies serve or report to Nässla.

Scene 4

Halvard knocks on Nässla’s door. Mori opens it. Situation is somewhat interesting. There is some subtle unhospitability on Mori’s part and lots of negotiating with the witch. Halvard wants to know about the giant; Nettle promises to tell where and how he can obtain a weapon suitable for slaying it, for a price. Namely; to bring Gilla there and make sure she remains there. This after Halvard didn’t want to give Nässla his strength.

A note on OOC talk: I explicitly asked players if they want a magical weapon in the game; wgaztari wasn’t particularly keen on magic in general, but okayd the sword, assuming it is not very flashy. Well, I can guarantee there will be no threat of that. Our senses of aesthetics seem to be quite compatible. Good.

Halvard further asks if Nokkonen knows about his father’s death. Answer is flat-out yes. Price: Halvard’s strength. Nässla does accept the strength of someone else, too (Leif is the most likely target right now). Halvard leaves, Nässla orders Mori to accompany him (and make sure Gilla really gets there).

Meanwhile: Brunhildr and some men start seeking a suitable place for ambush.

Notes and some minor spoilers

There is likely to be some retconning, namely: Did ksym order his men to keep Mori away from Gilla? Did she leave her armour to be repaired or take it with her?

There is a chance that Leif’s men will ambush Halvard on his way back. It would kind of fit, but would,on the other hand, be dramatically a bit unsuitable when thinking about the possibility that Leif is taken to Nässla and his men attack after that, which I would prefer. I have not decided yet. Time’s running.

There is a significant chance that Brunhildr and the others meet a giant. The giant. This for two reasons: First, if they fail a suitable roll, I can use Nifur as a consequence; second, other Brunhildr will be less active for significant time (one and a half sessions) and that is not good.

Gilla will not be too willing to meet the witch; if nothing else complicates the matters, she will see some aura on the magpies. I assume she will be taken to Nässla regardless.

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Fudging, cheating, and so forth

22 January, 2008 at 9:11 pm (definition, rpg theory) (, , )

Definition time. I’ll go for normative ones, even if they can be argued against.

I assume that rules are used, where rules are the perceived and accepted procedures of play. This includes such sentiments as “follow GM plot hooks”, “roll d20 and add skill, higher is better”, “all players can create facts about their own character’s homeland as long as GM okays the facts, which usually happens”. (For those who know system in Forge theory: This definition of rules has significant overlap with system in the Forge sense, but is not equivalent, and neither is a subset of the other.)

Resolution is using rules to determine diegetic (fictional) facts. This particularly means that there exists at least two different outcomes of the resolution such that they must have different implications as far as the fiction is considered. For example: Rolling attributes in D&D. Different results lead to different diegetic outcomes. A trivial example is GM narration, but it is also not very relevant to this blog post. I’ll talk about the non-trivial cases, in which some other factor is used to restrict narration or the fiction in general. Random encounters are a good example.


Disclaimer: I don’t like fudging.

A participant (player or GM) fudges when resolution rules are used and their effect wrt the diegesis is ignored. Note: Player fudging is usually cheating, which I define a bit later.

For example: Player rolls a lousy set of attributes and rolls a new one and displaces the worst with it. It is worth noting that this is only fudging if it is not assumed in the group. GM rolls a random encounter, which is zombies, again, and uses skeletons instead. This, again, is fudging only if GM usually uses the encounter tables as is, with no need to alter the results afterwards. By this definition, it is not fudging to alter the mechanical statistics of entities mid-game, which might mean this is a bad definition. I’m not sure.


Participant is cheating when some rules are used or are not used and the group does not approve of this, or would not approve if it knew.

Particularly: Game masters who fudge or alter statistics of NPCs or spontaneously swap the place of cities are cheating if and only if the players do not or would not accept it. If, on the other hand, the players assume or would accept such activity, it is not cheating (but may still be fudging). Almost all player fudging is cheating. In some games, GM fudging is also cheating. In others, not so much, but this still is a matter of the group.

Direct conclusions

Fudging is not inherently bad. Cheating often is. Not all fudging is cheating. Not all cheating is fudging (player reducing too few hit points is, but adding them during a calm moment is not).

Also, my definition of fudging doesn’t seem to work properly. It needs a bit more refinement, I think.

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To challenge or to validate

18 January, 2008 at 7:53 pm (actual play, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , , )

More theory-related non-dichotomies. Basically, something is validated in play if the it is accepted and engaged when playing. Something is challenged when it is engaged in play in such a way that it is questioned. I’m going to apply the definitions on the level of fiction and particularly characters, though social issues can also be analysed by the same methods.

Most, if not all, games have some portion of character validation in them. Thalin is GM in a Star Wars game that started this Monday in the university group and I am playing a jedi weaponsmaster. I want my character’s skill with weapons to be validated; thus far, there has been training of less experienced jedi and no truly challenging combats. I’m totally happy with that. On the other hand, the character has some dark side influence (which is not as huge a deal as in normal SW, because the setting is quite far from canon and set in the far future) and that is something I do want to be emphasised and challenged. I don’t know how far the character is willing to go if someone, say, mocks him or irritates him, though he is darker than I originally envisioned. Finding such things out would be interesting.

Alignment in D&D, particularly that of paladins, is also a great example. Some players and game masters want the paladin to be a knight in shiny armour, all good and just and so forth. This is, I believe, how paladins were intended to be played. At least this is the way the design points towards, with the extremely great price for falling (paladin becomes worth less than a fighter in combat) and the difficulty of becoming a blackguard unless that was intended from the start. Validating play supports the paladin; opportunities to be good, encouragement to do the good thing, maybe an opportunity to redeem a bad guy in a game not focused on combat.

Some game masters want to challenge the goodness of paladins. Some players want their paladins to be challenged thusly. Should orc babies be killed? A demon has possessed an innocent child, killing whom would banish it forever from this realm. How should one act in a hostage situation? The usual method is to put two goods against each other or make choosing one of two bads a necessity. In this model, the assumption that paladins are good is often put under microscope. Are they really the shining examplars they want to be? Is it even possible?

Both methods are, of course, totally valid. As with all theory and naming, one should be aware of the differences and find a suitable middle ground. Or an extreme view. Whichever. The problem with this issue is that conflicting assumptions can lead to play that is bad (not satisfying, in other words). A GM who wants to challenge the paladin and a player looking for validation can lead to perceived persecution, while player looking for challenging play and facing only validation will feel the game falls flat. This is true on characters not like paladins, but usually to a less dramatic effect.

Riddles and mysteries are another similar issue. I see absolutely no point in them, because that is not the way and the place to challenge me. Other players find them enjoyable. Mechanical challenges likewise: Attempts to challenge the mechanical aspect of a character are something I don’t find particularly interesting. Some play to be challenged in such a way.

I am fairly certain that a game where a lot of things are challenged would lead to more volatile play and one where the central parts of the game are validated would be more predictable, and hence easier to run in scripted way.

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Chaos in roleplaying

11 January, 2008 at 8:31 pm (rpg theory) (, , , )

I have woefully neglected mentioning and linking to Markus Montola’s chaos model of roleplaying. The way I actually use the model, which is somewhat different from what Montola has written, is as follows. Ignore if you actually know something about chaos or are math-phobic. For the record, I don’t anything about chaos.

Chaotic system is one which has a given starting state and then changes from that recursively, where each iteration can be determined but predicting the end result of multiple iterations becomes increasingly difficult due to the interaction of multiple factors all part of the system. Technically, there should no random factors involved, but I don’t think they actually chang the model at all, assuming that the possible effects of randomness are possible due of the state that is used as base for current iteration and might not be possible, or at least not as likely, given some other state of the system. Even with no randomness, there must be some state that might happen as the result of given iteration that could not be the result of some other starting situation.

I think the model can be applied to roleplaying on two levels: The diegetic level, which is a fancy way of saying the level of fiction , where a every situation is a different end and beginning of a new iteration, or the social level where the players actually function and play happens. It could be argued that only the social level is important, but at least I also find it interesting to investigate how the diegetic situation changes and which factors change it to specific directions. There would be no roleplaying without the fiction.

Attractor is a certain path (an ordered list) of situations. The social situation or gameplay tends towards attractors. On social level, there being a rules expert in a given group is an attractor. It is likely that someone will take on that particular group, and if only a single session is observed, it is likely that there is only one such person. On diegetic level, the player characters fighting the undead hordes could be an attractor, given suitable adventure and PCs.

Bifurcation point is a situation where the game (there doubtless are social equivalents, but I haven’t thought about them as much and can’t come up with a suitable example) can take at least two directions; that is, one attractor is chosen, others disregarded. For example, in a totally original plot twist the GM decided that the big bad evil guy (BBEG) is one PC’s father, who asks the relevant PC to join the dark side and rule the world with him. This is very much a bifurcation point, because the PC and the BBEG might start working together towards world domination after a family reunion or the PC and the father might fight and there might be much angst. Either could happen. Other factors, like group mentality (everyone must be a good guy) or character portrayal (BBEG is very evil and nasty and more-or-less literally drips darkness and goo) can affect the situation, or even not make it a bifurcation point at all by making the response a given.

The next post outlines three playing styles, applies the terminology introduced in this post and provides more examples as a side effect.

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It’s all about consequences

8 January, 2008 at 6:07 pm (rpg theory) (, , )

Previously I posted on the importance of choices to my roleplaying. That is not the whole truth, as opusinsania pointed out. The other half of the equation is consequences, and both of them require context (situation).

Many traditional sanbox-style games start with some amount of guesswork on the GM’s side: The GM throws different stuff at the players justto see how their characters react in common situations. What does the character do when insulted, yelled at, attacked, blackmailed, … This sort of play can be rewarding or at least interesting.

Sometimes after a session or two, sometimes after few scenes of play, the consequences of those and new decisions start manifesting. This is the big consequences that change or determine the direction of the game.  Someone surrendered and wasn’t killed for that reason? Maybe that someone becomes a loyal companion, or a traitor, or a coward. Or maybe the someone simply remains a someone and never really takes on a larger role. The first three are big consequences.

Judgement comes after the consequences. Was the decision correct, which is most effectively asked by repeating the situation. The first prisoner of war turned a traitor. Will the next surrendering opponent still be spared? Even if it is the same person? Even if it is a demon, widely known as utterly untrustworthy and malicious?

The GM (and other players) generally should not fixate on single issue and hit the character continuously with it. That would usually be boring. The qualifiers are for those indie games whose point is laser-sharp focus on an issue or few (which is not nearly all indie games). Those aside, guidance on  what issues should get the focus by being reused comes from communication between relevant people. This can be explicit or rely on judging what other people enjoy from their reactions, or use character sheets as a guide (some with the key of unrequited love when playing the Shadow of Yesterday is waving a big flag at the issue that should get repeated; someone with tons of investigation skills may either want to investigate a lot or get all investigation quickly over and move to the other parts of the game), or employ player questinnaries, or carefully consider the open threads in a character background. Players should be active in communicating their desires an, when plausible, hitting the favoured material of other players.

To me, consequences are the fuel that keeps longer games burning. Player choice is what sets the direction the game takes. Choices are what determines the consequences. Rules and the GM enforce the consequences, which can be used to justify the existence of both.

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Getting out of the adventure (with no rails)

12 December, 2007 at 9:28 pm (game mastering) (, , )

Jonathan Drain crawled out of the dungeon (an excellent article one ought to read). I’m going a bit further explain some ways of gaming that don’t fit his definition of adventure, which is: any series of exciting, heroic events involving a group of heroes who set out with a purpose. As previously, this shall happen without the rails.

First, it should be noted that many gamers are in for the co-operation, excitement and eventual triumph implied by an adventure. That’s fine. Go play, have fun. Maybe there is something useful for you in this post, maybe not.

So, how to get off the rails and the adventure at the same time? First way is to break the party. Not merely split it, but to stop assuming it at all. The problem is in keeping all players engaged regardless. Sending them out of room or using notes are, obviously, very bad ideas. So one must trust the players; trust that they will not abuse the metagame information, but either ignore it or use it well. The simplest way of keeping all players engaged is cutting between their characters rabidly. First ask what everyone is doing, then play every situation a bit at a time, jump to next, play a bit of it, and so forth. A good alternative is to recruit players to play NPCs when their characters are not present, assuming the players are willing. It is also beneficial to have the player characters interact with each other as much as possible, because it inherently involves more than one player and gives more time to think, or to play the scenes of other players, whichever suits the situation and the group.

Three or four independent agents will make planning kinda difficult. So, the key is to define a number of NPC, their motivations, and abilities (including the people, money and influence they have at their disposal), after which playing them is just like playing a PC, but at a less accurate level.

Another way to get out of the adventure is to break the heroism. Maybe the characters or their achievements are not heroic. “Realistic” drama can be compelling, as long as everyone is interested in it. Or playing “evil” characters. Or other fiction that can be taken as nonheroic. To not start a semantic argument about heroism I will leave it undefined (the easy solution, I hope). Key in making nonheroic games interesting is in giving the player character power to influence something relevant. Saving the world from Cthulhu may be out of question, but saving your relative may be possible. Or trying it may be possible. Real choices are what makes all gaming worth it (in my not-very-humble opinion). Extra care must be taken to provide low-power characters with meaningful choices. Ditto for evil ones; moral dilemmas don’t work quite as well on them.

Third way to break out of adventure is to leave the purpose. I do not advocate purposeless play (it is boring), but play where the characters don’t have clear quests or such can work. One method of accomplishing it is to build a relationship map of characters tightly involved with each other and the PCs, but where people want conflicting things from the PCs. They can’t please everyone, which creates conflict, but can alter the situation to any way they will. Adding some external pressure to the situation usually manages to create a good game. The NPCs should be played according to their motivations and capabilities, as before.

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A few links

4 December, 2007 at 4:19 pm (roleplaying) (, , , )

Yax of Dungeonmastering provided a list of rpg links (including me; thanks!). Here are two good ones he missed and which are not in my blogroll:

First addition is the great NearbyGamers, where you can enter tags and it locates other nearby people who share tags with you. Also supports card and board games. Useful if you don’t live in Finland or some similar distant wasteland. If you do, marginally useful.

Second is Abulafia, a random generator wiki where you can add new generators and improve the existing ones. It has several name generators, plot generators, and more. An excellent resource and toy.

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Setting does matter

24 November, 2007 at 10:44 pm (game design, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , )

Most people accept that system does matter. But so does setting, at least as much (it must be true because Troy Costisick has said it before). Setting is tenously defined as the diegetic (in-game) context of the actual play.

How does setting matter? Well, I’d start with players often having preferences to some direction, and away from some other directions. I am a dark fantasy junkie, for example, but dislike running Cyberpunk. A friend has an unexplained dislike towards guns in gaming. These tastes are overwhelmingly subjective. Conclusion: Don’t play in setting someone hates. Do play in settings people are ambivalent about, because trying new things is useful.

On more technical note, setting is a large contributor in the sort of events that can take place and, hence, stories that can be told. Rarely do they completely rule out genres, but they often suggest and facilitate certain broad ways to play. If vampires are a major theme in the game, most likely possibilities are horror of them chasing you, horror of being them, high-action or gritty vampire hunting, or the political etc. ramifications of supernatural beings. Comedy, for example, is not ruled out, but neither is it particularly made easier by the vampires.

Setting design

I am assuming that the reader is a GM designing a setting for gaming purposes. If publication is in mind, this article is probably useful. If world-building in and of itself is the goal, with a distinct possibility of someday gaming in the setting, the Campaign Builders’ Guide is a useful resource (it is good if you intend to game, too).

The most important thing is not to overdesign. Nobody but you is really interested in the fine details of the kingdom’s dressing habits during the summer solstice, unless they are somehow very interesting. And if everything is full of interesting detail, the setting is utterly overwhelming to anyone trying to learn it. Further, such a setting will feel cluttered.

The other most important thing is to not under-design. It is very possible to start with freeform or very light system and more detail as play goes on, but starting with next to no setting is hard. The first reason is that players need something to inspire their characters. “You can play anything!” is far from useful. Second reason is that improvisation and keeping the game consistent are hard without a baseline.

So, one requires a suitable level of detail to create the optimal setting. The actual amount is, of course, a factor of group’s playstyle. GM, if any, needs to know enough to set up the game. Depending on play style, this may be a situation (the orcs are attacking the village where you have lived your entire lives; D&D-esque fantasy) or a location (the city is large, approximately medieval, and limited by two rivers and the ocean; create shady characters; little if any magic). This needs to be communicated to players. Again, depending on play style, GM may need enough material to prepare an adventure, or to build a relationship map, or map a dungeon, or whatever. When player characters are created, again depending on group style, additional material such as NPCs (contacts and relationships of the PCs), houses, organisations, cities, monsters, and so forth, may be required or created.

That’s all well and good for starting the game, but to keep it running smoothly, further information may be necessary or at least useful. One option is to be creative and create more-or-less original and new material. A second, far more economic, method has been adequately explained by Chris Chinn over Deeper in the Game, but I can do a summary of the piece: Apply real world stuff, or other known material (Star Wars, Tolkien, D&D, Cthulhu mythos, …). A culture that is “like ancient Romans” or a religion that is “Christianity with different symbols” are both very easy to use in play. Another powerful method is taking or making up an arbitrary game element and creating an intuitive explanation for it. For geography, “archipelago”, “great plains”, “huge delta with rainforests” or an overall map are likely sufficient for quite some time.

Some of the most important roles of setting simply snuck in: The role of PCs, the things they can change, and the things that can affect them. These are often emergent qualities, but sometimes part of the concept. They should be thought about, either way. Simply saying “You can play anything!” is, again, not useful. Some examples are either necessary or damn useful. A setting inspired by vikings might have the coming of Ragnarök as an immutable factor (there is no way to prevent it) that pushes the PCs around by threatening that which they hold in value. Or it may be something that needs to be stopped, NOW. The game will have a different feel in both cases.

For more detail on elements that compromise a setting, see Troy Costisick’s relevant article. And for good list of things to think true and potentially write down, see another article by the same author. Both are highly recommended.

How much detail should one create? For me, the sweet spot is in just enough to improvise all sorts of fun details, but not so much that I have to reference anything or fear making big mistakes. Your mileage may vary.

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An old thing

23 November, 2007 at 1:42 pm (roleplaying) (, , )

What roleplaying genre would you be great at?
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You scored as TragedyYou’ve got a handle on how a tragedy occurs – one part stubbornness and one part nobility. Along with the willingness to go for the dramatic moment even when you know it’s likely to end badly, and the ability to express emotional moments, you have a solid foothold (or more) in the things that player needs to excel at tragedy-based roleplaying.If you’d like to put these skills to use right away, you can click and download Microcosm. It’s a free, introductory roleplaying game. If you decide to go for it, remember the awards on the left; those are ones your group may want to use.


Stolen from Levi Kornelsen.

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