Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Sage Advice: White Space

The emergence of the high concept setting was a natural evolution in our hobby.  1970's settings like Greyhawk or the Wilderlands, that previously covered less than a continent, were replaced by globe-spanning affairs tied to a strong aesthetic concept.  This post-apocalyptic world over here is about a pivotal war with the evil dragons.  In this other one, magic has turned the planet into a barren desert ruled by sorcerer kings, and there are no clerics or gods.  That world is all about gothic horror; this one over here is like pulp noir where magic has taken the place of high technology.

I used to love the high concept worlds; one of my favorites is still the 3.x era setting "Midnight".  The elevator pitch could have been something like this "What if Sauron had captured Frodo, regained the One Ring, conquered the world and enslaved the lands of man?  Players take on the role of survivors in a world where evil rules."

The problem with these high concept settings is the lack of design space to do something new.  The lack of space could be aesthetic - you can't have a story about divine intrigue, inspired by The Iliad, in a world with no gods.  Or the constraint could be physical - the whole world is already mapped, and there's no place to drop a new continent.

This version of myself that's been blogging for a year is (hopefully) wiser, and is beginning to value that white space beyond the edges of the current campaign.  Those undefined areas give you the freedom to put in something new.  When the wilderness hex crawl through the fallen lands is growing stale, it's nice to know there's space on the map to put your island of dinosaurs, or introduce a new continent with sophisticated cities where magic has replaced technology.  What you sacrifice in coherence, you gain in reuse and flexibility.

The popular image of fantasy authors is that they have reams of notes about their world; as they're writing, they're referring back to these meticulously developed histories.  Professor Tolkien really set the bar high.  Game setting designers soon followed, emulating the techniques in the fiction.  But consider how incongruent an island with a crashed space ship and a handful of alien technological artifacts would seem if it were placed just off the shore of Middle Earth?  Gandalf with a laser rifle and a few grenades would be totally awesome in a D&D campaign, not so much in The Lord of the Rings.  Even though the map is open, the aesthetic fills all the space.

Chris over at Hill Cantons had a fascinating quote last month from Fritz Leiber:  Making a World Up as You Go Along.  Mr. Leiber claims, tongue in cheek, that he only knows about the world of Newhon as his two protagonists tell him about it.  The first time he hears about new lands, distant islands, or undiscovered continents is when they first appear in the next tale, entering the setting as modular, but fully realized, new places.  The lands have always been there, the author just didn't know about them yet.

It's a powerful endorsement of "bottom-up" design.  Top down involves starting with an overarching vision, and decomposing the whole into the details; bottom-up involves creating those compartmental details first, and assembling them into the whole organically.  In top-down, you already know how big is the final solution, the boundaries are set.  There's no limit when starting from the bottom up.

There's valuable wisdom in bottom-up design for game worlds, particularly the old school approach of starting with a small sandbox area and slowly growing the circumference of the game world as necessary.   It's nice to see the author of one of D&D's most important early inspirations had the same idea.

Yesterday's post on mortal thoughts came out on the side of listening to your Gamer ADD once in a while; maybe that restlessness you're feeling is because the stuff you're currently playing is 'suckish' (it's my kid's word) and you know, deep down, you're wasting your time.

Gamer ADD is a risk that the work you've invested in a campaign is going to get tossed when a new idea comes along.  Borrowing from classic risk management strategy, I had laid out some ideas on managing Gamer ADD (Winter is Coming):  mitigation, acceptance, avoidance and transference.

Bottom-up design and "white space" is a powerful tool for mitigating your Gamer ADD by giving you the freedom to do something different without starting a new canvas.  When you absolutely need your group to go to the desert and explore a pyramid because you just saw The Mummy and immediately built a pyramid dungeon and desert area, it's nice to be able to add that desert realm to the bottom of the map.


  1. Thanks for this, I really needed some sage advice, for sure! I've been hit again by my own chronic case of Gamer ADD (I guess you could call it a "flare up" ;-), and it was great to read about some "tools" to help combat the condition! I just wrote about my latest struggles on my blog (another thing that seems to help me fight off the scourge). Anyway, much appreciated!

  2. Good words. This is my general approach to world building, because how can I know what's going to be there until I need it to exist.

  3. "The problem with these high concept settings is the lack of design space to do something new ... the whole world is already mapped, and there's no place to drop a new continent."

    It doesn't have to be this way, of course. No rule says you have to use the entire setting, unchanged.

    I'm assuming that, even with a box-set high concept campaign, you'd still be starting the PCs out in a small area, in Town near Dungeon (or the local equivalent). The PCs aren't being given that fully drawn world map first off, which leaves plenty of room to change what you want to change as the circle of their adventures expands.