Or why you can relax about getting things ‘wrong’.
Sometime in the early-to-mid 1990s I discovered the Discworld of Terry Pratchett. I was blown away. I loved the dry humor, the terrible puns, the mockery of human foibles, and the ridiculous and patently satirical world-building. Eh, just the whole satire. I wasn’t alone, most of my early D&D group read Pratchett.
One day I bought a Discworld Atlas together with a friend. I loved reading through it.
He asked me to run a D&D game in the Discworld.
I tried, but I just couldn’t. There was too much of Discworld there and it took away too much from my ability to run a game, to improvise, innovate, or imagine.
Around the same time another player bought a complete Forgotten Realms setting. Admittedly, reading it was far harder (the authors were no Pratchetts), but trying to run it I ran into the same difficulty. The canon kicked me to the ground kept kicking every time I tried to make something up.
“No, that’s not how dark elves behave.”
“No, that’s not what happened between Korelon [sic] and Mythra [who? what?].”
“No, you can’t kill Elminster! The setting breaks without him!”
Homebrewing vs. Teambrewing
So, for the longest time I just home-brewed everything.
But, this too became boring soon enough, because I felt constrained by having to come up with everything every time. The classical AD&D model of referee as source of all knowledge about the world, and players as fully-fleshed out heroes with backstories moving through this world … well, I didn’t have anything to push against.
So I started doing two things.
The first, partly organically (with a long-time group this happens), partly from reading (including a cool little game called Microscope), was taking less responsibility for the world.
A player was the only Halfling in the party? Now they’re responsible for making up Halfling culture and history. Not up-front in unreadable prose but live, at the table.
Referee: “You come to the village of Kree Kree, a Halfling settlement from the Time of Many Troubles. Player A! What are the Halflings of Kree Kree famous for?”
Player A: “Uh, what? How should I know?”
Referee: “Well, you’re the only Halfling here, so you’re likely to know best.”
I kept a soft veto option, since I treat every character in my games as an unreliable narrator. So sure, Bulky the Halfling might believe his grand-mam when she says that the Kree Krees are horrid sneak thieves who only eat pies. But perhaps they eat cake and small goblins, too.
Likewise, the other players would have a soft veto option. A general outcry or pish-poshing always ensured a rewrite, either of something I brought to the fiction, or the beliefs of another character.
The second was using modules as building blocks and creativity boosters. I’d still teambrew whole worlds, but I started making and running found adventures. Knocking together pieces and whole modules, adding challenges and complications from random tables, to force myself to adapt to the environment as well.
This was, at least initially, a bit of a private game to keep boredom at bay and to loosen up my refereeing. But later I realized that it was making my game-running better. Suddenly, even I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be.
I no longer knew ahead of time whether it was bandits or princesses in the clattering centipede city. I didn’t build the dungeons, so I couldn’t know what would happen. I didn’t plan for artifacts and great arcs, and instead they just … became.
One part the bricolage of found modules, another our ideas as players (including my refereeing self as a player), a third the random play of dice and tables.
I now see a kind of (if incomplete) synthesis of my actual at-table play in the kind of books and modules and settings I write. Perhaps I should call them meta-settings or setting generators, but I’m not sure those terms really capture what I’m aiming for.
See, a classical trpg setting presents a world in which the heroes adventure and have stories in an all-knowing authorial voice. Example invented world for the purposes of this blog post (read it tongue in cheek):
This is the known world of Uëra. It has three continents and their number is three. They are the civilized continent of civilized city-states and noble republic-kingdoms named Auromaroa, the bright-blooded Barbarian continent of Reusmandie, and the fallen twilight-shrouded continent of Lord Icebone, known once upon a time as Fayaharqiä. It is home to the variform humans of the seventh and eighth ages and the translucent gelatinous humans of the sixth age. The humans of the first five ages are deceased in the grind of years and ice and sky. The humans of the ninth age were still-born in the fall of Fayaharqiä to the ashwielder Lord Icebone. Magic is practiced by the application of the three movements of pride, ambition, and lust, and the application of the five vocalizations of truth, obligation, repetition, annihilation, and god’s ash. All humans of this known world, Uëra, know that there are no gods and have been none since the end of the fourth age, when the ashmakers liberated humanity from the oppression of the voidwalking interlopers who had named themselves gods. The twice-long eighth age is now grinding to its close and the tenth age approaches together with the coalescence of the returning moon.*—The World of the Skinned Onion, the RPG of Oo.
And then the setting would detail each of these things in exacting detail. For my taste, most settings overdetermine every part of their world, leaving no blank spaces.
I still easily veer in this direction when I write. This is the setting as world-building, which is fun for the writer, but does not create a setting bricolage kit for players (including the referee).
The common gaming solution is to overdetermine the last point of civilization and a few locations, then leave vasty blank spots for the adventurers to fill in as they wander and wonder about the wilderness dotted with the remnants of a sunken age.
But when it comes to more civilized, complex, grand settings, these swathes of incognita terra become harder to justify.
The thing I’m trying with the anti-canonic setting, like the Ultraviolet Grasslands or Red Sky Dead City, is to explicitly write the world as a toy kit without a single right way of being. It’s a box, a book of parts that demand the players take a few of the pieces, a few of the challenges, and tell their own individual and unique stories as they trace their way through the world.
As one example, in the Ultraviolet Grasslands, the factions are not rigorously defined. Instead, each is presented with lists of rumors and references scattered throughout the book. Any player whose character hails from that group has the choice of shaping them to taste.
The Porcelain Princes are one such faction, and a pretty weird one at that.
Steppeland not-quite-liches who seek immortality by spreading their vital cognitive essence among several bodies linked by real-time glandular psyche-to-psyche links. Customarily each Polybody Entity uses the same porcelain masks for every one of its drones. Rumors say (d10):
- They are not more intelligent than before but the addition of new bodies keeps their minds from dying.
- The continuity of personality is flawless and perfect.
- The link between bodies has a limited range.
- Princes do not like to send individual bodies too far by themselves in case they go rogue.
- Rogue bodies have on occasion tried to take over the original parent sentience.
- They always travel in groups of three or four to reduce the risk of personality collapse.
- They are conservative to a fault.
- They maintain their oldtech porcelain walkers religiously but without the understanding to upgrade or jury-rig them if they fail.
- Any change to the status quo is a problem to be crushed.
- They are allergic to alcohol and it breaks up their psychic links.
A closer reading of the rumor table will show that it is internally inconsistent. Multiple entries contradict one another, and this is on purpose—its a small trick to push against the possibility of an established canon, because the text is broken. It forces players to creatively bridge the gaps between the available fragments of information and create their own narrative world and experience.
A second example is the lack of a history. Or, rather, the lack of a consistent history. Again, I use inconsistent tables, where if players and referees take the history as a linear chronology, gaps force them to decide—where are the facts in the crevices between the conflicting accounts?
Thus in the times of Dimly Remembered Strife…
Some say there was a war. Indeed there is an epic misunderstanding among historians whether it was an actual event that marked some fall of some Chosen group. Obviously there was more than one war, but there can’t have been that many, considering the obvious power of many of the Old Ones. Right?
- The lings defeated the viles and ushered in a golden age.
- The viles tore themselves in a civil war and the lings destroyed them afterwards, ushering in an iron tyranny.
- The gods entered the cosmos from the void and destroyed the hubris of mortals in fire and flood.
- The viles ascended into a higher form, leaving the world to collapse behind them.
- The first lings destroyed themselves in iron and machinery, and the second lings told themselves tales of vile ones
wreaking the destruction.
- The machine gods were born in the fast stars and the quick trees and sent down their monstrous offspring to
devastate the world.
- The Chosen Ones broke their pact with their gods and were drowned in blood and time.
- The humans crawled out of their slavery over a hundred centuries of relentless, bloody warfare. When they won the
world they swarmed out of the void, destroying the ling and the viles, and taking the world for themselves.
- The elves walked in from a void and reality fractured in their wake, leading to war between heaven and earth.
- There was no void, there was no war. An entropy reduction experiment failed, causing a temporary reality collapse.
Now, certainly, it would be possible to build a personal canon out of this kind of meta-setting, but I think it would take at least a bit of creativity. Pruning, cutting, sculpting. And … you know what, fine. If you’re a referee and do that? Excellent. You’ve made it your own, and your own alone, and I think no Cat Conjurer or Satrap Seismologist could want anything more.
There isn’t really a big message at the end—I write anti-canons because I like to run games that revolve around the dynamic interaction of players and referees and texts, and where the world is a unique and ephemeral creation that appears for a moment in the collective imagination of the group, before dissipating again, falling to the subconscious to fertilize new ideas, new worlds, new stories in some future time.
*This is all that exists of Uëra. I have written nothing more of it anywhere, ever. It is new and untouched by imagination. Use it if you like.
Ok, some obligatory promotions again! This was a blog post, and golly gollum, I hope you enjoyed it. Well, if you did, there are four ways to show much you liked it, yes, I tell you, four. First, you can comment. Comments are great. They let me know I ain’t speaking to star howlers in the void of a solitary starry night. Second, you can share and tweet and tag and whatnot. Getting the word out is always great if you like the word you’re sharing (and its not an outright pack of lies, right?). Third, and now we’re getting down to business, the fourth chapter of Red Sky Dead City is dropping soon. Support the Stratometaship on Patreon and get in on the action. It’s worth it, trust me—I have a vested interest. Fourth, ok … wait a bit.
Preamble moved here for the historical record (2019-10-28): Obligatory UVG Kickstarter Preamble: We’re nearly ready to announce new stretch goals on our kickstarter, like … so so so close. I don’t think anybody will mind if I mention that the $55k goal is all about investing more in production quality on two fronts: better book and better pay for our dedicated editors. Can’t thank the MoonRat Conspiracy enough, even when their comments are a blunt #NeedsMore when they like some section of the UVG.