Monday, March 11, 2013

Going to the Mat

It's been a long time since I've written anything here. Because -- lazy. Actually, to be honest, lately I've been doing a lot of editing, and the only topics I can come up with would only get me into trouble. Like people who use the word "will" in their rules; as in "when the PCs enter the room, the goblins will attack." Will they? Are your sure? How about we write a stronger sentence... like "when the PCs enter the room, the goblins attack"?

See, now I'm going to get in trouble for that. 

Instead, I'm going to blog today about a simple concept -- sticking to your vision. 

This came to mind after reading something from an associate on Facebook (you may have heard of it). Jason Yarnell (Hi, Jason!) posted something about the world he's creating for Pathfinder. He doesn't want to include races like elves and half-orcs, and was trying to find a way around it. So he wrote crap like "if you really want to play a half-orc, the GM should allow it, by (insert convoluted justification here)." 

I call this the "Dark Sun" problem. Dark Sun was this super cool setting for Dungeons & Dragons (you may have heard of it). The elves were bloodthirsty and feral. Dwarves were bald. Magic was bad. In fact, magic was so bad that it caused the ecological disaster that was central to the core concept. In this world, you had psionics (they wanted to promote their Psionics splatbook). And then TSR screwed it up. Sure, the bad guys used bad magic, the kind that caused the ecological catastrophe, but the PCs could use good magic. The kind that wouldn't hurt the environment...

No. No no no. Magic is bad in your setting. There is NO magic except bad magic. The only reason you're providing for so-called good, non-ecology destroying magic is for those players who'll whine that they can't play magic users. Stick to your guns. 

From the Dark Sun Wiki: "The themes of this setting... include survival against the elements, ecological disaster, resource depletion, survival of the fittest, slavery and poverty, and the widespread use of psionic abilities." And: "TSR worried about this concept, wondering how to market a product that lacked any familiar elements. "

In other words, TSR wussed out. 

I don't care if players will whine about not being able to play magic users. Or elves. Or half orcs. 

See, games like D&D and Pathfinder are broad and all-inclusive for a reason. They're presenting all the tropes of fantasy in one package. That's fine, because it's a foundational product. But, by including everything, the game is really about nothing. That's what the setting is for. To tell you how to use those elements. 

This includes telling you what's NOT appropriate. 

I had this problem with that crappy Robin Hood movie Kevin Costner did. Where they shoehorned in Morgan Freeman. And a telescope. Yeah. Completely not a part of the setting. I once played in Peter Adkinson's D&D game, which was all Viking. You could play a human or dwarf. That's it. Elves were evil (because elves are evil in Viking mythology). So imagine if some kid shows up with a Drow Assassin.... Totally NOT the setting. 

"Well, maybe he could be from another part of the world..." you're going to say. NO. That's a cop out. There are no Drow in this Viking campaign. "Well, maybe he's from another dimension..." you retort. NO. If you want to do that in your own, personal campaign, that's terrific. But it doesn't have to be a part of the setting proper. 

I'm had this problem with a game I worked on once. One of the writers kept trying to shoehorn in resurrection. The spell. Trust me when I say, this was completely inappropriate to the theme of the game. "Well, the players expect it. They'll want a way to bring their characters back," is the push-back I got. To which I said: I don't care. A way to resurrect your PC kept finding its way into the text. First, as a spell. I removed it. Then it showed up as a magic item. I cut it. Coming back from the dead is not a concept in this setting. I don't care what players want or expect. 

If you want to play a Drow in the Viking campaign, too bad. It's not in this setting. You want to play a half-orc or elf in Jason's game? Sorry, go find another setting then. Want resurrection? Pray to Jesus. 

In this game or setting, things work this way. The designer should stick to his or her guns. They should follow their idea to its logical conclusions. They should go balls-to-the-wall for their creative vision. Anything else is just watering your idea down and pandering. 

The best novels are written by authors who look around for the kind of book they want to read, can't find it, and write one of their own. The best movies are written by writers who look around for the kind of movie they want to see, can't find it, and write it. The hope is that others will see it, realize they wanted the same kind of work, and come along for the ride. Others will reward you for doing something new and innovative. Or, not. It might be a critical and financial failure. But at least you tried. 


  1. Thanks again for an excellent post. As usual, I will try and remember your advice when I am putting things in order for my world.

    And again, thank you for another behind the screen look at game design and production. I really do look forward to them. Keep up the good work.

  2. I'm going to diverge with you on the issue of defiling and preserving magic in Dark Sun.

    I felt that the defiler/preserver divide represented the ecological theme of the reckless use of resources vs. the responsible use of resources. Since Dark Sun thematically deals with the consequences of reckless use in a world that has been devastated by such, this divide allows players to have a personal stake in making that same choice. Do you use defiling magic, because it is easy and powerful, and will let you achieve your goals, at the price of further injuring the world? Or do you preserve, because you think that the future of the world is so important that you will deliberately constrain your own use of resources in order to help make sure that there is a future in which people can live?
    Also, this creates dramatic tension, because any wizard could wind up becoming a defiler. The wizard in your party is a "good guy" but at any time he could decide to use defiling, because he "needs" the extra power or is desperate or for whatever reason has made that choice. And that choice has consequences for the wizard and for the party! Contrast with playing a psionicist, who is "safe" because his power source does not have such a choice built in, nor does it come with loaded social consequences.

    By offering the choice, the game lets players grapple with the dilemma: Do I use defiling magic and become able to achieve my greater goals? Or do I refuse defiling magic and use only weaker preserving magic, at the cost of not having the power to make the changes that I want to make? It hits home because the player has the power to make that choice and can, as in a Greek tragedy, understand and sympathize with how a character might choose to do evil out of desperation. Do I defile to save the life of a party member? To kill a despotic tyrant? To acquire treasure that I can use to help a slave tribe? If I do, then what excuse will be good enough next time? If I don't, then what do I say to the people who suffer and die because I could have had the power to save them, but chose what I believed to be a greater good?