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Too Defined A Setting Can Prevent Player Creativity

Posted By John Arcadian On May 18, 2009 @ 3:41 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

My current play group, wherein I’m playing and not GMing, is doing an old school World of Darkness game. Its fun. Its enjoyable. It has 2 major problems. Most of the players are all old school World of Darkness experts. Two of us (myself included) are not, but are full of interesting ideas. This dichotomy of purpose causes our group to constantly come across instances of “It doesn’t work that way” or “According to this thing in this sidebook, they wouldn’t do that”.

This causes our games to run less like a group playing a game, and more like a library study-group. Most of the players have their noses buried in one splatbook or another, trying to figure out if their character action would be relevant to their group, or trying to find out where the nearest Cairn or Chantry would be. The rest of us wonder if its going to be important in an hour, and question whether the name or exact location will even be remembered or matter.  Issues are also encountered when a player tries to do something in a unique way, or has a really good idea, but gets shot down because of some piece of flavor text. I watched this happen to both the inexperienced players and the W.o.D. experts alike.

In essence, the ultra detailed nature of the setting prevented the players, even the ones embracing the ultra-detail, from laying their own interpretation onto the game being played at the table. The desire to game in a detailed and realistic world prevented the players from doing cool things with their characters.


The Company Owned Setting

Ultra-detail isn’t a problem that is limited to old school World of Darkness. It’s present in almost any setting that is popular enough to generate splatbooks. Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance were also fairly large offenders in my role-playing youth. Eberron can be particularly bad as well. I dare say that Monte Cook’s excellent Ptolus is the epitome of ultra-detail. I’m sure you can name many more settings that have as much detail. Thing is,  I love all of these settings and games.

Any game company with a popular setting is going to try to build on it and produce as much material as they can. Designers usually can’t wait to get the first book out the door so that they can start producing supplements. The first book has to be fairly generic by its nature. The rest are where the designer can lovingly craft the detail that they really want to bring out of the world. And splatbooks make money. Moreso than the initial book in a setting or the rulebook. They’re usually slimmer, need less design time and are more in the hands of the developers than at the whims of the game system.

Every splatbook, unless its billed as just flavor, has to offer something mechanical for the players. New rules, new classes, new powers and new shiny items to give people a reason to buy it. Official options for a necromancer knight are written into the new classes. New items that have great powers are posited. Game balance goes a little wonky, but new fun things are provided. Little dark corners of the world are filled in and more than the paragraph in the main book is devoted to specific groups or options.

The GM’s Home-Brew Setting
Issues of ultra-detail aren’t limited to official supplements and company settings. Home brewed settings can be as detailed and restrictive. Many Game Masters work on their lovingly crafted worlds, developing the smallest details of the symbols of a particular group, the economic factors of a particular land or the mechanical complexities of a newly created class. Lord knows I’ve created a few of these worlds myself. These floods of detail in a home-made world setting can create an incredibly immersive sandbox for the players to run around in, or turn players into the puppets of a control fiend Game Master. That’s a worst case-scenario.

The big issue with ultra-detail in home-brew settings is whether the players have access to all the necessary information or not. If the social mores of a Game Master created culture are only written down on a piece of notebook paper that is buried in a folder somewhere, but fresh in the Game Masters mind, then the players are going to have some trouble understanding why shaking the hand of the elven ambassador landed them in jail. Even when they all have ranks in Culture (Elven).

Thankfully, the wonders of technology provide ways to give all players access to a Game Master’s lovingly crafted and detailed world. Wikis, the ease of creating and sharing electronic documents and online services like Obsidian Portal and Epic Words can all provide players with the necessary information that splatbooks and supplements provide for published settings.

In Reality, It’s About The Group And The Play-style
It seems to me like I’ve talked about ultra-detail and never really said that its bad. That’s because it isn’t. IT ISN’T ABOUT HOW DEFINED OR DETAILED THE SETTING IS. Its about how the group interprets it and plays it out.  If the group sticks to the canon without deviation, it can kill creativity. If the group uses the detail of the canon to support or flesh out character choices and provide a lush background, it enhances creativity. White wolf has been incredibly good about telling players to break the mold of their world and do whatever you want with it. This is written somewhere in every WW book, but I like the way that Will Hindmarch says it:  “ ‘Here’s your guide to the game world,’ he says, ‘and here’s your box of matches.’ ” And I’ve seen something similar in almost every other roleplaying book I’ve read in-depth. Somewhere, someone says “Hey, do what you want at your table.”

In the end its about what your group wants. I know my group when it comes to World of Darkness. I know before getting into the game that they love them some canon. I resign myself  to having long periods of time while people look things up in books. I bring my laptop. I also enjoy it when we get to take out the big bad, or the uber-organization and get to look in the book and see the exact impact we had on the well-defined world. There is something incredibly satisfying about saying you took out Pentax, as opposed to taking out that evil corporation that you didn’t really know that much about, except that they were evil and the Game Master said they were really powerful.

In a previous Eberron game that I ran, it was really satisfying for my group to take out the Lord of Blades and wage civil war in house Cannith, even though I ran the Lord of Blades and house Cannith nothing like the written supplements said.  I incorporated elements from the books, and then molded them to fit the game that my players were playing.  Having the supplements and information around was what made the game epic to them. Knowing they were affecting a world that was ultra detailed was what gave it that extra flavor.

Ultra-detail has its pros and it has its cons. Its all in how you use it at the table. So, what experiences have you had with ultra-detailed settings? Have they helped or hindered your play? Have they done both?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Too Defined A Setting Can Prevent Player Creativity"

#1 Comment By Razjah On May 18, 2009 @ 7:29 am

I had a GM run an Eberron campaign while mixing in horror features. It would have been cool, but he was so into the detail of Eberron and the million little things that the book has that we were prevented from doing what we wnated. Also we did get railroaded by the “illusion of choice” as he called it, but we were so lost in the new setting with only one book and no access to the splatbooks getting thrown at us. The ultra design done by both the Eberron makers and the GM led to most of the group playing on laptops while three people actually did things.

#2 Comment By Starvosk On May 18, 2009 @ 9:01 am

I’ve run into this problem before, and quite frankly, you’re targeting the wrong thing here. People have all enjoyed and creatively participated in highly detailed settings WITHOUT these problems.

What it comes down to is if your DM sucks. You can rules lawyer in many different ways, and one favorite ways is through fluff. Throwing out ‘in-game’ or ‘fluff’ explanations to stymy DM and character actions/freedom is just as bad as wielding rules as a bludgeon to get your own way.

The solution here is to not nitpick at settins and blame designers, but rather for the offenders to loosen up and stop being so controlling.

Control freaks will use any avenues/lines of attack available to them to get what they want. The solution isn’t to strip away their tools, but rather to address the people themselves directly, and get them to change their attitude. If it’s not the setting, it’ll be the rules, and if it’s not the rules, it’ll be something petty like food choice or playing location. The end result is that these people must change or you must change people.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 18, 2009 @ 9:29 am

Finding the right mix of player knowledge vs. character knowledge can also be a factor in this kind of thing.

In any gaming environment, it’s really up to everyone — players and DMs — to obsess over the fun, rather than the details.

But it sure is easy to fall into that particular 10foot pit trap.

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 18, 2009 @ 9:49 am

We covered a relative of this topic in Star Wars Should Die in a Fire, and I have to say, you’re hitting the nail on the head on a couple things:

-It can happen anywhere: Every setting that someone has a high level of interest in, someone knows more details than someone else and doesn’t want their vision of it invalidated.

-If it works for your group, it’s not a problem: If everyone is a buff and wants the cannon upheld, go for it. OTOH, if you’ve got guys inspecting their navel cause they just couldn’t give a crap about the minute detail, it might behoove your GM to ask questions on details they’re not sure of before the game via e-mail etc… and your group to debate cannon after the game instead of holding it up.

@Starvosk –
Play nice man. Even if a GM makes a mistake in an area or two (and lord knows, we ALL do), that doesn’t mean they suck as a GM. Heck, the GM in question is very likely a good friend of John’s. Of course, that doesn’t mean criticsm isn’t appreciated, but try to cite specific issues like “Your GM could handle this situation better by …” rather than blanket hurtful statements. After all, the rest of your comment was actually pretty good advice, but as you can see, the part that really caught my eye was three particular words, and it stole the focus off your otherwise excellent advice.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On May 18, 2009 @ 9:59 am

@Razjah – You’re right in saying that the Ultra design done by both the designers and GM is what led to the issues. Its all about what the Game Master does with the information they are given. I like the ultra-detail of Eberron, but that’s because I’m not afraid to mangle a world setting to my heart’s content. While they do Ultra detail, they also tend to leave a lot of things open in Eberron. My example would be the lord of blades. While they detail a lot of things about him system wise, they didn’t get into who or what he actually was until later, and then they let the Game Masters throw some interpretation in there. I know my Lord of Blades was very ill-defined, and only came up when it became important to interact with the players.

@Starvosk – Yup. It isn’t about how defined the setting is, It’s about how the group interprets it and plays it out. While I purposefully took the line of picking at the ultra-detail of settings, the game that is played at the table can be whatever the players and Game Master want. However, everyone sits down and starts to play within the framework of the game. If you’ve already got stats and descriptions for every member of a particular organization, then its hard to play the character who doesn’t quite fit in, or plays against type. I.e. The gangrel businessman who buys land and prevents it from being developed. If the game is seen as a hammer, then everything looks like nails.

I like Alton brown’s approach to using tools. Nothing should be a uni-tasker, even the fire extinguisher. The detail of a setting can be something to build off of, or it can fence people into non-deviation.

@Troy E. Taylor – “In any gaming environment, it’s really up to everyone — players and DMs — to obsess over the fun, rather than the details. ” I love that quote.

@Matthew J. Neagley – After I read this today I realized how similar it was to The Concept of A Star War’s RPG should die in a fire. Star wars is one of those settings that has ultra detail that can limit players, but also ultra detail that can help people out. I’ve only had experience with the old West End Star Wars, and I’d have to say that I think that Star Wars game does the ultra detail right in a lot of ways. Attention to things the players can use, as opposed to types the players should play. As far as the new D20, I’ve only glanced through it and never played it, so I can’t say.

#6 Comment By drow On May 18, 2009 @ 10:08 am

i can hardly describe how completely, magnificently awry my eberron campaign went from the published material. which is how it should be.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On May 18, 2009 @ 11:13 am

Detail can be very tricky; our last “Forgotten Realms” game was marked by our GM not having read many of the materials– in fact, other than using the maps, I suspect few people would recognize the Realms in our game.

That all worked out fine– and is the model I’d use as much as possible. Extra information is great for mining backstory ideas and providing the GM with extra sinister groups– but players rarely “do the homework” to really master the setting.

Speaking of which, that’s one of the real impediments to playing in a truly foreign setting– like anything based on historical Japan for my group. There’s too much to learn for it to feel right– and the three people who did the homework would be annoyed at the three who’d just kick down the door.

#8 Comment By LordVreeg On May 18, 2009 @ 11:48 am

Actually, While Starvosk may be being a tad blunt, he’s got something right though I would have said it differently. It also looks like he’s had his share of problem players, since it sounds like his point can be boiled down to, “mediocre-minded players will find metagame methods to get what they want, communicate with them to get them on the same page or get rid of them.”

and as you said, it is not the detail itself that is really the problem, it is matching the style of play desired and the players.

1st off, in your particular WoD situation, I would take the non-canonically inclined and hook their backstory up with some obscure, possibly GM created side guild/group/story to match your play style in an effort to bring your involvement up to a more equal level. Anytime players are surfing the web or reading splatbooks regularly while playing something is wrong.

Detail is merely a tool and a motivator. It creates verisimilitude and often defines the maximum immersion level. It sets parameters and threat levels, it gives the PC’s something to push back against.

I think I could claim a detail-heavy setting, and it has run for over 25 years. http://celtricia.pbworks.com/FrontPage

(I’m going to find the topic Matthew is referencing…’Star Wars Should Die in a Fire’ sounds too good to miss!)

#9 Comment By John Arcadian On May 18, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

@drow – Right on! I remember a whole session in one of our Eberron games that revolved around someone spending all day in the Talentia planes trying to get a V.I.N. (Velociraptor Identification Number) for the new clawfoot he just bought. I’m fairly sure that was never conceived by the creator. Although, geeks and their humor . . .

@Scott Martin – Foreign settings are hard. My recent experience with a different culture worked well because it was a one on one game. I don’t think the game would have gone as well with more players. The more players there are, the harder it is to keep everyone on the same page.

@LordVreeg Matthew’s incredible article is here. It is teh awesome, as they say. It is also quite an animated discussion.

Starvosk is right that “mediocre-minded players will find metagame methods to get what they want, communicate with them to get them on the same page or get rid of them.”, but that definitely isn’t the way my group is, so far. It’s more a sin of omission, a failure to realize that what is fun for some is not fun for all. It is still a fun game, just fun in different ways. It also provides fun for the more chaotic of us two non-ultra W.O.D.ers (the other guy) to break the molds whenever possible.

I’m curious. In the 25 years of playing, how much input goes from the players back into the setting? This is the key problem with ultra-detail settings, I think. The ultra-detail controls the players, not the other way around.

#10 Comment By LordVreeg On May 18, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

John,
One of the biggest changes I made as a GM has been in changing it from ‘my game’ to ‘our game’. I run 2 live groups and one online group (in fits and starts lately, honestly on the online dept) in Celtricia right now, and much of this comes from what I consider ‘synergistic GMing’.

When I started with this campaign setting, I had no idea how long it was going to go on for. I hated most of the rule systems of the time, and the game I wanted to play required rules with more social interaction needed. Long story short, I found that the more I opened up the rules to player involvement, the players enjoyed it more. And by channeling my creative juices into the areas and details of the game the players were gravitating towards, they get more excited.
More and more of them join the Bardic Guilds? I do more work on instruments and mentalist magic. They latch onto the renegade ‘Alternative School of Magic?’?. Fine, I work up the history of that more and accentuate the conflicts.
The development of details should be based on the directions the players want to go into. The negates railroading and excites the players, making it into ‘Our Game’. Even in a canned setting, if the Players start to latch onto something, it should be fleshed out and accentuated.
I think all of us have had that experience of having their PC’s latch onto a ‘throwaway’ NPC and have to flesh out that NPC, and then the PC’s sometimes make the former ‘throwaway’ a staple of the setting. That’s the approach I like to take with everything.

This city below started as a port a group of PC’s passed through while escaping the mainland. It was never supposed to be anything important. It just happenned to become the main playing area for my most rabid group.
http://celtricia.pbworks.com/Igbar,+Capital+of+Trabler

I hope that is a worthy answer.

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On May 18, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

@LordVreeg – That is definitely a worthy answer. I kind of figured that was the answer. I’m sure each new iteration of D&D changes not just the rules, but the setting based on player input. 4e introduced Warforged, Tieflings and Dragonborn as playable races. I can’t count the number of groups that I’d seen using “monster” races in their games before that, or eberron races in their non-eberron games. 4e also removed the noble gnome though, *&^%$#@!!@#$%$#@#$%^&**&^%^&&^%$#@#$%^&. Achem. They brought it back, but only after much pressure from the true, loyal fans.

#12 Comment By LesInk On May 18, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

Just because it is defined, doesn’t mean you have to use it.

When I first started reading your article, I got this image of people looking at books all the time to confirm this or that RULE in a game, not really SETTING details. But it is basically the same. My recommendation: When the game starts to bog down, make it up and move on before cracking a book — for rules AND setting material.

As for the comment about the ‘bad DM’ above, I would provide a sideways viewpoint — the better the GM knows about the details, the better he can guide the group to make choices that stay in the realm. Now, this doesn’t mean the GM has to know it all, it just means that instead of running to a book, you can ask for a group consensis or ask the person in the group that does know the material best. All in all, the GM is expected to study and have a enough detail figured out at least for that game session.

I learned quickly when first playing D&D 3.0 that I had to stop looking for the rule that I knew existed somewhere and just make up an agreeable option with the caveat that the rule would be researched and possibly changed going forward.

Stay flexible, keep the pace of the game going, that’s what I say.

‘course, if everyone things grinding throw books is cool, well, who am I to stop them?

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 18, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

The quality of the GM definitely matters, but it’s also important that all the players be on the same page. If one player is the world’s biggest Forgotten Realms Fanboy, but the rest of the group is completely unfamiliar with the setting, then the GM can only do so much.

What is needed is a talk about expectations. Do you want an ultra-detailed setting that everyone’s very familiar with? Do you want to retell a story that’s already been told (a la Dragonlance)? Do you want to simply use some familiar elements to tell your own story? Or something entirely different? The group should talk about these things before gaming, or they might just end up writing articles about how a certain gaming franchise should die in a fire…

#14 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 18, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider
I totally have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m just grouchy because someone punched me in the seat.

#15 Comment By lyle.spade On May 19, 2009 @ 7:59 am

Starvosk: you’re dead on when you say that “What it comes down to is if your DM sucks.” A crummy DM — either from lack of prep to a too-rigid approach to story or rules — will ruin any game, any group, or any story.

#16 Comment By GiacomoArt On June 8, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

Anyone who has trouble with this might want to take a tip from the new Star Trek movie. Everyone knew that countless fans were just poised, waiting to hate the series re-boot for violating established canon, but the movie completely defanged them with two simple words: “alternate reality”.

As a game master, I’ve used that same technique for decades. I won’t start a campaign in an established setting without throwing in the caveat that anything they already “know” could be dead wrong. Whatever happens at the table is entirely between the GM and his players, and every campaign should be viewed as its own alternate reality.

Whether you’re talking about Cinderella or Batman, King Arthur or Captain Kirk, the stories and characters that endure for generations do so by constantly re-inventing themselves to meet the changing needs of their audience. Keep the essence, lose the canon.

#17 Comment By GiacomoArt On June 8, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

P.S.: I lost track of where this all started while I was pondering, but coming at this from a player’s perspective, I’d still ask the GM for a clear declaration that this was an alternate reality for the established setting, and that any outside canon obscure enough to provoke argument is too obscure to be canon. Anything less cheapens the role-playing experience by making it about the setting, not the PCs.


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