Tuesday, September 10, 2019

It Doesn't Make Sense to Make Too Much Sense

So you'll often hear, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," and it usually means that you shouldn't destroy a project trying to achieve perfection when all you really need is something that's better-than-serviceable. In other words, a good book that actually gets published is vastly superior to a "perfect" book that's never finished.

A pitfall like unto it is being overly clever. We've all seen the elegantly designed RPG that is a thing of beauty, with its perfectly symmetrical stats or elegantly designed resolution system that just doesn't work at the table. Well, that sort of thing isn't just for game designers; it can strike GMs too.

The fact is, the real world is full of wonky little things that make no sense. The highest and holiest of Christian holidays, Easter, is named after a pagan deity we know almost nothing about, but we're pretty sure all the rabbits and eggs point to Oester being some sort of fertility deity. Obviously what happened is that Christians piggy-backed on Oester's popularity and just co-opted one of her more popular holidays for their own. But the eggs and the rabbits persist, long after we've forgotten just about everything there was to know about Oester.

This is why it's a sure comedy hit every decade or so when some comedian will go onto college campuses to ask our "best and brightest" why Jesus wants us to hide eggs on Easter. If there's one thing college students learn, especially those of us who tackled the liberal arts, its how to create sense out of the jumbled nonsense of reality, especially if there's no sense their to be found.

Our days of the week are the same. Sunday through Friday, the names are Germanic/Norse, referencing gods like Tyr (Tuesday), Wotan (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday), and Frigga (Friday). And then, boom, Saturday, named after the Roman god Saturn. What's up with that? We really don't know. There's been lots of conjecture that the Norse were mapping their days of the week over the Roman ones and just didn't have a god they liked to replace Saturn. There's others that think Saturn was close enough to an Anglo-Saxon word "sætere" that means "seducer" or the like that they just kept it as-is. But the truth is, nobody really understands what happened there.

The point for you, my fine world-building friends, is that things that make too much sense, that are perfectly rational, are not terribly realistic. To make your world feel more real, make it less perfect. Throw in that one odd halfling drinking custom in your dwarvish culture. Create a perfectly rational solar calendar, but for one month a year that runs lunar and can swing between having as few as 20 days and as many as 36. And don't feel you must explain it (in fact, come up with three mutually exclusive explanations that scholars in your world feud over, just for that added hint of authenticity).

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Diegesis, Dissociated Mechanics, and You

This is good and useful stuff (if a touch esoteric), as we've come to expect from Cavegirl:

Diegetic (adjective): Actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted.

Non-diegetic (adjective): Not actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted, an external thing to the fictional world depicted that the audience percieves.

These are handles you can use to grip game rules or ideas and manipulate them in interesting ways:

Are the powers a D&D 4th edition PC has diegetic or not? Do the different weapon strikes, moves, spells and so on represent distinct techniques a PC has been taught? Can a 4e fighter talk about the different techniques they use? Or are they a non-diegetic abstraction that simplifies the chaos of combat into maneagable gameplay? Or is it somewhere between the two?

This, of course, takes us directly to The Alexandrian's discussion of dissociated mechanics:

For example, consider a football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt.

The mechanic is dissociated because the decision made by the player cannot be equated to a decision made by the character. No player, after making an amazing one-handed catch, thinks to themselves, “Wow! I won’t be able to do that again until the next game!” Nor do they think to themselves, “I better not try to catch this ball one-handed, because if I do I won’t be able to make any more one-handed catches today.”

This sort of discussion is highly important to me because verisimilitude is one of my primary goals when I do the RPG thing. I want my players (or even myself) to be as much in the headspace of our characters as possible. The more our decisions map directly to the decisions made by our fictional characters, the easier it is to see our fictional setting from the point-of-view of the characters in it.

Which is a long and fancy way of saying that I want to minimize the use of dissociated mechanics in my game. Does that mean I also want to minimize the presence of non-diegetic elements. Not necessarily. As Cavegirl points out, the soundtrack in most movies is non-diegetic; the characters can't hear it. But it helps us in the audience to interpret what the characters are doing, adding emotional context to their actions helping us to see inside the characters' heads to the emotional states they're experiencing. Music and lighting in the room where you're playing, and the layout of a character sheet are all things that are non-diegetic but which can actually improve the verisimilitude of the experience.

(Note also that, while I want to minimize the use of dissociated mechanics, that's not the same as eliminate them. Abstraction of the boring and the unpleasant can make an experience more immersive by not inviting, or even forcing, you to flee the experience you're supposed to be immersing in.)