Monday, December 8, 2008

The Illusion of Depth

It must always be remembered that I know no more of Nehwon than I have put into my stories. There are no secret volumes of history, geography, etc., written before the tales themselves were spun. I rely wholly on what Fafhrd and the Mouser have told me, testing them against each other, and sifting out exaggerations and lies when I must. And while my conferences with the Twain have been rewarding, they also have been fewer than I’d wish. I have handled no little books of Ningauble or scrolls o[f] Srith.
- Fritz Leiber, The Dragon #1
Let me begin by stating for the record that I have a profound amount of respect for Ed Greenwood. Poor Ed gets a fair amount of grief heaped on him, mostly by those looking for an easy target to blame for the disintegration of the home-brewed campaign world. TSR and WotC certainly did their best to turn Ed’s home-brew world into a cash cow, but that decision was made by marketing, not the man himself. I won’t deny that Ed probably saw his bank account swell a bit, but given that the man is still working his day job as a librarian proves he’s either dedicated to his career or that his compensation was something less than grotesque piles of cash. I also think it is fair to say that some of the ill-will pointed at Ed comes from pure jealousy. Ed managed to achieve every referee’s dream when his boxes of game notes were bought and published by TSR. I’ll admit that if someone came along and wanted to buy my campaign notes outright I’d probably delay only long enough to find a pen to sign on the dotted line with. When I was younger, I idolized Ed for managing to pull this off and I set about to mimic his method of world design with the assumption that, if I just did it the way Ed did, TSR was sure to come knocking on my door. And thus, one of my biggest old bad habits was formed.

When I heard the stories that Ed literally had boxes full of game notes for the Forgotten Realms, I was certain that he had some sort of encyclopedic knowledge of his entire world. He could probably tell you whose face appeared on the smallest coin minted in the most obscure kingdom of the Forgotten Realms, I surmised. So I began to plot and plan and draw and design, all in the insane effort to document every historical period and great event that occurred in my campaign world since the gods first wandered out of the primordial chaos at the beginning of the universe. I drew a gigantic map that spanned four sheets of poster board, sketching in details down to which way the ocean currents flowed. I made list after list of names and titles so I’d be able to just plug them in when I needed to properly record the achievements of ancient rulers. In short, I temporarily went crazy.

After such a period of frantic creativity, it was no wonder that I began my slow decline and gradual exodus out of the hobby. I’d overwhelmed my senses with a fantastical world of sword and sorcery to the point where I just lost interest. If it hadn’t been for the fact that this burnout occurred just as White Wolf’s Storyteller games where getting off the ground, I probably would have stopped gaming right then. As it was, the first edition of Vampire: The Masquerade was so diametrically opposed to Dungeons & Dragons in just about every way, that it provided a temporary respite on my way out the hobby door.

When I made the decision to come back to the game as more than a casual player, I did so with the caveat that I wouldn’t make the same mistake when it came to world-building. One of the charms of classic D&D is that you don’t need to write a personal version of The Silmarillion before you get running. All that is required is a base of safety and a dungeon to poke around in. You don’t even need a full dungeon. Gary points out in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures that all you really need to start are three levels fleshed out. Everything else comes later. I strive to stick to this wisdom, having stopped working on the Dungeon Which Still Remains Unnamed After a Ridiculous Amount of Time™ after level two was completed.

This doesn’t mean that I can’t attempt to create the illusion of a deeper world. I came across the above quote from Fritz Leiber just about the time that I settled in to work on Ol’ Nameless and I think it’s the best example of how a referee should go about building the details of the greater campaign world. What Leiber is saying is that he never bothered to plan the particulars of his world until they were explicitly needed to tell a story, either as background elements to add depth to his tales or to advance the plot. A referee could do much worse than follow this philosophy. Any time and creative energy spent on developing parts of the world other than what immediately pertains to the party and their adventures is, at the very least, time and energy that could be better utilized for the instant gratification of everyone involved. At its worst, extraneous details can lead to the referee desiring to show-off his latest world-building project, which is often the precursor for railroading the players into what the referee wants them to do and see, rather than letting the players decide what shenanigans they’re going to attempt - a definite “no-no” in old-school playing style.

To later-day gamers, the idea of using the dungeon as a way to add depth to the campaign world may seem odd. After all, the dungeon’s just a hole in the ground that you go down to hack up monsters and steal their stuff. How on Oerth is that going to add to the complexity of the overall campaign world?

The answer is: by sheer deception.

In my notes for Ol’ Nameless are many small details jotted down which pertain to some of the set dressing that the characters might encounter during their forays. In every case, these details are three sentences or less. A statue might bear the note: “Tane the Dog-Lord. Led barbarian rebellion against the Old Empire in 984. Captured but escaped public execution to rally the tribes against the city of Forr-var the following winter” or a painting detailed as: “Silpeh Mahin, gnomiss wizard and inventor. Silpeh created many technomagical wonders including: the first submersible ship, a clockwork chariot and horses, a gristmill that turned raw ore into finished armor, and a tin-man who could answer any question”. It never goes any further than that. I don’t even concern myself that these short details might contradict other historical details. History is a subjective field, so someone probably recorded something wrong.

What I hope to accomplish with this is to imply to the players, and thereby their characters, that the world has a history that extends further back then their own efforts and trials. They are standing in the shadows of giants at the moment. But with effort and a bit of luck, perhaps one day they will be immortalized for their achievements. The casual gamer may take this information and promptly discard it, with the assumption that these details have no long-term value and are merely presented to set the scene. A more dedicated player might make note of this information in the hope that this knowledge might serve useful in their coming adventures. In either case, with just three sentences I’ve increased the depth of the world and how the players perceive it. There is no need to drive myself crazy in establishing the particulars as to why Tane rose up against the Old Empire, or where exactly Silpeh carried out her experiments. A resourceful player might even use these shreds of history as an adventure seed, deciding that Tane might have a burial barrow to plunder, or that Silpeh’s creations might still survive, waiting to be rediscovered.

Whether through wisdom, sloth, or sanity, I’ve firmly planted my tent in the camp of “Less is More” when it comes to working on R’Nis. I no longer have the misconception that I need a campaign world of “Greenwoodian” detail to be successful. (I’ve since learned from statements from Ed himself that the Forgotten Realms, while very detailed, was not as well documented as I was initially led to believe.) I need just enough to make it look like I know what I’m doing and to keep the players and myself entertained. I’m not against having more details, but I’m certainly not going to invest the time needed to cultivate extraneous elements at the expense of more pressing matters. It’ simply not worth the stress which detracts from the enjoyment that I’m supposed to be getting from a recreational activity. After all, one third of any RPG is “game”.


James Maliszewski said...

Great post as always.

A couple of points:

1. I believe the statement about Ed having "boxes" of notes comes from Jeff Grubb's intro/foreword to the old gray boxed set of the Realms (the 1e one). If you look at that set, it's amazing how thin it is in terms of detail, with a few exceptions -- the Dalelands and Waterdeep, where Ed set most of his campaigns. The rest of the Realms is amazingly thinly detailed, or at least was until TSR/WotC fleshed it out.

2. Having spoken at length with Ed on the subject, I can tell you that his method of detailing the Realms isn't in fact that different than what you describe in this post. The main difference is that he's been playing in the Realms for over 30 years, so he knows it well enough to be able to create new lore that "fits" with the rest without even trying to do so. I imagine most of us could do the same if we'd had decades of play under our belts.

The Grand Wazoo said...

I can remember finding some little scrap of history in the ruined basement of a mage( behind a stone, in a box, coded, and on a prepared page by th DM) that held my imagination and spurred me on in the adventure for a good time. These little pieces are real color for the game and as a player I find them to really help me get into the world.
As a GM I find it hard to let those carrots of history dangle out in the distance unresolved, but that is what they need to be to give tem real power.

Michael Curtis said...

@james: The intro to the grey box was indeed where I read about these boxes. And, in retrospect, I agree that the amount of detail outside of Ed's usual campaign areas is rather spare. But at the time I was comparing it to the level of detail that was in World of Greyhawk, which was my only prior exposure to a pre-packaged campaign setting. I was younger then, and I thought that the Relams was a superior product because it was fleshed out to a greater extent. Which of course led to my belief that I had to do the same, but in a handful of weeks rather than over 30 years of development like Ed did. I'm a wiser man nowadays.

Michael Curtis said...

@the Grand Wazoo: Sounds like that DM was doing the right thing, even if he probably hadn't thought it out to much extent at the time,

noisms said...

You're absolutely right, and I think this is what makes the homebrew world the great thing it is. That creation via exploration is something that you simply don't get with a published campaign setting.

Anonymous said...

I would take it upon myself to find that tin man and rebuild it. If it's eyes were not made of mother of pearl and it's mainspring was not an amalgam of steel and dragon scale mixed in the presence of children's laughter I would be really put out.

belst8 said...

Another way to allow for the illusion of depth is one you've highlighted in previous posts: Include many undeveloped hooks for your players and develop only the ones that they pursue. That way you make the story together--no railroading--and the players simultaneously are provided with the feeling that the world of the campaign extends in many directions that they have not travelled.

Mike Mearls said...

Great post!

One thing that strikes me is that, IME, the details I build during play are more engaging. To riff off the Leiber quote, when you invent stuff during play it's there to challenge the PCs or advance the game. It's more immediately useful.

When you make up stuff away from the table, there's a better chance that it might have nothing to do with what happens during the game.

I particularly like the example the details you gave as examples. They're short, but suggest a broader history and can come back into play later on.

Zachary Houghton said...

Off topic, but congrats on your Superior Scribbler Award from Jamie Mal!:

Michael Curtis said...

@Mike Mearls: You're spot on about the things created at the table being more immediate than stuff cooked up away from the table. I hadn't really thought about that phenomenon until you mentioned it. I think there might be more said for "preparing to improvise" and "make notes of what you pull out of your ass" when it comes to adding depth to the game than there is to spending downtime cooking up concrete details to add later. I think I'm going to try and make allowances for that when Ol' Nameless gets cooking.

Glad you like my detail snippets. I thought they were a lot of fun myself and I wonder what they might lead to (if anything) down the line.

Michael Curtis said...

@Zachary The First: Thanks!

The Grand Wazoo said...

as to making things up at the table...
always take better notes then your players do!