Adam also agreed to let me post the full exchange. I will do so, and a small rejoinder to his last comment. I left the rest of you guys who commented out, because you just don't matter. Suck it! (I kid, I kid).
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And a quick detour, because that's how we roll.
Now, just a quick reply to the last serious comment Adam made:
I feel like aesthetic coming from specifics rather than becoming the rubric by which to determine what the specifics are is putting the cart before the horse. How can you just come up with these specifics if you don't know where you're drawing your inspiration from for those specifics beforeyou figure out what the specifics are?I think this is the main place where Adam and I part ways in our conception of game prep. I don't see this as an either/or thing. My details usually inform my aesthetic. I get caught up in them as a New Cool Thing (thanks, ADD!) and forget for a moment the overarching theme, at least in part. So, for example, in my thinking about elves (teaser for the upcoming issue of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad zine), I started with the iron susceptibility of the DCC elf class and asked, "Why isn't this used?" Then I thought about what it meant, on the level of the specific things that might happen to an elf character if iron susceptibility was taken to a logical conclusion (i.e., like heavy metal poisoning). What would the details of specific NPCs' lives be like if that were a thing, in Ur-Hadad? It would depend on who you were. So, thinking about the details of NPCs I'd like to use for that sort of thing got me thinking about what a society where this was an issue might be like (more of an meta-aesthetic thing). That got me to thinking about conflict in that society based on class divisions, technologies that might be utilized to help the problem, specific game-based effects on player characters and the like. I even started thinking about a detail like a faction leader who resents that a lower-class elf is doomed to horrible death, and becomes a terrorist. Cool details I may never actually use in a game, but which inform the overall feel of the game, and how I might present it to my players.
My point: Sometimes I find that specific details that I think are cool become the resource material that provides the resulting aesthetic that will then be used to generate other details. Then, some of those details recur to the aesthetic frame and change it in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. I work back and forth between them--not always, but pretty regularly.
Another example. I wrote an adventure called "Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God," where I wrote the entire adventure from song titles by the band High on Fire.* One of the songs used was "Frosthammer." The existence of the artifact known as the Frosthammer of Graki Deathstalker was a detail that I used to resolve other things that occurred in that adventure. The significant detail is, for me, one of the things that helps me to develop a coherent aesthetic. That said, I understand that it also can work the other way, and has done so for me, as well.
*Note that this way of generating the adventure was based on using song titles for designing specific encounters, and part of developing the adventure, as such, involved me discovering a specific aesthetic framework based on those encounters. So, detail to aesthetic. That said, the method for generating my encounters might be seen as, itself, an aesthetic. I do not agree that the method is, in itself, an aesthetic, because it lacks content associated with aesthetic frames. I could have used REO Speedwagon to do the same thing. The method would be exactly the same, but the result would have been completely different (one would hope).
Another thing: I like having details in my adventures, even if they don't get explored by the PCs. Here's why. If you've ever played a CRPG like, say, Morrowind, and been frustrated by doors you can't open, or objects you can't manipulate, or NPCs you can't interact with, it creates a sense of futility, for me. It gets to feeling "railroady." Prepping a single location, like Bob the Butcher's shop, and thinking about what kinds of things he has there, and how that that implies what sort of neighborhood it's in, and how that affects the kind of customers he attracts, and what kinds of problems he has, etc., etc. All of those little things give me a better picture of the larger world around Bob. He becomes real and, as a result, the whole world becomes more real. The aesthetic springs from the details of the place just as much as the place is birthed from an aesthetic preference. Good fiction is like that, too: An "insignificant" detail can become the thing that makes the story meaningful for a particular reader. (and yes, I realize that I'm conceding Adam's point that this is something that is "significant" because a PC actually encounters it at the table, for this example). The larger point, though, is that the detail may not get encountered, at all, but it may help me (as a GM) understand the larger aesthetic and produce things that are encountered.