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Author Topic: Defining a gameís setting, how much is too little or too much?  (Read 11112 times)
Certified
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« on: October 27, 2005, 08:26:03 PM »

These are just some general questions about world building, open to anyone, for any setting. These are questions Iíve been asking myself lately and will answer them in another post, but I would like insight from the writers here at the forge. If anyone can come up with other questions that seem to fit in here that I forgot please add them. Thank you reading and I look forward to your responses.

When reading source material for a game what factors do you as a player or GM do you see as important?

When reading though source material was there ever the moment of, ďOH I get it now thatís what the designer thought,Ē if so how did that make you as a player or GM feel? (Turned away or pulled in or both by different executions)   

Is there ever a point where there is too much world detail or moodiness that the setting becomes unattractive? (Please name some examples)

As game designers what have you done to integrate the setting and/or flavor you pictured into the source materials of your game?
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Jack Aidley
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« Reply #1 on: October 28, 2005, 01:43:08 AM »

Hi Certified (do you have a real name we can call you by?),

I don't think we can answer your question, just as I we can't answer the question: which tastes better strawberries or raspberries. It's a matter of taste, and opinion. So your questions come down to nothing more than a straw poll and polls are something I don't the Forge usually does. Ultimately it's for you when designing your game to design the game you want; the only matters of taste and opinion you should be listening to are your own.
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Lamorak33
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« Reply #2 on: October 28, 2005, 02:28:31 AM »

Hi

I am a game customer not a game designer, but customer feedback is good right? Moderators will direct me if this is me actually engaging in the poll (which is not my intention)


When reading source material for a game what factors do you as a player or GM do you see as important?


It got to have something unique that inspires people to play. When I played D&D it was because I wanted to have adventures like the ones in the fantasy books like LoTR and all those corny and not so corny movies in the late 70's early 80's.

When I discovered Runequest, it was about a world that struck a mythic cord in me, maybe in the way the first Star Wars film did to people in general. Pendragon hooked me through my fascination with Arthurian tragedy.

Then we get to games that have an interesting premise or theme, like Vampire:TM 'Monsters we are lest monsters we become', or more lately Sorcerer 'What would you sacrifice on the road to power'. The other one that has caught my eye has been Dogs in the Vineyard, but I haven't played that yet.

These games vary greatly in the amount of setting information available. For me the rules always came second, but I have since learnt that 'system does matter'

I would however agitate against the WoD model, which feels like a complete rip off, what with clan books and all that baloney. But each to his own.....


When reading though source material was there ever the moment of, ďOH I get it now thatís what the designer thought,Ē if so how did that make you as a player or GM feel? (Turned away or pulled in or both by different executions)


I never really think about what the designer is trying to communicate, which may be low brow of me. I am only interested in 'is this going to be fun or interesting to play out, whether that be exploration of the setting, to answering the premise.


Is there ever a point where there is too much world detail or moodiness that the setting becomes unattractive? (Please name some examples)


I think it generally accepted that if you feel as a GM that you can't run a game without such and such a supplement then you tire of the game pretty quick.† May I cite WoD here, and Heroquest and Glorantha have an off putting reputation for too much background. What the setting should do, and you should do it expressly if it is not inferred in the background is give folks some idea of the sort of games that you can use the material for.

Regards
Rob
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Adam Dray
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« Reply #3 on: October 28, 2005, 07:47:38 AM »

I struggled with the same thing in [Verge] How much genre background? and probably got the same kind of answers you will get here. To summarize:

How much Setting do you need?
1. As much as you think you need.
2. Think about your audience. How much do they already know?
3. Do you need to provide a setting, a setting toolkit, or an understanding of a genre?
4. Don't rob your audience of the fun of creating Setting.
5. Do you really need better support for Situation and Color, rather than more Setting?

That last point is really important. If you have tons of Setting and no support for Situation, you essentially give your players an enormous guidebook and they still won't know how to make it fun for them to play. Read Vincent's thoughts on a Fruitful Void and think about how you want your players to contribute to Setting.

Rereading your post, though, I don't think I've answered any of your questions. Lemme try again.

As a GM and player, I want source material that provides Situation. That is, the value of the Setting as it smashes into Character provides stuff for players to do during the game.

I generally enjoy those moments when I grok the designer. It doesn't turn me away, but I'm a designer so I'm not a good person to ask.

I've read plenty of setting books where the detail just got mindless and boring. I tend to skip over lists of statted people that have no relationships, for example. I believe some details are more fun to create than to use: e.g., constructed languages and calendars. Any time you have a template for some world feature and start filling it in repeatedly, you're probably at the mindless detail level. I think a lot of Kalamar feels this way to me, yet I know many people love that world. Any time you're creating lists of things and there are no game rules to use those lists in a fun way, you're probably creating mindless detail where a few examples would suffice.

As a game designer, I do a bunch of things to integrate setting into my games and have seen some other techniques in other games. Here are a few.

1. Pare down the "essence" of the Setting and write that. Leave the rest for the players to flesh out.
2. Integrate Setting-specific structure into Character generation rules. Characters start play connected to the Setting.
3. Choose evocative pictures and art that speak volumes about the Setting.
4. Write the rules in a particular style or voice. Polaris is exemplary in this regard.
5. Include some short examples of play that capture the flavor of the Setting.
6. Include short fiction, but only if it doesn't suck.

Hope that helped!
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #4 on: October 28, 2005, 10:22:22 AM »

I think we're getting some opinion here mixed in with the good advice. For example, I'd say keep all art out of the book, and definitely don't have any fiction (worst of all, no fiction that couldn't occur from play). But that's just me and irrellevant.

Adam makes a good point about situation being more important than setting in many ways (if just that it's often overlooked). The standard way around this is to include a sample scenario, but without notes about how to come up with such, they're not much help. Even games that give advice on creating situation often do a terrible job with it. Worry less about he setting, and more about situation.

Keep in mind that GMs and players can create setting very effectively. They do so all the time in play. The player says he's going to the smithy, and you don't have it written up in notes. So you improvise and tell him it's a dark shack. That's all you need to do to keep play going. What happens at the smithy is more important than what it looks like.

Consider also that many, many games have way more setting than will ever get used in any way in play. More than a mouthful, you know...

Setting should exist to propel play. Not as reading material. For that, write a novel.

Mike
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #5 on: October 28, 2005, 10:43:45 AM »

Adam and Mike already said most of what I would have said, but I think it all boils down to one question: "How much setting does your product need in order to allow players to produce the kind of play you're trying to create?"

In FLFS I have a couple pages on Victorian Naval Culture.† There's only a few obsessives out there (like me) that know or care about this stuff, while most other people just have vague recollections of "Victorian stuffiness" in Jane Austen.† Where the rubber meets the road, however, is when the players are going to be called upon to portray that "Victorian stuffiness" in a specific situation in the game, with specific actions and words and props.† So as the game designer, I provide the actions, words, and props that they can elect to use.

Similarly, in Dogs Vincent has like, a page about the landscape, a page about the guns, and a section on the religion -- players know "Westerns" and can do all the grit and grime, cattle and big blue skies on their own and don't need any more than a page.† What most players will need a little more tools to portray, though, is the religion, and consequently it gets a more detailed treatment.

My advice to you, then, is to (a) figure out the kind of play you want to inspire, and then (b) think about the tools you need to provide to allow that to happen.† Adam's five questions are specific expressions of (b), and you should go read them again.† No really, right now.† I'll wait.† Okay, back?† Look at 3. and 5. again really hard, because those will make the difference between you writing a sourcebook with useless color information and a dice system and a gamebook that will help people have an entertaining evening.

This has been a very long "Me too" post.  Thank you, good night.
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Certified
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« Reply #6 on: October 29, 2005, 08:10:51 AM »

Thank you everyone for helping to bring some insight to these ideas. Let begin by saying I agree a lot with what Adam has posted about overloading details and I think Kalamar is a good point for me to say too much also. As far as mood goes I think the World of Darkness core books did an excellent job of setting the tone and feel, even if they did bleed me for how many shelves of supplements (but thatís another story.)

When creating 6th World, I had a picture of what the setting would be like almost from the start. Because itís not a modern setting I tried to include enough material without going overboard. The game is set fifteen years after the fall of man and return of magick. There are elements of both technology and magic in the worlds setting along with several ďmythicĒ races. One of the things Iíve tried hard to avoid is being seen as a Rifts or Shadowrun knock off. Things Iíve included are a narration of the Cataclysm that changed the world and a time line of events, the system is point based but each character can take a path, a group of bonuses based on common experiences, in each of these Iíve tried to add some degree of impact on the world. Also, the book describes organizations of power only one with enough detail to be confining as well as three major cities. At the end of the book there is a much more detailed breakdown of one city, no maps and only a few names and places, along with a sample story (adventure.)†

Some of the newer materials Iíve added are several two page short stories to help add flavor and feel to the setting. Each could easily be actual game play but there are no rules notes with them. Currently we are working on art for the book; with every piece there is a small narration to put the picture into perspective in the world.

Currently, Iím comfortable with the level of detail included, Iíve tried not to make the world too confining, but I was unsure if Iíve included to much or too little. So thereís my story and Iím sticking to it.

Here are some links if you are interested:

Some 6th World Art

Six short stories set in 6th World and a narration of how things came to pass

If you have any comments I am eager to hear them. Thank you again for reading though this.

-Dave
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #7 on: October 31, 2005, 08:05:39 AM »

Quote
Currently, Iím comfortable with the level of detail included,
Then your set. That's the most important thing at this point. Now, have you had the game playtested independently? Basically what you're looking for there is whether or not the GM who runs the game has enough material present in the setting and system to be able to come up with an entertaining situation into which to put the characters. So if you haven't had somebody playtest the game coming up with their own scenario, that's the next thing to try.

See for all of the mood setting color of the WOD setting material, they actually do a pretty lousy job in some ways of providing what a GM needs to come up with a situation. Oh, sure, there's the Camarilla and it's organization waiting to be used, but the standard set up with the characters as neonates means that every "adventure" is "Vampire X, who is above you in the power structure and waaay more powerful than you, commands you to do thing Y - which secretly advances his political position." Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull. Especially after the tenth time you run the scenario. And in any case, you don't have to know where the nightclubs in Memphis are in order to set up this situation. If you catch my drift.

That is, the fact that they soaked you for all that setting is quite pertinent and not "another story." It is the story. Tons and tons of setting material do not equate to more things to do in play. WOD is one of the worst settings in terms of presenting stuff that'll never see play. People purchase it as reading material, essentially, and fantasize about how cool it would be if one could only get all of that setting into play.

What's more important is to ensure that what setting is there enables play. Forget "giving a sense of the setting" to the players, nobody cares about that. Rather, they're not going to get a sense of the setting if they never actually play it. So make sure that what setting material you have is simply there to ensure that play can come from it. Any further exposition is wasted space. Yeah, this means the stories.

All of which is to say that I think that what you say you have is fine. You have a city presented for them to exist in. You have some evocative place names. Most importantly, you have a sample adventure. That's a roadmap to how to prepare to play the game. It is a sample adventure, right? You say "story." It is something that is fun to play through, right?

Mike
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Troy_Costisick
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« Reply #8 on: October 31, 2005, 09:58:15 AM »

Heya,

To me, the most important question to ask about the Setting is how it reinforces what play will be about.  A setting should drive the players to address the most important facets of hte game (whether it be challenge, premise, exploration, etc.).  So what you want to ask yourself is how your setting puts the players and their charcters directly into conflict?

Peace,

-Troy
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talysman
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« Reply #9 on: October 31, 2005, 10:11:39 AM »

I'm just going to mention here that a lot of people in the thread seem to be talking about Color rather than Setting. that's ok, if we're talking about setting-with-a-small-s; but if you really want to know what the minimum amount of setting needed for a game book is, it can all be summed up as "Setting rather than Color".

Setting is basically a one-sentence "high concept" description of the conflicts inherent in your world, plus some general principles developing those confilicts further, plus any mechanics that allows those conflict to emerge during play. in Chaosium's Stormbringer, for example, the Setting is summed up in the Chaos vs. Law conflict and to a lesser extent the demon summoning rules; everything else is just Color. in Trollbabe, the Setting is all summed up in the reactions Humans and Trolls have to each other.

just about every White Wolf setting suppliment, to use Mike's example, is pure Color, although the briefly reiterate the Setting component as well: there are secret supernatural forces conrtolling the world, here is how they feel about each other, here are a few higher forces that appear to be controlling them in turn. you could probably condense the actual Setting of all the WoD books into two pages of simple statements, not including the mechanics for a few things like Paradox.

as for Color, the bare minimum sould be some general principles on what constitutes good color relevant to the Setting, plus a few examples. so the real question is: for every example of Setting or Color you have written so far, can you express the general principle behind it? if so, write down that general principle. gather up all the principles at the end of your design phase, see if you can condense them some more, and write up introductions to your world chapter, your equipment chapter, and so on; put the general principles *explicitely* in these introductions. this will allow your readers to create more Setting and Color that fits with what you've already written.

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John Laviolette
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Shreyas Sampat
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« Reply #10 on: October 31, 2005, 12:06:52 PM »

John, I am not really clear on the distinction you appear to be drawing between colour and setting, please elaborate.
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talysman
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« Reply #11 on: October 31, 2005, 12:43:43 PM »

John, I am not really clear on the distinction you appear to be drawing between colour and setting, please elaborate.

remember Ron's oft-repeated statement that Character plus Setting creates Situation, which is put into action by System, with liberal doses of Color added to flesh everything out?

simply put, Setting is that which the conflict emerges from, while Color is more the props and scenery used to flesh out the SiS and establish look and feel.

the Setting of Middle Earth is: a Dark Lord threatens to conquere all in a medievalesque fairy-tale world, and any truly powerful tool that could be used to oppose him is either already tainted by him or attracts his attention and possible corruption. this establishes what will happen if the characters do nothing (the Dark Lord will slowly conquere all) or what cannot be used to oppose the Dark Lord (the One Ring is part of Sauron and will either betray you to its master or turn you into the new Dark Lord, depending on your power; the Istari like Gandalf or ring-wielders like Elrond and Galadriel can't just whip out kick-ass powers, because this attracts Sauron's attention and tempts them to corruption; Saruman tries to use the palantir to gain more knowledge of Sauron's forces and is corrupted...)

the Color of Middle Earth is: fairytale medieval technology, elves, dwarfs, hobbits, ents, orcs, magic rings, magic seeing-stones, mithril-mail, glowing swords, english country placenames like The Shire, elvish placenames.

the Setting of Star Wars is: diametrically opposed forces of mystic knights use The Force to play political games with a large stellar republic/empire. this establishes what will happen if the charaters do nothing (the Jedi and Sith will keep fighting until one wins) and establishes what kind of conflicts are going to arise (poliitical intrigue with mystical heroes and villains.) the concept of a mystical knighthood provides a template for creating some Color details about the Jedi and Sith, if necessary.

the Color of Star Wars is: pseudoeastern philosophy, sci-fi, space battles, hyperspace, light sabers, wookies, ewoks.
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John Laviolette
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #12 on: October 31, 2005, 12:55:26 PM »

Another take on the same subject is this distillation I wrote of a discussion at Vincent Baker's website, www.lumpley.com:

Quote from: me, only earlier
what you need is (a) a few "rules" to generate new setting elements on the fly and (b) a couple of "seed crystals," specific and vivid images which suggest a whole bunch of possibilities.

For example, Star Wars:

Seed Crystals:
a) A really huge wedge-shaped spaceship is chasing a tiny little one! Zap, zap!
b) An old monk-dude and a dude in a mask with a black cape are fighting with laser swords!

Rules:
a) The Evil Galactic Empire relies on overwhelming brute force, not individual skill or courage.
b) The heroic Rebel Alliance makes up for limited resources with skill and courage.
c) A Jedi Order once used "The Force" for cool psychic powers, but using the Force out of anger led some to Evil.
d) There is a Galaxy-spanning civilization with interstellar travel, planet-busting weapons, and sentient robots -- but all of it basically feels like something out of the year 1945.

If everybody at the table agrees on these elements, you should be able to generate specifics as needed pretty fast. E.g. in Star Wars, "does the ship have a teleporter? Well, no, that doesn't feel very 1945 -- but launching lots of fighters does!" or "If the Galactic Empire are mostly such thugs, who'd be a properly scary villain? Ooh, a fallen Jedi!"

Arguably, the "rules" are capital-S "Setting," and the "seed crystals" are Color.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #13 on: October 31, 2005, 01:13:11 PM »

P.S. The original discussion on Baker's "Anyway" website that I'm summarizing (a lot!) is here.
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #14 on: November 03, 2005, 11:31:47 AM »

A lot of useful things have been said; I feel like I should be able to add something simply because I spend a great deal of time creating universes for Multiverser play, so I have a lot of experience in this.

The shortest world I've actually got written is, I think, two pages. I've got a couple in my head that I could probably do in one page, but I've never bothered to write them. I've done bigger worlds--I've done entire universes in fifty pages, and I'll probably eventually do at least a couple that are longer than that--but that two-page world is complete, containing absolutely everything anyone could possibly need to run that world, provided only that he have some knowledge of what things are like in the real world and he has access to the Multiverser rule book.

In creating setting, you need to be completely mindful of your expectations for how it will be utilized in play. That is, what are the characters going to do that requires the referee to know anything at all about this?

Let's take for example a game set in fifteen hundreds Europe. Certainly part of that world is the recent discovery that there's another continent, a "New World", on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Certainly part of that "New World" is a section in the central north west in which there are many strange wonders--geysers that spout at regular intervals, bubbling mudpots, petrified forests, a canyon so wide and so deep that the far side looks like a painting rather than a place. That's part of this world, and you could on that basis provide a detailed description of everything in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon, as well as the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest--it could all be part of your world description.  The question, though, is why does anyone playing your game need any of that detail? The game is supposed to be about people in Europe. Those features of the world, on our timeline, won't be discovered until the early eighteen hundreds, about three hundred years in the future.  At this point you are talking about providing details that the referee would only need if the player characters left the European locale to travel to America, and then left the civilized areas of America behind for an incredible westward trek, and then managed to survive to cross the Mississippi and get into the mountainous west.

The problem with many "setting" creations is that they are written from the perspective that the writer has no idea what the players are likely to do in it, so it has to include all the information necessary to do anything and go anywhere.  There are, in a sense, no "edges to the map"  Every terrain feature must be presented. Even if in the east you have The Impassible Mountains, for some reason you have to have whatever is on the other side of the Impassible Mountains, just in case some player character takes "impassible" as a challenge and overcomes it.

I'll give you a thumbnail of The Dancing Princess, a complete world in seventeen pages, seven of which are character stat charts and one the full-page image that attempts to capture its flavor, published in Multiverser: The First Book of Worlds.

We start our hero(es) in the small medieval kingdom of Yorkshire. It has one small central city, York, with many outlying villages which are pretty much interchangeable, surrounded by fields and providing typical medieval sorts of sets such as inns, taverns, stables, churches, and the like. We use the old English monetary system (described in one paragraph). There are other similar kingdoms surrounding this one; terrain is pretty much left to the referee's discretion, apart from that this is rolling agricultural land in Yorkshire, sometimes forested.

There are job prospects for the character(s), mostly ordinary civilian sorts of things, in the villages. Suggestions are included for situations that can make such jobs interesting, creating mini-adventures to keep things interesting for a while. Eventually, though, word starts to filter out of the capital that there is a problem and the King is advertising for a hero. The details involve the three daughters of the King (he has no sons) going to bed together each night, but coming down to breakfast exhausted with their shoes worn out. The man who can save the girls from whatever is happening will be rewarded substantially, including offered the hand of the daughter of his choice. Anyone who tries and fails, though, will be executed.

The problem exacerbates until either the character(s) decide to do something about it or it is clear they never will.

One key set in the castle is detailed, the bedroom in which the princesses sleep and the hall outside their door. The rest is left for the referee to create as needed, because it probably won't be needed and the details are unlikely to be important. If it turns into a fight or flight within the castle, the referee is quite capable of improvising such a floor plan as will suit on the fly during play.

The three girls are described in enough detail to create images of them. The eldest is beautiful in a poised, formal way; the middle is sweet, demure, and shy; the youngest is vivacious, tomboyish, outdoorsy. Their actions are tracked as they prepare for their rendez-vous with the demons they believe are princes, whose existence they have kept secret all this time.

The portal that leads to that other dimension is detailed, and the general lay of the land is given. Five demons, including the three princes, plus two magic items are described. The landscape is designed to tempt the player character into stopping to enrich himself (gold, silver, and gems for the taking).

The world description then gives ideas on what will happen if the character does not undertake the rescue, what will happen if he fails, if he succeeds partially, and if he succeeds completely. Thoughts for future adventures are outlined. There are stats on a few types of soldiers, the royal family, and the demons.

There is nothing describing what is in the city beyond the general notion that it is a medieval city which has a castle and, somewhere, a cathedral. There is no information about the surrounding kingdoms beyond that they are similar to this one. At no point are oceans mentioned except to say that Yorkshire is landlocked. Populations are not given but to say that the city is "small". There are a few stats on a senior cleric, standard peasants, and an optional dragon.

Given that much information, anyone can run this world. That is what matters. Anything else the referee needs he can create, usually on the fly, relying on his own knowledge or perceptions of what such a world includes, his experience running games, and a few tools provided by the Multiverser rules for filling in blanks on the fly.

Of course, that is a very focused world. NagaWorld, in the same volume, takes forty-seven pages to detail an entire planet. It's a world in which nothing happens unless the players make it happen--although walking somewhere can be enough to make something happen. The focus there is more on general exploration in a hazardous world. For what it's worth, not only has no character ever explored the entire world, there are several areas in this world which no character has yet explored at all, as far as I am aware, and I've run at least scores of people through it. Such worlds do require more detail, but they still work the same way: provide the referee with everything he needs to understand what is here, and trust him to fill in the rest consistent with the vision you have conveyed to him.

I hope this helps.

--M. J. Young
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