Dangerous Equilibrium

Equilibrium is a very tempting state in setting design. I has lots of fun trappings like a balance of power and broad opportunities for commerce and travel, and more importantly it lets the author really drill down into the things that make the setting interesting (at least in his eyes) without them getting all broken or overly complicated. The problem is that while this is very compelling from a perspective of creation, it’s a bad approach from the perspective of play.

Interesting things when systems fall out of equilibrium. Change, wars, revolutions, reformations and pretty much everything else, and all of these things are fertile grounds for play. When a game takes place someplace out of equilibrium, it has a sense of inertia and movement that is what many railroading games are trying to capture without realizing it. It’s a sense that the world if a moving, and you better keep up. By leaving things in equilibrium, that energy goes to waste.

As with many failings in setting design, I tend to pin this one on the terrible nature of social studies textbooks, which are the only model that many people have when it comes time to write up a setting. Having history presented in clean, digestible chunks warps the mind into thinking that’s how things should be, and overlooks both the narrative (which moves) and the reality (which is messy) in favor of simplicity and the least common denominator.

The trouble with equilibrium is, of course, that it has no trouble at all. If there was no game, things would proceed pretty much as they have, and even if there is a game, it’s likely to have a small impact as things play out. Now, a low-impact game may be desirable. Many styles of play emulate fiction where the main characters mostly drink and fight and while they may do hugely heroic things or even save the world, they’re likely to do it in ways no one particularly notices. Thinks like the earlier stories of Fafhrd an the Grey Mouser. But in such games, setting is usually designed very loosely, in broad strokes, with whole swaths of territory easily summed up in a sentence or two. Adventure is found in the exceptions and anomalies. Such a setting may well be at equilibrium, but it would also be almost silly for it to be more than a collection of notes, and maybe a really cool map.[1]

It is also possible to bring change to a system in equilibrium through the agency of the characters, especially if they’re the chosen ones or whatnot, but it’s a very brute force solution. It’s very nice and empowering, but it’s also not much of an improvement – unless the world responds to the change in a way that creates tension and problems, it’s just a kind of showpiece.

There’s been one interesting trend in setting design to address this, something I’ll call aftermath design. The idea is that in the setting, something big has just happened, such as the emperor being killed or whatnot, and the setting is going through changes as it sorts this out. This is a promising idea, but it bumps up against old habits. Too often, that change occurs (before play begins, natch) and it is then the ONLY change that’s going to ever happen. It’s just a push towards a new equilibrium.

And that, there, reveals the true rub. There is absolutely a tendency of system to move towards equilibrium, but even if they reach it, they don’t sustain it. Change is ongoing. For a GM, this is intensely liberating. For a setting designer, this creates a challenge of how to express that dynamic in a useful. Which is the thing I now find myself chewing on.

1 – Not to say this stops people from getting encyclopedic about it, but it’s a different beast.

5 thoughts on “Dangerous Equilibrium

  1. Evan

    Dear Rob,

    I agree that equilibrium is a happy place for designers and a boring place for storytelling. However, there are a lot of pitfalls in designing for imbalance as well. You have a lot of mess to deal with, and you don’t want your nice social gaming experience to turn into a social science seminar on cultural and societal change. Also, as you have noted in your posts about meta-plot, some designers go overboard the other way, creating ongoing changes to give the seeming of a dynamic world, but which really stiffles play in a different way because the players don’t really matter. Huge changes are happening and all the important people are NPCs who will go forward whether or not the PCs find the treasure, rescue the princess, explore the planet or whatever. I go back to the huge number of hooks that Chad and company gave in S7S as a good spin on having somewhat static background (because you are always going to have a snapshot as the “you start here” point) but with a multitude of things that are “about to” or “might” happen and in which the players can have a role. However, S7S somewhat sets itself up as a one-ff then. You can’t really have a big adventure book of Ilwuz, for example, that has major changes built into it, because it then either railroads the individual game or just contradicts what has already been established. To switch tracks, this has always been a problem, often treated somewhat jokingly, in the world of Glorantha (which I love, but drives me crazy), where things have been developed, sometimes redeveloped, and things are always being revealed slowly (for something like 40 years) by designer Greg Stafford. The statement YGMV (your Glorantha may vary) is the only defense. Stafford has his view and publishes and authorizes, but also recognizes that he has shared the world and that every person or group may have elements at variance. But even with that recognition, the tension of whether to come into line or to simply branch off into a paralell Glorantha remains. Also, Stafford (brilliant trickster that he is) hedges against his own orthodoxy by explaining away the messy contradictions by explaining that events and history are often mistaken, misinterpreted, and reported on after the fact with errors. So, his as well as everyone else’s Glorantha may vary, and it may not matter, as long as everyone is having fun.

    All this to say, I am not sure if there is a real solution. GMs and players will crave new worlds in which to play, and as soon as they go out of the publisher’s hands, people are going to do their own thing. To be successful in helping to spark novel, interesting and above all fun games takes some, in some ways unquantifiable, mix of static information and adventure hooks that grab people. I think S7S did that. WOD in various incarnations seems to have done that. Greyhawk, Glorantha, Rokugan and Theah did that with greater and lesser sins and successes.

    But I could not tell you the formula. I am glad you are looking for it though.

  2. buddha

    @Rob- I think this is very, very obvious in superhero games. Do you think the focus on personal powers and superhero tropes (many of which buy into a setting in equilibrium) allow for a different type of play that is just as satisfying, if in a different way? I feel that with fantasy games, the setting is often part of the focus of the game, but in supers and some other modern games, it’s meant as more of a backdrop to the real stories.

    That said, though, I absolutely agree with you that a setting where things are spiraling out of balance is far more interesting to me as a player. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a setting and seen something cool that I want to make a character in opposition to, not part of… a heretic priest in a rigidly dogmatic religion, a law-abiding Ven who practices no sorcery in Houses of the Blooded, where every noble Ven is expected to break the law and use sorcery, and the like…

  3. Chaos Clockwork

    Your mention of the ‘aftermath’ technique reminds me of ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ (bear with me here). I bought the manga volumes from Dark Horse in the early 2000s, right as the translations were being released. When I finished the story – after I was done crying manly tears – I was suddenly struck by how much impact Ogami Itto had on his world (spoilers ahead, if it matters). I mean, yes, there’s an impressive body count, but beyond that, the people that are dead all have meaning. The Shogunate’s intelligence and black-ops network (why are you looking at me like that? ….*sigh* okay, the Ninjas) are almost completely wiped out. The master sword tester’s dead. The master poisoner’s dead. The Mountain Patrol, the Alarm Bell Wardens – heck, even the best FIRE FIGHTERS got killed! And that’s not even counting the various Daimyos assassinated, provinces ruined, priests silenced, and Yakuza gangs massacred. Plus, with Itto and Retsudo both gone, there’s not even a Best Swordsman anymore.

    I wondered for a bit what it would be like to start play at that point in a setting – ‘something big just happened. The Best at everything are now all dead, and vast swathes of countryside are unhappy. We could use people who are good at, well, ANYTHING. Game on.’ I like the idea of a struggle to fill a power vacuum that’s based more on fame than politics.

    Interestingly, a good example of a setting NOT in equilibrium is in a similar genre – Legend of the Five Rings. Since it’s based on the card game, and the card game REQUIRES the world to be in another crisis every tournament season, it’s a good example of a continuously shifting world. Of course, it has the other problems of such a setting – it’s overcomplicated, making it hard to penetrate, plus the big changes are always dictated by the card game. The newest edition at least tries to make it clear that it’s just giving you tools to do what you want with Rokugan, in whatever time you’d like – which leaves the card game as simply an interesting example of an evolving world.

  4. senatorhatty

    My biggest concern is how to maintain a sense of verisimilitude in a setting that isn’t in equilibrium without adding a lot of work for myself.

    I may be thinking too hard about this, but what HAPPENS when Magneto decides he wants to live in Goa with 1,000,000 other mutants? How do I account for global geopolitical fallout?

    I have been in a few games where GMs managed or seemed to manage this (I was in an extended Greyhawk campaign, for example), and I have always been jealous.


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