Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Preparation and the Origins of "The Game"

It's been far too long since I posted, and I have little excuse beyond a lack of coherent and useful thoughts, or maybe it's just a lack of belief that I have anything useful and original to say to you guys. I think maybe I need to set that attitude aside and just have some thoughts about gaming, period. I'll try harder.

Anyway, it's time to dust off the keyboard and put down a few words about something I read today.

My good friend +Adam Muszkiewicz, over at Dispatches from Kickassistan has written a thing about dynamic game preparation and aesthetics. Making a slight dig at +Donn Stroud, he said:
 I know there are DMs out there who do all this prep -- like, insane amounts of prep, right +Donn Stroud? -- and who seem to enjoy this sort of shit more than actually gaming. That's cool, whatever, write your novel. It won't help you at the table. And the table is where the game is, nowhere else. 
When he posted the blog, he also observed that it might be bullshit. It is, of a kind. He's also voiced similar thoughts to me, and in a recent Drink, Spin, Run podcast, with guest +Harley Stroh. Here's why this is bullshit.

I am one of those people, like Donn, who is somewhat fixated on preparation. I like to know the places I'm talking about at the table, as a GM. I like to have an idea who the factions are that inhabit these places. I like to know about some of the specific people who live in these places, and how they look, act, and think. I like to have some sense of how these places, things, and people might interact with the characters who encounter them. I like to know how the world in which the game takes place actually functions. I think this is something that Adam can appreciate. What he fails to recognize is that my method (extensive prep) leads to the same outcome as his method (intensive prep), and is necessary, not because I'm trying to write my long-awaited novel, but because that's how my brain works. The landscape for the game requires that my mind be engaged in some very specific ways, otherwise the inspiration must be drawn from elsewhere, and I simply don't have the depth of particular kinds of experience (in gaming, especially) that he does.

Where Adam and I differ is in terms of methodology, but even then I don't think we're so far apart. Adam preps, too, but it is possible that he doesn't recognize what he's doing as preparation, because it doesn't resemble what I do; and the level of detail I put into the sort of prep that I do may seem like more than it is, for someone who doesn't approach it this way. Let me give you an example.

Lately, when I have the time and inclination, I've been drawing a map of the city of Magyaru. The Magyaru in my mind has seven levels, rising from the sea and up the side of a great mountain. So far, I've mapped approximately on third of the lowest level, called Harbortown. There are roads and neighborhoods and buildings. I've probably drawn a couple hundred buildings. I plan to map the rest of it, as well, in time. Here's the thing. I'm doing this a prep for gaming, but not in the sense that I know what's in every building, or the name of every street, or even that I have specific ideas about how "The Game" is going to unfold; rather, it is preparation of my mind to be fertile in responding to what my players do at the table. I know a few of the people in this place (significant NPCs), the sorts of things they do, and what currently concerns them. I also have some ideas about the organization of the city into districts, and (to a very limited extent) neighborhoods. I also have some ideas about what's happening on larger scales, cultural and social.

For example, the design of the city means that there are open sewers on every level below the highest. They drain from east to west, into the river that marks the city's western boundary. Such a feature as an open sewer is, to put it bluntly, a shitty thing to have in your neighborhood. So, the neighborhoods along the length of such features are, necessarily, the worst of their kind, at least for the district. In the higher, more desirable districts, it's better than in the lower ones. In fact, the richest of the residents of Magyaru might have ways to abate the stench from the open sewers on their levels (e.g., hordes of slaves dumping quick lime into the canals). Not an ideal situation, but certainly better than those bastards down in Harbortown. This is a simple matter of political economy, but knowing this fact provides the city itself with a logic. It establishes it's flavor, its aesthetic. Here's a few ideas that spring from knowing this.

  • There are striking class differences in this city.
  • The very lay of the land underlines and accentuates these differences.
  • Those with more can use their money and influence to abate some of the worst things about the places where they live.
  • People obsess about those differences, so they (particularly the most prosperous) pay close attention to social comparisons with their nearest peers. This causes resentment and jealousy among them, and provides one of the many ways they mark (in a social sense) their place in their society.

Sure, these are pretty easy things to know about any city, in general, but by prepping in the way that I do, I know why and how they are that way, in particular, for this city. For me, as a GM, it makes my understanding of the city coherent in a way that not having that prep in place could not. As a result, I could, right now, this very instant, take a group of players and start playing a game. Based on who they are, and what their abilities are, I can present them with a range of options (adventure hooks), and away they go. Sure, I might have some idea about what is "supposed to happen," but it really doesn't matter if that thing happens. I know enough about this place and its people and institutions that I can "wing it." They players can introduce things into the picture through their actions and questions. If, for example, I need a merchant or a tavern, something like that, I can make one up or I can simply ask, "What's the tavern called? Who runs it? What kind of place is it?" Then, it becomes canon. I get to use it in other games.

So, it's not so much that I'm writing my novel, as Adam said (and I don't really think that was more than a playful jab at Donn, mind you), but that I'm working in my chosen profession. I was trained first as a sociologist, and then as a rhetorician. What unites my work in these fields is my interest in cultural production, change, and the like. So, on a micro level, I am interested in the lived experiences of specific human beings and how various aesthetics, social orders, relationships, etc., are made meaningful by and/or to them. Largely, this is about social orders and the semiological systems that accompany them. On a macro level, I am concerned with political economy, writ large, and how that political economy interacts with various sociocultural phenomena in particular social spaces. That is, I'm interested in how the Big Picture affects specific elements of the Little Picture.

I don't talk about that stuff at the table. More likely, if one of the players has a question about where they might find the notorious pirate queen, Red Varza, I would point them in the direction of The Groin, a district in Harbortown. It's called that because it lies between two large avenues (The Avenue of the Emperors and the Avenue of the Merchants), and these divide Harbortown. The Groin is a free-for-all kind of place serving both the Imperial presence in West Harbortown and the commercial-industrial presence in East Harbortown, and lies between the "legs" of the avenues (hence, the name). In addition, because of all of the trade entering Magyaru's harbor, from distant Ur-Hadad and places beyond, there is a strong maritime, transient population of merchant sailors, Imperial crews, smugglers, pirates, and so forth. This makes it a dynamic place, and (often) a violent and dangerous one. This means that there are those in the district who work very hard to establish and maintain criminal and commercial enterprises, to build, control, and destroy those enterprises, just to make a simple living, and so forth: a host of competing interests. However, those interests are knowable and have a logic to them, because I know the lay of the land, some things about its people and its visitors, and so forth. My growing map of Harbortown makes that possible for me to do, on the fly, because it's just Stuff That I Know about that place. That thinking is partly My Story, but more largely my understanding about such places, and how they ought to be, in a more flexible, logical sense.

I have similar thought processes with regard to factions in the city, and external relations with outlying districts and the natives peoples of this land. I write a lot of this stuff on index cards, color-coded by function (NPCs, places, factions, etc.), and (eventually) put them in Scrivener. The players, of course, in the guise of their characters, affect those people and factions, in ways small and large. I often incorporate, for example, new NPCs and places, and generally locate them where they seem "logically" to belong. Many of these new elements come out of game play. I write them down, they get put into the files, and they become "real" in some sense. These specifics don't, however, tend to change what is generally true of Magyaru, in the sense that shit doesn't change for most people, but can change very radically for very particular people, sometimes, with a little luck (good or bad). The world, as it is, continues to be very much how it is. Also, and this is where I think I must disagree with Adam, it's not because I already know The Story. This is not a novel. It is a real place where the game takes place. What happens at the table is important. It has consequences. It does not, however, change what the place is about or what kind of place it is. Maybe later, those consequences will become longterm facts of the place, but that's not resolved in the short term.

For example, I have  group of PCs hunting for Red Varza (notorious pirate queen) who is rumored to have pirated a missing treasure ship, which had been bound for Ur-Hadad before it went missing. Red Varza is an NPC who I came up with for a specific purpose: I needed pirates, so I named one. That one eventually because a woman, because why not. She became embroiled in this plot (with some local criminals AND a second group of PCs) to pirate the ship. The Imperial treasure ship was significant because some PCs had magicked a standing stone into gold, and the (22 tons of) gold was appropriated by the Imperials to be sent back to Ur-Hadad. These PCs wanted to get "their" gold back (Dammit!). Also, in the background, the native peoples are outraged by the desecration of their sacred henge, and have begun burning colonial villages; colonial troops have been sent to suppress them. Those last couple of True Things are because of specific actions of some PCs in my game world, and arose as a result of the logical (and unintended) consequences of their actions. But those outcomes are based on the way I prep the world. In my mind, it's a real place (Yes, I know it's not really real.), with real people. They have motivations, too, just as real as those of the PCs. The place where they live has a culture and a social order. Nobody gets to escape that, but they often try to. Occasionally some may rise or fall, but the Way of Things doesn't change.

The place I've described has been used for (at this point) six different groups of players, face to face, on G+ hangouts, at conventions, and even in the classroom. Every single thing that happened in those games, if it affected The World in some significant way, made it's way into my campaign. Each group's actions have the possibility of affecting the world, and other groups who play there. An example: The ongoing hunt for Red Varza is (put bluntly) one group of PCs hunting another group of PCs. It's entirely possible they might kill each other at some point. I can't write that shit, but I can prepare for it.

A final note: I think Adam preps just as diligently as I do. He may not recognize it as such. But when I hear him talk about Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, or Jack Kirby, or first edition Warhammer Fantasy, or that game I've never played, or that comic book I've never heard of, or any of the many, many wonderful things he discusses on a regular basis (and brings to his gaming tables), what I hear is him saying is, "This is how I prepare for my game." He doesn't go in naked. He's be preparing and training for this for decades. He remembers all this stuff, and he can pull it out as needed. He's a genius in this regard; I am trying to learn some of those chops. I don't have that experience. I've only been back in gaming since 2006, after being absent from it since about 1983. I do have other experience, though, and that experience drives my methods for game prep.

What's different between his method and mine has to do with inclination and training. I am inclined toward a systematic approach, because I need that to think things through. I also tend to forget the things that don't make sense in the system, or that don't get included in it, so I have to have a way to include them. I also am trained to think about societies and cultures as systems, and to have theories about how they function. I've read extensively in social and cultural theory, media studies, etc., and I include what I've learned in my game world. I've done a lot of writing, too, from technical writing to fiction and poetry. That's also a part of my "prep." What I don't do, though, is think of this as My Story, with the PCs simply along for the ride. I've tried that, and the games are terrible when I do so. I don't have fun, and the players don't have fun. Taking the next step, though, to establish My World, provides a much different experience, and one (I think) very similar to what Adam is going for.

Bottom line: In game prep, I think we're going to the same place. I just take a different path to get there.