Saturday, March 26, 2011

On Setting Design and Sabatons

I am not much one for bandwagon jumping but I cannot help myself as the zeitgeist hath intersected my own thoughts. The idea of dispensing with game fiction and fictional geographic writings in the presentation of games, a fashionable topic in the blogosphere at of late (as originated by Zak Smith and expanded upon at Trollsmyth and Strange Magic) appeals to my own aesthetic.

I have 20-year-old campaign setting the contents of which are still only vaguely familiar to me. My eyes glaze over very quickly when I try to read about Silverymoon or Specularum. There is something about the characteristically lengthy and bland descriptions of places that makes me struggle with imagining what they feel like or why I would want to adventure there. I have a much more instrumentalist relationship with gaming materials. I want to know what affordances exist in the environment for the PCs to interact with. What threatens the PCs? What resources are they able to marshal to deal with those threats? What opportunities exist in the environment that the PCs can exploit for gain?

These things are traditionally the domain of the core rulebooks. Conventionally, the lists of equipment, hirelings, spells, magic items, treasure, dungeon features and monsters have to an extent remained static between settings. There is usually a little customisation (esp. with monsters) going on but it is generally assumed that the basics remain the same as those presented in the canonical text. Whether in Faerun or the Flanaess or the Grand Duchy of Karameikos the affordances available for the character to work with and thus the parameters that govern their survival and prosperity or lack thereof are similarly identical. All those settings are then, are means of determining NPC agendas and bits and pieces of scenery that may or may not actually affect the players’ trajectories.

Admittedly I am guilty of grotesque generalisation here, as suits my purpose. In spite of my curmudgeonly moaning I love many of the settings being produced in the OSR community at the moment. I am just interested in seeing if it isn’t possible to present a different way of enabling a rich and fascinating setting environment primarily by messing with the basics.

Which is all really just a lengthy preamble to my own ongoing project in which I endeavour to reduce the megadungeon setting presentation to a series of random tables, menus and lists. I’d like to produce a Middenmurk document which presents a fairly formulaic series of steps to generate a campaign.

I envisage something like this;

I. Generate Characters

II. Roll on Starting Village Table
– this will determine equipment and hirelings.

III. Roll on Fells Encounter Table(s) – journey through the wilderness

IV. Randomly Determine Dungeon Map (pre-stocked) – run through dungeon

V. Roll on Fells again – return journey

VI. Repeat ad nauseam

I’d like as much as possible to utilise equipment and encounter and treasure tables as the primary vehicles for the communication of setting fluff, whenever possible reducing description to a short and pithy paragraph as is my wont.

For Joesky:

Sabatons of Sir Fotherington Codsworthy

These cunningly wrought and fiendishly pointed pieces of foot armour were worn constantly by Sir Codsworthy throughout the 17th Crusade prior to his death of Mankfoot Fever following the Battle of Crodde. It is rumoured that the wearer can walk unharmed through Demon-Bile and skip across caltrops with impunity. They may also be used as a weapon against male creatures of manlike form, in which case they cause 1d12 damage and 1d4 rounds of extreme discomfort and incapacitation.

Price: 50 ducats


  1. I think it's definitely worth considering different ways of approaching things, whatever one feels about setting write-ups--and a think that the general consensus was that most setting books were overwritten.

    I'm interested to see where you go with this. My concern with a switch in form is that least a modicum of descriptive prose seems to me to be necessary for evocation. I worry that randomized charts and rules descriptions only would inevitably leech nuance to a degree from a setting. The fewer words used the easier communication is to misunderstand, and when it comes to mood and tone, too many charts and tables can easily become the worst offender of "telling" rather than "showing" (in the customary literary sense of this phrase).

    I'm perfectly happy to be proven wrong, though. :)

  2. I can see where you think I might be going a little extreme. I'm not going to try to cram everything into tables - the descriptions of magic items and equipment in various core rulebooks is more the form I am going to be leaning on.

    Re-reading the Gormenghast trilogy for the umpteenth time I am struck by how intricately glorious description can be. Peake luxuriates in descriptive prose but he sometimes also shows what can be done with a brief but perfectly formed metaphor. I often wonder what would be the result if Peake and Borges and Poe were to apply their talents to random tables for D&D.

  3. Awesome. Everything here is awesome. It's just.. well, dead. Come back and start posting again :(

    Cheap international calls

  4. I think your campaign ideas are more than worthy of further exploration and would love to see what other ideas you have up your sleeve. I only stumbled upon this blog recently and I am sad to see the lack of activity. At the very least what you have posted is very inspirational and has gotten my imagination running on all four cylinders.