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Author Topic: Setting Perfectionism  (Read 1675 times)
Klaus Graziade

Posts: 19

« on: February 17, 2009, 12:35:10 PM »

[Before I get started, I need to offer a proverbial "throat clearing" (at least that's what we Creative Writing MFAs call it).  Anyway, what I need to get out in open is pretty basic: I know there is no clear cut answer to the question I propose, so rather than try to answer it definitively, offer your experience, insights, and thoughts so I can see how other people view the issue at hand]

Here goes...

To keep a long story short, I am obsessed with setting.  Right now, I feel I'm obsessed to the point where it becomes a hindrance to my creative process.  I call my conundrum "setting perfectionism" because, well, I feel an overwhelming need to get every little possible detail input into the system so that my setting reflects whatever system I devise to the point of great satisfaction.

My setting is simple: think 17th century Eastern Europe where the elements of Slavic mythology are elements of reality.  I envision the rolling forests and mountains of the Carpathians as a wonderful place for adventure to unfold.  The only civilized element I have, aside from an envisioned formula for generating on the fly villages, is that there is a citadel where the "wise ones" live and PCs are essentially agents of the citadel, collecting knowledge, issuing justice, and struggling with morality all while serving the philosopher kings of the realm.

Now, all that out in the blue, I can't help but feel that I want more.  Like, a Tolkienesque level of "more."  When I read Mr. Tolkien's works, I noticed that you could basically tell how the leaves looked on the ground.  It was just that in depth.  I want to achieve that level, but I got crazy and started listing fungi that live on the trees.  Yeah, I'm that guy.  Still, I want a vivid world.

Here are my questions:

1.  How in depth do your (the reader's) settings get?
2.  At what level should I quit?  OR  How specific is necessary? (e.g. Trees, like the oak, are very important to Slavic folklore, so it might be key for my setting write-up to include a segment on the significance of certain trees))
3.  What dilemmas do you face when creating vivid settings?
4.  Can you suggest a cure for the perfectionism I face?

Any other comments you may have will help me a million times over.  Any questions that arise too.  I want to create my game world so that my friends can have fun playing in it.  I'm ready to move ahead with this project, but for me, until I can get the setting ready, I can't go very far.

Thanks a billion,
David C

Posts: 262

lost in the woods...

« Reply #1 on: February 17, 2009, 01:14:26 PM »

1) shallow
2) make sure every detail you include is vital or interesting. It should stimulate gameplay.  After all, Minas Tirith was interesting *because* the layout of the city was so important to the battle.
4) When working, make sure that you use the creative side of your brain and *don't* try and revise your writing as you go. When you activate the critical side of your brain, it puts the creative side to sleep.  After you've got a bunch of work done, go back and cut whatever isn't necessary or doesn't contribute. Keep in mind that if you print your book, every page you add will add expense.

...but enjoying the scenery.
Paul Czege
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 2341

« Reply #2 on: February 18, 2009, 11:47:59 AM »

Hey Klaus,

My take on GNS is that a person's play preferences map to their learning preferences, and that someone with simulationist preferences believes he has something to learn about himself (and about the way the world and society work) by testing his problem solving, relationship skills, decisionmaking, values, etc., in the environment of a reality that operates by the same rules as the one we live in.

So, I can see how a simulationist RPG design project is a potential slippery slope of perfectionist setting creation. Because the quality of the lab environment is what ensures the validity of the player (research) experience that occurs in it.

But here's the thing. I think you probably have specific teaching priorities as a designer. From what you've said you don't sound like someone who's enjoying the fiddling and world building for its own sake, at least not anymore at the current stage of your design project. I think what you're doing now, unconsciously, is trying to make the setting perfect so as to fully proscribe against any post-facto doubting by folks of what they might learn from the lab environment. I think at this point you're creating out of anxiety, and not out of pure play/learning and design/teaching motives.

So my advice to you is to reflect a bit, and focus in on your teaching priorities. Are you interested in exploring the lessons of respect for history? Of politics? Of social justice? Of the natural world? Figure out what your teaching/learning priorities are, focus your world building on that stuff, and set the rest aside (perhaps for a different game, with different priorities). Don't try to build the end-all-be-all simulation of world, society, and the consequences of human decisions. Instead, build a lab that's equipped for your learning/teaching priorities. The absence of rules for fungal propagation aren't going to undermine the lessons of a lab that's intended for exploring politics and social justice. Right now I think you're just not consciously acknowledging your true priorities.


My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans

Posts: 16

« Reply #3 on: February 18, 2009, 01:53:24 PM »

1.  How in depth do your (the reader's) settings get?
In the past I've had problems with going too in-depth with settings. I remember starting with role-playing at age ten and having two classroom sized boards, a white board, and a chalk board and drawing multiple maps that were color coded politically, environmentally, and on the chalk board I would list every npc and I had notebooks filled with stories, catch phrases, backgrounds, you name it. I had entire dressers filled not with clothes but with folders on the most inane details. And not only did it never see any play, but one day my house caught fire and burned everything to cinders.

There is a lesson there.

2.  At what level should I quit?  OR  How specific is necessary? (e.g. Trees, like the oak, are very important to Slavic folklore, so it might be key for my setting write-up to include a segment on the significance of certain trees))
And that lesson is that everything you choose to detail should be useful to the game. If the players don't ever interact with it, then you don't need it. It will just distract you from the parts of your game that do need your attention.

3.  What dilemmas do you face when creating vivid settings?
I often have trouble knowing when to stop researching and doing backstory, and when to start writing the practical bits of setting that will actually have an effect on the game. I often have trouble taking my advice and get caught up on all knowing where in the land certain trees will grow. If I was making a game where the characters were environmentalists trying to understand growth patterns that kind of detail would be great. But that's not the games I've worked with, and I don't think yours needs that level of detail either.

4.  Can you suggest a cure for the perfectionism I face?
After you finish writing a part of your setting, go back and for every detail ask yourself this: Does this positively impact gameplay? If you can't answer it in the affirmative, then prune it from your game. Eventually you'll be think that question in the back of your head while writing, and you won't have to prune quite so much.
« Reply #4 on: February 19, 2009, 03:04:16 PM »

1.  How in depth do your (the reader's) settings get?
My current setting is pretty shallow, but for me, they all start like that these days.  I make broad strokes regarding the entirety of the setting, then I pick a single place where the first campaign will happen, and I add some finer details to that; NPC power players and their motivations, local wildlife, etc.  As we play, I add more details when they become necessary.  I think the problem that bottlenecks a lot of designers is trying to do too much at once.  Your setting doesn't need to have every detail already laid out before you ever play a session.  You can flesh out just a single area, play a session in that space, make things up on the fly, and the session itself will help you refine the details of your setting.  Plus, players love knowing that their actions have lasting impact on the game world.

2.  At what level should I quit?  OR  How specific is necessary? (e.g. Trees, like the oak, are very important to Slavic folklore, so it might be key for my setting write-up to include a segment on the significance of certain trees))
Necessary details are those that will have profound impact on the way your players interact with the world.  If the trees are an important influence on the actions of NPCs, or the capabilities of players, then they need details.  If the fungus on the trees serves no purpose other than as a visual, you don't need to write that down.

3.  What dilemmas do you face when creating vivid settings?
The biggest dilemma I face is keeping the descriptions brief enough that they don't slow the game's pacing too much.  Tolkien was quite descriptive with his settings, but he still left much to the imagination.  I find it's best to merely hint at the scene and allow the player's own imagination to fill in the details.  Like, you might say "The smell of the Amorimos mushrooms on the trees sweetens the cool air of the forest", rather than "The white oaks are covered with a shelf fungus, which grows along the base and roots of the trees.  It is pumpkin orange with large irregular dots the color of arterial blood.  It has a smell like roasting sugar and is thick in the heavy air."  Yes, the latter is more descriptive, but it's also my vision of the world, not the player's vision.  The player may think my vision is rather ugly.  The first description says there is fungus on the trees and it is pleasant; their imagination can fill in the other details as it likes.  The first description also takes a page from Tolkien's style by giving the mushrooms a name, even though it's not immediately necessary, and really doesn't have any meaning at all.  Giving something a name implies that it has a history, and a history implies that there is more to it.  Tolkien's world seemed so real because he hinted at its history all the time.  His characters were frequently named along with their ancestry.  The places were connected to places and people that existed long ago.  If making your world seem real is what you want, then the hint of history is what you need.

4.  Can you suggest a cure for the perfectionism I face?
There's no cure for perfectionism except to slowly realize that it is an entirely futile pursuit.  If infinite detail is your perfectionist pursuit, you will never get anywhere.  When you finish describing the fungus on the trees, you will describe the frogs that sit on the fungus.  Then you will describe the bugs that get eaten by the frogs.  Then you will describe the burrows the bugs make in the ground under the trees and so on and on with no end.

One method you might use to help yourself realize that the fine details aren't necessary is to set a timer for yourself whenever you start writing about a topic.  Make it a short time.  When the timer goes off, stop writing about that and move on to something completely different.

I also find that my pursuits in drawing and painting helped me defeat my RPG related perfectionism.  When you draw, subtle hints at form, light, and shadow are often much better looking than trying to actually fill in every detail.  As you draw, this will become painfully clear, since failing to conform to that fact will cause you to never finish a drawing.  The same thing applies quite easily to writing.  Also, drawing a picture of trees with fungus can save you pages. Wink
Daniel B

Posts: 171

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine

« Reply #5 on: February 26, 2009, 11:30:03 PM »

Hi Klaus,

I realize this is a late reply but thought I'd offer my thoughts.

I share the others' opinions that a shallow environment is best. I think of being a DM as kind of like taking on the role of a "holodeck" in Star Trek. (If you're not a Trekkie geek, apologies for the reference.) This is a beneficial approach for two reasons. The first is that you save effort: any time spent working on maps, NPCs, monsters, etc. that your players never see is wasted effort. That's just good plain efficiency and helps prevent the game from spiralling away because you've not generated enough "meaty" content for the players.

The second, and in my opinion, much more worthwhile reason is that it keeps the game flexible and alive. In real life, we've all heard of places like Paris, Los Angeles, Bhudapest, and Toronto, but how many of us have actually visited these places, let alone the less-than-famous cities. You only need vague references to give the game some context; what really matters is what's in the characters' immediate travelling distance. These are the places that the players touch and feel, and develop emotional bonds with (for better or worse).

This came into play into the latest campaigns I've run. Instead of generating large maps before hand, I generated just enough content to keep going (plus some emergency content, given how unpredictable players are!) By the end of the campaign, I did indeed end up with a large map .. but it wasn't this dead, abstract thing!!  "Oh, that's where we got caught by the tricky wizard traps." "Hah, the lair of the feral Tinker Gnomes! They were funny." "Oy, that's the site of the Troll ambush!"

This way, my players and I came to connect with the maps like it was REAL, showing the places we felt like we'd actually visited in real life. It's a great feeling. I still look over those maps and reminisce, sometimes.

Hope that helps,

Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."

Posts: 1359

Conventions Forum Moderator, First Thoughts Pest

« Reply #6 on: February 27, 2009, 08:12:03 AM »

PCs are essentially agents of the citadel, collecting knowledge, issuing justice, and struggling with morality all while serving the philosopher kings of the realm.

Where do the PCs do this? Against whom do they struggle? Are they agents in earnest? Are they cynical?


Posts: 469

also known as Josh W

« Reply #7 on: February 27, 2009, 05:44:18 PM »

I'd say function is the key, as has been mentioned before. Now you can do it in terms of their relation to your themes, or you can go hardcore and find one of those systems geography books, rebuild it by sticking in the mythical stuff and have the world generate itself. So you might not know the exact funguses etc, but you might know the health of the forests and their biodiversity etc. Playing with dynamic relationships in this way will probably not matter to your players, but it's a way of doing that kind of thing while keeping to active things rather than dead lists.

My approach is a little different, as I have this back-pocket setting where almost everything has someone who is interested in it, the idea is that the structure of the setting is a dynamic equilibrium between these different cosmic forces, and not in an apocalyptic "we're gonna duke it out" kind of way, but in the sense that a significant shift in any part of the world will naturally pick up fantastic confrontation. So I've coloured the whole world in with intrigue and semi-philosophical wrangling, which people will hopefully get involved in as they get more established just as a sort of side effect. I hope this kind of thing adds substance, but I'm always trying to stick more detail in it.

Having said that, whenever we actually play, most of that advanced stuff is totally unknown! It's enough challenge wrangling the situations to the players interests that is just background hints and colour. Of course I couldn't care less as it's fun for me!
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