Less Is More

I’ve recently been introduced to the idea of introducing setting details through gameable mechanics, without the amount of contextual cruft with which so many RPGs are front-loaded, and which erects a pretty solid barrier ‘twixt, for instance, Mage and the new player.

Zak rather combatively explains that most RPG background of the World Guide variety – the detailed explorations of a nation, faith, species or territory, sans much in the way of game rules – is largely unnecessary and dull, and that anything that’s likely to have a meaningful impact at the table will be/ought to be expressed in gameable terms.

This is beginning to appeal as a point of view.  Consider Fantasy Flight’s WFRP (not the big box with the unique play aids and proprietary dice; the other one, the more conventional RPG that they released when they first received the property from the dying embers of Hogshead).

WFRP’s character generation does a pretty good job of embedding ideas about each race and career path within the mechanics and attendant flavour text of same; likewise, the perilous nature of magic is both mechanically detailed and explained by the material surrounding Tzeentch’s Curse.  Witness:

Arcane Magic can be unpredictable.  The more power you use to cast a spell, the more likely it is that something unexpected will happen.  This is Tzeentch’s Curse.  Not all wizards honour Tzeentch, the Chaos God of Magic and Change, but all fear him.

This abuts the chart of Chaos manifestations, which contextualises the escalating yet ever-present threat of Chaos by placing minor miscast-induced manifestations like glowing eyes and spoiled milk at one end of a hierarchy with Boschean visions and daemonic incursions at the other.  Do you really need to be told anything else about Chaos, magic and the perilous intertwining of the two that dogs every wizard in the Warhammer world?  I hope not; if nothing else, the writeups for the Witch Hunter and, to a lesser extent, Templar careers would do the job of underscoring the perceived risk.  WFRP is really excellent at this sort of thing, placing flavour text and mechanics in proximity without sinking to the untidy confusion that arises in the parent game, although it shoots itself in the foot somewhat with the gazetteer section towards the back, which is all fluff with little in the way of gameplay applications.

Still not as bad as this bastard, though.

If I can draw comparison to another proprietary setting: the Iron Kingdoms, quite dear to my heart of old, features some sourcebooks that are very very readable (the Monsternomicons, written in-character with the rules contained in shoutboxes or offset sections within an entry), some which are quite palatable (the Character Guide, which does a superb job of evoking the complexities of the setting as it potters through the character options by ethnicity and shows how the ethnic groups and character classes transcend national borders, co-incidentally describing the various nations as it goes), and some which, while detailed, are frankly not that interesting to read and seldom of use at the table (the World Guide).

Further example: while I’d argue that something like Mage is drawing from sources less widely shared among the target audience, much of what’s needed is already contained within the character-concept splats and the writeups for various rotes.  You get a pretty good idea of what the Guardians of the Veil are about, and where they came from, from the kind of magic they teach and use.  Do you really need to be told all that explicitly?  Maybe some of it.  The briefest gist, as it were.  Enough to contextualise the mechanics of playing one.

Zak’s idea of ‘doing it right’, the one that I’m intrigued by, is to

describe discreet gameable things (monsters, places) that are new to your setting (even if there are no rules) and how they are DIFFERENT from each other rather than spending lots of time telling us mundane details like comparing the climate of the Sunken City to the Isle of the Fat Kings.

Also, he suggests being good at writing.  Given that they seem to share a low opinion of the genre’s source material and an acknowledgment of its tendency to accumulate references, I’m not sure why Kent took the low tone he did in the commentary (since deleted); aren’t they on the same side?  That said, I’d recommend Kent’s blog to anyone who can stomach his unabashed meritocracy, especially since he brings up another, perhaps better way to instigate good roleplaying and an understanding of setting and tone than including page after page of prose in your rulebook.

Kent’s suggestion of providing reference material in the form of recommended source materials is one quite close to my own heart.  It would certainly help with opening the gates to, say, Dark Ages Vampire; a game which has stalled whenever I’ve tried to run it, due to lack of a shared understanding and enthusiasm for the period, which might have been generated through use of resources.  The suggestions can be specific, informing a particular player’s characterisation or a GM’s design choice, or general, establishing a shared view of the game world.  Kent also advocates looking beyond the high walls of your game genre’s source texts – I’m particularly fond of his work on Shakespearean-derived NPCs.

Image from filmcritic.org

The point which I’m edging towards is that I think their approaches could be combined.  On the one hand, you’re given the essentials of setting incorporated within the mechanics of character creation and play, with what doesn’t have a mechanical impact being presented in the briefest terms necessary to make it comprehensible and inspirational of play; on the other, you’re provided with a recommended source list which illustrates the ideas the game draws on and reinforces those details by reference to works of greater quality and wider fame than any digested variant the writer of the game is likely to accomplish (since I agree absolutely that most gamebook writing is pretty damn poor).

It requires a game writer able to sublimate their own ego and admit that what they have is not an act of Individual Genius Creativity and more a tissue of references and influences that’s mainly made special by how they’re played out at table.  Because of that, I don’t expect to see it often, but it’s an approach I’ll be trying to take in my own gaming practice; after all, I’ve tried the act of extended ‘originality’ in world-building before, and the result was 80,000 words of exposition with little to naught in terms of playability to show for it.  These days, I cadge and crib bits of my settings and stories from all over the place, and I agree with Kent that, when you’re actually running a game, it’s better to do so with discipline and clear themes in mind if you want to maintain any sort of maturity in what you’re doing.  Why not share your influences and show your work?  If it’ll help bring people into the right headspace, what the hell?

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

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