RPGs: Presenting Settings

I wrote recently about changing technology in publishing (encompassing everything from creating to selling and distributing), and the opportunities it’s made for small-scale ventures to find their audience. At the same time, the tabletop rolegaming field is consolidating in the wake of a recent shift of consensus about how to present environments for players and gamemasters to use.

There’s an important qualification to make at the outset: no trend in a field like this is ever universal. When you get a lot of individuals and small groups who feel driven, for one reason or another, to put their ideas out to market and a lot of individual and group buyers who have their own ideas about what to do with those ideas, more than one thing happens at the same time. Every group of gamers has its own distinctive features, to some degree. There are usually multiple trends competing with each other, for every aspect of game creation and play. I’m writing this time about a fairly major trend, but I’ll be noting exceptions, too. No claim of universal inclination is intended or implied; contents may have settled during shipment.

[Lots more below the fold…]

There are several common ideas about what role game rules should serve in a game, including:

  • The thematic toolkit: The rules aim to capture a certain feel, like “swords and sorcery” or “Piper/Anderson-style space opera”, and guides options for characters and the world around them with that in mind, but doesn’t present a detailed environment; it’s assumed that the individual referee wants to build their own.
  • The detailed world: The rules aim to let players participate in their version of a specific preexisting world, often one that mixes genres to distinctive effect rather than being a paragon of a single style.
  • The neutral toolkit: The rules aim to support a wide variety of genres and environments, and try to be impartial arbiters of many different wishes.
  • The story toolkit: The rules aim to guide play through a particular narrative structure, with a rhythm of scenes and dramatic developments; the intended environment may be very specific, or as open as “anyplace this kind of rise and discharge of tensions could happen”.

The first of these, the thematic toolkit, is where gaming started. Dungeons & Dragons was about fairly freewheeling adventure in invented worlds flavored with swords & sorcery and other kinds of fantasy, plus interesting bits of history, and a dose of invention both serious and madcap. It was assumed that if you and your friends were going to play, you’d be making the environment for your own game to suit you, and there was very little advice about what you might like to try or steer away from.

The second, the detailed world, emerged early on with Tekumel in particular, via the game Empire of the Petal Throne, which has gone through a whole lot of editions. Tekumel was originally an imaginary construct to support philological invention like Middle Earth, except drawing on Middle Eastern and Meso-American influences that interested the world’s creator, Prof. M.A.R. Barker. It’s a fantastically baroque fusion of space opera in the deep background, swords & sorcery, mythology from multiple cultures, and a lot of gloriously original ideas – if you’re unfamiliar with it, take some time to browse the first link in this paragraph to see just how ornate worldbuilding can get. Other world-specific games followed.

The third style, the neutral toolset developed alongside the second. The superhero game Champions’ underlying rules evolved into the Hero System, while the eponymous boss of Steve Jackson Games expanded on earlier small-scale board games to create GURPS, intended to cover just about every genre you might name. (GURPS also made a name for itself in handling historical settings; a lot of writers have GURPS worldbooks for historical eras on their shelves as handy references.)

The fourth style, the story toolkit, is newer on the scene, and rose out of the effort at building a comprehensive theory of gaming and good game design at the Forge. My Life With Master, for instance, puts the characters, who are all servants of some mad scientist or other such villain, through paced conflicts culminating in their great chance at revolt or final capitulation. The nature of the master and the environment are up for negotiation; I’ve seen writeups of games of My Life With Master ranging from “a posse of Igors for the genius whose notoriety was eclipsed by that hack Frankenstein” (I think I’m remembering that right) to “My Life With Mama”, involving a family of deviants in a rural trailer park who made the hicks in Deliverance seem downright normal. What matters, you see, is the structure of discontent and rebellion. Dogs in the Vineyard sets the characters up as youthful enforcers of orthodoxy and purity in a sort of fantasy Utah, and people play it in that milieu, but also in others from the Crusades to science fiction. The particular style of Dogs and the emphasis it puts on a particular kind of conflict can translate fairly easily into other environments, but the kind of story remains the same.

Throughout much of the ’80s and ’90s, the center of sales and gaming attention was in the land of detailed worlds. TSR had a bunch of ongoing lines each set in a particular world, like Dragonlance, Ravenloft, and Planescape. (Each of those links is to a fan site set up in the wake of Wizards of the Coast cutting those and other worlds loose.) Two are continuing on into the 4th edition D&D era, the high-fantasy Forgotten Realms and the lower-powered, steampunk-ish Eberron. Shadowrun, a late 21st century fusing magic and cyberpunk, is into its 4th edition with a history covering multiple decades of both real time and game time. And there was the first incarnation of the World of Darkness from White Wolf, to which I contributed in its latter days, a sprawling hodge-podge of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, stranded faeries, and more.

The detailed world has some advantages. It can be done really well…by which I mean “in a way that pleases a lot of potential customers and helps them have fun game time”, since I’m a pragmatist about such things. A game bit has to be pretty awful before I’ll go further than saying that it’s not my thing, since I tend to think that people having fun with their games is the point. But even on stricter criteria of goodness, the world that comes with a lot of details ready for use allows players and their characters to plug in and make use of that, garnishing it with their own creations without having all the lifting to do themselves and with the chance to tap into themes and environments they might not come up with on their own. There’s something to be said for having the time to work professionally and this kind of thing, so that others can be more casual in their use – it’s one of several good divisions of labor possible in rolegaming.

But it also has a problem: as the mass of material accumulates, gamers trying to make use it come to feel that there’s more and more they have to or ought to hew to. This gets expensive, and it gets brain-loading. Past some threshold, it doesn’t matter how much the creators say encouraging things about how players should feel free to mix, match, select, and discard. (We mean it, too, pretty much. Creators are often less dogmatic than their hard-core fans, in any field.) It still feels like work, to more and more potential customers, and after a while, sales goes down. Reinvention and reworking can postpone the slump and even reverse it for a while, but not forever. Sooner or later, something’s got to give.

And so, in the course of the late ’90s through mid ’00s, things gave.

The World of Darkness went out with a series of bangs and whimpers, with each major line getting a book covering end-of-the-world scenarios and tie-in fiction presenting a more or less unified vision of the end of everything for Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Mage: The Ascension. There’s a new set of World of Darkness games, but as a matter of design, they’re very much toolkits rather than pieces of a single world. For instance, some books lay out an interesting group of potential antagonists and then give multiple possible origins for them, each one suggesting its own distinctive features. Books covering subjects like the police or asylums in the ambience of dark mystery present sample places, but also explicitly discuss the range of possibilities that are in some sense suitable for modern horror and try to help referees and players make the choices that suit them best. Some, like the amazing Damnation City are practically textbooks in their subjects, like (in the case of Damnation City) the physical and social organization of a city suitable for vampires, other monsters, and those who might in turn prey on them.

Other long-running worlds managed a reboot of sorts less drastically. The current edition of Shadowrun pushes the timeline ahead most of a decade and past a set of calamities and revolutions that allows for some major reworking of both setting and mechanics. It’s still the same world, just as the US of 2008 is the same world as the US of 1998 or 1978, but the opportunities and perils are different. The new supplements are a mix of elements, some presenting the new incarnation of this specific world, others allowing for a range of options. We, or at least I, don’t yet know what all the details will be for the new D&D lines, but they’re also advancing timelines decades or centuries and taking the opportunity to clear the decks of a lot of baggage past its expiration date and to introduce new material tied into the milieu suggested by the new edition’s foundational rules.

The upshot of all this is that it’s the new conventional wisdom in rolegaming publishing that open-ended lines are trouble. Much more common is the core book that covers a bunch of possibilities, a few supplements adding new options or fleshing out existing ones, and then that’s it. There may be a running plotline of sorts – White Wolf does this in its short-run lines like Scion, about the modern children of the old gods and their rise to divinity as they struggle against the unleashed Titans, and Promethean: The Created, about modern-day made creatures in the tradition of Frankenstein’s monster, the golem, and other such. Or there may not be. But in either case, the line has a termination, and then the creators are on to something else.

Even when there’s a sequel of sorts, it’s likely to be something that stands well on its own. For instance, one of the games I’m most anxious to get to play soon is Malcolm Craig’s Cold City. It’s set in post-World War II Berlin (or other occupied city), with the characters belonging to a multinational force dedicated to digging out and cleaning up the legacy of Nazi super-science, occult experimentation, and other stuff the world really needs to be rid of. Simple but elegant mechanics cover the interplay of personal and national agendas, and the building of trust and the use of it in betrayal. The way the game is set up strongly suggests that sooner or later, people are going to get so busy with the agendas and betrayals that the targets of their hunt are going to get out and make a mess.

Sure enough, there’s a sequel now, Hot War. It’s set in 1963, a year after the Cuban missile crisis goes nuclear and the monsters and other bad things get used. The characters here are part of the composite force dedicated to cleaning up London and environs from all this, with an ambience that reminded me instantly of John Wyndham. One could presumably play out a campaign going from the 1950-ish era of Cold City through to Hot War, but the two games work differently in some ways despite showing the same creator’s hand. Cold City campaigns don’t need Hot War, and having Cold City won’t add a lot of usable stuff to a Hot War campaign. This kind of loose connection, deliberately eschewing the choices that would make each game more like the other but less like itself, is much more a normal development now than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago.

In short (ha ha), the burden of adopting a new game is way down from what it would likely have been in the heyday of the detailed world. As the gaming audience matures and as alternatives like computer gaming get better and better at doing more and more things, more creative attention goes into making it easy to start up and to get somewhere in play. The long-running campaign and the ongoing line of support material are both still out there, it’s just that they’re not assumed. (The question of how long people can and do expect to play a particular game warrants a post of its own, one that takes in computer and board gaming too. But there’s research I need to do to avoid sounding like a one-perspective jerk any more than is really necessary.) Compact elegance is a high design priority these days, the neat thing that actually can work in one volume or in just a few. So is the really constructive advice as opposed to the dispensation of already-complete environments – people writing to help gamers create their own work as well as possible are learning from each other’s efforts, and arguing back and forth about the meaning of it all.

So it is, as I said at the outset of my posting run here, interesting times in more ways than one.

[Photo is in the public domain, and taken from the Library of Congress collection at Flickr.com.]


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