Unfinished business from ep. 4 — the GM as world-builder

To kill time while I am waiting for the 1st of September to dawn in your benighted isles, I have been listening to an old episode — Episode 4 (I think) In Space. In this episode, at about the 47:58 mark, the learned Doctor Cule noted, correctly I believe, that the sages “probably ought to do something about designing your own setting for all sorts of games”.

It used to be assumed that GMs would design their own “milieux”, perhaps by rolling on the tables provided. There was even a stage in the Eighties when it seemed to game designers not absurd to publish generic rules sets for the use of GMs who were going to strike out into unexplored genres and posit their own very individual high-concept games. What of that?

I started GMing when the model was “roll the dice to populate your own dungeon.” In fact I remember reading the very first edition of Blackmoor, a significant part of which was a ready-to-use dungeon, and not understanding why it was there. It was so obviously “give a man a fish” when the previous material had been “teach a man to fish.” I suppose I could have studied it analytically and figured out how it had been created, but it didn’t provide any commentary to help such an analysis. And I just didn’t understand that I was actually supposed to run an adventure in this setting someone else had made up.

Looking over my Historia Ludica, I see thirteen campaigns that I ran in published game settings; eleven that I ran in adaptations of published works (one of which, Uplift, was also a published game setting); and fourteen that I ran in settings of my own creation (one of which, Worminghall, had been published not long before by Steve Jackson Games). Then there was the Toon series, which had no “setting,” being an anthology format with each session featuring two nonrecurrent settings, genres, and scenarios, the way classic Warner Brothers cartoon shows used to. Probably the oddest cases were Gods and Monsters, which was inspired by Planetary, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Wold Newton corpus, and was sort of an “adaptation” of a large part of the popular literature and film of the years from 1880 to 1945; and The Foam of Perilous Seas, which was set on the Pearl Bright Ocean of GURPS Cabal but in which almost all the geography and politics were my own inventions.

Unexplored genres? Well, when I ran Spindrift Revisited, no one had published a game for classic juvenile series like Tom Swift or Nancy Drew. Whose Woods These Are had all the PCs as real people caught up in an illusory world that was actually the size of an American small town; in fact, I had come up with a different explanation for each of the PCs for what the “real world” was like and how the false world came to be created, and which one turned out to be the truth was based on which PC woke up. Gods and Monsters grew out of my asking what genre Planetary and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were, and Ken Hite saying that they were pulp. I suppose each of those counts as an unexplored genre in terms of what games were available then, or at least of what games I had encountered.

I really, truly don’t understand the prevalence of games or campaigns that use published adventures or campaigns. Oh, once in a while, with something exceptionally good; I was happy with Griffin Mountain, which I used for my first RuneQuest campaign, and with Midnight Circus, a World of Darkness supplement that I adapted into a scenario for my DC Heroes campaign, and I’ve offered to run Beyond the Mountains of Madness. But I don’t normally find “campaign” material as interesting as what I can come up with on an afternoon walk.

The thing is, the early stuff wasn’t so much “teach a man to fish” as it was “hand a man a fishing rod and a collection of lures.” Even the D&D Expert rules didn’t really do much to actually help newbies create their own worlds; Traveller certainly didn’t walk you through the process, which I think is why the Third Imperium gained so much traction with the fan base - the early adopters who didn’t have the knack for building their own worlds just went with the de facto setting that was being developed in the Adventures.

I want to say it wasn’t until the late 80s or early 90s that we saw actual advice in the games on designing your own world.

I don’t think that’s quite valid. Yes, it’s true that original D&D didn’t teach you to build a world, but that wasn’t even a goal of original D&D. What was aimed at was an area where you could wander around having adventures. That’s really all that Blackmoor was, for example. There was no suggestion that it existed in a coherent world—not even one as coherent as the lands Conan the barbarian wandered through.

It remained the case for a long time that game worlds were fairly random places. D&D “wildernesses” were rolled randomly; Traveller planets were rolled randomly; Villains and Vigilantes sent you up against randomly rolled supervillains. There are still vestiges of this in current games; consider, for example, the scientifically sophisticated rules in GURPS Space, which end up giving you a random solar system (which may or may not have an earthlike planet) and a random sapient race (whose anatomy may or may not make any sense). And the same was true of character creation: D&D, Traveller, Villains and Vigilantes, RuneQuest, even Call of Cthulhu all told you to “roll up a character” and then figure out how to play it. The model where you come up with a concept and use the rules to express the concept showed up later. So the lack of advice on how to design your own world from a concept was a reflection of how people thought about RPGs in general.

What baffles me, though, isn’t so much the idea not knowing how to build your own world, but the idea of not knowing how to design your own adventures. I just have never used published adventures to any significant degree. I didn’t know, for example, that Traveller was developing a de facto setting in the published adventures, because it never occurred to me even to look at those adventures; in fact I was barely aware that they existed. And part of it is that I had a limited budget and buying published adventures would have been a huge money sink, and one where each purchase was useful once or maybe twice, whereas buying a genre book or a toolkit book or a gear catalog gave me a lastingly useful resource.

À chacun son gout, as the lady said when she kissed the cow. . . .

That is pretty good, but when I ran it, the players found an way to turn it into an entirely different adventure. I ran with that, because it was a better one.

Yeah, that makes sense. BMM made me a little uneasy, because I could see the rails so easily; I wasn’t sure how well it would work if it came into contact with players.

I think a lot of what we talk about is about designing one’s own setting. Though there are some things we haven’t said yet. (Makes notes.)

@whswhs, I notice that GURPS Dungeon Fantasy pretty much says that worldbuilding isn’t needed for that style of game - if you want The Town simply as a place to take breaks from bashing dungeons, and nothing bigger, that can be achieved.

Though at least the latest iteration of GURPS Space lets you start by bodging the planet you want, and can then give you a random solar system round it.

As I suggested in the most recent episode, I’ve never been in the situation where adventures were coming out faster than I could run them – and I wouldn’t expect to be, unless I were running Pathfinder or some other hugely popular game. (All right, I didn’t run off the end of the Torg adventures during my recent run of them, I just got really annoyed with how bad they were (especially Operation Hard Sell) and ended that campaign.) So basically I’ve always expected to have to write my own adventures. I played or ran quite a few of the AD&D modules in the 1980s – the G/D/Q and A series, I3-5, S3 – but never got a strong feeling that they were any better than the things I was writing myself, and in any case they were dropped into existing campaigns rather than having characters generated especially for them.

Of my recent campaigns, I’ve run some games in other people’s worlds (Reign of Steel, Madness Dossier), some in the real world (which is as restrictive as a published world in some respects, but lets me do whatever I want with any weird additions) and some in entirely invented worlds.

That’s true for me as well, but I also run a lot of campaigns in worlds from novels, films, television series, and graphic novels, or in alternate universe versions of such worlds. That can lead to interesting adaptations of rules: I ran a campaign in Zimiamvia using Amber Diceless, one in Middle-Earth using Big Eyes Small Mouth (curiously, the animistic assumptions were a close fit to Tolkien’s vision), and one on the Discworld using FUDGE. It’s rare that I use a published adaptation, though I was really happy with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer rpg.

Buffy is a notable success for Eden’s system.

I found the d20 adaptation of Babylon 5 particularly good in its second edition.