Doyleist and Watsonian setting material for GMs and character-players

Continuing the discussion from Watsonian and Doyleist explanations:

The documents that describe the settings for SF and fantasy RPGs are sometimes presented as Doyleist documents such as can exist only in the universe that the designers, GMs, and other players live in. Taking an omniscient view, these often acknowledge the artifice, may mention game mechanics, and can state baldly and succinctly facts of the setting that are unknown or disputed within it, or that the characters (player and non-) cannot or will not acknowledge, or consider too basic obvious to ever state. They can make statements that no character in the setting would make to anyone else in the setting. This gives them a certain power of explicitness and succinctness.

In other instances designers attempt exposition of game settings by creating Watsonian documents, or transcripts or epitomes of Watsonian statements, such as some character in the setting would make to some other character in the setting. One example of this being done effectively was in a RuneQuest product, where the character generation procedures for each culture were each introduced by a column or so of “What My Priest Told Me” or “What My Shaman Told Me” or like text, in the voice of a young man of the culture justifying it to a stranger. These were effective in evoking cultural attitudes and so forth that would have been tedious to make explicit. Some of the weaknesses of their approach can be relieved by adding carefully-composed illustrations, which have the advantage of clearly but tactily conveying much that no speaker in the Watsonian mode would ever explain to anyone he or she might address¹.

One of the strengths of the Watsonian presentation is that it makes it easy to preserve ambiguities and withhold mysteries. I don’t think that that is a good idea in the material that GMs have to use, and I have several times been distinctly annoyed when GMing by designers who thought fit to do it. In material intended for the character-players, however, there is a fit and proper place for ambiguity mystery. I think the uses of such mystery and ambiguity are different for the information that character-players are going to need in the writers-room mode (e.g. when designing their characters) from that they are going to need in character. One of my friends wrote in the briefing for his fantasy setting, concerning Elvish religion “…it is unclear whether or not interventions² occur, what sort of formal ceremonies pertain, and what places of worship are like.” Very soon one of the character players decided to play an elf who was a follower of the exemplar of prowess at arms (sword) aiming to become an avatar³, and the specifics artistically concealed had to be provided.

Now, I designed my veteran SF setting, Flat Black, to accommodate series of adventures that should consist of cosmopolitan⁴ characters visiting parochial planets that striving to fathom, negotiate, and take advantage of their bizarre customs and perverse governments. In such a context it would not be realistic for the PCs to have no information about the worlds that make up the setting — there ought to be encyclopaedias and perhaps a Popular Revised Handbook of the Planets, perhaps a concourse of worlds at the Connatic’s Palace on Numenes. On the other hand, if the briefing materials always made the unstated fundamentals and the obscure wrinkles all explicit the charm of the adventures themselves would be dissipated. Nor is it fair nor acceptable to suppose again and again that the relevant details were in the ream of material that the characters had opportunity and motive to read on the liner but that were to copious for the designer to write or for the players to read. Therefore we seek to deal with the incommunicable experience that anthropological analyses cannot convey, and perhaps with documents in which the relevant Dr Watson could not for political or commercial reasons, or in decency, commit to print in public.

In the first Flat Black campaign I gave the character-players leave to design the planets of their characters’ origins using the ForeSight planet and society generators — all but one preferred to be vague. The PCs were Imperial servants visiting planets seriatim in the course of their official duties, and had access to the Colonial Office System Briefs (of which I supplied the executive summaries). The catch was that diplomatic constraints precluded the Empire from printing what it actually thought about any of the planets. Some of the players had fun becoming adept at reading between the diplomatic niceties.

In the second campaign the PCs were private citizens without access to the Empire’s internal documents. Some of the adventures involved exploring the seamy sides of a single, profusely multi-planet, system that the players knew well from the previous campaign and that did not need a briefing. In the cases of others I had fun writing extracts from generation-old travelogues, humorous compendiums of trenchant or ponderous wit, promotional copy, etc. part of the fun for the players (I hoped) was to read the descriptions of a python, a stand of trees, and a rope — and then to go to the place and see the elephant.

Opine, gamers! What voice and viewpoint do you prefer that setting material be presented in for its various uses? How can these be combined for economy?

¹ Though Dr Watson often mentioned, for instance, “hansoms cabs”, he never bothered to describe how they differed from four-wheelers, dog-carts, and carriages. That’s probably because Dr Doyle never expected his Holmes stories to survive into a time in which those things were unfamiliar to the readers. And in my view that is fortunate: SF and even much fantasy is often badly marred by clumsy exposition of how commonplaces of the setting work and perform.

² The setting was designed for, and my friend ran his campaigns using, HindSight, in which “interventions” are the game mechanic intended to serve the role that rune magic does in RuneQuest.

³ A runelord, approximately.

⁴ That’s the idea, but some players have sometimes been so taken with quirky societies in the setting that they have heard about that they wanted to play fish-out-of-water situations in which a PC’s bizarre attitudes and preconceptions juxtaposed vividly with the cosmopolitan interstellar culture as much as with the differently strange heterotopias that adventures too them to. For instance, one fellow was very keen to play a one-on-one campaign about a reb from Nahal going through Imperial Marines officer training.

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One of the reasons I didn’t get into the World of Darkness when it first came out was that everything was presented in an in-universe style. Sure, great for atmosphere, but if I’m going to run this game I need to know either the truth or at the very least the list of things that the truth might potentially be. I think that may be a useful compromise: the individual GM makes a choice for their campaign, but published supplements promise not to narrow it down further than a certain parameter space.

I think the modern style of SF, that just tells a story and lets the reader work out from context what the miracles are, may be more work to read but feels less artificial. (Frankly I’m quite happy with an “encyclopaedia article” at the start saying that the teleport gate was invented in 2110 and has now replaced all non-leisure vehicles; it starts to feel more artificial again if all the inhabitants of the world know something, but the reader doesn’t.)

For Flat Black specifically it seems to me that you’ve got a lot of worlds and not an infinite supply of researchers; the Encyclopaedia of the Planets probably puts in whatever that planet’s PR division wants it to say: it won’t blatantly lie, but it will put things in the best possible light. In the Imperial context, if a discrepancy shows up between the official view and reports from visitors, that’s probably a reason a bunch of PCs get sent to investigate.

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One of the finalists for the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Hall of Fame award this year is Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes. I ranked it dead last, after No Award. There were a lot of things I didn’t like about it, but one big one was what I saw as a shortcoming as SF: There is a good bit of exposition of what the planet where it takes place is like, and it’s presented in first person, but it’s entirely addressed to point that a twentieth century American would need to know (which seems Doylist), and does not seem to consider either what the protagonist would be likely to think his anticipated future readers would need to know, or what he would find so obvious as to need no explanation (which I think would be Watsonian). That seems to me to be a major failure at Campbellian implied exposition.

As a GM, I’ve often had to do filling in of details and even major world features in a fictional source that I was adapting, which were not relevant to the purposes of that source’s creator. For example, when I ran a campaign set in the world of Atlas Shrugged ten years later, I needed to account for some peculiarities of that world—the countries outside the United States being bitterly poor People’s States, and the technological and industrial base being that of the 1930s despite an implied future date. I concluded that the United States had stayed out of World War II, leaving the rest of the world to fight to a standstill, followed by communists stepping into the power vacuum. This was not a thing that the author thought of addressing, but I needed to know what was going to happen in North America after the national government collapsed, which turned on the state of the rest of the world.

So anyway, I don’t necessarily have a problem with being left to decide for myself what imagined realities lie behind a narrative surface. The point where a game fails for me is rather its providing only a narrative surface and making it clear that there is no substantial reality behind it. A friend once lent me his copy of Feng Shui (I was doing something that made it relevant, but I no longer remember what), and its setting was so obviously a set of sound stages that I could not even imagine turning it into a game world I could make sense of.

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Yes, this particular angle is one that many authors don’t seem to think of. If the narrative is something that nominally exists in its own world (a diary, a mission report, or even a first-person narration), then it should make sense in those terms as well as in terms of telling the story to the reader. One example of this is Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree; in the manner of Brat Farrar, the story is of someone impersonating a missing heir, but it’s told in first person as her own experiences; and she has no reason, in this personal account, to leave out the things that have to be left out to make the mystery work.

I’ll admit that I got more of a feeling of “nothing behind the flats” about World of Darkness than Bill clearly did (because he’s run games in that setting, and I never felt I had enough of a handle on it). Then again, in the Doctor Who game I was running last night, I narrated “another seaside village, and not in any way the last one with the sets painted a different colour”.

(Side note: why are the writers of adventures for the Cubicle 7 Doctor Who game so curst reluctant to include maps?)

This is where we get into metaplot, and its cheaper cousin expansion creep. In the traditional publishing model of core book covering the whole world plus supplements covering specific areas, there’s the risk to an early adopter that one’s campaign will become incompatible with later published developments of the game world. And obviously one can go off and say “this is Roger’s version of the Torg universe” or whatever, but if one started running the game because one liked the world as published…


Even Tolkien fell afoul of that one! The Lord of the Rings is said to be based on Frodo Baggins’s and Sam Gamgee’s additions to Bilbo Baggins’s narrative of his great adventure, supplemented by accounts of what they were told by the rest of the Fellowship. But early on there is a passage where we are told what a passing fox thinks about Frodo, Pippin, and Sam sleeping out of doors, even though Frodo is not Speaker-to-Foxes.

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My favourite example of this being done well is in perhaps my favourite novel, The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault. It is set in Athens and the Aegean between 429 BC and 404 BC, and is told in first person as the account of his early life that the narrator wrote for his sons a generation after the events. Although the setting is an alien one to the modern reader the writer does an excellent job of describing it by indirect exposition without (so far as I ever noticed) including anything that the narrator would not have to tell Athenians of the 380s BC.

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I’ve read an account of Kipling as a pioneer in indirect exposition: not only in his science fiction stories (though there’s a brilliant example in “As Easy as A.B.C.”) but in describing the cultures of India for British readers.

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I don’t worry about that with metaplot. Once I run the first session of a campaign, it’s my setting, and the game publisher has no say about how things work in my universe. They’re my servants, not my masters.


There’s a cost to the late adopter too, in that a series of such “expansions” produces a body of setting description that is disorganised, contradictory, and difficult to approach. Imagine for example a campaign document describing Europe in which the main book described the status quo in the summer of 1937, the “Spain” expansion described Spain in summer 1938, “Britain” summer 1939, “Poland” summer 1940, “France”” summer 1941, “USSR” summer 1942, “Italy” summer 1943, “Hungary” summer 1944, “Germany” summer 1945, and “Austria” summer 1946. You might be able to piece together a political and military narrative by reading the entire corpus in publication order, but that’s a hell of a way to prepare for character generation for, say, a campaign about being a police detective in Hastings or a wainscot magician in London in the Blitz. London in the Blitz would not be described. As for using the series for reference, the “France” book would tell you that Frances was occupied by Germans troops, the “Germany” book would tell you that Germany was occupied by the Allies.

Complaining about the vague and scattered presentation in Traveller of information about its official setting I was once told by a coterie of Traveller fans that “there is no Royal Road to Traveller”. But there ought to be: every GM needs one. A setting detail (especially a significant one) that you can’t find when you need it is useless at best.

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Oh, you’ve tried to run 7th Sea then? (Its not-France had a revolution…)

I think, harking back to last month’s podcast, that that was one of the reasons for Megatraveller and New Era: a way of making the setting more approachable and not requiring you to read a bunch of booklets and small-print-run fanzines to get the vital facts. I tend to feel the same way about Glorantha; it’s fine if you were there from the start and you gradually accrued this stuff, but to a new player there’s a hell of a lot to pick up and no obvious handle.

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Well put.

10 characters

And for Americans! His stories were popular in the USA, and he settled there from 1892 until 1896. The Jungle Books were written on a farm in Vermont.

I have some sort of recollection of either reading or being told that Kipling’s use of indirect exposition in Kim &c. was an admitted influence on Robert Heinlein. Do you know whether Heinlein said as much?

I don’t know about Kim, though I’m confident that RAH had read Kim; the Renshawing scenes in Citizen of the Galaxy are very close to Kim’s training in memory from Lurgan Sahib. I wrote about Kipling as a pioneer in this technique some years ago to Eric S. Raymond, in response to a piece of his discussing Heinlein’s early mastery of it, and he blogged about the idea. But, again, I didn’t have direct evidence that Heinlein had read Kipling’s SF.

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As for that, what I’ve run games in is Mage: The Ascension. One of the first things I decided was that there would be no vampires, werewolves, changelings, or wraiths. I didn’t want to deal with all the extra and contradictory lore in those series! So in a sense this wasn’t a “World of Darkness” campaign, but a Mage-by-itself campaign. (If I ever run Wraith, I’m similarly going to exclude mages.)

In my second campaign, I also did some tweaking of the Spheres assigned to the Traditions. I gave Forces to the Sons of Ether (since light, electricity, and magnetism all seem to be Forces) and Matter to the Order of Hermes (based on their adherence to the classical four elements); and I gave Mind to the Cult of Ecstacy and Time to the Akashic Brotherhood (both because the Akashic Records seem to persist through time, and because timing is crucial to the martial arts).

In other words, I was taking hints in the published material and constructing my own model of the underlying reality.

I should also note that I consistently chose to disregard all the stuff about the Nephandi. It didn’t seem to me that the idea of mages or spirits that were inherently Evil with a capital E could be reconciled with radical subjectivism (a thing I also disliked about the treatment of Chaos in the Gloranthan material); I preferred to think of the downward path as a manifestation of Entropy. And really the Nephandi seemed too much like old-style stage villains.

What gave Mage substance for me, I think, was ultimately the elaborately worked out historical material, including the different Traditions, Conventions, and Crafts and their opinions of each other.

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I think both Nephandi and Chaos are there at least in part to promote uncomfortable alliances. “We of A hate B, but we can both agree that C is a much bigger threat to both of us.”

I find this more interesting when C is “the C-ish tendency in A plus the C-ish tendency in B”.

I’m doing something a little like that in Tapestry. Each race has, on one hand, its path of trade and cultural exchange with other races, and on the other, its path of seeking to dominate, exclude, or exterminate them. But each race also has its own distinct way of being exclusive: dwarves hoard their wealth in their own caverns, elves domesticate and breed other races, selkies conduct pirate raids, and so on.

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Intrigue affords more possibilities for individuals than open war does. War against intolerable and incorrigible evil affords fewest of all.