Read and Respond: Sense and Sensibilities

Technically this should be a Read and Respond to Lurking Rhythmically on the internal logic of Pellatarrum, but bad – and topic-relevant! – literary puns only come along so often.  I’m sure you understand Erin please don’t defenestrate me I need my fenestrates to live.

Anyway, Erin has been answering questions not asked by people who may or may not exist (as is her way) concerning the internal logic of her fantasy setting Pellatarrum (a small slice of which is now available in print), and she said:

Play the best song in the world… or I’ll eat your soul!

No she didn’t.  She said:

And that’s where the problem creep in, because now you’re forcing scientific problems upon a fantasy world, where they have no place at all. You’d be surprised just how many scientific assumptions you bring into your fantasy game without realizing it.

I have never encountered a gaming group without at least one person who quibbles about things like right-angled mountain ranges, plateaus that should be flood plains, wondered how the wizard feeds his army or just how period oozage is dealt with in this world.

Many – arguably almost all – people’s ability to suspend disbelief can only stretch so far and is already fairly taxed by the acceptance of magic/talking lawn ornaments/dragons.  I call it Von’s Law: the principle that everyone has a break point beyond which they have to ask WHOAT YE PHOQUE, as Chaucer might have said had he been marginally more foul-mouthed and even worse at spelling, and call shenanigans on divergences from consensus reality.  At that point, play breaks down – someone is having to justify design choices to someone else.  You’re not playing roles, you’re having a nerd fight.

Keeping a lid on the possibility of migraine-inducing nerd fights is important to me, because I prefer my nerd fights to be erudite and informed and occur out of a context where we’re trying to play a game.  I’m also a little bit concerned about placing the sense – whatever kind of sense – of the world above the sensibilities of the players, largely because I’m exactly the kind of person whose natural GMming style is “writing a novel and making your friends improvise the dialogue”, a position from which it’s easy to forget that other people need to have fun too.

HOWEVER!  This sort of thing goes both ways.  I have, in the past, participated in the design process for a fantasy world or two.  One of the worlds, which I might describe swiftly as ‘southern Gothic with robots’ was deliberately left wide-open; a few core principles were staked down to establish what Erin calls ‘poetic sense’, the underlying themes and symbolic resonances of the world and the things that are untouchable within its boundaries (there were a couple of clichés that we wanted to keep absolutely off limits to start with).  When the first collection of material was published, reviews ranged from the cautious to the moderately scathing; the sci-fi press, when they touched it at all, loathed the ‘under-researched’ Western aspects and the ‘under-defined’ robot bits, citing as a preference the kind of world-building where the molecular structure and energy yield of common fuel substances is a matter of public record.  Don’t get me wrong, there were some choices made in the building of that world and the writing of that book that now strike me as lazy, unwise and ill-informed, but that sort of thing isn’t one of them.

The other went too far in the opposite direction.  Our design principle was that, while the physics and biology and chemistry of the world would be totally scratch-built, they would be internally consistent; the world would make sense on its own terms even if real science fell down splat as soon as look at it.  And you know, dear reader, it was dull.  I don’t mean the act of building it – that was fun.  I mean the actual result.  It was stuff that had little or no bearing on the practice of sitting around a table pretending to be stuff or executing grand strategy or telling a story.  It was a mighty endeavour and it was, by and large, a successful one, but it was quintessential fluff – material of little import to the practices it had been created to enable and support.  It didn’t actually need to be there for any purpose other than being wheeled out so we could say “actually our dragons do make sense, here’s how” and win nerd fights, and it ate up all the creativity that several of the world-engineers had in stock before we could actually do anything with it.

The kind of world I’m edging toward now… I want to say it makes ‘narrative’ sense because I identify strongly with story but there’s a bit more to it than that.  ‘Functional’ sense, maybe.  The world must enable us to do what we set out to do with it and must not stop us from doing that.

If the purpose of the world is to be roleplayed in, then there need to be a range of archetypal tactical and narrative roles available for play, differentiated by things that have a clear mechanical impact, and the players need to have a clear role in the broader functioning of the world (ragtag band of travelling heroes, urban bastards for hire, deniable assets of an imperialist power…).  The world itself needs to enable that role – there need to be things for this bunch of people to do and those things have to make sense in context with other things that have been done.  Effect needs to follow cause and territory, once staked, needs to change in a way that relates to the players somehow (either because of something they’ve done, or because of something they haven’t done, or because of something they’re going to do).  Opportunities for GM masturbation or nerd fights need to be minimised.  As tempting as it is for me to devise a version of the Grim Darkness of the Far Future which resonates with the wisdom and symbolic might of the Kabbala, who apart from me gives a shit?  Half the players didn’t – they wanted investigation, combat, the clash of character personalities and a servo-skull to call their own, and that’s what I ended up giving them (except the servo-skull, as Hark insists on reminding every group I GM for.  I have to have fun too.  I giveth and taketh away, and now I know what it feels like to be God, far more than Victor Frankenstein…).

If the purpose of the world is to be wargamed in, then there need to be definable conflicts into which the appropriate scale of play can be inserted, between forces that can be represented mechanically.  The world itself needs a ready supply of conflict and that conflict ideally needs to serve a purpose that can be identified with (bearing in mind that even the Grim Darkness of the Far Future has the fate of the human race and, by extension, all life in the galaxy at its heart – it’s easy to think that the GrimDark is purposeless, but it’s not).  The scale of the conflict needs to be appropriate to the world (ground combats in settings with orbital death lasers don’t always make sense).  Basically, we need people to fight, and we need those fights to make some sort of sense in some sort of context, and there needs to be a ready supply of fights to be had.

If the purpose of the world is to be poetic – to express certain themes and ideas and concepts in harmony or dissonance with one another – then those things need to be represented within it, clearly or obscurely, in broad strokes or fine detail, and the world must fit the medium in which its notions are to be expressed.

If the purpose of the world is to do more than one thing… tread carefully?  I’m not saying it can’t be done, in fact I believe Erin’s doing a flippin’ good job of it.  I suppose I’m asking if it matters what shape the world is when you’re roleplaying on it, or whether the way the world serves the roleplaying is more important.

2 thoughts on “Read and Respond: Sense and Sensibilities

Add yours

  1. So… you liked it, then? I think that’s what you said. Anyway:

    Erin please don’t defenestrate me I need my fenestrates to live.
    You have amused me. Your fenestrates shall live as long as you continue to amuse.

    Play the best song in the world… or I’ll eat your soul!
    I have actually said this at least once.

    Regarding Von’s Law and WHOAT YE PHOQUE: You too? I thought it was just me because I have gamed with engineers for too long. I have to say, my moment of satori came in the late 90s – early 00s as a result of a mailing list discussion regarding the particulars of a game effect in Steve Jackson’s In Nimine RPG. Individuals were gearing up for a particularly nasty flamewar about how precisely the Song of Shields worked, and one of the older, folks on the list said “Please don’t get your physics in my miracles.” And lo, I was enlightened, and have taken that enlightenment to other games. You’d be amazed at how deftly it takes the wind out of peoples’ sails.

    Pellatarrum is basically this approach taken to its logical (some might say obscene) conclusion.

    As tempting as it is for me to devise a version of the Grim Darkness of the Far Future which resonates with the wisdom and symbolic might of the Kabbala, who apart from me gives a shit?

    Me! Me! Oooh, me! Especially if your Tree of Life is actually an abstraction for an Operating System (Geburah is weapons, Binah is sensors, etc) created by post-Babylonian Captivity Jews in an effort to understand through mysticism the highly complex technology of their captors (who weren’t really Babylonians but sentient macroviruses whom the Babylonians worshiped) and thence rebelled against their captors by piloting mechs (which they considered golems) in a war for freedom!

    No, I didn’t make that up just now, I’ve had this idea for nearly 10 years or so but haven’t really been sure what to do with it. If you’d be interesting in helping me develop it I’d be delighted….

    I suppose I’m asking if it matters what shape the world is when you’re roleplaying on it, or whether the way the world serves the roleplaying is more important.
    I’d say it’s cyclical. The setting has to serve the roleplaying, but at the same time the roleplaying has to reflect the world it’s in. In the very best of games a kind of harmonic resonance is achieved where one strengthens the other.

    1. Oh, heaven knows if I like the things I Read and Respond to or not, I just pontificate about them at improper length.

      No, you’re not alone. I like the “physics and miracles” line, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a group where it wouldn’t spark off an irritating and self-righteous debate about antitheism and faith – a debate I’m not at all interested in since I would rather be trying to understand how belief makes people behave than wrangling its ineffable tenets. Personally I tend toward “a mad wizard didn’t just do it, he’s doing it constantly from his home at the heart of [whatever feature is found offensive]. Would you like to put a stop to him?”. If it bothers people that much, let them send their characters to turn it off or die trying.

      Especially if your Tree of Life is actually an abstraction for an Operating System…

      Mine was both a narrative structure and plot-line concerning the descent of One Good Idea from unknowable cosmic vastness to the realms of (ultimately flawed) human-ish ambition (my Kabbala knowledge is fairly strongly influenced by John Coulthart’s mapping of it onto the Cthulhu Mythos, you see)… but yours is hot. Let’s do that instead. Join me, and with our combined strength we can rule the galaxy together as… well, as something or other, we’ll work that out later.

      In the very best of games a kind of harmonic resonance is achieved where one strengthens the other.

      Yes. The best world-building is holistic. It’s also a hard climb to the top and not one that I see accomplished very often, although goodness knows I’m usually trying. That’s partly why I did the Tarot thing – showing how something with poetic value can be used in mechanical and narrative ways. I’m gradually putting together more ideas for Tarot-based rules that embed mysticism in setting and system. If you’d be interested in helping me develop it…

You may now commence belching

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: