Saturday, March 23, 2013

For Where Your Treasure is, There Your Heart Will Be Also

There is an interplay between rules and settings and scenarios that's been on my mind lately.  It's not an issue with strongly themed game systems that are closely aligned to their default setting and play style, but D&D-type games are ciphers, reflective mirrors, blank pages on which to scribe a unique vision, and it's fair to ask the question - what is your particular game really about?

I'm coming at this somewhat stream of conscious and still organizing my thoughts, so perhaps another tact is in order:  Consider the D&D retroclone system, ACKS - Adventurer Conqueror King.  Part of the unique niche ACKS has carved out in the fantasy space is having top-to-bottom balanced economics, domain management, trade rules, and costs for armies and kingdoms.  A Dungeon Master that puts all that time and effort into detailing those particular characteristics for the baronies and kingdoms in their sandbox game clearly feels the information is important and relevant.  A player there should assume that as their characters move into the mid and high levels, they'll be expected to gain land, deal with economics and domain management, and build armies.  The NPCs will be coming for them with armies of their own!

The converse is the DM that spends all their time writing intricate dungeons, and barely spares a page of notes for the home base, the surrounding countryside, or the politics outside of the dungeon.  Better be prepared for week after week of dungeon crawling, in that kind of campaign.

Horror adventures are usually deep on detail and atmosphere.  They tend to have intricate back stories leading to a big reveal.  They are the opposite of the sparsely described (but vast) dungeon.  In fact - that's another kind of test to consider for your writing style - are the adventures broad horizontally, meaning the DM has created  a large adventure, sparsely detailed, or are they vertical; a narrow scope, but deeply detailed with multiple layers of secrets centered around a small area?  And how do these choices reflect the default activity you expect of the players?

It seems to me there's some kind of rule around writing that should help inform the discussion, but I'm not remembering it.  Not quite Chekhov's gun, but something along the lines of it - such as, why would you do a conventional  story in an oddball setting, unless the sci fi or fantasy elements were critical to the telling?

I'm sure someone out there reading this is a writer, and they'll be able to express this as a well-known principle.

Common wisdom amongst DM's and game masters is to only prepare what you need.  That's good, useful advice.  However, let's take it a step further, and only prepare what your game is about.  Perhaps that's already implied, but the idea is to force an additional layer of self-reflection and answer the question, what is your game about, anyway?  Is it dungeon crawling?  Then ask yourself what is the bare minimum in terms of a setting you can get away with to make the best framework for dungeon crawling, and spend the rest of your time on making fantastic dungeons.

I tend to think this is why I dislike the Sword & Planet genre; I'd rather focus my time on things like interesting adventures, and skip all the parts about creating (and then narrating) alien cultures and why they do things differently there.

How does this apply to a horror themed fantasy game?  It pushes you towards a real world setting more often than not.  Using a pseudo-historical setting means that no energy is diverted towards setting, when the dictates of the genre already require a huge outlay of effort creating the detailed mysteries.  The real world offers everything you need for backstory and all your creative work can go into the horror side of things.

Of course, the bit that cooks my brain here on a lazy Saturday afternoon is this:  the answer to the question, "what is your game about", has a tendency to change over the course of a campaign, doesn't it?


  1. Interesting points, that may be why I've settled on a fantasy classical Roman campaign world, I have lots of background detail that I can use on the fly. And then I can save my creativity for the dungeons.
    But don't the dynamics of the player group also enter into it? I've been playing with the same group for over a decade and I know what they as a group look for, so I tailor the campaigns to what I perceive as their desires.
    Good thoughts to occupy us, while we await Opening Day and the melting of the snow - in that order.

  2. Really good post. I think in a way this reflect what I've been doing. I detail my dungeon, my monsters, my treasure, and the PCs - and spend as little time on anything else as I can unless it directly impacts the dungeon crawling. Dwarven culture? Er, let the dwarf PC make stuff up. Terrain south of the city? The dungeon is north, ignore it. The city? Only those details that directly matter for dungeoneering are really detailed.

    It's not a bad approach, really, as long as everyone accepts the idea that your Western is about shootouts, not going around behind the one-dimensional storefront prop and saying "Where is the back?"

  3. And on point, I think, is that horror needs to be relatable to be terrifying. If you have to spend time figuring out what the setting is about because it's full of strange and exotic cultures (which can include historical settings, depending on how well-versed your players are) it can detract from the natural propensity to feel terrified.

    Horror, I've found, is a visceral emotion and anything that breaks immersion (from a question as simple as "Would my character do this in this kind of setting?" to something deeper such as "Would my character be AFRAID of this?") tends to create emotional distance which stifles horror. My least successful Call of Cthulhu games have been set in the 20s because players cast around for understandable cultural relics and become something of historical tourists.

    My best horror moments, I think, have all been in D&D—because by now my players know our setting inside and out, and being confronted with shapeshifting dopplegangers can hit them on a visceral level; they know what to expect from the Iron Guard of Thurayn, and it isn't that their skin runs like wax!

  4. It seems to me there's some kind of rule around writing that should help inform the discussion, but I'm not remembering it. Not quite Chekhov's gun, but something along the lines of it - such as, why would you do a conventional story in an oddball setting, unless the sci fi or fantasy elements were critical to the telling?

    There's two quotes supposedly from T. S. Eliot, that I don't remember the exact wording of, but they went something like this:

    "Chaucer is the breadth of English literature, and Shakespeare is the depth"


    "You can have a weird character in a normal setting, or a normal character in a weird setting, but not a weird character in a weird setting."

    (The example for weird setting was Alice in Wonderland, but I forget what the example for weird character was... Dracula, maybe?)

    Anyways, when you talked about broad, sparse mega-dungeons vs. vertical detail in horror plots, I thought of the first quote, and the conventional vs. oddball distinction reminded me of the other quote.

    1. Oops, I think I found the quote about Shakespeare: ""Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them, there is no third." In that case, Dante was the depth, and Shakespeare the breadth. But that part may have been the commentary of an English lit professor. I don't know if Eliot ever explained the Dante/Shakespeare comparison.

      Still looking for the other quote.

    2. Dracula in Wonderland sounds like fun!

  5. That is why I threw out a Genre Tree on my blog. To provide the most enticing game opportunity I can for the few lucky souls gathered around the gaming table. I would want a wide array of choices for the group of players to settle on so they feel they are getting what they want. Once the genre has been established my game/job should be about bringing everyone at the table into a engrossing story where everyone is invested in the outcome. Invested in feeling a rip-roaring adventure is unfolding underneath their fingernails. If I am a good GM it doesn't matter what genre the PC's choose to play. I am prepared with essential story elements in which to create tension, conflict, and meaning amongst the participants.

    That is why what I think you are asking in this thread is the perennial question; How can I be the best DM ever!?!

    Be as good a story teller as Howard and Tolkien.

    If you can't do that deliver the lessons which can be taken from the masters. Believe!

  6. maybe for me where my heart is, my treasure can be found as well.
    staying healthy

  7. Good post, though, as you say campaigns change over time. Also you have to be wary of mismatches between what you think the campaign is about and what your players' want it to be about.