Monthly Archives: January 2019

Worldbuilding Rewards Bias

Bowl of Jellied Eels

I wrote some stuff about food in Blades in the Dark the other day, and I’ll probably turn it into a blogpost, but there’s one point that came up in the discussion that I feel needs some highlighting.

One thing I did in my discussion was say “Ok, we have no sunlight, but we need some agriculture that thrives in the dark” and I went with root vegetables (potatoes, onions, garlic, turmeric, ginger, stuff like that) as being growable-but-weird. The reasoning for this was simple: things that grow underground seem like the things we’d expect to grow well in the dark.

Now, the thing is, this was reasonably called out as somewhat nonsensical. In reality, those plants need sunlight as much as anything else, so if I’m going to introduce dark tubers, why not just introduce dark everything?

I 100% understand where this question comes from, and I do not fault the person asking it, but I want to highlight it as something important. Specifically, I want to highlight it as a question which will destroy your world building1.

Bold claim, I know, but bear with me.

When you are building a world, there is a necessity for some consistency, but complete consistency is impossible to achieve for two reasons.

First, it is an infinitely complicated and boring process when taken to that level.

Second, actual life is staggeringly inconsistent, and things which are consistent feel super fake.

Now, everyone has their own approach to world building, and I’m just talking about what works for me here, but let me unpack how I walk this line: with bias. See, it is easy to imagine world building as a sort of pure intellectual exercise where you start from some fixed set of counterfactual elements, and then “build logically” from there. Now, this can be a SUPER fun exercise, and I totally encourage doing it for fun, but it has a dangerous edge to it when it creates a sense that there is a right answer to what the counterfactual world would look like. This illusion of certainty can result in us pretending that this is not an act of creation, but rather simply analysis, which becomes a real problem if we want to work and play with other human beings.

So, when I world build, I try to be cognizant of the things I want to see. Things like genre touchpoint or random cool stuff, as well as any elements of theme that I consider appropriate. These explicitly are not born from the setting being “logical”, but instead force me to bend and think to try to find ways to make them fit. This has a trio of benefits.

First, it’s fun. It’s my storytelling equivalent of the Apollo-13 tabletop dump.

Second, it keeps the world from entirely making sense. Adding these irritants to the mix is what adds eddies of color and shape to what otherwise may be uniform and uninteresting material.

Third, since these things are fun and thematic elements of the game, they improve play, because they help the world stay in line with expectations.

In the case of blades, I had a few needs (theme of darkness and a desire for fish and chips, plus the dark industrial tone of Duskvol) and potatoes lined up very well with all of those things, so I rolled with that. Now, I can ABSOLUTELY justify it2, but I can always justify whatever I come up with. The point is that the justification feeds the end rather than the reverse.

Not everyone’s going to be comfortable with that, but I encourage trying it. Worldbuilding that only makes sense tends to be very flat – throw in a little of your bias and taste, and I think you’ll find the results much more satisfying and fun (and, honestly, you’re already doing it, but acknowledging it makes you the owner of the process rather than its servant).

  1. Tangential nod to the Fate Toolkit’s magic section here which I’ll reiterate: Once you introduce magic, the most important thing you need to define is what magic CAN’T do. These constraints will be arbitrary, but their alternative is really, really boring, ↩︎
  2. Because someone will ask: A food chain is just an energy transference system. For us, that energy originates from the sun and trickles forward, but once you accept a magical world, you can posit that the energy comes from somewhere else, like the soil. As such, plants which get the bulk of their nutrition from the soil makes sense if the soil has energy. And let’s assume it does. Maybe it just has it. Maybe it depletes, but is refreshed by blood (because spiritual energy has nowhere to go). I kind of like the idea that it depletes and can be replenished because that then makes good soil something valuable and suitably creepy. ↩︎

Three Fights vs. Three Acts

A few folks brought up the three act structure in response to the three fight model, and while I get where they were coming from, there’s a distinction I want to call out that I think is REALLY important.

First, it is SUPER useful to understand the three act model for plotting your games. I would also say it’s very much worth learning other versions, most notably the 5 act model which is very common on television. Understanding these structures and tools can make you a better GM. Not because they provide strict rules to follow, but because if you get why they work on the screen and stage, then you can apply them in your play.

This is deep, valuable stuff. But I fear I consider the three fight model to be much simpler for one reason: it is much, much dumber.

That probably feels like a criticism, but it’s not. There are tools we want to be smart, and tools we want to be dumb, and the three fight model is in the latter camp. Its virtue lies in its simplicity, and I can illustrate this very simply:

  1. Imagine the cast of, say, Voltron. Any version. Pick one you know. If you don’t know Voltron, pick an action-y cartoon you like.
  2. Now, imagine that’s the game you’re running and those are the character’s played by your usual stablemates, with all their tastes and interests.
  3. Next, try to think of three cool fight scenes. Don’t go too deep, just sketch out the idea.
  4. Now set those aside, and instead think of a three act arc for them.

Was there a difference in ease between #3 and #4? If not, I envy you more than a little. See, for me #3 is super easy – I just mash up a few elements (Location, status, enemy type, maybe a gimmick) and I’m good to go. But when we get to #4, I have questions. I need to know more about the characters, the players, their interests and how to hook them in. I don’t want to tell a three act story, I want to deliver the experience the players want, which means I need a lot from them.

Heck, even if I didn’t need more information, I’ll end up struggling with the blank page problem. Building a three act structure is so profoundly open ended that I will be paralyzed just starting. In contrast, a fight scene is a constrained enough idea that I can churn it out.

That is why the three fight system is amazing to me where a lot of other structured models are merely interesting, informative or helpful. It strikes a solid balance between constrained enough for focus, but open ended enough that there are still bazillions of things to be done with it.

Now, having separated these two ideas, I should add that they do eventually grow together. Once you have the idea of three fights in your heart, it becomes possible to do more with the model (such as have the fights correspond with three act pacing, or finding other scene types that you can build as easily and well as you can fights). But I really want to call out that there’s nothing magical about structure or the number, three, the power is in how usable it is.

Three Fight Scenes Redux

Back of heads in an elevator.  Precursor moment to an amazing fight scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The original Feng Shui RPG (by the ever-brilliant Robin Laws) had the absolute best adventure design guidelines of any RPG I’ve encountered. They boiled down to this:

  1. Think of 3 really awesome fight scenes.
  2. Apply some loose connective tissue to move the characters between them

That’s it. There is no 3.

Boiled down to two bullets, it’s is a little bare bones, but Feng Shui gave a LOT of guidance on what makes a good fight scene, and enough (totally wacky) background to easily justify the connective tissue. Taken as a whole, it made it staggeringly easy to write up solid, engaging adventures without undue strain on the GM. If you want to dive into it more, I’ve got some more word for you.

A lot of people who have used this model have translated it across to other games (I know I have) but it’s always interesting to me the ways in which it can be easy or hard to do so. It reveals some interesting things about assumptions of play that feel like they could unpack indefinitely.

First off, let’s consider the fight scene. This is a staple of fiction and play, but it’s worth considering what this means in play. That’s opaque, so let me approach it another way: is every scene with a fight in a a fight scene?

Technically? Yes. But in the way that Feng Shui meant it, not really. Those fights are Set Pieces1, which is entirely apt because Feng Shui is a game about Hong Kong cinematic style fight scenes. They are big, have lots of moving parts, many points of engagement on a mechanical and character level, and they’re what players are here to do2.

It’s also going to take a lot of time. Which is good. Time the budget we have to spend on things, and this approach explicitly “spends” more on the things that are most important to the game.

This is part of why it’s relatively easy to map the three fights model to other games which also have set piece fight scenes. It worked spectacularly well for Fourth Edition D&D, and there are a number of other fights games that it can do equally well with.

But beyond that, there are two difficulties with taking the model further afield.

The first is logistical. Feng Shui has the benefit that it’s 100% cool for all of its set pieces to be fight scenes, but if you take it to another game that may not be true. Other games may want social, investigation or exploration set pieces. In that case the underlying idea (three set pieces and some connective tissue) still absolutely works, but that is definitely a less simple model. It will take more energy to think of the variety of set pieces, they’re less modular and interchangeable, and they’re harder to write up3. In short, it’s more work.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done – it can, and quite well – but it’s hard to learn to the point where it’s comfortable. If you learn it with fight scenes and then expand your repertoire, that’s more practical than doing it all at once.

The second barrier is philosophical. “Loose connective tissue” isn’t going to fly in every game. The reason I say this works very well for 4e D&D, but don’t call out other editions is because dungeon crawling is all about very explicit connective tissue. Playing through and engaging the transitions and choices along the way is what brings some people to the table. Tables like that want to spend their time budget differently, and you need to plan for that.

On the other end of the spectrum, there will always be players who will treat any level of GM direction as railroading. They expect to be making the decisions about what’s important and taking the game in those directions. Again, this calls for a different set of “budget” priorities, so the GM is better armed for flexible response.

Now, for all that, there is a lot of space available between these objections. As noted, the model can work beyond fight scenes, and while it isn’t necessarily suited to full player authorship, it can work with even very empowered players.

The key is that the set pieces are what the players are these for. That is what justifies their budget in time an energy. If they are what everyone wants, then it will all click. If they aren’t, the model will fail, and in doing so will probably reveal a deeper disconnect.

Anyway, if you are a GM and feeling skeptical about this, I encourage you to just try it. Whatever your game is – even if it’s not normally very fighty. Just think of three awesome fight scenes that would be super fun to run4, then loosely sketch out how they might be connected. It will take you less time than you think (especially if you just sketch out the fights – don’t go full stat block until you’re happy with the structure) and I am willing to bet you will be surprised at how well it hangs together.

  1. In film, a Set Piece is a scene requiring a lot of work to plan and shoot, usually at great cost. Since money matters, you only really want to do this when there’s a real payoff. While this is a necessity of budget, it is also a fruitful constraint, since it works naturally with an upswing in focus with an upswing in importance. ↩︎
  2. Critically, that does not mean it’s the only thing they can do. There is still space for other awesome things, but if none of those materialize organically, then the game is still going to deliver these fight scenes. ↩︎
  3. Howso? As a hobby, we have honed the technology for writing up a fight scene to a fine art. Stat blocks. Maps and Zones. Tactics and roles. We know how to put information on paper that someone else can read and know how to run that fight effectively. We do not have anything like that kind of polish or sophistication for communication and running other scene types. ↩︎
  4. Tip: The more wildly diverse they are, the better. It serves as a kind f inspirational fuel when you think about connecting things. ↩︎