D-Tales

I know what the next obvious card for a Card of the Weak series is (no, it’s not Portrait), but I can only think of two uses for it, so that will have to wait.

Instead, RPG whining.  No, not whining about balance.  Nothing so pedestrian as whining about how outrageously expensive books are.  Sort of whining about ideas.

I’m a big Elric/Stormbringer/Eternal Champion/whatever fan.  Still.  Probably not as much.  Okay, tangent, but first of all I realized the Young Kingdoms and the multiverse are not as appealing for gaming as I once did as the Eternal Champion’s escapades completely overshadow anything a ragtag, fugitive fleet of PCs might do, unless you get weird and do something like everyone is an aspect of the EC.  Second, I’ve really gotten tired of Moorcock’s formulaic writing in more recent books.  When you know exactly how everything will go (because he tells you), not terribly dramatic.

There’s an adventure I’ve been thinking of doing for Solomon Kane and I thought I could mine some of my Stormbringer supplements.  I found it interesting that I hadn’t even read one of the supplements and it wasn’t at all like I expected.  Also, from skimming through it, it looks like a total fail of a series of adventures because it’s so ludicrously heavy-handed and restrictive.  Anyway, I got out a second supplement, one I barely skimmed through.  Also useless for the sort of things I was looking for.

I was reminded of something, something ubiquitous when it comes to RPG products.  The information they think is important is not actually important.  RPG products frequently are heavy on the crunch (mechanics).  Stats for slavers.  Stats for guards.  Stats for monsters, including ones you want to run from.  Spells.  Powers.  Random encounter tables.  Treasure amounts.  It’s not just D&D style mods.  Alternatively, if not mechanics, then fluff that’s overly world specific.

Take the Victorian Age supplement for Vampire: The Masquerade.  I’m sure for some people it achieves what they are looking for – what is the Victorian World of Darkness look like in terms of how the clans are doing, what secret societies exist, who controls what.  What I wanted to know was what it was like to live in the Victorian Age.  Well, why not just go to the library or, in this day and age, hit up Wikipedia, or whatever?

Because the reality is that historical or real world information is still a hassle to research.  Online searches are scattershot and without any real end.  Books dedicated to history are often dense and excessively academic.  What I’m looking for in a RPG book is often a digestible amount of information that is applicable to gaming in such a world.  Sure, Victorian Age talks about transportation, but really, I can’t fathom what it would be like to live in the 1950’s, let alone prior – tell me more than the difference between a hansom and a Clarence.  Pretty much all I care about in the book is pages 45-46.

This is where GURPS supplements win.  While they too have a lot of crunch, I may be biased considering that I’ve never played GURPS, they have a relatively high level of world information.  Given that standard, it’s amazing how disappointing other supplements end up being when I actually need something.  Sure, I don’t expect to find river names in Mexico near Vera Cruz, even in GURPS Aztecs, which, by the way, trying to find geographic information at that level of detail is a total pain in the ass to try to find online if you just do a regular online search.  But, something like Testament, which got good reviews and is about a time and place that I think would make for kickass gaming, is just endless D&D crunch with only minor amounts of information on the world; I don’t recall any world info outside of how the religions differ – maybe I should dig it out and see.

Sure, I can look up flora and fauna for countries, as I’ve done.  The history of a lot of countries is often fascinating since you hear nothing about them in US schools.  For instance, I had no idea that Hispaniola was basically lost to pirates for a time after the English kicked Spanish ass in the late 1500’s.

One of my major weaknesses as GM or author is description.  I think that has something to do with not being terribly interested in it.  As long as things look right, can focus on characters, plots, and scenes.  But, things still have to look right.  Stuff still has to be appropriate.  Sure, can have camel-like bones in North America because their ancestors came from here.  Mashed potatoes in 14th century Germany?  Not so much, methinks.  I don’t want to overdescribe when I GM, but I want to be able to establish a texture while also being able to answer questions that come up.

Five, ten, fifteen pages of what it was like, even in a fantasy world or quasi-fantasy world like mythic Greece.  Or, maybe, the better approach is what it isn’t like.  What wouldn’t be the case that would get us out of thinking like modern people rolling dice to see how many goblins we killed.

For instance, I did some research on ships that would be used circa 1600.  That didn’t end up mattering.  It wasn’t because I couldn’t find differences in size, crew complements, etc.  It was because there was no link between information and how it matters to people.  That connection between fact and relevance is probably hard work, where just putting out the level progressions for prestige classes isn’t.

Now, worlds with no real world connection, arguably, have an advantage in that you just gloss over mundane details and get right to demonslaying.  On the other hand, for immersion, these worlds probably need more mundane details.  No doubt why worlds that get farther and farther from historical often are lacking.  I’ve been thinking of running something in mythic Greece for some time, but the amount of effort put into getting people to feel like they are in that world rather than some generic fantasy world with a bunch of familiar names has been daunting.

There’s a lot of things I can picture in my mind, it’s conveying those to others so that we are experiencing something similar is where I could use a lot more help.  Of course, as I look around, I see less of this material, not more.

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6 Responses to D-Tales

  1. Azel says:

    When I read this, it made me think of what I learned from one of my musician friends: the most evocative instrument is the human voice. So, if I am to create a verisimilitude of setting, then the best way would be to make the non-player characters’ personality feel “real.” Thus in theory, the challenge of the world’s details should fall in place as soon as one can mimic the thinking of the setting’s characters.

    This is where reading fiction about the source material tends to help. After reading enough Victorian fiction, small things like diction and vocabulary sneak into one’s thinking and speech. I know reading too much Lovecraft tends to do the same when running CoC. But what to do when there’s not enough source fiction to get a sense of NPC personalities? Sadly, a lot of RPGs gloss over a sense of character and place for the sake of number crunching.

    … always been a big fan of Michael Moorcock’s older works. Never knew what Elric/Stormbringer was like in the RPG. I should take a look one day. Also, I always wanted to role play in a foreign language, such as Greek, Latin, or Japanese. Part of me thinks that using another language will change the flavor of interactions. Like, getting one’s head space into the mood might make for better storytelling.

  2. iclee says:

    I think it was for my Camelot campaign, where Ireland was the mythical land of monsters/adventure/weirdness, where I found the website for how to speak with an Irish accent.

    It changes my personality. Actually, I think any accent changes my personality. I realize I’m acting, i.e. that I’m not myself, and so I’m not myself. Also, having to concentrate on it means not doing the usual thinking processes. Though, use an accent long enough and you can’t get rid of it, something I discovered going out to dinner after a long RPG session.

    Considering that I’m usually more … sociable when I affect an Irish accent, one wonders why I don’t do it all of the time.

    It would have been really interesting, and probably horribly dreadful, to play a RPG while I was in China. If I were conversational in some other language, sure, I’d totally want to do it. Being American, not so much.

  3. Andrew Haas says:

    I’m trying to imagine you using an Irish accent…not working.

    Why the reluctance to RPG in China though?

    I’m not sure how I’d do an accent for my current character, or most Rokugani characters for that matter. I understand how some of the clans would have a stereotypical accent crab = gruff, crane = lisp, etc. but what would a Phoenix, Dragon, or Lion sound like?

    Also, your mention of the dearth of information explaining the everyday happenings of worlds seems rather relevant since my only exposure to L5R is the 4th edition book.

    The book is rather non-descript about the beliefs systems of the world (they would seem relevant to a priest character) as well as what the samurai would be doing most of their time (you know, when they’re not committing arson or troll hunting).

    I find myself watching Kurosawa movies to get an idea of the world. I suppose the new Emerald Empire book should address that more though.

  4. Brad says:

    One of my favorite parts about running Conan is the research I do for each nation’s cultural setting. I don’t see it as a chore. For Western Shem, I used the various Mongoose publications as well as a 3rd party D20 scenario book called “Ancient Kingoms” set in ancient Mesopotamia. I also visited various museums to get an idea of the art work of the region. And utilized such resources as “Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia and the Archological Study Bible. I picked up a music CD that features an artist who is skilled at playing an obscure, old Iraqi stringed instrument. I also prepared dishes that were indicative of the Eastern Mediterrainan and one from the book; Recipies from the British Museum (which is a collection of recipies from ancient cultures). Also read Gilgamish and works on ancient Near Eastern mythology. Internet was useful too. Particularly for ancient names and words.
    GURPS is a great resource, I wish they had more books out that covered historical periods.

  5. Brad says:

    Reasearch for the New Campaign, which is set in (currently near) Vendhya. Vendhya is REH’s take on Vedic era India. As there is no Mongoose source book, I’m reading the Maha-batra & the Vedic Hymns. Also going to check out the Indian exhibit at the SF Asian Art Museum.

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