Sunday, June 22, 2014

World building, granularity, and the long payoff

When I wrote about the introduction of the Patriarch, I mentioned that he never spoke for himself, but had a red imp familiar who sat on his shoulder and spoke for him. This was an attempt at world building that never came to fruition, and it's a pretty common problem for GMs.

This is a perfectly reasonable arrangement.
There's a principle for dramatic narratives known as "Chekhov's Gun," which says that you generally remove any narrative or contextual elements that aren't necessary to the story. If you point out a gun on the wall in act 1, then it ought to be fired by act 3, otherwise it never should have been pointed out at all. You could reasonably extend that idea to RPGs, cutting out the unnecessary fluff and narrative clutter, but it's not the same process as with a novel or play.

The way I understand it, there's two general ways this plays out at the table.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Block Text
If you look at classic D&D adventures, there's a lot of what's called "block text." When the players enter a new area, the GM reads a brief description of the surroundings. This is a necessary thing, even if you aren't using a pre-written adventure. The more detail you give to this sort of description, the more depth and vibrancy your world will have. It's one thing to say, "The dungeon is scary." It's entirely another to describe the chill in the air which defeats even the flame of your torches, the darkness that seems to swallow your torchlight beyond its radius, and the carvings on the wall depicting atrocities that make your skin crawl. The former has no life to it, while the latter lends to a feeling of immersion and makes the experience much more visceral for your players.

It's easy to go overboard on this sort of thing, though. If the players walk into a library, you could spend 20 minutes describing the various books in the collection, the classification of those books, the assorted magical inks and quills the scribes used in their arcane labors, the magical light sources permitting reading, and so forth. The further you go, the more "real" the place can seem.

You start butting up against real limitations at some point. This isn't a novel; it's generally people sitting around a table. There's a limit as to how long you can talk and expect people to remember the details of what you were saying, much less remember it in the future. People can take notes, but there's still only so much that can help. Plus, the more detailed you make the description, the less impact any one of those details is going to have. What's important? What's just for show? It's really difficult to figure out that the "Book of Legend" is the most valuable thing in the room if you spend five minutes describing the various ways the library books are bound.

The opposite problem can turn the entire experience into a lifeless exercise. "You walk into a library. The 'Book of Legend' sits on a table nearby." You've not only taken away the players' agency in exploring the room and finding the artifact for themselves, but you've sucked the soul out of the room and reminded the players that they aren't adventurers in a fantastic world, but just a couple of people sitting at a table.

"Who keeps leaving the 'Book of Legend' sitting out? It's not like we have a bunch of these!"
Mingling with Merchants
The other way this plays out at the table is through player interaction, either with each other or with the NPCs. Imagine a situation where the players roll into town and want to purchase some adventuring supplies. You might handwave the entire process, having them add the appropriate items to their list and subtract the cost from their wealth. You might have them role play with the store's owner, taking the time to describe the store and the merchant. Perhaps this guy is going to give them valuable information about how outsiders are perceived in town, or this guy is about to become their regular contact for black market goods. You might even have the players waiting in line to deal with the merchant, just to listen to a mother scolding her child in line, making small talk with her about the upcoming festivals or her favorite variety of apples. It's a pretty broad spectrum of possibilities.

The first approach might seem entirely minimalist, but if you're pushing along a story about religious corruption in the city's temple, you (or your players) might feel like the details of a pending demonic invasion are far more important than chitchatting with characters who have no impact on the plot. Some people play RPGs specifically for this sort of role playing, and omitting the bartender who can talk in detail about the pub's offerings (and not just generic stew and ale) might seem like it saps the game of its soul. Fleshing out the character you're playing often means having that character interact with the world. This is especially true if you offer the players a chance to act independently, rather than as a single entity.
Of course, some players just want to know just how buxom their serving wench is.
There's something to be said for having a game world that seems lived in, but that means having actual characters who live there. Getting the players to care about the theoretical masses might actually be easier than endearing them to actual characters, but the masses will never have any personality, for better or for worse.

Planning for the Future
Both of the above features can play into long-term payoffs, but that's a risky game. Let's put Chekov's Gun in a TV show. If you show the gun in episode 1 and don't fire it until episode 20, you're counting on a few things:
  • The viewers remember the gun from 19 episodes ago
  • The viewers care about the payoff of seeing the gun fired after all this time
  • The show survived long enough to see the gun fired
Sometimes it comes together, though.
It's not much different for an RPG. You can have a bunch of interesting details that will all add up into a powerful, dramatic payoff down the line, but it hinges on a lot of factors. Will your players tolerate a bunch of details and interactions that seem like red herrings and fluff at the time? Will your players remember those details such that there's a payoff for them? My own example of the mob boss with an imp for a voice box is a good lesson there. The players found him curious, but was he memorable enough that they'd think of him a year later? 

Which brings up the most important part: Will your game last long enough for there to be a long payoff? I love setting up stories that have a long crescendo, but there's a lot of variance of patience for that. There's always another story to be told, another person who wants to run a game, another system or genre that would be fun to try. I've been lucky enough to run games that ran for a year or so. Some games never make it beyond a couple of sessions, and I hear stories of games that run for years and years. The former really suffer from trying to set up for a later payoff, and the latter can't possibly survive if you don't.

In the end, you tell the stories you find interesting. Figuring out how to balance the level of detail with the players' temperaments is all part of the game. 

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