Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

RPG as set text

Started by contracycle, February 24, 2003, 10:00:50 PM

Previous topic - Next topic


I just wanted to canvass opinions on this thought, an approach to sim gaming.  It's inspired by my current reading, The Isles: A History, by Norman Davies.  Bity of a monster, about a thousand pages with the

I do not know if it will in the long term turn out to be suitable for this idea, but it inspired an interesting thought in part due to the way in which Davies constructs his oppening chapters.  There is of course a huge problem with conceptualising british history - which bits are british and/or english is the central confusion. Noting this and in an attempt to work around it, Davies has elected to discuss the map of prehistoric britain taken from naturalistic descriptions of its geography.

The Great Isle lies of the coast of the mainland, and beyond it is the Green Isle. Further north can be found the Outer Isles, the Penultimate Isles, and the Furthest Isles.  The draft of water between the Great Isle and the mainland is the Sunrise Sea, and at their closest approach the landmasses are separated by the Southern Straits, beyond which the Sleeve opens out into the Sunset Oean.  The areas closest to the continent are the bulge of the Eastern Wetlands and the Cliff Country, these roughly split by the Dark River.

Might look a bit cheesy laid out like that, but the effect is quite compelling when he uses consisently as he develops his account, and he has a map for reference.  So I was thinking... all I'm missing are the mechanics, this is almost an RPG.  Conceivably, you could structure a game explicitly around something like this as a "set text", much in the place that an RPG rulebooks setting chapters would stand.

Roughly speaking, what I would then propose is that this book be used as the core reference from which world detail for both characters and players be drawn.  Consistency with the book becomes a gold standard of game currency; anything in the book is True by default and anything from any other source is only Maybe True by default.  The purpose of the game would be to explore the history of isles (implicitly, as described in this book) by "living" through it in a series of period frames in which games are carried out.  The outline would be pretty strong, but a GM's prerogative for changing facts (possibly only covertly though, or as in "not contradictory with the source") should keep things interesting by controlling wehich bits of information are in the forground and which are consigned to disbelief for a given game.

I have no serious aspirations that such a book would or could be read prior to play - its a helluva investment for a player who does not know yet if they will like the play.  The purpose of the book would be to be the primary prop, the primary resourtce for independant investogation by the players into their characters lives and experiences, the data from which bits of in-game information are drawn.  The GM would need to read it up front and frame selections for play, but the players only need to know which source to tap into as and when they wish to; for most purposes the GM's exposition will be the primary vehicle for comprehending the game space.  But I wonder, is this a useful approach to exploration of setting?  

Thinking about the RPG sulebooks setting section as a set text was inspired by some of the reading I have doing on educational gaming, and the basis that I feel the didactic elements of educational gaming correspond to the generation of the diegesis in RPG's; the main difference in approach is that the educators are operating on the necessary assumption that learning whatever content is, is an unqualified virtue.  There is no quiblling about whether or not the players choose or wish to explore the content, or if there is any resistance is assumed to be overcome before play is agreed.  Either way, they see the purpose of the game and the manipulation of its reward systems are purposefully directed toward the exposition of whatever the content is.  RPG's don't do that exactly, but I would suggest that the construction of the mutual illusion is very similar.  Surely, and educational game has its heart "exploration of content", and is thus conscerned with vigorously establishing a particular and common comprehension, mental picture, game space.

Conceivably then, consent to play in a game based on the principles outlined above, of working to a set text, could use different mechanics in different sessions or stories to incranate those particualr aspects of the setting relevant to the exploration going on here and now, this play.  This might need no more than "re-colouring" the attributes on the charsheet to reflect changing language and mores and so forth, but might be more substantial if needed, dunno.

So, any comments appreciated.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci



I'm not quite sure what you're asking.  

Is the question whether it is possible or reasonable to utilize some chosen text, of non-RPG provenance, as the fundamental gold-standard for Setting?  The answer is yes: the only difference between this text and a lot of the more traditional ones is that this one is nonfiction.  But The Lord of the Rings, for example, has often served as such a standard, whether a particular group opted to be dogmatic/precise or fluid/unfaithful [that's an attempt at using terms from both sides], and god knows that novel isn't short.

If the question is whether, outside of educational roleplaying, a nonfiction text can be used as such a gold standard at all, I think the answer is, again, "Yes."  The problem, as you indicate, is that lots of players are not willing to do the work.  But I don't think you need to apologize for even thinking about a thousand-page history as a fixed reference, nor do I think you need to back off from setting it as "required reading."  It's simply a question of whether you can find players who are willing to read it.  Sure, you'll find lots of people who will tell you that this is an inherently unreasonable expectation -- I'd be surprised if a few such didn't turn up later in this thread -- but you can pretty much dismiss that out of hand.  Is a fifty-page RPG book a more worthwhile use of time than this text?  Who can possibly assess that as a question of fact?

As to whether this is a good approach to Setting Exploration, I don't see why not.  After all, the nice thing about professional historians is that they have a pretty good grip on the sort of range of detail that's required to make sense of a period.  Thus I would guess that the source in question is less likely to have the really enormous gaps that often come up in RPG setting texts.

Obviously you've pushed some buttons with me.  I like historical games, and I like detailed settings.  What actually happens, I'm afraid, is a bit different than what (I think) is at stake in your post.  The reality is that lots of people think (and say), "Oh sure, I'm really into history, and I love to read, that's no problem."  And then they don't actually do the reading, because something came up and it just wasn't a priority.  So you go rolling in for the second or third session, and you discover that none of them, or maybe only one, have actually read what they promised to read.

Or am I totally misunderstanding the question?

[edited to add para. 4]
Chris Lehrich


Damn, cooooool, Gareth. Work something up and I'd be on board for a game like that. Other than being nailed to the floor by the proposal, further commentary on my part is restricted by the lack of anything else to really discuss about it. Show me some rules for doing it, and let's discuss them.

If a central text as described is lacking, I would say to grab some coherently developed setting material from somewhere and just use that for the sake of example, or simply use the book to which you are referring (though that limits the discussion for those of us without the book).
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


These are partly a result of percolation arising from prior discussion about a notionale "speculative history" idea floated for arguments sake in Mesopotamia.  In many ways, the outline above is a more coherent expression of what I was aiming at in that thread:

The major feature is "dynastic" play.

There is no mechanical model as yet, becuase a conceptual/procedural model of how play would be structured is needed first.  I think the "rpg as set text" principle goes a long way to resolving this problem.  By establishing a set of approved and external references as the source of detail in the game space, the selection of where to set our current game (assuming contractual consent) will be much more formalised and structured, as will the identification of stuff to explore and so forth.

As an example taken from The Isles, I offer the following:
For ninety years after its discovery in 1903 in Gough's Cave, Cheddar Gorge, the skeleton of 'Cheddar Man' was kept in London's Natural History Museum.  But in 1996 it was the subject of an extraordinary experiment.  It was sent to the Institute for Molecular Testing in Oxfordfor DNA testing, and samples of its mitochondrial DNA were compared with a score of similar samples taken from volunteers among the villagers in the present day Cheddar district.  'To the astonishmenty of the scientists', as The Times reported, ' close match was found between Cheddar Man and Mr [Adrian] Targett', a forty-two-year-old history teacher at the Kibngs of Wessex Community School in Cheddar Village.  The experiment had proved beyond reasonable doubt that a man living in late-twentieth century Britain was a direct descendant through the maternal line of a person living in the same location in the Middle Stone Age.

Chapter 1, page 4.

Now, working from this we could construct a process of play model.  The maternal line becomes the basic structure of of detail defiition; play will follow one particular line [or, one per player] over the ages, although through any character.  In any given era, the consequences of play ON THAT LINE will be an important issue to be represented in some manner.  Considerations of how to address a line being exterminated would have to be discussed ahead of time.  Conceivably, it might slide over into clan-formation as the sheer numbers of people and their density increases over time.

A game following a particular line could easily hop back and forth through the ages simply by establishing through fiat that the line never does become extinct.  Alternatively, a character who is the "last of the line" could be constructed for dramatic purposes. The articulation of the line-concept occurs only to establish a framework of mutual consent and interaction for the definition of detail and exposition of setting and situation during play.  Libne descent may well have absolutely no bearing on any in-play decisions barring familial connections, but it does serve as a prompt for the developement of such familial detail and its incorporation into game space actualisation.

With this framework, we could openly discuss WHICH eras, settings or situations we wish to explore in the light of this central agenda.  To link it back to the overall theme of play, all we have to do is follow the maternal line backwards or forwards to the last/next character.  We could do a game in the Henge Age, and then in the Celtic Age, etc. etc, structured around the concept of maternal descent but articulated to explore the impacts and consequences of a particular era/society in a consistent manner.

So we end up with:
- a set text
- a sim thesis extracted from the text
- text as normative descriptor and hence arbiter
- selection of venue of play in the space
- definition of the venue in the space

The last two, actual play setup, can be carried out with strong player input mediated by the GM/whatever for consistency with the set text.  Rather than a formless "what shall we do today", the structure of the matrilineal descent and the geographic location strongly contextualise the pre-play discussion of what to play.  Which, I hope, would reinforce coherence and the collective vision.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci