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.