Monday, March 21, 2011

Zak Offers Up Another Plate of Sacred-cow Burger

It’s not so much that Zak is a deep thinker in RPG circles, if by “deep” one implies burrowing down through the layers of the games and their communities, synthesizing all towards some new insight into things we already know. That honor, I think, goes chiefly to Mr. Maliszewski.

What makes Zak such a blessing is how easily, effortlessly, he thinks outside the hobby.
His latest stab at the hobby’s sacred cows is a good case in point. Yes, I’m a writer. Yes, I love me some good, evocative prose. And yes, I’m a glutton for rich, cultural detail. But at the end of the day, even I have to admit, I’m not going to play your setting.

Sure, I may snag a few interesting bits here and there, but… It won’t be right. It may be close. It may be tantalizingly close. But as a GM, I have a style. And I’m going to tweak the living daylights out of your setting to make it fit.

This is not good for traditional RPG companies, who live and die by the book. The reason RPG settings look the way they do is because it allows for the sale of big, glossy, coffee-table books chock-full o’ setting detail. Throw in gazetteers that drill in to provide more focused detail, and the shifting political and cultural landscape that comes from a galloping megaplot, and you have a recipe for a long string of expensive book sales.

But not a recipe for game-playing.

As Zak says, who has time to read all that? Way back when, I knew folks who’d read everything about the Forgotten Realms and knew the setting in intimate detail. I wasn’t among them, though the Realms did have a warm place in my heart. It wasn’t, however, based on the grey box or the novels or any of that. Instead, what I really cherished were the little snippets of detail gleaned from Mr. Greenwood’s articles in DRAGON magazine. Those literally changed the way I organized and played my own campaigns.

Ditto for Greyhawk, Middle Earth, the historical medieval Europe, the 1,001 Nights, and so on. And I took all that, made it mine, and played the heck out of it.

Now, maybe Zak and I are weird in this, but I imagine most folks want this as well. They want something to get them started, give them ideas they never would have had on their own, but that they can take and run with. They want something that belongs to them and their group, that grows from the playing at the table. I’m not as enamored of a rules-focused approach as Zak is (I can go whole sessions without touching the dice). In addition to what makes your setting unique, I’d like a little cultural flavor, some solid maps, a few political outlines, a description of where the cultural fault-lines fall, and some good, inspirational art will go a long way towards getting my own imaginative juices flowing. But I think he’s right in saying we need to forget most of what we’ve learned about what a good setting book “should” look like, and learn to focus more on actual gameable content. And that’s not to say we should abolish “fluff.” It is to say, however, that stuff that gets used at the table, whether it’s NPC lists, or descriptions of the food to be found in the marid padisha’s pleasure dome, should be front-and-center in any setting offering.

Art by Edwin Lord Weeks and Sidney H. Sime.


Dennis Laffey said...

You know, the only published setting I've actually used and liked was the "Known World" from Isle of Dread/Mentzer Expert Set. NOT Mystara as it appeared in the Rules Cyclopedia and Gazetteers.

Just a cool map, and some snippets of description and ambiance about some of the places on that map. And a ton of blank space to fill in.

I like about that much setting detail.

Havard: said...

Count me as someone who completely disagrees here. First of all, 4E is way ahead of you and have been cutting their setting books down to gameables for a long time. And the result is to be honest, pretty boring.

Yes, I agree that things went overboard in the 90s with an abundance of poorly written fiction, flavour texts and tons of text that will never be used in play.

@Lord Gwydon: Have you actually read any of the D&D Gazetteers? IMO they are some of the best RPG products ever written. They are also a poor example of overly detailed sourcebooks. That came much later.


Rhetorical Gamer said...

Yeah, Havard beat me to the punch. This is exactly the tack that 4E has taken -- shifting down to mostly gameables and the result is really, really boring.

I mostly play my own settings but I also love reading a great setting book. I'd never play Eberron, but I loved 3E Eberron core book.

And really, I learn settings -- even ones I don't game in -- quite often. I think I know more than I ever, ever need to about the Battletech Universe, and I still wish they'd put out more maps! Dangit.

Trey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

That isn't a sacred cow. It is another aspect of the game that many of us have varied freely. Sometimes, even in the middle of a campaign. There may be players touchy about it but that doesn't make it a "sacred cow" any more than getting drunk one time makes you a drunkard.

Trey said...

I find myself agreeing and disagreeing I bit--both with Zak's post and what you say here.

(1)"Setting by analogy," as Zak suggests, only works if you have the breadth and depth of the references the creator is drawing on. Tekumel wouldn't be the masterpiece it is if presented in that fashion--all M.A.R. Barker would have probably gotten is blank looks.

(2) Sometimes what is inspirational about setting stuff is complicated. It's mood and tone--things that are not as easy to convey in random charts or character abilities, or at least easier to misunderstanding.

However, I do think setting books often concentrate on the wrong thing--the mundanities of commerce or text descriptions of geography rather than the cool stuff one can steal for one's own game. Good organization ameliorates this, but I do think some out-of-the-box thinking in regard to presentation (like, for example, The Dictionary of Mu)is a good thing.

I dig setting, and I write a lot of setting stuff, but I don't read any setting books (Barker, Stafford, or anybody) cover to cover.

And Harvard's right about the Gazeteers.

Chris Kutalik said...

I agreed very strongly with Zak's original post, but the more I thought about the implications about it the less I liked bending the stick too far.

Our hobby would be a poorer, duller place without the setting posts of Trey's Sorcerer Scroll, Ix, or the Huge Ruined Pile.

Re: Trey's comment:
"However, I do think setting books often concentrate on the wrong thing--the mundanities of commerce or text descriptions of geography rather than the cool stuff one can steal for one's own game."

Perhaps this is what we are all rebelling against. It's those deadly dull gazetteer sections which say something like "the Iron Wood is a dense hardwood forest on the border of Bobo Land" that glaze the eyes. (Well that and the Great Giant Epic Mythos story told without game buy-in.)

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking people who enjoy all the heavy setting reading don't actually play using those books, or rather, don't use all of that info in play. Fellas, correct me if I'm wrong.

Also, I don't think the gameable content being proposed here is the same type as that being put forth in the 4E books. Raw stats of something is quite a bit different than evocative random encounter charts and the like, which actually give you meaty ideas to chew on.

Unknown said...

Im in with Rhetorical Gamer, Im a huge fan of a well written setting book. I have a shelf of just Battletech setting books, and I have to say they are far more useful for me creating scenarios then all but the newest Warchest system scenario books.

Give me something that is evocative, lines that make images and ideas pop into my head and I'll look to buy the setting book. Give me a discourse on how the economics of a D&D world work and I dont care. Or basically just cater to what the game is focused on.

Tim Jensen said...

It's hard for me to be interested in someone else's setting, especially when I'm a player with limited agency to affect it. I prefer an approach like in Fiasco or In A Wicked Age, where the setting is built up entirely from play.

Dennis Laffey said...

@Havard: I haven't read all the Gaz series, but I've read a few. "Too much information" is a relative thing. I'm not saying the ones I read weren't well written, organized, or anything. Just that they had more details than I wanted.

I know you dig them, but for me it's too much. I wasn't intending to point them out as an example of anything, just saying that I've gotten the most fun out of running Known World with IoD, Expert, and my own stuff to fill in all the rest.

Tom Fitzgerald said...

A lot of good points have already been made here. My own preference is similar to Zak's . Setting stuff bores me (and always has) unless it is primarily about;

a) Evoking atmosphere
b) Introducing hooks

I have little interest in a setting that is over-determined. Peripheral details can be beautiful aids to a sense of internal consistency but are all-too often bland and self-indulgent.

Anonymous said...

They want something to get them started, give them ideas they never would have had on their own, but that they can take and run with.

a) Evoking atmosphere
b) Introducing hooks

isn't that how setting books are supposed to be used? it's how i use the ones i have.

if there's stuff you don't like... ignoring it usually does the trick. :)

this is how i love to hear about a setting:

Trey said...

@Tom - I woudl say your preference isn't similar to Zak's if the great presentation of setting material on your blog is an indication of what you like.

My reading of Zak's is that setting is suppose to be just in rules and charts.

But maybe that's the problem here "too much" prose and "too little prose" are terms open to intperpretation.

trollsmyth said...

Zak, in his comments, has added:

I am not against explanations. I never said that: the Monster Manual is just about perfect and is full of explanations. I am against mundane explanations of mundane, familiar phenomena that we assume are already like that (some fucking river created some fucking valley) because that's how it works in the real world.

Which kinda-sort defeats the purpose of this post, huh? ;p

Lord Gwydion: That was, for a long while, one of my favorites as well. Lots of evocative names, and a great, simple map.

Havard: Yeah, well, originally, my point was mild disagreement with Zak; "crunch" wasn't enough by itself. I like the surprises and the odd twist that makes a setting unique.

That said, Zak is right that there tends to be waaaay too much "Morio River flows down through Amber Plains to the Zokok Sea" blah-blah-blah. But I'm mostly looking at modern examples; the Gazetteers you mention were, as I recall, fairly thin and chock full of actual, at-the-table useful stuff. Not the coffee-table monsters that need to be re-issued every year to keep up with the megaplot.

Rhetorical Gamer: And really, I learn settings -- even ones I don't game in -- quite often.

I can't say I ever did. Even the ones I found fascinating didn't stick. I mined them for info, but that's it. So that may be a difference in interests which informs what we, respectively, want from a setting book.

So, in your case, would you say that mastering the material was part of the appeal for you?

Anonymous the First: I'm not even sure we're talking about the same topic. I'm talking about how publishers present and release settings, and how that is divorced from their actual use in play. Is that what you're talking about?

Trey: Yeah, I'd agree, and that's what I was trying to say in my post, though it appears Zak would agree with us (and I'm not surprised; hence my comment about art, which was a bit of a friendly dig at him, being an artist and all ;) ).

I tend to think that art captures the intangibles of a setting best, but...

ckutalik: Our hobby would be a poorer, duller place without the setting posts of Trey's Sorcerer Scroll, Ix, or the Huge Ruined Pile.

These are all instances where the words have been used to great effect to capture and convey those intangibles.

That said, if you don't give the DM the tools to make those intangibles real at the table, it's all going to get lost in the fact that longswords are the optimal melee weapon and goblins have less than one hit die apiece. Excellent writing can actually make a setting harder to play if it requires the DM have similar skills of description to invoke what makes that setting fascinating.

Anonymous the Second: Agreed, nor do the use of alignment or other community stats really capture what Zak is going for, I think. As useful as it can be to know what items are and are not available in a store, simply keying that to a pseudo-GDP number isn't very flavorful. Certainly not as flavorful as saying all the iron from this area is tinted green and that there's a 1-in-6 chance of encountering dog-headed merchants from the Sorcerer's Isle.

Evernevermore: Or basically just cater to what the game is focused on.

Are you saying that's what you want, or that's not enough?

Chris Kutalik said...

"I tend to think that art captures the intangibles of a setting best"

Come to think of it one common trait of those posts I mention is the attention to presenting evocative illustrations with them.

Unknown said...

Overall different take different approaches on settings dependent on their own needs and desires. However, I believe what makes a setting "good" over "bad" is its capacity as a catalyst for play.
For some people this will be detailed descriptions, for some gameables, for some something completely different, but a good setting is one that can inspire.

Unknown said...

I agree with Zak's observation and I'll take it a step further: show, don't tell when you're creating a campaign setting. Unless it's used at the table in some way it should be reworked or removed.

@Havard: For setting, I think Darksun 4e works, and Vanilla 4e doesn't. The choices you present players with are a great way to introduce setting. Too many choices = no real setting.

Trey said...

@Stuart - I'd agree with "show don't tell"--but prose sometimes shows in terms of explicating just how something should be done, and lending mood and tone in a way that a random chart doesn't show. Quotes from Leiber's stories will always be a better intro to Lankhmar than a random encounter table, or even a hexcrawl.

But as it now looks like ZakS was saying, and Trollsmyth and others have said here, the trick is to give what is needed and--nothing more. Which may not always be an easy line to fine as different GMs and groups have different needs.

Unknown said...

Running a game based on an existing work of media benefits from quotes because they reference the original work in a short-hand sort of way. I can include the Litany Against Fear in a Dune campaign rather than including long passages describing the history of the Bene Gesserit (etc).

If it's an original work… I really would rather have something usable for the game. :)

Aos said...

Can someone tell me if I'm doing it right or not? :).

Unknown said...


Havard: said...

@Trollsmyth: Yeah, I think we are probably pretty much on the same page here. Too much detail can be distracting, while a too minimalist approach won't work either.

One reason why I think it is not such an easy thing to say where to draw the line is because there are so many different ways to play D&D. Some will say D&D is just about Dungeons so once you have those you don't really need anything more. But many people like to experiment with wilderness exploration, merchant routes, dominion management, questing for godhood...

Are they playing the game wrong?


Trey said...

@Stuart - Well, I'm not supporting anything not game useable--I guess we just differ on our idea of what game useable is. :) Mood, tone, and a good example of how characters interact with a setting, aren't the province solely of settings adapted from other media--or at least I don't see any reason why they should be--and every one of those is probably better conveyed in good, evocative prose than a chart or list.
The trick is actually conveying those things with the prose. ;)

@Harvard - I think you're right, there's more than one way to skin a cat and we're just running up against different styles of games as much as anything.

Tom Fitzgerald said...


I guess you're right. I do, however, like the show, don't tell approach, and am very fond of setting as bare bones. I am not really interested in who is in power and what the history of such and such a place is. I am more interested in paring back the details so there is nought but the tactile stuff of the place and the things that can be done.

trollsmyth said...

Aos: You'll notice there's a link to you among the good stuff. In other words, if The Metal Earth is wrong, I don't wanna be right. ;D

Aos said...

Ha! I totally missed that on my first read through. :). I think I clicked on every other link. Now I feel like a whore.

Honestly though, I asked the question because I was a little confused by the exact nature of the debate until I read Zak's follow up on the Monster Manual. Monster books are my favorite setting books. I especially like the 3.0 Creature Catalog for the Scared lands and the 2e Dark Sun compendium thingies.
While I agree that this is the way that I want to go about presenting my setting, I understand that different folks are looking for different things, and some people like everything to be solidly described. And that's totally cool.

Aos said...

@ Trey-
Although our approaches are very different, I wanted to say that I really, really dig your stuff.

Trey said...

@Tom - I think you and I agree largely, at least in principle. World of Greyhak stuff like usual imports/exports, current leader, currencies, etc.--while I can certainly see how some would find that useful--aren't things that interest me and will not be appearing in Weird Adventures however wordy I might be otherwise. ;)

@Aos - Thanks. I like your stuff too.

I actually feel like most of us agree here on general principles (certain sorts of text and too much and setting books should be shorter and more focused on the goodstuff)--it's just we may have different points where we draw the line in specific cases, or different ideas of ideal presentation.

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Konsumterra said...

when i got to being 20 i felt TSR products just didn't care anymore - so i got into history, mythology, and epics - haven't read many swords and sorcery book in 20 years (but Vance is on my book stack to read soon and id reread Jack Yeovil's Warhammer novels again).

I love glorantha but i can see why many feel intimidated by it. I feel when I read Herodotus and the Burnt Njarl saga that Im not wasting my life with trivium that is just a commercial product like McDonalds. I can talk Herodotus with non gamers all over the world and it make me seem clever. I could never admit or discuss what a Game company hack wrote to the same people.

Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog and dungeon of signs blog I find more inspirational than most commercial products.