Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Algebra of Setting in RPGs

I'm going to go out on a limb here and represent protagonist play (or thematic play or narrativist play, if you prefer) as a mathematical equation: Setting + Situation + Player = Story.

But where's character, you ask? Well that gets into what I want to do with this post. I'm going to focus in on setting here. I may explore situation at a later date, but for now, I think Chris Chinn has got it covered. And player? Well, I think that's all over what's happening in the Indie blogosphere and at The Forge. But maybe we'll revisit down the road in a more focused way.

So let's look at Setting. To continue our little RPG algebra: Color + Character + System = Setting.

Color
I probably put color first because I want to start trouble. I think color is probably the element of setting that most gamers value most (if dollars spent are any indication; see below), and at the same time, I think it is the least important of the three (though still essential!).

Before I do anything else, I need to define what I mean by color. Color consists of the details that allow the participants in the game to imagine a location and how it works. It's the stuff that makes us feel as if we're there. When we describe the leaves of the trees in the elven forest, the population of a village, the creaking churn of the watermill wheel, the clothes your character is wearing, or the manner of succession for the kingdom, that's color.

One of my favorite Robert E. Howard Conan stories is Red Nails (if you haven't read it, I urge you to follow the link and read it now. It's good stuff!) Howard is a master at throwing in bits of color that flavor everything: the dragons in the forest, Derketa's apples, the roofed city of Xotalanc, the Door of the Eagle, and the black pillar with its red nails. The details are cool, but they're not the soul of the story. We could remove those details and completely replace them and it wouldn't alter the core story, although it would affect the feel.

In RPGs, color is introduced by players and GMs to fill in the gaps and smooth out the seams in the imagined environment we create together. Those details are integral to making the play environment feel real to us, but they don't really serve any other purpose and the game won't fall apart if they're not there, though parts might feel a little flat. Situation can grow out of color (like the method of a kingdom's succession), if the players become interested. That's the point at which we stray over into Chris Chinn's Flag framing. Mostly, though, color remains color.

Character
In 2001, Ron Edwards fired a shot at a little RPG sacred cow called scenario when he released The Sorcerer's Soul, a supplement for his game Sorcerer.

The shot took the form of his technique for Relationship Mapping, in which you graphically map out sex and blood relationships between NPCs in a game (with lines of obligation as secondary ties). While Relationship Mapping's primary purpose is to prep for scenarios (for which, see Chris' excellent work), it also makes a strong statement: Characters are the most important aspect of setting in a session (mostly).

Not the description of room 21, not the population of the village of Mistmere, and not the type of trees in the elven kingdom. That's all color. But the stuff that really sees use is all about characters.

In "Red Nails," Derketa's apples, the dragons in the forest, the roofed city of Xotalanc, and the rest really set the atmosphere. But the meat of the story stuff is about Valeria, Techotl, Burning Skull, Olmec, Tascela and Tolkemec. Everything else is incidental, dashed off in just a line or two of prose. Those characters and the ties that bind them are the elements that make the story work, and are also what would make "Red Nails" a playable and awesome RPG scenario (I've done it and it rocks!).

The relationships between characters draw us in as people and they make situations "grabby." Spoiler alert for those that didn't take my advice and read "Red Nails" earlier: When it is revealed that Tascela has ordered Olmec killed in a horrible way, it kicks us in the guts because they were lovers. When Tolkemec takes his vengeance, the depth of his hatred makes sense to us because of his love ties to Tascela. The whole feud fills us with horror when we realize that the two tribes are essentially one large, dysfunctional family that has spent decades murdering, raping, and torturing each other in the dark. And to place a protagonist in context: When Conan and Valeria arrive, their very presence throws this whole crazy, fucked up culture into a frenzy because it topples the status quo.

Or, if we look at The Lord of the Rings, relationships are what drive our interest in Aragorn-Arwen-Elrond, or Boromir-Faramir-Denethor, or Arwen-Aragorn-Eowyn-Faramir, or Eowyn-Eomer-Theoden. Layer on obligations and the tensions leap out at us.

In protagonist play, dealing with this stuff and the way situation affects the web of relationships is the core of play.

I believe this stuff points to a failure in many of the RPG setting books that so many gamers buy. Mostly, they seem to be pure color. In order to become more than that, they must generate investment by all the players involved (it's not enough to just get the GM invested), and the group must then see the way to translate that color into situation.

I suspect but certainly can't prove that only rare groups are able to generate anything more than casual investment from details provided by such setting material. I think some Tekumel, Glorantha, Harn and Middle Earth fans who are really, really jazzed about the settings and make them core features of play may be able to do it. For the most part, though, I think those bits of color contained in such books are not enough. In my experience, only the broadest strokes of color from such books get used in most actual RPG sessions. The rest never actually enter the shared imagined space (SIS), but get filled in retroactively by individual players according to their investment in the setting. (This paragraph and the one preceding it are all conjecture, by the way. Feel free to tear them apart -- as if you need an invitation.)

Can you sense the big, fat except lurking here?

System
Except when that setting color is reinforced by mechanics.

Mechanical details bring setting color to the forefront in a way that color introduced by players and GMs alone does not.

For instance, in Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard, buttes and snowy mountains are pretty easy to forget about when playing, but the fact that life is never more than a few words away from the greasy smoke of black powder is in your face at all times through the escalation mechanics. The fact that these people are your kin is in your face at all times through the spent (and unspent) relationship dice. Your authority and stature as a Dog is in your face every time you call on your Coat's dice in a conflict. That stuff is potent setting.

In Burning Wheel, life is cheap and blood spills easily because of the Fight! and Injury mechanics. Magic is potent as hell according to the spells and dangerous to the caster according to the Tax rules. Miracles are incredibly potent and extremely rare, according to the Faith rules. Grief crushes elves who see too much according to the Grief rules. Words are weapons as potent or more potent than steel, according to the Duel of Wits. Nobles and others who actually own land are wealthy and privileged, while peasants are poor and probably half-starved, due to the Resources and Lifestyle Maintenance rules.

In Conspiracy of Shadows, everyone feels the weight of impending doom that hangs over everything, due to the Doom mechanics. We all know that trust in your fellows is essential for survival and will lead to an inevitable knife in the back, due to the Trust mechanics. We know that dark, ugly magic lurks just below the surface, and Taint will inevitably corrupt those who use it, due to the Witchblood and Taint mechanics.

These bits of color are reinforced over and over again as we turn to the rules to resolve what's happening in play. They become the most potent color in the game.

Conclusions
So what to do with all of this? As designers, I think it provides a few core principles that we should consider when creating:
1. We need to determine what color is essential to expressing what the game is about and what color simply exists to provide flavor and texture to the experience of the game.
2. Color that is essential to what the game is about should be expressed in mechanics.
3. Relationships seem to be fundamental to protagonist play and are key to explaining how to build play with our games.
4. Pure color gets players excited. Even if it's not central to play, it's important and shouldn't be neglected.

For players of RPGs (including GMs), I think it also provides a few core principles:
1. System Matters. Pick the right one for the job. It's important to pay attention to the things that a game's mechanics encourage or discourage.
2. When prepping for a game, allocate the majority of your time for developing NPCs and their relationships.
3. Don't neglect color either. Color shores up the SIS; it's the mortar of the imagination.

14 comments:

Bankuei said...

You know, I say Color is to rpgs as flavor is to food- it's not the essential thing you "need", but you sure as hell aren't attracted if it's not there or isn't what you like.

As far as prep, I've generally found the more room the players have to introduce conflict & challenge (rather than leaving it just in the GM's hands), the less prep you need.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Agreed on both counts, Chris.

Regarding prep, one of my favorite things about the Circles mechanic in Burning Wheel is that it allows you to build a relationship map of characters on the fly. And the players are invested in those characters by default.

Playing in fantasy games, in particular, I had noticed that whenever the group changed location, things seemed to drag for a session. I think what was happening is that we were all trying to rebuild investment after leaving the old relationship map behind.

These days, the players start making Circles rolls as soon as their characters arrive in a new place. The new location starts taking shape and dimension immediately.

Bankuei said...

Yeah, this also happens with Dogs in the Vineyard. Basically, play produces emotional connection to the characters, and those connections become tools to make awesome at the table. Like tv shows or movies, you build connection with a character over time, not instantly (well, usually).

Back to your evolution of Color, I think we'll see a shift from "Add your own Color dammit!" design of Indie games to more tradtional "Color-ful" games, along with good design. Right now Full Light Full Steam looks like it's going to be the first out the gate like this, but I'm sure more will soon follow.

Joshua BishopRoby said...

Hey, I got a mention, rock on. :)

I like to frame Color as the essential details of the setting, while System concerns the substantial details of the setting. The fact that lots of folks don't know the distinction between essence and substance underscores how many folks can't really separate Color and System.

Iskander said...

Great post, Thor (Happy Birthday, old man), and nice distinction Joshua.

John Kim said...

Personally, I don't like the use of the term "color" because it seems like its use is almost always about calling those things unimportant (i.e. when people note something as "color text" or "flavor text", for example). But calling it important can also work.

In 2001, Ron Edwards fired a shot at a little RPG sacred cow called scenario when he released The Sorcerer's Soul

I'm not sure what you're thinking of as the sacred cow here. I think the key innovation of Edwards was the distinguishing of sex and blood ties. Traditionally families, marriage, and especially sex are nearly absent from RPG scenarios. However, other sorts of relationship maps had been around. A typical feature of many White Wolf books was a map of the NPCs within a clan/splat showing their relationships with each other. In contrast, keyed room descriptions had nearly disappeared as a style prior to the release of D&D3, when it resurged.

I suspect but certainly can't prove that only rare groups are able to generate anything more than casual investment from details provided by such setting material. I think some Tekumel, Glorantha, Harn and Middle Earth fans who are really, really jazzed about the settings and make them core features of play may be able to do it. For the most part, though, I think those bits of color contained in such books are not enough.

Well, I'm a HarnMaster player, and for us the setting is a huge part of play -- particularly combined with extra material like the Harn Religion Team. At least, we constantly have the maps and setting books out. I can't speak for other Harn players, of course.

I'm a bit confused about your mechanics comment. As far as I see, the HarnMaster mechanics are much more setting-specific than, say, Dogs in the Vineyard. I mean, I can use the Dogs rules to create a character for virtually any setting. If I create a HM character, though, it is undoubtably Harnic. Dogs has setting color in initiation, demonic influence, and minorly in the distinction of gunplay from other combat.

I suspect there's a disconnect here of some sort. Harn's color isn't about personal relationships. Indeed, family life is hardly touched on (though HarnMaster Gold had some material on it). Harn's material is all about the larger scale of life: culture, law, community, and religion.

Thor Olavsrud said...

John, the sacred cow, as I see it, was the idea of what a pre-written scenario for an RPG was.

I was pretty careful to specify that Ron's innovation was about mapping ties of sex and blood. I don't want this to become a discussion of who did what first.

As for setting as mechanics, my point was that those mechanics express the setting.

The setting of Dogs is a place where any confrontation can explode into violence at a moment's notice. That's the escalation mechanics.

The setting of Dogs is a place where everyone you encounter is kin or has the potential to be kin. That's the relationship mechanics.

The setting of Dogs is a place where those who have been dedicated as Dogs have real authority over the communities they travel. That's the Coat trait and the I'm a Dog trait.

That stuff creates hardcore setting.

Matt Wilson said...

You know, I have some old SpaceMaster books from the 80s, and the scenarios in there are very non-linear. They simply list groups of NPCs and what they're after. Doesn't say whose side you should be on, or exactly what those NPCs will do. Doesn't even assume that there are specific events will happen in any specific order.

Pretty impressive for their time.

John Kim said...

Matt -- Yeah, there were a number of eighties modules like that. Unfortunately, in the nineties the typical style of adventures "advanced" to linear scene-by-scene story. (Lead by Torg, Masterbook, various White Wolf games, and Deadlands.)

Thor -- I don't mean to trivialize Dogs' adaptations to setting. The setting adaptations are important (and yes, I forgot the rule that everyone has "I'm a Dog"). However, my point was that HarnMaster is also very tailored to its setting, to a huge degree.(You did, after all, ask posters to tear apart your conclusions regarding Tekumel, Glorantha, and Harn.)

Regarding your overall conclusions, I agree completely with #1 and #3. As for #2, I would say you should spend time on NPCs if that is what's important to your game. Not all games even have NPCs.

Drozdal said...

Nice one! Btw, i wish you all the best on your birthday trip - do not let that whale get away!

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hi John,

A couple of things that may be causing confusion:

1. I'm not saying that games like Dogs adapt their rules to the setting. I'm saying that the rules ARE the setting. And that those rules create setting in a much more powerful and useable way than the color. Take away all the color about the Deseret Territory, and the imaginative environment of a Dogs game will still FEEL like Dogs. Even if the color is feudal Japan.

2. I'm pretty specifically talking about protagonist play (or thematic play or narrativist play, however you prefer to call it). I'm not trying to encompass other types of play here. I realize that this stuff is probably not applicable to play with other priorities.

Thor Olavsrud said...

One more:

3. 'Character' encompasses both PCs and NPCs.

John Kim said...

I'm pretty specifically talking about protagonist play (or thematic play or narrativist play, however you prefer to call it). I'm not trying to encompass other types of play here. I realize that this stuff is probably not applicable to play with other priorities.

OK, got it. (At least I have a rough picture of a narrower category, even though I might not know the exact definitional boundaries.)

Sorry if my comments were misdirected. Though you did conjecture about Tekumel, Glorantha, and Harn players and the failures in many RPG setting books -- which I took for an interest in discussing other styles/priorities.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Sorry if my comments were misdirected. Though you did conjecture about Tekumel, Glorantha, and Harn players and the failures in many RPG setting books -- which I took for an interest in discussing other styles/priorities.

Not at all, John. It's perfectly fine. I just wanted to explain the perspective from which I was coming. I'm trying to be careful to not make statements about types of play that I don't engage in frequently, because I don't want to put my foot in my mouth.

You're absolutely right that I was straying a little bit when I mentioned Tekumel, Glorantha and Harn players. I think it is an interesting discussion, and you're more than welcome to discuss it here.

I wanted to clarify my point that I wasn't discussing adaptation. That doesn't mean I want to shut down discussion of adaptation and what that means for expressing setting.

Everyone is welcome to discuss other play styles and how that affects setting in RPGs in this thread. However, I ask that everyone realize that my original article was only about a specific play style. Pointing out that what I said doesn't hold true for another play style is not substantive.