I don’t have a design philosophy; a long-winded record of my babbling

Now I ain’t one to talk about my own humility in a fake Garrison Keillor writing style, being the clever-man-pretender that I am, living through tests and examinations by using big words and anticipating what my opponent (grade-giver) wants to hear, but when I write about something dear to my weak ol’ heart, I can’t but be honest and cut the crap, out of respect for you, dear reader, and out of hope for improvement, stemming from my awareness of lack of skill in a matter.

I don’t have a “design philosophy”, I have never read a “design bible” of any game and  I know little about game design on a theoretical level. I could point out what is bad in a game if you were to put it in front of me, but it is not up to me to make rules and generalizations, that is something i have to leave to my alter ego in a reality where he lives happily, studying game design, expecting to find a job in game-making the moment he graduates and magically creating value from thin air to sustain himself.

What I do know about games is close to ChattyDM’s perception of a game; the “fun”, the “awesome” to some extent, these are things I understand on a subconscious levels and I wish to create these in games I run. I got into a twet discussion with Good People about design philosophy and it got me thinking, “what ARE my red strings when writing stuff for a game?”. Thus I present to you; things you might come across if you were to play with me.

It will help you, dear reader, understand if I give you a brief background on my gaming career; I have played a game on-and-off with friends at the end of our high school lives, then I have seen them but a few times again when we got to play. I do not get to play often, I have not played an RPG in years now. What I do, is browse a Horrible Imageboard and read wonderful stories of people playing RPG’s. I reminisce about the games, I fantasize about games that never happened and will probably never happen. I read what people who play RPG’s post on Microblogging Sites and I read their blogs and I read rulebooks for games I can’t even imagine myself playing, for kicks.

I write my own material too, since all the input has to be excreted somewhere. I have a google notebook where I write down chunks of ideas, ranging from three words length to a block of text with strange gibberish interwoven into the text, in both English and my mother tongue, often in the same sentence.

I firmly believe that universal systems are neat, but specialization is better; if you’re going to play a wild-west game, you’re going to use A&8, not GURPS wild-west. If you’re going to play fantasy, you’ll use one of the trillions of fantasy systems there are, not GURPS fantasy. Unless you’re the sort of Horrible Person that would consider making a kitchen-sink game without any thematic soothing, e.g. COWBOY MEETS WIZARD MEETS ZOMBIE JESUS MEETS GARGAMEL, you’re not going to have use for the universality that comes with GURPS or unisystem, double so if it involves idiotic amounts of rules, as is the case of GURPS. I feel the same way about material in regard to groups; a pre-packaged adventure is neat, but one tailored to suit your group is a million times better. Any decent GM would of course not run an adventure out-of-the-box, there’s always considerations to be made and small or big changes to be done, so the party fits into the generalized, mass-produced framework.

The last paragraph is analogous to how I handle all my “session” notes; I don’t go into any detail when preparing adventures, I merely write down scenes I think would be good, I might make even presumptuous parts that require something from the players (for instance someone being a paladin) and make a specifically tailored part for this paladin, but all this goes out the window if the group I might some day encounter doesn’t have a paladin. You all know the stories of players doing something completely unexpected, instantly throwing the first-time DM’s session notes for the next 3 sessions out the window; this is what I expect in literally all things, improvisation is the most important part of my “sesh prep”. My prep really consists of 3 phases; what is happening now is the “bare bones phase”, where I write down short taglines. “Cartel merchant died, left behind riches at his remote post, cartel is sending a new guy to take over, escort him”. The second phase sets in once I have a sesh or two of merely sitting down with the group; I would never start a campaign just like that, without a long discussion on expectations, characters, party cohesion, backstories, story glue. It’s the difference between a person putting colored blocks into their appropriate holes in a children’s toy and a blind guy standing on one leg trying to install a lightbulb, without any ladder and with a lemon for a bulb, under time pressure. The final phase is what every CO will tell you is a reality of warfare; known unknowns. You can prepare as much as you’d like, but you’re still just one brain against the 2+ relaxed brains of your group. Something unexpected will come up. The third phase starts when you, the DM, capital letter, wait for complete silence, take a deep breath and declare the session begun. The third stage is improv. I don’t need to elaborate on improv, we all know what it is, we all know we need to get better at it.

My “world” notes work in a similar way to the first part of the last paragraph, the part about the paladin. I have 3 pillars on which my “world design philosophy” stands: magic-non-interference, apathy, player input.

Magic-non-interference is something I realized as a kid trying to write my first hero-with-sword story; I can’t realistically predict all the small changes that easy access to magic would have on a medieval society (not to mention the fact that I can never know perfectly about the middle ages like the guy from Tao of D&D tries to do). All the threads about “what does a society do if they have access to WoW-style resurrection” or anything of that magnitude sends horror down my spine; it would take a trillion years (or merely a lifetime of Tao of D&D posts) to figure this sort of thing out. When we generalize this to “any magic of that strength” levels, we’ll need two lifetimes/trillions of years.
These are not new problems, everyone deals with them in some way when making a fantasy setting. Everyone has their more-or-less clumsy way of trying to balance out the un-balancable.  My solution is simple, make magic something that isn’t common. I like the OD&D idea of magic being very hard to find under normal circumstances, of the average farmer not ever seeing a magic sword. He might meet a horribly huge bug infestation that could be of magical origin, but he won’t get benefits from magic easily. As long as the magic is on my side of the GM screen, I have no worries of it becoming too powerful, too world-changing for my tastes. This works to a similar extent with religion and any other Great Power wieldable by mere mortals, perhaps like “modern-era” technology; the average farmer will not see a vecna’s-eye-equivalent in his lifetime if he’s lucky, if he isn’t and goes to war, he might see an older sergeant sporting one. In a greater city, all sorts of shady things happen so the average scum might get his grubby hands on one too, for a very short while. (His is the choice between losing it to a black market merchant for a fraction of its price or to one of the former owner’s associates for the price of his life.) A PC would have trouble accessing such a great piece of equipment before mid/lategame.
Admittedly, this is also because I fear imbalance due to practical inexperience. I could read all the posts about balance in games on the entire internet, and then decide to run vanilla OD&D where the PCs can still get horribly pulverized in a matter of in-game moments at the highest possible level, yet it will never be equivalent to actually having played and finished a few campaigns with a system that cares about this sort of balance.

Apathy is something I have in all NPCs. Apathy, or better neutrality, manifests itself in my world by the lack of extreme relationships at the start of the game. There are the default insane shining crusaders that will massacre whatever undead they might meet, but most people when encountering an undead of the polite sort that doesn’t immediately want to kill them, merely get very suspicious and careful. There is fear involved, but it’s fear of the unknown; “these might not be horrible murdering demon skeletons, these might be my ancestors. In either case they’re not tearing my flesh apart, so I best not ruin that”. My backdrop for a campaign start is the end of a great war, involving all sorts of gods and nuclear exchanges; there is just too many displaced strangers around to be weary of them all. The undead in particular, have a better status than in most settings; you won’t be treated kindly, but if you don’t decompose and behave well, nobody is going to deny you entry to a public house. This also presumes a sentience sufficient for common politeness, which i have no problem handing out like candy. Even where there are deep-seated old hatreds, regional rivalries, dynasties looking to ruin each other for far-off pieces of land, at the initial phase of the campaign, there would be order to refrain from open hostilities.

On the note of beginning after a great war; female characters. Wars exterminate decent young men, give some power to women, at least temporarily. I am a fan of feminism; I am OK with female characters and wouldn’t do the neckbeardy crypto-chauvinism/bad taste thing. Again, apathy, neutrality. In a world of permanent open carry, one-on-one you don’t mess with anyone with a sword, regardless of gender.

There are many factors that flow into this strange egalitarian worldview forced on the NPCs, but the Great War with associated displacement of people’s and the rise of money are the largest. They both also force a wonderful regionalism and decentralization on the world, turning all of fantasy France, fantasy Iberia and fantasy Germany (including Switzerland and Austria), down to fantasy northern Italy into small local sovereign states, which naturally translates to adventure potential gold mines. Lastly, it allows for more exotic party compositions, involving robots, cutesy short furry creatures, orcs, and gentlemen and ladies of all other races and origins. Worst case, money is the pragmatic reason to stay together as a group and finish a job, while sentience capable of politeness should root out problem players (because as we all know, there are no problem characters, only problem players).

Into this world, at this point, the PCs join in.

Finally, there’s player input, something that hasn’t happened yet to my setting.
What I am imagining in my wet GM dreams is that players who take a keen interest in something, say Scandinavia, give me the tl;dr on why it is rad, explain to me the pitfalls that I might encounter trying to stuff this into the current campaign and that I would then collab with players on what this could do for the campaign.

I am a great fan of players having a strong influence on the game, both through in-character means and out-of-character. I am, at this point, very open to players throwing ideas at me, telling me what kind of scenes they’d like to see, perhaps even very specific scenes they’d like their characters in. On a purely metagame level, this creates a wonderful organic currency of backrubs; an extortion method for me to use if I were ever to need one. I can always count on my Main Bro to do what I need him to do for the sake of the campaign, but it’s nice to be able to do this with other player’s characters. And obviously, it’s wonderful for players if something goes exactly the way they wanted.
In a way, I am a proponent of two-way railroading. With the same flimsy excuse that a bad GM would make for his railroading, the players get a diluted version of this (reminder; never surrender the rudder, only give the illusion of doing so,) and can use the same bad excuse, optimally resulting in a zen moment where both parties realize what railroading can be; a great tool in good hands and a horrible tool in horrible hands.

It is worthy of mention what I use as the basis of the world, the soil for all the stuff growing on top. Like so many other unoriginal scrubs, I find the european knight to be a good standard icon representing fantasy, especially the low-magic sort that I prefer, so a fictionalized Europe doesn’t seem too far off. However, in every thing I take over from history that I could not tell the tale of in a way that I could captivate an audience of disinterested schoolchildren, I take at least 2 steps away from real life to make the game good. You might know the game where you put a sentence into an online translator, let it run up and down 30 languages and then see the result; that is what I do with every name, and some historical facts. A case study; the Hussite wars were a conflict that was the first to see short rifles and handcannons in use. Hussites were known to use armored carts to ride into battle, out of which they shot rifles, much like tanks. This little tidbits should already be enough ChattyDM-ish “awesome” to pass on it’s own. However, then we have something that is boring, something that neither me nor anyone in my group is interested in, something that we all know too little (or know enough to know it is boring) about; then we need to make those steps towards changing it. One thing in particular that I am rather content with in my setting is the state of England; the magical ruler of Britain, always hovering just a little above the rest of europe, messing with it and not getting messed with itself; I tipped it into the sea.
I realized early I wouldn’t know how to do Albion in a way that was not boring Tolkien-necrophilia, so I gave up on it entirely. It created a myriad of wonderful plot hooks and lore possibilities. An elven Atlantis. Bathyscaphe dungeoneering. An elevated Scotland! The isle of Great Britain is now tipped into the sea at the south end only, and also was apparently a floating disc. An entirely different outlook on new world colonization efforts. A somewhat stylistic version of Scotland! Mountains now higher than ever, piercing the skies.
If I were to draw a map of my game world, I would deliberately draw a bad map of Europe, sans England, mimicking medieval cartography, and I would leave a lot of space open. I have not yet given much thought to many places, because I find that rushing into something without the spark of inspiration coming first is a terrible idea. I am not in any hurry; no group. If I were to find a group that would want to start in a part of the world I have not yet cared about; let them inspire me. Failing at that (and I trust in groups to fail to inspire me, facing the necessity to come up with own shit can be quite a shock for players,) the players should decide on a different place, preferably the one I have already decided upon as a Good Starting Point, where I already think most my adventure seeds would work. (For the curious; Alsace-Lorraine.)

The era is ambiguous and anachronistic by design; chivalry is still in full effect, yet there you have the Hussites. Money is gaining in value, capitalism and trade are beginning to become serious options for the powerful. Religious wars (modeled after the catholic/orthodox/Islam triangle) are still vaguely in effect, yet you have enlightenment already happening. Politically, everything is open for great change, the world having suffered a Great War, extremely vaguely modeled after the Mongol invasions, the cards are shuffled, there’s enough chaos for anything to start-up. Again, apathy and player input. Neutrality. All these things are optimized for maximum adventure potential, and my personal comfort, since I am the DM and I am driving the car the party is in.

I think in summary it is fair to say that the lessons I apply in my games are “lack of prep in favor of improv” “strong player input” and “openness of the game world for unexpected additions”.

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~ by fatrpgdongs on 02/11/2011.

One Response to “I don’t have a design philosophy; a long-winded record of my babbling”

  1. […] But I will definitely get into it a bit deeper than that as we go along. If you have any questions or ideas for further topics of interest, feel free to comment and tell me what you think. This discussion can use more input. In fact if you write a post on the subject, give me the link and I will add it in here. So far, @Trabant has posted his own. […]

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