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Author Topic: Kitchen-sinking: Kick the habit!  (Read 8120 times)
DevP
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« on: July 23, 2004, 05:03:05 PM »

I looked over about a year of notes on a setting I've been working on. The progress here has been tyrannically slow, since I'm inherently indecisive, and it was all to easy to waffle back and forth between different design choice and design goals. Today, I feel I may have reached some learning experience, as I looked over my old notes, and finally thought: "Gee, most of this sucks." Seriously, it's very liberating.

Specifically, look at these elements of my space opera:
    [*]evil slaver space pirates
    [*]oppressive central governments
    [*]a number of evil corporations (one for each industry)
    [*]breaking up all "government types" into more or less factions, in a relatively splat-able fashion
    [*]gaians who love green nature, and rockists who love, um, rocks.
    [*]taking any interesting detail (i.e. cyborg augmentation, drugs, libraries) and turning it into some organization (the Cyborgs, the DrugUsers, the Librarians)[/list:u]

    Too my credit, I'm making this sound a lot more boring than it actually was, and a lot of these are pretty commonplace genre tropes for space opera, and I'm all for that sort of thing. But: each of these elments were borne out of uncritically finding some stray thought or avenue of gameplay. and feeling "gee, I should fit that it". As in, I ought to give an avenue for having ninjas. I ought to have mafia. I ought to have multiple mafia, one for each ethnic mafia cliche. I ought to let players be fighting knights. I ought to let players be pirates, too.

    Here's the cool part: I began doing this setting because I found many other settings to get my eyes all glossy. I really wasn't interested in hearing about yet-another-imperium/federation/grand-human-destiny-prohecy and damn creation myth and so on. And so, I created my universe, kitchen-sinking  in everything I thought out to be there, for completeness. And I was surprised when I ended up with something that, yet again, made my eyes gloss over.

    Do you see the parallel to a beginner's first shot at game designer, perhaps even in terms of those "heartbreaks" (Fantasy or otherwise)? I wanted something different, and kept on adding the elements that I expected in, and ended up with disappointment. Just as if I wanted a FRPG about family, and added in Hit Points, Levels, Critical Tables, and was finally frustrated with the result.

    So, you setting designers: setting does matter, but it's not easy! The RPG culture often has to kitchen-sink its settings, perhaps under a mantra like "I want my players to do whatever they like / find whatever kind of game they like in my world," and I think that even sells in some cases, but it can also lead to major frustration if you're trying to come up with a fresh world. So, here's a part of my future setting-design aesthetic, which I'll have a hard time following through with (kitchen-sinking is an engrained tendency), but here goes:

    The setting should have some purpose or locus of purposes: reasons you're not using something else, and reasons it's worth sharing. The setting focus should play into the character/situation, and more generally what you want play to be like: don't add a single detail to your setting if doesn't augment these play goals. For example, build powerful hegemons in the world, but if and only if each additional hegemon adds some feature to the player's gameplay (i.e. a new kind of challenge, or a different shade of moral question, or whatever).

    Granted, there is world-building for the sake of creating a vivid world, and that has it's own purpose, stay vivid, and don't be afraid to just take an aesthetic stand and "take sides", so to speak. (This is a more vague criteria though, because at some point adding an extra interesting detail just because you find it "interesting" won't improve the exploration aspect in the players' experience.) Here's an example: the Firefly universe is cliche-ridden and meager, and yet it sticks heavily in fans' minds. I'd say a part of it is it has some very specific aesthetics - extremely strong western color with occaisional polyglot-chinese bent - layered on what's otherwise a Rebels and Empire situation. You don't find the Firefly universe offering "you can have western color, or samurai color, or cool cyborg color, or..." It's limited, and the advantage there is that it's loud and clear.

    There is a flipside, being "polyglot" games, like RIFTS or TORG, where part of the fun is that everything really IS mashed in. I'm guessing the key to a good polyglot universe is not necessarily that it is extremely kitchen-sinked, but rather that even here, each elements expands the original play goals. If you're playing a polyglot RIFTS game with a gamist agenda, you won't really care if you're hopping from fantasy-world-with-elves to fantasy-world-without-elves; the extra difference between the worlds has to provide some new challenge for you gamewise (or for other agendas, the lack of elves should outline a theme, or should provide some intrinsic exploratory interest). Most polyglot worlds have some story going on beyond the individual shards of worlds - some metaplot or conceit binding this multiverse together - that itself is another focus which additional story elements must satisfy.

    ...

    I think I'm out of writing, since I wrote that in one big burst; but I'm largely saying to use some methods similar to system choice in creating a setting, i.e. figuring out why your parts are going in. I don't want to immediately discredit what I just wrote, but I'd rather be the first to acknowledge that this could be a hard aesthetic to create by, since we probably construct a setting as something like a narrative, rather than justifying it piece by piece. Still, I think it's part of how I'll focus future world-building, and perhaps it will get me further towards finished product.
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    John Kim
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    « Reply #1 on: July 23, 2004, 05:52:05 PM »

    Quote from: Dev
      The setting should have some purpose or locus of purposes: reasons you're not using something else, and reasons it's worth sharing. The setting focus should play into the character/situation, and more generally what you want play to be like: don't add a single detail to your setting if doesn't augment these play goals. For example, build powerful hegemons in the world, but if and only if each additional hegemon adds some feature to the player's gameplay (i.e. a new kind of challenge, or a different shade of moral question, or whatever).

    Granted, there is world-building for the sake of creating a vivid world, and that has it's own purpose, stay vivid, and don't be afraid to just take an aesthetic stand and "take sides", so to speak.  

    Hmm.  This seems like it works mainly for specific scenario-based games.  i.e. In order for you to know whether a hegemon is important to the player's gameplay, you have to know a fair amount about what the GM and players are doing.  The more leeway you allow in who the PCs are and what they are doing, the less you can assume about what is or is not important.  

    "Creating a vivid world" means separating out the task of building background setting from designing specific situations.  i.e. You design the general setting.  Someone else designs the scenario/situation (maybe the GM and players themselves, maybe someone writing a campaign book or adventure that others will use).  So, for example, Glorantha has lots of stuff that will be irrelevant for a given game.  But the particular group doesn't have to use all of it.
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    - John
    DevP
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    « Reply #2 on: July 23, 2004, 06:39:05 PM »

    Quote from: John Kim
    The more leeway you allow in who the PCs are and what they are doing, the less you can assume about what is or is not important.
    This is true, and part of what I wrote is criticizing a play goal or design goal that is "the player can do anything at all". And I really do think that most of the time, you have some actual goal or desired play mode beyond this openness. Even as Gloriantha or Greyhawk are gigantic, there are intentions and directions of play within them. (A steady life of research into ancient history is probably not.)

    Quote
    So, for example, Glorantha has lots of stuff that will be irrelevant for a given game.  But the particular group doesn't have to use all of it.
    If the interaction is that the GM or player makes a situation within the setting, than each setting detail must be either (a) readily hookable into situation (even if players choose not to use it, it's a usable detail; hence, I create the town of Zyberia, with it's fragile class itensions), or (b) enhancing some other play goals (so, I have a treatise on Zyberia's economics, because the agenda I want to promote may require that extra data for the consistency of the setting, even if said treatise isn't going to spark up a new situation.)
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    TonyLB
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    « Reply #3 on: July 23, 2004, 08:29:40 PM »

    Dev, I heard a saying:  "It takes two people to paint a good picture.  An artist, and someone to shoot the artist at the appropriate moment."

    I think I totally agree with what you're saying.  That may just be a sign of how deeply I've misunderstood, of course.

    Adding something to a world carelessly will damage and weaken everything that has gone before.  For example, I haven't watched all of Firefly (yet) but I get the impression that adding space-ninjas would substantially disrupt what made the setting work.

    God, it's hard.  You get into the mode that designing an RPG is all about what you create.  And then anything you create is your brain-child.  You can't just throw it out, can you?  But as you rightly point out, much of designing an RPG is choosing which things to leave out.  The best thing you can do is to get a dozen utterly brilliant idea, pick the two that work well together, and throw away the other ten.  Heart-wrenching, but true.
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    Bill Cook
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    « Reply #4 on: July 23, 2004, 09:15:13 PM »

    I think designing by free association is an exercise in exhaustion. Progress is made not so much by reviewing and refining as it is giving up in frustration. Then you start over from scratch. With each issue, you're very slightly more likely to get to the point, not because you've learned anything or made any choices going in; just because you're tired. Each time you take up the task, you're a little more irritated by the din of voices in your head whose ideas used to delight you. So you pay less attention and tend to complete your thoughts and write cleaner sentences. And your work flows more naturally.

    Everyone has a different breakpoint. You can leave it as a cursed affair or an amusement for a phase of your life. Or you can press on, knowing the pursuit for what it is: what the process costs you and what it provides.

    The happy ending for a designer who chooses the work as a calling is that he applies valuable principles, proven through experience, artfully combines his best ideas, confirming their worth in play, and ends up with something that is not dismissable.
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    komradebob
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    « Reply #5 on: July 24, 2004, 06:48:25 AM »

    Hey Dev:
    I find this thread interesting, especially since it seems like you have a sort of internal conflict going on betweem "kitchen sinkism" and the one-hour game goals expressed in another thread.

    As a suggestion, maybe you should go for the whole enchilada. Go ahead with the kitchensink, but break it into pieces usable in shortgames.

    If you like the idea of space ninjas, why not wite up a scenario that really focuses on some aspects of space ninjas? You will need to consider what is really essential and cool about space ninjas, and create a situation that puts those aspects in the spotlight.

    What you will not need to do is create an overarching rules set that covers everything else in your game universe. You won't even need to cover many things that relate to space ninjas, just the stuff that pertains to the ninjas in your scenario/shortgame.

    Later, if say, spacepirates interest you, do the same thing with that idea.

    As for a coherent setting, you might be able to go with really broad strokes, allowing the setting to blossom as a series of shortgames are played, and you get a handle on player reaction.

    I think designers sometimes forget that settings and even rules go through a stage of development that occurs after the initial release of the "product" ( I mean after playtests and final draft release). That is when players start playing it, outside of the initial group. That play informs and alters the original product, especially when the experiences of those players creates feedback to the original designer, who then alters the setting to take the experience into account.

    A couple of quick examples from bigname games where this has happened.

    Skyrealms of Jorune:
    As I recall the history of this game, it actually started out as someones variant Metamorphasis Alpha campaign. Eventually it became its own setting with a ruleset that the authors felt did a better job portraying the setting's nature.

    Werewolf the Apocalypse:
    I recently came across an old VtM module ( Milwaukee by Night, maybe?) that predated the release of WtA, but involved werewolves. The Loups are tribal and crunchy spiritual, with totems playing a part. WtA took those ideas and vastly expanded and altered them. The module is a neat artifact that shows the early thinking that later informed the setting of the Werewolf game.

    So, in summation:
    Go mad with brainstorming/riffing on ideas/ kitchensinking. But try to produce in small, bitesized chunks. Take into account that the feedback loop has everything to do with a game's development over time.

    Related thought: The internet offers a really powerful tool for speeding up the feedback loop. Earlier generations of game designers were very limited in their ability to interact with game users, by comparison. A rules or setting suggestion from a player across the planet can be added to a site or download almost as fast as the game's author can type it up. The implications of that are staggering.

    Robert
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    Robert Earley-Clark

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    « Reply #6 on: July 24, 2004, 02:12:02 PM »

    Dont create a universe. Create a small system in detail, then work out from there.
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    Mike Holmes
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    « Reply #7 on: July 24, 2004, 02:26:01 PM »

    This seems closely related to the concept of Lasersharking.

    Mike
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    Callan S.
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    « Reply #8 on: July 24, 2004, 06:10:23 PM »

    This reminds me of one of the articles where Ron talks about over the edge (disclaimer, my recount of Rons is based on my bad memory). First he outlines how its nearly one fat tome of setting. Then he quotes parts where the writers talk about how with hardly any prep, many of the fantastic setting elements of the game were cooked up that night and how good that was.

    Then Ron right mentions, if it was so good to make, so rewarding, why is there nothing to help us make our own material like the authors of over the edge did?

    Now my own words: See, what I got from this is that they wrote tons and tons of setting and essentially blocked and blocked more input from gamer groups (while in addition not providing any system help making new stuff).

    Quote
    Here's the cool part: I began doing this setting because I found many other settings to get my eyes all glossy. I really wasn't interested in hearing about yet-another-imperium/federation/grand-human-destiny-prohecy and damn creation myth and so on. And so, I created my universe, kitchen-sinking in everything I thought out to be there, for completeness. And I was surprised when I ended up with something that, yet again, made my eyes gloss over.


    I think your eyes are glossing over because you've already done the fun part, creating all that stuff. Playing with it isn't as fun (for you) as making it was.

    And now its all made, what's left for your group to riff on? It's like starting a band only to write all the music prior to that by yourself and when you get with the others, your just going to play that same music over and over. Their not going to contribute to it this way and its not really gunna come alive because of it. Really you want something they are going to be able to contribute to, when you riff with them (right word?).

    Sadly the old 'all you control is your PC' thing doesn't really help there, but even if your using that you might get something out of it all with a more group jamable setting.
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    Philosopher Gamer
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    « Reply #9 on: July 25, 2004, 08:57:01 PM »

    Re: lasersharking? Quite close. I think lasersharking is more about adding more extreme things (going really over the top, like lasers on sharks), while I'm talking about diluting what you have to include too many options (so sharks, octupi, squid, zebrafish... when you want a game about lasers).

    Anyway, I get the feeling that lots of you dig, and that makes me feel a lot better! "The best thing you can do is to get a dozen utterly brilliant idea, pick the two that work well together, and throw away the other ten. Heart-wrenching, but true." "Each time you take up the task, you're a little more irritated by the din of voices in your head whose ideas used to delight you." (Me too.)

    Quote
    And now its all made, what's left for your group to riff on?
    I've had such suggestions come up in a lot of some earlier world-building threads, but found in practice that my players (at the time) didn't have world-creation as a big part of the agenda. Now, granted, I want about it in a very clumsy way, but the players at that point were very frim-earth-Sim-oriented such that my attempts at world-building were unfocused and a bit distracting. Nonetheless: I could definitely see me (as GM) creating new Setting elements around the player-created hooks or Kickers, thus actually building not just for my own pleasure and actually to focus their own play. (If I give sci-fi another shot, I have some ideas to treat world-building this way, and I'd post that stuff in Actual Play as that happens.)

    Actually, now that I think of it: I got a kick out of some initial world-building (kung fu labor unions! homo economicus! syndicalist space-shippers!) because it hooked into my personal interests, as a potential participant in the universe. When I added other stock elements (Evil McEmpire, the Bad Pirates, the Megacorp), it hooked into nothing I cared about. So, if I was world-building to create something that as a GM I'd be just enthusiastic about, then I should treat myself with the same respect as a player, basically. <g>

    (I do think it's reasonable to create something for yourself, as a GM, in order to amp your enthusiasm. That Free Mars oneshot was one of my favorite Dust Devils runs ever, and I think that was in a big way because I felt 100% ownership of that world, and my enthusiasm transfered to the players.)

    Many folks have suggested modular design as a reasonable way to handle a kitchensink-friendly design, and I think I can understand that. If you have some purpose in mind (frex: "challenge players' empathy"), and some kind of clear overall schema with limitations (and I'd say the Orion's Arm Framework is a good example), you can pull this off coherently. Indeed, I'm pretty much doing this, essentially "forking" my design thoughts between the modular, pick-your-own-material project, and a very tightly focused where each additional detail will be even more focused on hooking into player desires.

    I think I'll also take Robert's thoughts really seriously - get some Actual Play to ground me from endless designing, and let that be the actual forge of some good world-building.
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