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.
Actually, the kickstarter completed rather well (2019-10-28): So now I can just mention there’s more lovely books to find—What Ho Frog Demons with Hydra on DTRPG and Witchburner on itch.io.
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.
19 replies on “Anti Canon Worlds and the UVG”
I feel like we went on similar paths. As a young child I had little to go on and so I made up what was beyond B2. But a little older, I got Forgotten Realms products from 2E and of course the novels. My group very much preferred Forgotten Realms and when we’d play (me running it or not) we butted up against the Holy Canon constantly. At the risk of coming off like I am picking on Ed Greenwood’s terrific setting (I am not; I still like it to this day) I will say:
At first I think we thought it quite novel. Why, I’m in the same place as Drizzt! Can’t go breaking that, Drizzt is over there, doing his thing, while I search for this magic crystal in the Underdark! How exciting to hear rumors of a war in Menzoberranzan!
Then we briefly played other games and Spelljammer for a bit, wide and free, unrestrained by Holy Canon. None of us knew or cared what was supposed to be happening in RIFTS. None of us had even the slightest idea of the story behind Spelljammer. We just boarded our spaceship and off we went!
When we came back to “the real game” everyone was quite pleased to be in Familiar Faerun again. Except, and I can only certainly speak for me, it felt different. Now I wanted to go do this thing or go to that place, but I couldn’t, because then who would keep Thay in check if the party left? Who would do the quests of Elminster so that Helm’s plan could succeed? And so on. There was so much out there, but it all teetered on specific interactions. The more I looked, the more I felt trapped by Holy Canon. I lost interest.
And so I took over DMing again and introduced my own setting. But I fell into much the same trap. I struggled with that. I’d built a setting on logic and I tried to leave it wide open, but sooner or later something would crop up where a player would ask “Why” about something and I’d realize I’d painted us into a corner with the worldbuilding, which I had somehow believed was less restrictive. There wasn’t an Elminster and what-have-you, but there were factors in play that weren’t conducive to discovery. I knew the answers. I was stuck, and frustrated.
Until I really realized that the part I liked about the RPGs I’d played a few years before – and all those “side games” more recently – was the randomization. The lack of any determined outcome anywhere. At the time, I blamed 2E AD&D for being too complex compared to B/X, which was probably wrong, but it somehow led me to decide that my own setting (a school binder worth of lined paper filled with maps and towns, naturally) needed to be put aside. I wrote highlights of a very simplified version on one single index card. I grabbed a module, I don’t recall which, and I renamed everything in it. And it was a blast.
That’s how I’ve been playing ever since. No canon but what we devise at the table, and even that is very subject to change.
Cast of your canons, you have nothing to lose but your default factory settings!
Not going to lie, I really don’t understand the appeal of this kind of approach. There seems to be this undercurrent of thought in the OSR about how the game basically should not exist outside of the table, you should have to or just flat out shouldn’t think about it outside of play. That just feels really weird to me, especially as a GM. Same for having a pre-written setting negatively impact player creativity.
I can get the problem being locked into the canon of an established, existing setting like FR where everybody knows that in theory Elminster is squatting in a corner at such and such date in such and such location and “should” resolve the problem for you, but if it’s your own setting that only you know the details of I don’t see how that would hurt things. At least not if you’re willing to be flexible with it. It helps everything have a sense of weight, of realness. The world is set in stone at least a little, and that makes interacting with it feel more concrete. Determining everything randomly, semi on the fly, does the opposite, at least to me. It’s the same feeling of ephemeral fairness that I get from narrative games, obtrusively reminding me that this is just some nerds playing imagination games where nothing matters
[I think in reality it’s about having some middle ground. In my groups – of course we think about the setting outside of the game – players and players-as-referees (because we’re all players) all. It’s just that there is room for change, and even radical change. We don’t determine everything on the fly – it’s just that many things are in a ‘quantum’ state until interacted with. We don’t know exactly what the town will be like until the players wander into it. But – leaving it to possum now.]
Love this! An excellent description that mirrors my experience of why too much canon can feel constraining but total lack of info is constraining in a different way (not enough to push against)
When I was studying painting, one of my favorite teachers used to always say you should build “structures you can improvise off of.” I think it’s similar here, you need enough framework to provide structure, but you still need to be able to feel surprised and have room for incredible stuff you make in the moment that you would never think of in a million years.
I think your teacher nailed it. I came across similar things in art.
Whenever I’m presented with “do anything you like,” I end up doing very similar things. When I have a pre-existing structure and limited constraints, I end up with something new.
After reading Viriconium books, and seeing some of the great setting toolkits like Yoon-suin, im getting more and more in favour of fluid setting/history approach as well.
And no, backing after brexit, let them fuck up first and then see the shipping and import taxes.
It’s 23 days to the end of the world as we know it, isn’t it?
I definitely love the ‘no canon’/’make the canon with your players’ concept. Made my last 3.5 run fun, even if it was shortlived.
One of my favorite things is when the players’ ideas percolate and change over the sessions.
I had problems running Fading Suns because I was so overwhelmed by the detail, but I like detail in a small to mid-sized scenario such as many of the Call of Cthulhu / Delta Green scenarios. On the other hand, I sold Beyond the Mountains of Madness without ever even having finished it, and Masks of Nyarlothep just intimidates me.
Here’s a thought: Perhaps I can use your techniques to deconstruct Fading Suns and make it playable for myself and my gaming group.
Let me know how it goes!
Really? Going to delete my comment because I don’t agree with you?
Ooof, I’m apparently dumb. Never mind
No, I just have to approve a first comment from a new poster, and I have a sleep cycle. 😉 Hold your horses, it’s not automated!
This is how I’ve been running Etinerra for the past ten years. You’ve just said it more awesomely than I could have.
This is very much how I handle things as a GM too. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t run an official D&D setting in ages. Depends on the group of course, but people tend to be more resistant to ripping the official stuff to bits and pieces, and shifting them around, than they are 3rd party stuff.
I haven’t seen any OSR rulesets except for Beyond the Wall build this style of play directly into their rules. At least not the way a lot of storygames like Microscope do. I’m curious whether Skeleton (that is the name still, right?) incorporates any of this? Or do you think it only belongs in adventure/setting material?
(I have to set up some kind of notifications so I see pre-approved comments faster! :D)
Skeleton is still the name, yeah. I think there’s a lot more overlap in the way OSR rulesets and storygames do many many things, just often things aren’t as explicit or codified in the OSR rulesets. There’s a lot of assumed culture there around bringing different classes to the game and improvising things and pieces of the world as they go along. When we play, I explicitly encourage players to try inventing new classes, bringing other classes to the game, or cludging things up. The emphasis on exploration over combat really makes OSR games amenable to this kind of freeform play because balance isn’t such a “vital” issue.
That said, I think at the end of the day it’s really a case of what the individual game group is comfortable with.