Establishing the color of the rug

A few years back, a friend of mine moved off to The Big City, simultaneously removing him from our local group and ensuring that we only get together to hang out every couple of years or so.  With schedules being what they are, we have been talking back and forth through lengthy e-mails when time allows.  Most of the time, it devolves into long bitches about the various players and groups we’re playing with these days.

Recently, he started talking about a new group he’s started gaming with, mainly to bitch about the GM, a guy that I’ve known for years.  (The odd part being that I know them both separately, and this new GM has no idea that the friend of mine knows both of us.)

Most of the bitching is low level, working on fairly predictable sorts of issues with other players, friction in GM’ing styles, and so forth.  No big deal.  They still get together and game and have a good time, but there’s been a sort of adjustment period on both parts, as they get used to what expectations each side has of the other.  One issue that’s turned out to be a source of friction is the ability of the new GM to be able to establish a world for the characters to move about in.

Traditionally, it’s been the role of the GM and the players to collaborate upon the campaign world as it moves forward through a campaign arc.  This is how Dungeons & Dragons has always done it, outside of the established settings like Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms.  The GM sits down, sketches out a map, fills a couple of towns with NPC’s and dungeons and plot hooks, and the players show up to breathe the necessary life into it.  As they move about through the setting, places are tailored to their interests and the players (ideally) offer in various suggestions and places that are important to them.  It’s the tried and true way that these sorts of campaign worlds get built.

From there, you have the licensed settings, like Star Wars and Warcraft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and A Song of Ice and Fire.  Most of the time, the GM opts to run games set in these worlds because most of the heavy lifting has already been done.  Players are likely to have been familiar with the source material that the world is built on top of, and because they’re all on the same page, there’s a certain amount of detail that doesn’t have to be described and established.  The players have a far more direct way into the setting, as they’re probably able to trade trivia with the GM and add to the setting in that way.  In a lot of ways, it’s a lot easier to deal with.

Finally, there are the established settings that don’t have the wide media devotion, such as the previously noted Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms.  This also encompasses a lot of games on the market, where the game company has worked to create a world wholecloth in which to set their gaming system.  These are games like Earthdawn and Shadowrun, Blue Planet and Fading Suns, and most of the White Wolf game lines.  These games often require the players – unless they’re as intimately familiar with the setting in question – to study up on pages of setting notes, which could range pretty high depending on the game world in question.  For Shadowrun, it’s about 20 pages or so.  For something like Exalted, it could be hundreds of pages, scarily enough.

I have an odd pedigree as a GM.  With my slavish adoration of Ravenloft (and horror in general) and my devotion to games like Torg, I approach games in an entirely different manner than most.  When you’re running a Horror Game, you need to do a couple of things in the context of the game before you even consider unleashing the full spectrum of evil upon your player characters.  First, you need to make sure that they understand how a typical day in the life of their characters is supposed to go.  Going to work, going to the bar, spending time with their families, etc.  One of the things that I made a point of doing in any modern setting game was to have my players fill out a questionnaire of what their characters’ family and education looked like.  It went a long way in helping them figure out how this guy ticked and what sort of things he was interested in.

This is what the blog title refers to.  It’s the normal, boring, and everyday aspects of a character’s existence.  A certain amount of this stems from running Torg, as the baseline set-up for the game was sort of godawful.  Long story short, the Earth is invaded by different genres, the war is being fought on all fronts, and the characters are the last, best hope of the humanity.  And according to the proposed setting, the game starts three months after the invasion has already started.  My tendency – rather than spend half an hour droning on about all the fun and interesting things that the player characters didn’t get to play through – is to start the game three months before the war started, so as to let them play through the opening invasion.  When I’m running Exalted for a new group, I’m just as likely to set them up as low-powered characters in the larger world, just so they can get an idea of what it is that they’re doing in the setting as it is written.  I don’t expect them to dive into the vastness of the setting without seeing what it has to offer in the first place.

That’s the thing.  If a world is described to your players, they’re not likely to have any real connection to it before they play around in it for a little while.  The homebrew campaigns of yore have that built into their very core.  And the licensed settings have a pretty good leg up on things, as most of the players have probably already imagined what they’d do if they had the chance to pick up a lightsaber and fight the Empire.  But in something like Shadowrun or Torg, until there’s been some interaction, there’s no way to fully visualize anything from the canned description or the twenty plus pages of setting notes.

What makes it worse for the friend of mine is that his GM loves the canon nature of comic books, where there is an established setting that is accepted as part of buying into the comic book itself.  And what he loves more is being able to shake up the established setting through some world-shattering event that threatens to destroy the status quo; something on the order of Infinity Gauntlet or the Black Lanterns.  The problem is that he doesn’t spend nearly enough time establishing the world in the first place to be able to allow the players to see what it is that’s at stake.

This is why you have to establish the color of the rug in the first place; so you know what’s going on when it’s pulled out from underneath you.  In a horror game, you have to know what normal is before you can be unnerved by all that’s going wrong.  In an established setting like Star Wars, you have to know what role the Empire and the Jedi have in the galaxy before you start trying to unravel ancient Sith conspiracies.  And in a game set in modern times, you have to be able to engage with your character and his everyday life before everything goes sideways.

If you don’t manage to lay down enough detail of the normal world, there’s no sense of crisis to the event that’s taking place.  The characters don’t know why any of this is important, and they have no real stake in trying to fight against whatever it is that’s going on.  As the GM, you may have a grand vision of how all of this matters, but the players are sort of left in the dust.

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Posted on April 5, 2014, in Gaming Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. have you done an Exalted post? sounds like an interesting setting

    • Exalted’s on my list, but I haven’t had time to put together anything worth reading. I’m sort of torn, since I loved 2nd Edition and played the hell out of it, and the Kickstarter for the 3rd Edition told me that I was dumb for liking it.

      I want to spend some time on both the classic game and my irritation at the upcoming edition, but I’m afraid that it would run into about 6,000 words if I’m not careful.

  2. I’m free for 6000 words 🙂 lemme just get a chair

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