2020-01-26 Collaborating on a setting

Wanderer Bill is wondering about a free and open source setting for role playing games.

Things I like about the idea:

But there are some major road blocks, I suspect. I use Hex Describe to generate mini-settings of 300 hexes each and I love the output. Sure, the maps could always use more details. But that would be a great framework, I think. If we all write entries on random tables, chances are that we are not going to need a lot of coordinating.

As I was cooperating with ktrey parker and J. Alan Henning, I noticed a problem: when it came to details, I felt often at odds. Like in all common creative endeavours that the products of our imagination, with no borders holding is back, no gravity holding us down, we’re starting to drift. Do we need a table of random trees? How can we make them relevant at the table? What about fifty landmarks that don’t quite fit the tone of how I imagined it to be? Somebody has to say that this is good and this needs editing, somebody needs to say that this level of details is useful and that level of detail is useless. Somebody has to say that these encounters are lame and those encounters are cool. It’s not easy. It needs a delicate hand, a charming voice.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff about this in the C4 chapter of Social Architecture by Pieter Hintjens. The part I want to focus on is optimistic merging which is programmer-talk for “accepting contributions without being 100% certain about them.” I tried hard to do this with Hex Describe. If this is going to be a collaborative project, then I need to be flexible. I’m going to add a circus even though I wasn’t too sure whether I wanted a circus. I’m going to add smiths selling little trinkets for weird prices even though I don’t know whether this is useful at the table. And then I’ll try to make these ideas my own. I want to love every part of this project. It’s not always easy, but that’s what I want from it. That’s what I’ll want from a setting we all work on.

Back to Wanderer Bill’s blog post, though. I guess I’m not quite the person to join such a project.

  1. I don’t like system neutral. I’d much prefer something like a B/X baseline. Maybe I’m silly, but to me it still makes a huge difference.
  2. I don’t think we need a common timeline. In that, I feel like most people in the old days didn’t actually know anything about the real timeline. The past was weird and full of myth. The people who had read the ancient books were spread all over the continent. There was no sense of history and I don’t think a setting needs it unless it’s key to some adventures. I don’t think that is required. I’ll concede that it’s good to agree on some common elements that existed in the past. For Hex Describe, for example, there’s often talk of “wight kingdoms”, a number of named wars, and so on. How long ago all this happened, doesn’t make a difference.
  3. A common spacial map: yes! That’s the part I like. Or do I? I think what I actually prefer is more mapping algorithms for Text Mapper and then I could just tell people to generate more stuff using the app. And every now and then people can pick a map and the results of all the random tables and polish it, make a beautiful PDF gazetteer and sell it on DriveThruRPG. Why not? Some people started working on it in 2019.

So... Yes, I’m interested – but my ideas are probably incompatible and I fear that most people have wildly differing views. I know that Gygaxian Democracy style community events have generated interested mini-settings in the past but I doubt that I would feel comfortable without a strong editing culture. Brainstorming is cool, but not enough.

I wonder where I would take it, if I were to try and orchestrate something... I guess I still think random tables would be more interesting than working on just a single document. Thus, I’d like to collaborate on extending Hex Describe. We could start with a fresh list of terrains. Start working on villages and towns; monster lairs; vistas (to pick something I saw in a post by Jens D. on the Disoriented Ranger blog: The Map is not the Territory - Part 4), and so on.

Or we could start smaller: maybe you just want to make frogling lairs more interesting. Or add badger people. Where would they live? How would we describe their lairs? What would they make? Who would they associate with? What could players learn by talking to them? And slowly the tables would grow and grow.

This way, the setting grows from the bottom up. The text is always focused on the information the referee needs when running the game. And thus, there is a map, there are non-player characters, monsters, treasure, factions, maps of buildings or dungeons, pictures of people and descriptions vistas, but there is no timeline, to high-level political description, no essays on the various cultures: just the actual people, their actual villages, the actual foods they are preparing, the dances they are performing. The essay you might have wanted to write has turned into random tables generating an endless plethora of material for play.

I guess I want there to be something like Yoon-Suin for a gazillion landscapes and cultures.



Now I’m reading The formless wilderness by Melan, following a link from The Map is not the Territory - Part 1 by Jens D. This is going to be a long night, I can tell.

The Map is not the Territory - Part 2 by Jens D. makes some interesting points.

The first one is considering the utility of a map for players:

“... imagine yourself in the middle of a forest without a map. What are your options, what is it you can do to get around, etc., etc. ... Now imagine yourself with a map. What would change? What is it you can do now? How does the map relate to what is surrounding you? Your options change, but not as much as one would actually think. As a matter of fact, if you don’t know where you are or how to work a map, it might end up being useless to have a map, right? And now imagine the players having a map without the characters having one ... that’s the discrepancy I’m talking about.” – Jens D.

The second one is considering the normative influence maps have on our imagination.

The first example given is that a map implicitly also defines all there is. Once you have a map, you can look at it and find this and that and the other. But you cannot find the things that aren’t on the map. In fact, it gets harder to think of the things not on the map if you have a map. This is true for both players and referees.

The second example given is that a map implicitly structures our imagination. If we create maps that are easy to map (like the maps created by @gridmapper) then the dungeons will be easy to map. When you compare this with actual underground locations, real caverns, real tunnels that were dug by people and grew over time, then you’ll notice how hopelessly artificial it all is.

I’m not sure what to make of it. I like maps.

In terms of designing a setting, I guess I’d like there to be a bunch of local maps and no clear way of getting from one place to another. Like, Hannibal moves from Carthage to Rome via Spain, France and Switzerland. The movie doesn’t show us how he moves on the map. The movie would show us the Spanish landscape, the Pyrenees, the French landscape, the crossing of the Rhône river, the Alps, the Po river, and on and on. We could have a setting map in Catalonia, one in the Alps, one in the Italian plains, and so on.

Everything else is white space, a gap, a lacuna, the unknown. Our vision of the land would be fragmentary, and we’d keep it that way. Any larger maps would simply be in-game guesswork.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-26

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