Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Does a Product Owe You?

A couple of writers I really enjoy posted follow ups to a scathing review of Island of the Unknown by RPG Pundit.  I realize not everyone reads the same blogs as me, so here are links to the articles in question.  First, RPG Pundit's review:  Review of Island of the Unknown.  Pundit's style is bombastic and critical, and every once in a while he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed down there in Uruguay, packs a shotgun with metaphorical buck-shot (shuck-shuck, locked and loaded), and fires off a double-barreled review like this one:  "There are meth-heads on street-corners with no gaming experience who could improv a better setting than this."

If you're not familiar with the Island of the Unknown product, it describes hundreds of hexes on the eponymous island, populated with bizarre creatures and idiosyncratic magic users.  Other than providing one strange encounter for each hex, there's very little over-arching flavor - there are no plot hooks or stories, the magic users aren't provided with motivations or rivalries.

Joseph over at Greyhawk Grognard and Noisms at Monsters and Manuals posted some interesting follow up articles to Pundit's review, on the nature of sandboxes and the nature of monsters.  It's fascinating because they both invoked similar pillars of table top gaming - players at the game table need to be able make informed decisions or their choices are meaningless.  If the players are in a wilderness hex crawl with 6 directions to travel, they might as well roll a 6-sided die to choose - unless the referee is supplying them with enough information to weight the options.  That's where the game is at, that's where the fun is - the exercise of meaningful choice and then handling the consequences.

I love folklore and history.  I love bestiaries and monster manuals.  Noisms discusses how real-world monsters have thousands of years of history and storytelling behind them - the monsters of folklore have evolved and survived the generations, and have mythic resonance for it.  For my purposes, I'll be bold and take his statement the rest of the way:  because real-world monsters have survived as storytelling elements for thousands of years, players already know some things about them.  (30 years of D&D play might have something to do with it too).  Because everyone knows some things about those monsters already, they're the combat equivalent of rumors and plot hooks when encountered.  The player's ability to read the signs, identify the opponent, and make a plan for combat against the monsters of myth and folklore is every bit as important as their ability to sift through plot hooks and make decisions in the sandbox outside of combat.

I'll generalize and say bloggers have a tendency to overvalue new and unique monsters - perhaps that's a perception borne of selection bias since that's what people post on their blogs.  For adventure gaming, those things have to be the exception, not the rule.  Otherwise you rob the players of too much agency, they lose an element of strategy and planning.  Of course this caveat is for adventure gaming.  In horror games, where combat is to be avoided and the monster is meant to be otherworldly and unknown, all bets are off.  Go crazy with your unknowable eldritch mutants.

As an observer of OSR publishing, this discussion around Island of the Unknown raises an interesting question:  What does a product owe you?  There was the Dwimmermount kerfuffle some time back because some of the descriptions in a draft manuscript were bland and the referee needed to elaborate them.  I don't see the same vitriol at Stonehell, an early OSR publication, and the descriptions tend to be quite sparse.  As consumers buying a product, there is an absolute right to pen scathing critiques of products that don't meet our expectations.  It's a free internet, and if you plunked down your money, by all means - get out there and let folks know about it.  Send the publishers a message.  Do it.

In the preface to Island of the Unknown the author calls out that the island is left intentionally bland to make transplanting it to the referee's home campaign a simple matter.  The product does what it says on the tin.  The flip side is making a product so dripping with campaign flavor that adapting to your setting is an impediment.  There is the argument of writing rooms and descriptions to avoid all need for improvisation by the referee - minute details done to excess.  Then there's the idea of providing only those details the referee couldn't make up at the table - the art of providing just enough evocative detail.

It's a fascinating phenomenon to observe this tension between products that spoon feed the referee everything they need, on the one hand, versus less verbose products that require adaptation and thought.  Of course, the reactions to the aforementioned products leads to these contentious reviews and internet squalls - and who doesn't enjoy some popcorn moments here in the blogosphere?  We're people.

For my part, I'm on the side of saying that Island of the Unknown failed for me as well.  The author's previous work, Carcosa, is also a massive hex crawl, but the encounters and inhabitants of Carcosa are filled with motivations, and motivation creates story.  One random hex in Carcosa may be filled with escaped slaves seeking safe haven; they're fleeing the bad guys in the next hex.  The bad guys will pay a reward if the runaways are captured.  No matter which hex is encountered first, the players will have the opportunity to learn information about something else nearby and engage with story.  Island of the Unknown is littered with idiosyncratic magic users (all lavishly illustrated) but none of them have personalities or stories or ties to the larger whole.  It's a greatly missed opportunity.

I suppose in a roundabout sort of way that describes my own litmus test for a successful product.  I can embellish details about empty rooms or turn bland treasure into something more interesting, if necessary.  What I want a product to be doing is providing goals and motivations for the inhabitants and antagonists.  I can take it the rest of the way.