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Soapbox: About the Industry

It's Not Your World, It's Mine

by Sandy Antunes
Dec 05,2003

 

It's Not Your World, It's Mine

Heads up, game designers! Here's why I don't play your games. I recently visited a game website. It just oozed meaningful background, vivid cosmology, unique settings, huge overarcing plots. So I... left.

I mean, they had everything covered. There wasn't much for me to do. Oh, sure, I could solve their stories, or discover all the neat big mystic stuff they'd hinted out. But I want to play a hero, not a historian. I'm not terribly interested in your goals, except as they intersect my character's own. I want to make my own way, learn as I go.

I recall those famous adventure movies:

Star Wars (A New Hope): Young farmer Luke Skywalker studies the 2000 year history of the Jedi/Sith conflict and memorizes the locations of the centers of government, Hutt power bases, and Imperial locations. He learns of all the famous heroes from the past. He is told his father is Darth Vader. Finally prepared, he leaves the farm and leaps out into the world to restore the Empire.

Lord of the Rings: Young Frodo is told to read "The Silmarillion" and then get back to Gandalf when he's come up with a plan to stop this latest attack by Sauron.

Okay, enough by me. An enjoyable heroic journey starts from ignorance. The whole hero arc (stealing from Campbell) is about discovery , both external and self. You leave home, you learn, you kill your father, you return to find home hasn't changed but you have.

This journey simply isn't possible in a world that provides too much homework, too much cosmology and "big picture". Heroics is about the little picture.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have a big picture. I'm telling you that you shouldn't immediately tell us players and GMs about it. That's worse than players telling us about their character. Did any player actually ask you, "Tell me about your universe?".

So here's my guide to making playable worlds.

I) Less you, more them (ditch the creation myths)

It's not a starting character's role to know how everything began. Creation myths are very personal, and only meaningful if discovered through the course of play. There's a reason we on earth can't even agree on a single creation myth-- they're ultimately personal.

So if you have a single objective reality that explains why everything is the way it is... keep it secret. Let us have teasers, bits of the myth, heresies contrary to the myth, alternative viewpoints. Let us learn of the universe, not be lectured.

II) KISS* (start it from a starting player's perception)

A character usually doesn't start out knowing that they have to find the Grand Widget before the universe ends. Rather, they might know that the King is dead, and maybe there's someone not so nice running things, and weird stuff is rumored to be happening. From that, they can learn.

III) No homework (let players learn as the characters learn)

If you want new players (and any starting product line does, by definition), provide just enough background and teasers to make the players think the same as their character: Woah, there's something big a'brewing.

Then structure it so the players only have to assimilate your information in bite-sized structures. If you have a megaplot (spanning your entire world), give it out in pieces. It's more mysterious, and it's more fun.

It also helps prevent the schism between "player" and "character" from dominating. Should players be saying "well, ordinarily I would just leave, but since we have to get the Grand Widget, I'll jump into the lava?"

I don't think so-- that's not terribly organic. Instead, find ways to have the players be personally invested in the same things their characters are preoccupied with.

IV) Put all your world-building stuff in a book for GMs.

There are folks who want all your back story. Make it available for them-- but not as your main book, or on your front webpage. Your story is not the story, it's what enables GMs and Players to make their story.

Give us a world, then get the hell out of the way and let us play.

Until next month,
Sandy
freelance

KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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