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8/28/2011

Setting: Make Mine Murky

The DM's greatest tools are his authority over the gameworld and his ability to limit/expand the players' knowledge of it. Etch that on a stone terminus and refer to it when you get the desire to say too much. 

I think it's natural for us to want to create borders around our imaginary worlds. Doing so increases their comprehensibility, both to ourselves and the players. Like them, WE want to understand what's going on in this strange place. 

But consider the possibility that too much of this comprehensibility stuff may be a bad thing.

The best sort of player is a worried player. Not to the extent that she's ready to commit suicide if Black Leaf should bite it, of course. But nervous enough to put her whole mind into the game. If she feels dread, if she's concerned with the fate of her character, then she is immersed and you've done your job.

Instead of elaborating on the game world's minutia and potentially burying the players in background, IMHO the DM should be concerning himself with how to create the right level of tension. This certainly isn't going to happen by telling the players too much [increasing comprehensibility] about their environs in a second-hand way. If anything, such details should be difficult to fully obtain -- and slippery [potentially inaccurate or perhaps only partly true]. Travelers exaggerate. Old wives lie. Peddlers bend the truth as it suits them. The players should not know whether or not the world truly be round or flat, whether the sun be merely a disk or a giant orb of exploding gas. In order to lay the groundwork for dread, this sort of concrete knowledge should be fragmented and obscured before it reaches the player. Keep them guessing. Ram home the idea that first-hand experience is the only thing they can fully rely on.

I admire James M's approach to this stuff in his Dwimmermount campaign. Raw information about the world is revealed through gameplay. Stumbling across cultural artifacts and analyzing them as a byproduct of the dungeoncrawl allows the DM to toy with player knowledge. The goal here should be to create a healthy level of paranoia and skepticism. These things will go much farther to increase the believability of your world than all those reams of notes gathering dust in your filing cabinet.

7 comments:

  1. I agree with your basic premise (the tension between defining things and maintaining mystery) but I disagree detailed gameworlds destroy mystery as a given. Tekumel is one helluva detailed gameworld in many aspects, yet it still manages to maintain a great deal of mystery. Glorantha does the same thing.

    To my mind, the issues are: (1)knowing what things should be mysterious and what can safely be detailed, and (2) not requiring a lot of background knowledge of a world to get started playing.

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  2. It's not the detail of the gameworld-as-the-DM-knows-it that destroys tension, though. Rather it's the way that world is revealed. So perhaps we're saying the same thing here.

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  3. Excellent post. This has been a idea I've playing with for sometime, and I'm finally running a game in which I get to take advantage of it. I've told my players from the beginning that the world is not what it seems; the woods may or may not be haunted and the charms you bought to protect yourselves may or may not actually work.

    I've always wanted to play a World of Darkness setting but I never feel like the right amount of tension or immersion is expressed. I want my players to read the setting book so they understand the world and create a properly immersed character, but horror of the game comes from the supernatural mystery.

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  4. I am totally behind this.

    One of the things that makes my own D&D-But-Not game world work is that after 25+ years of running advenutres in, on and around it, there are still a good many mysteries about the place left unsolved.

    Furthermore, since there is enough room in my milieu to move around and add stuff, it's very likely I will never see every one of its secrets exposed.

    This is awesome for players who find this a cool approach but our hobby's need to produce a million splatbooks covering every conceivable element of a game world has created a large number of players who want to know everything, EVERYTHING, right now.

    Largely, I blame World of Darkness/White Wolf. I remember having an awesome idea for the origin of the Tremere but the player with the Tremere PC had just purchased the Tremere book. How can my idea of this clan be right when it says here in the book by the company...etc. I can't completely fault the guy either. After all, he shelled out money to know 'more about his character'.

    I know one player who has trouble getting into a game if he can't look up all the information there is to know about a given setting before he creates his character. Needless to say it produced a challenge for the GM to have such a player and still surprise and entertain the rest of the group.

    But of course, where there's a will, there's a way...

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  5. I have a long post in response. I hope you find it relevant.

    http://mutantsmagic.blogspot.com/2011/08/this-is-taken-from-henry-james-preface.html

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  6. Rather it's the way that world is revealed. So perhaps we're saying the same thing here.

    Maybe. Let's see: In EPT, player's would ideally know a fair amount of world detail at the get-go (things about the clans, general societal structure etc.), and basic geography (rough familiarity with regions, names of other lands, etc). What they wouldn't know about is what's lurking in undercity room [x], or what the deal is with the Silver Suits, or location of the cults of the Pariah Gods, or the ins and outs of various nonhuman cultures.

    But surely even the most neophyte GM wouldn't give away that sort of stuff in background infodump!

    Now, it's cool to run a game where players are sorts of "babes in the woods" and know almost nothing about a game world (dropping travels from a distant land into The Empire of the Petal Throne would do this), but I think that's just a matter of taste.

    If I'm running a game in ancient Rome, ideally player's would know what the average citizen of Rome in their socioeconomic strata would know--and obviously they wouldn't, but we'd simulate that, not discover it through play.

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  7. EPT is a really special case. Not only is it an exhaustively detailed setting -- it's a fascinating read. You don't have to be an Petal Throne aficionado to appreciate Doc Barker's game, but it sure helps.

    While I would love to play in a game set on Tekumel, I don't think I'd ever DM one. I don't think I'm the right ref for the job.

    But you're totally right -- this is all really a matter of taste when it comes down to it. My yardstick for campaign success is not universal.

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