Monday, February 27, 2017

Psi-Wars: A Manifesto on Setting Design

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
-Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
As I promised before, Iteration 6 is as much about how to build a setting as it's about the actual setting I'll build throughout it.  In principle, nothing in this post explicitly addresses a sci-fi setting set in a galaxy far, far away, because the rules for good setting design apply to all settings.  I want to outline those rules, which I've personally picked up from years of building my own settings, watching some crash and burn and others soar into the imaginations of my players, and from collecting nuggets of wisdom from various GM guides, the experiences of other players, and self-help books with catchy slogans.

Setting design is, of course, an art and there's no "one right way" to build it, and that's not really what I'm proposing here.  However, there are lots of ways for them to go horribly wrong.  A few examples:

  • The Epic Setting: Your GM has spent literally years building his setting.  It's exquisitely intricate in its detail, epic in scope and magnificent in its realism.  He's also printed it all out, the document is heavy enough to kill you if it fell on you, and it's required reading. Nobody reads it. Nobody knows what's going on.  The GM rails at his players for being "lazy."  Campaign crashes and burns.  No matter how good your setting is, it won't matter if nobody can figure it out.
  • The Window Dressing Setting: The GM has spent no time at all building his setting.  As you play the setting, you begin to get the impression that whatever you say, he'll just use, or if a TV show came out with something interesting yesterday, the setting will suddenly incorporate it today.  And, of course, vital elements from yesterday's session mysteriously vanish, as though forgotten by God, in today's session.  The game works, more or less, but you might be left with a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction.  At least this game gets run!  But wouldn't it be nicer if the campaign had some internal consistency?
  • The Unfinished Setting: The GM has a grand and amazing idea, and he can see it in his head, but he has no idea how to get it out.  He's done some writing, but got caught up on a snag somewhere that he just can't resolve.  There's some document with hastily scribbled notes somewhere on his computer, slowly rotting from neglect.  Can a setting truly live without players seeing it, or breathing life into it?

The intent of my rules is less to tell you how to build your setting, and more a series of guidelines and best practices that will act as a framework for avoiding the worst of the pitfalls.  Within those guidelines, you should be fairly safe to build whatever you like.

Rule 1: Understand your Target Audience

Your setting exists for your players. I'm writing Psi-Wars for myself and my fellow GMs who might want to grab it and run it, but who are we going to run it for? Our players. Everything must ultimately center on them. If the setting isn't useful or interesting to your players, then they won't play it (or maybe they will, dragging themselves to your tedious sessions out of some deeply misguided sense of loyalty and kinship, thinking "Maybe, just maybe, this time his setting won't suck"). Whenever you build anything, you should be keeping your end-goal in mind, and your end-goal here is delighted players.

If you're a GM, consider the example of a badly written character background vs the well-written character background.  The first might start with some utterly trivial and irrelevant facts, like when the character was born, or in what hospital, or inane details about his childhood, as the player feels the need to pad his word count (perhaps to hit some GM-mandated minimum) with whatever he can find.  Or, it might be a spectacularly self-important background, where the player informs you of how awesome his character is, and how awesome everyone finds him, and how he's just the best, totally the best, and if you don't agree, then you don't understand his vision.  Consider, instead, a well-written background.  It might be tight, focused and concise.  It might highlight hooks that you can sew into your campaign so that the character is deeply involved with your campaign (or even other players!).  A well-written background might inspire you, and it will invite collaboration.  He might highlight, for example, some great mystery or secret, give you some suggestions as to how you might fill it, but otherwise leave it open, allowing you to muck about in his character background in a well-defined way.  The former fails to work because the player has lost sight of the purpose of that background, while the latter works because the player knows who his target audience is: he wrote that background to be useful to you, the GM.

A setting should work exactly the same way.  The point of writing up a setting is to help the players.  It should invite collaboration, offer hooks that the players might find intriguing, answer questions they have about context, and generally inspire them, so that they can see the world, and offer something they can use.

Different players need and want different things, and I've already touched on this with "Who gives a sh*t", which is an important question you should ask yourself whenever you finish writing a bit of setting: "Who cares?"  If you didn't include this bit, would anyone suffer?  If not, ditch it.  The more people you can see using your material, the more you can justify keeping it, and you should demand constant justification for anything in your setting.  The ideal settings aren't giant tomes full of niggling details, but slim volumes where each and every word and sentence bursts with richness, imagery and inspiration.

For a quick review of "Who gives a sh*t":
  • The setting should give the players minimal context necessary to play (Brent)
  • The setting should make enough logical sense that you can answer questions and go deeper if necessary, giving the players the ability to explore more, if they wish (Willow)
  • The setting should be directly pertinent to the players, mechanically and narratively (Desiree and Bjorn).  That is, you should not introduce something that doesn't impact the players directly in some manner, because otherwise it doesn't have a point.
Let me add one additional person to your target audience.  I said you should be writing your game for your players, but you should also write it for yourself.  I don't mean that you should write a setting that makes you happy (though, I mean, why wouldn't you?) but that a good setting should inspire the GM.  Great settings practically write your sessions for you.  They're constantly poised on the brink of adventure, full of ancient relics to be uncovered, points of interest to be explored, and amazing NPCs to meet, love and kill.  Ideally, when you're stuck for an idea, you should be able to page through your work and go "Oh, right, this!"

Rule 2: Keep It Simple

Above, I suggest that you demand justification for everything you do.  This cuts both ways, because if you can't justify something, not only should you not do it, you shouldn't even worry about it.  Whenever you run into trouble, skip it for now and come back to it.  The reason campaigns often don't get run is that their writers put more work into them than they need to.  Go for a minimum viable product, the least setting you need, to get started.

There's a powerful corollary to this rule: the Rule of Three.  If you break out many of your most memorable settings, they'll have between 2 to 5 elements, choices that repeat over and over again: Elf, Dwarf, Human; Fighter, Mage, Thief; Solar Exalted, Lunar Exalted, Sidereal Exalted;

Three things makes a good minimum because less than that starts to feel stifled.  If you have one kingdom, it's hardly worth mentioning as a specific entity.  If you have two kingdoms, then it quickly turns into an adverserial "good vs evil" situation without a sense of exploration.  The moment you suggest that you have three kingdoms, then players will start to ponder what makes each kingdom unique and makes them stand-out.  You've created a sense of exploration.

Three things also makes a good maximum.  If you create too much stuff, players will begin to forget details, losing them in a crowded swarm of information.  You can push to four or even five kingdoms pretty easily, and possibly even 7, but more than 5 and your players will start to group them (even at 4, you'll often see this: two "good" kingdoms and two "bad" kingdoms).  If you introduce 15 kingdoms, the players will start to talk about them in sets of kingdoms, usually sets of 5, reducing the groups they understand back to 3 elements.  Three is, thus, your gold standard.

And given that, why worry about more than that?  When you think of a setting element, keep it simple and just work on three defining features.  If you just look at your setting and define three bits each time, you'll be done in no time.

Rule 3: Settings Should Be Fractal

The last rule might have been a touch vague, especially the rule of threes, because I didn't define three elements of what.  So you've got three kingdoms.  Should you only have, say, three cities?  Well, you could have three cities per kingdom.  And then, should our cities have districts?  Sure, why not?  How many?  How about 3?  And interesting locations per district?  You get the idea.

Humans understand the world in a fractal way.  If you give us too much to grasp, we'll naturally group things until we have a manageable number of things to handle.  We can take advantage of that by defining our setting in a fractal manner, and in so doing, we can add as much detail as we want without overwhelming our players by burying detail beneath the fractal.

Picture a fantasy design that looks something like this:
I've added nothing but three elements at a time.  If a player wants to know what races there are, then I can tell him: Human, Elves and Dwarves.  That's easy, right?  Now, if someone wants to play as an elf, he can choose: High Elf, Wood Elf or Dark Elf. What makes, say, a wood elf special?  Well, if you want to play as a fighter, you can be really good with the bow, or if you want to play as a mage, you can be really good with nature ("Druidism").  And if you want to be a rogue, you have access to this network of spy animals.  That's pretty cool, if you're into elves.  But if you're not into elves?  You don't need to know any of this. Fractals hide irrelevant information.  The guy who just wants to play as a dwarf doesn't need to know the details of how elves work to play as a dwarf.

Fractals do something else interesting: they imply more than they show.  I haven't even talked about what makes a dark elf interesting, but I bet some of you are already mentally filling in those gaps "Oh, well, they might be good with daggers and assassination and shadow magic."  And some of you are pondering the other races: What are three "dwarven" races?  What martial arts might each of those sub-races have?  And a few of you might have even thought about extending the fractal more deeply: Why just druidism?  Perhaps we can define it more carefully, like shapeshifting, the ability to command the land, and the ability to summon/control animals.  And why just the bow? Why not the quarterstaff, the bow and "wardancing?"

Fractals let players compartmentalize away the things they don't really need to know more about, allow them to explore more of what they want to know, and encourages them to see the world as larger than it is.  I don't even have to define the subraces of dwarves for you to assume they are there, and to ask to explore them.  We get the sense of a larger world because we see a pattern and we can see that the pattern should repeat itself, and we have at least an idea of how it will.  That's also a powerful tool for you, as a GM, when you're building your setting, because each step becomes obvious, and thus easy.

Rule 4: Settings Have Themes and Frameworks

The fractal is a sort of pattern, but we still need to define what that pattern looks like.  We can do this by choosing themes and turning them into a framework.  If you look at D&D 4e, there's a great example of this.  It has two axes, one of role and one of power source.  When you make a table of it, it looks something like this:

Martial Magical Divine Primal
Defender Fighter
Paladin Barbarian

Striker Rogue Warlock

This diagram has wholes in it, of course, which invite is to fill them in.  What's a divine striker?  Some kind of assassin, of course!  A divine controller might be a "Summoner."  What about a martial leader?  Well, D&D gave us the Warlord, but perhaps we could use a Bard instead.

Magic: the Gathering offers us another great example of themes and a framework.  The five colors of magic all have their own special rules, themes and flavor.  We also expect other elements, like creatures, instant spells and enchantments of various cost.  If you need to design, you just fill in the holes: if black has themes of self-destruction, power at a cost, and big, terrible things, then we might expect the "cheap monster" to be pretty powerful, but have a terrible cost that's slowly killing you.  If blue has themes of small, unassuming things that break the rules in some subtle way, we might expect a cheap blue creature to be very weak, but have clever little abilities that allow it to bypass your opponents defenses.

The point here is to identify some broad themes and ideas that we can pull from.  They can be directly pertinent to the setting, as D&D's sources were, or they can be utterly random, like the themes of chess pieces, the four elements or the five power rangers.  The point is ultimately to come up with a set of hooks on which you can easily hang ideas on and where you can see holes in the pattern that need to be filled.

Ultimately, this serves the same role as the fractal (and they complement each other: themes give you an idea of what your three fractal elements should be, and you can use the fractal to explore themes again and again from different angles): it creates a pattern that rapidly inspires you for your setting creation and gives the players who grasp the pattern a deeper sense of how the world works.  You don't have to define every node in a framework, because simply having a framework implies that they exist.  We don't know what a magical defender is, but we know one could exist, and we might already have ideas for what he might be.

Rule 5: Steal like an Artist: Translatio, Imitatio; Aemulatio

So, if you've done everything right, you understand that your setting is a fractal, and you've got a framework you can use to inspire your ideas, a rough pattern of what your setting looks like, and you know that you should keep things simple and player-directed.  What should you use to fill in those holes?

The first thing is whatever you come up with.  People often spend too much time thinking about these things in more detail than is strictly necessary.  You already know what you need to put into your setting.  Just like you're automatically filling in the fractals and frameworks I gave you above.  The truth is, you're already a very creative person, you just need the right context to be creative, and frameworks and fractals make that much easier.  So, trust yourself and just go.

But perhaps you want more detail, something richer and deeper than you can do on your own.  Then it's time to steal like an artist (which, by the way, you're probably doing unconsciously anyway, this just makes it a more conscious theft).  Arguably, nothing is original, but an iterative remix of that which came before us.  Creation is not the strict speaking of new things into existence, but that which naturally arises from a conversation we have with our sources and inspirations.

We have two major sources of inspiration we can draw on for Psi-Wars.  The first are other artistic works.  For an obvious example, Psi-Wars draws on Star Wars, which itself draws on works like Flash Gordon.  We can also draw on the real world, including real-world cultures and history.  Star Wars, for example, draws heavily on WW2 and the Roman Empire (though one can argue that the latter is more drawing on Foundation, or perhaps a mixture of both).  Kenneth Hite is often fond of saying that history regularly comes up with stuff crazier, more original and more interesting than you can ever come up with on your own, and you'd be a fool not to pilfer it.

But there are good, better and best ways to steal: Translatio, imitatio and aemulatio (Sorry, no English translation for that, I'm afraid).

Translatio, or translation, is the direct and slavish transcription of a work from one medium to another.  This is important when we don't want to lose vital details (such as translating a work from one language to another, or when copying a sacred text from one document to another by hand), but it's a very uncreative act.  An RPG example of that is direct conversion: if Psi-Wars was instead a conversion of Star Wars into GURPS, that would be translatio.

Imitatio, or imitation, is where we scratch the serial numbers off, both otherwise use it wholesale in our new work, without considering the reasons behind it.  This is important if we have a working formula that people expect to see again, but the inability to grasp the reasons why a creator did what he did hampers our ability to really command our new work.  The result is derivative.  Iteration I Psi-Wars was pretty clearly imitatio, as I just grabbed things that looked right without considering the why or wherefore.

Aemulatio, or emulation, is where we grasp the underlying patterns that guide the work we're studying.  If we look at Star Wars and understand why it was constructed the way it was, and then see that pattern elsewhere, or see where it could be different, and understand how we can make it work in an entirely new pattern, then we have sufficient command that we're not actually "ripping" the original work off, but using the lessons learned from the work to create something new.

When you're looking at inspirations, I encourage you to look at a variety of related sources, to find what makes them similar, what makes them different, why they work and why they don't.  See if you can find underlying patterns and master them, and then re-express, deconstruct, reconstruct or remix them in your work.

I should note that emulation is a slow process involving a lot of research.  I think the best creators do it out of habit: always consuming and analyzing whatever they look at.   You know that guy who always picks apart every movie and discusses "third act this"  and "narrative closure" that? He's analyzing out of habit, and he'll be able to draw on his mental library of movie structure when creating his own movie. If you can't reach these towering peaks of accomplishment, don't worry about it: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and do what you can.  Just the act of creating, even in imitation, will teach you something about the work.  The three steps, translatio, imitatio and aemulatio, were not initially intended as degrees of quality, but steps in mastery.  First you must learn enough about the work to replicate it, then you'll learn enough to know what you can change without changing the work itself, then you'll learn enough to master the complete underlying structure.

The act of creating is an act of learning, or mentally modeling that which you are making and then explaining that model to your audience.  If you don't understand it well enough to do it perfectly, that's just part of the process.  But I encourage you to dive deeper where you can.  Be curious, explore, and play with the concepts you find.

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