Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bones, Not Flesh...

As I sit here waiting for laundry to dry, I've begun thinking about my gaming history and how I've changed within that span on time.

When I was new (a whopping 8 years old), I had been introduced to this whole new gateway for my creativity. While I was not well versed in Tolkien and other fantasy literature (and I'm still not), I had an active imagination, and with pencils, hex/graph paper, and crayons in hand, I began to make WORLDS. All sorts of worlds, spun whole cloth out of my head. Very few of these places made sense, and in fact, all are forgotten, but I do remember creating outdoor regions, and the dungeons and ruins that populated them. Timeless places of adventure that my friends and I could explore for days...

As I got older, I grew out of the "fantasy" bug. I still liked to roleplay, but, by the time I was sixteen, I was looking for different flavors like Top Secret or Paranoia. I eventually hit my stride with superhero games like Champions, but still dabbled in other things, just to keep the creative muscles limber.

In my twenties, I began to experiment with game mechanics and homebrew game systems. How things worked intrigued me, and after dissecting numerous different systems, I came to the conclusion that I could do as well as anyone else. Systems, themselves, though, are boring as dirt. Without the meat hanging from the skeleton, all games look like the same thing... ...just bones. As a result, I became good at placing drapes in the window, making games with just enough background to make characters, but not enough to withstand true scrutiny. In my development of design, that's where I've stayed for the last fifteen or so years...

I've come up with many cool settings, but have never fleshed any of them out to be truly workable... Settings like...

Ones & Zeroes -- A take on the 80s-esque cyberpunk of Gibson, Sterling, and Williams. Elements include the stratified sections of New Madrid (Lowtown, Midtown, and Hightown), the Steel Ceiling, the Crystal Tower, as well as typical cyberpunk body modifications.

Commuters -- Time-traveling criminals who work for a futuristic government agency whose mission is to fix anomalies to history, or die trying.

Nightcrawlers -- A world much like our own, where the things that go bump in the night really do go bump in the night.

Tai'eres -- A human-centric fantasy world (think Conan) that's been invaded by crystalline aliens. The invasion has been beaten back, but in its wake Tai'eres was left with the keys to unlock the full potential of the land.

There are about half a dozen others on the hard drive (Division 6, Slidesteps, Surreality, Thump-AIIIEEEE!!!!, just to name a few), but none of them have much more than notes sketching out what they are supposed. With those notes *I* personally can run adventures, but anyone else will draw a complete blank.

I'm forty-four now, and somewhere I've lost the ability to create worlds. I can still run things with my few notes, and have a great time doing so, but I want more. I want what I was once able to do on command. Create worlds without my intellect getting in the way and bogging things down in details.

How do other people deal with that?

-- GopherDave


  1. I got this response in my e-mail box today...


    Hey Dave,

    I just read your latest Blog post. Since I do not have a blog I can't post on yours, so i decided to send you this e-mail instead.

    After reading your post I think I can understand where some of your frustration with the games you are running is coming from. I understand the need to create a world of your own to play in. It makes you feel like God. Everything is under your control…except for the players, to some extent. And if things don’t quite go the way you imagine them then that can get very frustrating.

    I think that part of your frustration with the current Champions game is that at the beginning we had a really great team. Everyone got along and we really clicked. That is a very rare thing. The only other times I can remember that happening was Dennis’ London game and Chuck Hubers’ Washington game. Then guys started to drop out and the people who joined up had no experience with a comic book setting…and it showed. Things started to get weirder and weirder. Half the team wanted nothing to do with the other half.

    I think the background that you have created is a good one. Some stuff scared the crap out of me, which is cool. But maybe it is not enough for you. But you need to realize that any world you come up with is subject to the whims of the players.

    Thinking back, I haven’t really tried creating that many worlds. I think I like to spend my time running games. I have taken many settings and then added my own spin to them. I ran my WWII Champs game for many years, and my Buffy game has been going for a long time too. Now I am running a Dark heresy game. So far all of the stuff I have run has come straight from the books. I just don’t have the time to write up something on my own. My Buffy game sort of runs itself. I come up with a main idea and one or two side plots for the night and then I just wing it. The players flesh it out.


  2. Actually, Tom...

    The Phoenix Champions game was the last thing from my mind when I was writing this.

    What I am lamenting here is my loss of the ability to write background material for a setting.

    You know how Forgotten Realms has a HUGE amount of stuff written for it? So much stuff that it becomes easy for players to bring forth characters full of life and flavor. Yeah...

    At one point in time, I could write at least a starter box full of material for any setting I was running. Part of what fueled that was available time, but another part was just young imagination running wild and unfettered.

    Anymore, if I get an 8-page handout written before I start a game, it's a minor act of God.

    I typically do not have the time to work as much as I would like, but I also don't have the inclination any longer due to accumulated cynicism that comes with age and experience.

    Invariably, in the past, when I wrote a bunch of setting material, the players went off in directions that took them far and away from what I had prepared. Now, by writing practically nothing and trying to wing it, I invariably toss out answers that eventually contradict each other. Usually, it's minor stuff, but it can cause a break in the mood for the players, and for some folks, just straight drops them out of the game.

    As for players not following my story... it took a while, but I have come to accept that as fact for any typical RPG. Mostly, because I have realized that we are writing PLAYERS stories in MY worlds...

    I just wish I still had the ability to add meat to the bones and flesh those worlds out more...

    -- GopherDave

  3. Yeah...maybe it was not wise of me to bring up the Phoenix game. I was trying to use it as an example. Like you said, you did a short write up of the world history and of several of the movers and shakers that inhabit that world (heroes, villains, agencies and the like).

    While that is helpful in getting the game started, you, of course, want more background for the world you are creating. You want to be able to know what the people who inhabit your world are like. What they might do in any given situation.

    Forgotten Realms was not the work of one person. It has taken several people years to write the amount of material that you are talking about. People that are writing non-stop for months.

    Pardon me for sounding like an idiot, but when you say you don't have the inclination due to accumulated cynicism what exactly do you mean?

    As to getting caught with your pants down, join the club. I’ve got several notebooks full of…notes taken during my Buffy game sessions just for this purpose. And I still slip up from time to time.

    Like many others I just don’t have enough time to write material for my games…and like you I am now running two games, except that I can’t use any material from one in the other.

    There is only one way to get characters to do what you want, and as a player I hate being railroaded. As you just said, an RPG session is a collaboration between GM and players in creating a story about said player characters set in said GMs world. As the story progresses the world may end up changing from what the GM had envisioned.

    "I just wish I still had the ability to add meat to the bones and flesh those worlds out more..."

    I know you have it in you to create. I've seen it. This kind of stuff takes time. Things and people do change. You are not the same person you were when you first started running/playing in games. Everything you have lived through influences what you do now.


  4. "Pardon me for sounding like an idiot, but when you say you don't have the inclination due to accumulated cynicism what exactly do you mean?"

    Basically, I don't flesh out adventure/setting notes much anymore due to a lifetime of being "X+1"'d where I plan for X and the players do the one thing I don't expect. After so many decades of that happening to me, I've reached a "why do I bother" point and stopped doing much planning at all.

    As a result, I've passed the happy median between "Overprepeared" and "No preparation at all", and have almost slid enitrely toward the "no prep" side of the dial. There's "winging it" and then there's "winging it with no net". Lately, not only does it seem like I've left the net at home, but I've also gone as far as negelcting to purchase one at all, and that tends to make for crappy game sessions.

    "I know you have it in you to create. I've seen it. This kind of stuff takes time. Things and people do change. You are not the same person you were when you first started running/playing in games. Everything you have lived through influences what you do now."

    That's what bugs me... I *KNOW* I'm creative... I have no doubt the spark is there, but bringing it forth anymore has become difficult for me, almost achingly so... ...and pain hurts, so I tend not to try that hard any longer.

    I also realize that I am not the same person I once was... I'm just trying to figure out why I can't tap into my creative spark as easily as I once was able to...

  5. I know what you mean about being X+1'd. It is almost impossible to plan out exactly what you want to happen in a particular game session unless you lead the players by their noses.

    Of course there are some GMs who know their players so well that they are able to put something together that will hit the players psych lims (the players, not the characters), and get them to go in the direction the GM wanted.

    Anymore my only game preparation consists of coming up with a main plot idea and 1 or 2 subplots. I write maybe 1-2 paragraphs down so I remember what I want to do. That way I can just "go with the flow". If the players go in a completely different direction I happily go along with them. I have found that I have become better at thinking on my feet as the years go by.

    My players and I have a pretty good relationship. As a matter of fact one of my players came up with something at the end of our last session which took the wind out of me! Luckily it was the end of the night so I was able to think about what she did, and I have come up with what I hope will be a really fun run next time.


  6. World creation takes a lot, especially mentally. I personally know how much "stuff" you have going on at any one time, and there are times when your games get the amount of attention you have at the moment; which is to say, not a lot.

    I have said many times that gaming is the "other woman", and it often feels like "she" gets a lot more attention. With the store essentially taking the place of gaming, you are in the curious position of trying to placate multiple ladies without increasing the amount of energy you have available. (Ladies =store, Chi and Phx. Plus me.)

    Unfortunately, they are not as patient as me, and they do not do well when they are not attended to, doted on, and generally wined and dined.

    I know you need games to keep your wits about you, and I know you ENJOY running a game, where you actually have control over SOMETHING as opposed to life where things just attack out of spite.

    Would using precreated meat suits (existing worlds) help you?