Saturday, October 15, 2011

Introducing Saturday Sage Advice: Random Tables as Setting Definition

There are a lot of smart folks blogging about games that have been at this a lot longer than me; as such, there's a lot of really good reading material, ideas, and inspiration out there.  An obvious problem with blogs is that an article has its brief day in the sun, and then drops off the writer's home page.  Finding old posts is like a treasure hunt.

When I see something that catches my eye, I try and snag the link and make a quick note so I can refer back to it later.  Then it struck me - it would be a cool feature to resurface these old posts, and add some commentary or insight on how the post has changed my approach at the table.  Thus - I'm going to start a Saturday Sage Advice piece, that encapsulates some piece of world-building advice or game master advice from my file.  I have fairly selfish motives; recapitulating these ideas will help me internalize them and also have a handy reference here on my blog.  I encourage folks that missed the original posts to check them out.

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File Under Setting:
Random Tables as Setting Definition

I follow Kenneth Hite's work because he wrote Trail of Cthulhu, some Call of Cthulhu stuff, and a number of excellent Lovecraft books (readers may know him from GURPs horror and The Day After Ragnarok).  He's also a frequent guest on the HP Lovecraft Literary podcast.  In one of his live journals from last year (Setting is My Business), he was lamenting the traditional setting design approaches and identifying ways various RPGs have improved player engagement and DM engagement; here was one of the nuggets:

How do you get (the GM) to pick up the setting and wield it like a battleaxe? (Or a warhammer.) Gary Gygax gave us the answer... The answer is the Random Encounter Table, or Wandering Monster Table, or Random Dungeon Generator, and all those other wondrous time-killers in the back of the DMG. By stocking those tables, paying some attention to the probabilities, and adding modifiers here and there, you create an immediate, accessible method for GMs to understand your setting in the most visceral way possible: by co-creating it with you. They only have to read the setting bits they've generated, and they have a story and an adventure. This is an almost insanely powerful technology for setting design and presentation, and we've unaccountably left it back in its rudimentary Bronze Age form.

Inspiring stuff!  Over on the pornstars blog, Zak suggested a similar approach earlier this year:  How I Want to Hear About Your Setting.  Here were the main points; RPG writing is full of boring description; it's doubly worse because most settings just reskin real-world analogues that could be described in shortcut form; the setting description and detail should emerge out of the tools used to build the setting.

I was already a believer in randomly generated content prior to these posts, but it was a revelation to consider dropping the pages and pages of setting history, and telling the story of the setting through construction of the random tables. "Show, don't tell", as the writers say.  Details emerge organically through play at the table and no mind-numbing info dumps are necessary.  Players learn details only as they become relevant.  I love it!


  1. You've crystallised something in my mind with this - not ever content creator is an artist, but I would love to see well-done visual explanations of things, mainly in the form of maps. A well-done map can give so much at a glance, both of technical information like location, direction and distance, and also atmospheric and environmental stuff. Think of old medieval maps with all the strange creatures on them. As an artist I think visually, and a large, nicely done map with various call-outs would give me a huge amount of information at a glance. Combined with the ideas you've brought up in this article, I'd be in heaven.

  2. Jason, have you seen some of Zak's maps over at Playing DnD with Porn Stars? Here's an example:

    Crane Demon's Castle

    I'm fairly interested in information architecture and how we can put more easy-to-digest information right in the hands of the DM (without requiring exorbitant detail mastery) - this is definitely a step in that direction.

  3. I have seen them, it's an interesting start - a sort of visual mood board would be as useful as textual information. Good idea.