Sunday, August 15, 2010

Setting Design, or, Why I'm Probably Not Old School

As you can tell by the list over to the right, I read a lot of RPG blogs, many of which have some kind of connection to that nebulous school of thought called the "Old School Renaissance".  They're a continuous source of interesting thoughts and inspirations, but there are times when I'm brought up short by the vast gulf between the Old School and…whatever mishmash of schools I have wound up as.

Here's an example of exactly what I'm talking about:
This is the period when you'll sit and scratch out dungeon after dungeon, before contemplating the possibility of improving the dungeon generation tables in the DMs Guide.  This will help train you in the creation of tables, encouraging you to read a book or two about caves and caverns, and ultimately about the wilderness when it occurs that you should waste months and months struggling with an outdoor encounter table that might conceivably work.
And this entire post is another one (not to keep picking on Alexis, it's just that he posted about it recently where I could easily find it!)

[The characters] are what the players bring to the table, they are what the players are invested in, and therefore they are what I need to concentrate on to engage the players.
The gulf between what he's describing and what I do is so vast that I can barely see the other side.  I don't think I've rolled a random dungeon since my voice changed, the thought of fiddling with a random encounter table leaves me cold, and while I have had brief flirtations with the madness that is the macroeconomics of the Traveller system (a directory of Perl scripts will bear witness to that) I quickly found out that my players just don't give a crap about the price of tea on Regina.  I mean, beyond how much it's going to cost to get a cuppa - if we even bother handling that.

And so, by extension, I don't either.

Now, the process of setting and campaign design fascinates me—possibly more than it should, leading inevitably to the dreaded "Game Master ADD" and a long string of campaigns "on hiatus" (but never abandoned - oh, no! We might play them again…someday…)  I'm an easy sale for books on the topic - anything from the D&D World Builder's Guide to the mammoth and sesquipedalian tome that is Aria Worlds - and I love to read about the experiences of others as they work on their own settings.

Mynah Bird on an Old Tree
Zhu Da (1703)
But when the dice hit the table, for me, the setting is really only a backdrop.  I like to spend my gaming time focused on the characters.  They are what the players bring to the table (setting aside a whole category of excellent games with collaborative setting design), they are what the players are invested in, and therefore they are what I need to concentrate on to engage the players.  We don't need to know where the poison was made or how much was paid for it to enjoy Hamlet - we need to know who used it and whose ear he poured it into.

I must admit, there's a part of me that truly enjoys evoking the desired feel of the setting with as few brushstrokes as possible - a subtlety that depends not on overwhelming detail but on engaging the players' imaginations as well as my own to bring life to the setting.

Keep all of that in mind, because I'm going to be sharing some of these  settings as we go forward: two that I've already sketched out, and one that's going to be a collaborative effort with a bunch of other people.  Here's what you can look forward to.

Relic Hunters, post-apocalyptic pulp fantasy with a steampunk edge;

Sky Pirates of Castile, a swashbuckling setting for a trilogy of adventures I've been running at BisbeeCon;

and the collaborative project:
Dresden Files: Pittsburgh, where myself and several other locals fire up the City Creation chapter of the Dresden Files RPG and see what we can do to our hometown.

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