Sunday, June 15, 2014

Culture vs. the Sandbox (or how vanilla do you like your fantasy)

Although I'm not that much in the writing game right now, I'm still grinding some of the topics I started writing about some time ago. How to create a totally random and analogue system (a world engine, if you like) that results in a Sandbox for my fantasy game is one of those topics. The more time I get to reflect about things, the more I realize my basic problem with said beloved Sandbox (or how I understand the term, anyway) is a lack of potential story. So as a thesis I'd state: A lack of story in a game is always derived from a lack of culture represented in a sandbox/setting/gaming world ... Let's talk about this.

I've tried, you know.

All those random shenanigans I've tried, the tables I used to create content with in the last few games, the random maps and names, all this left me feeling, well, unprepared at the table. A strange feeling for a DM indeed and most unwelcome, to say the least. Although I had everything I needed (as far as content goes), I struggled with an apparent defect of connection between what was generated randomly and the interpretation of that content during the game. In other words: as soon as I had rolled what the players were encountering next (a specific creature or event with a motivation and reaction to the characters, etc. ... you all know what is possible), I started to feel the urge to make a story out of it, the result being not random at all but, in the contrary, totally my design, so to say. Exactly what I had tried to avoid in the first place and not even with the luxury to have a developed story arc at hand, but with the need to pull it all out of my arse as I needed it.

Usually I have no problem with generating connections, interpretations and new content as I need it on the table, but this felt different. This tyranny of randomness forced me to think about the people present in a tavern and there motivations at any possible given moment the characters might be entering the locale. It asked for weather and day-to-day routines of peoples, current politics and their effect and all those little nooks and crannies that are really really needed (and in a huge amount, no less) to produce the necessary amount of information that could result in a satisfying variety of adventure hooks needed in a "true" sandbox to make it work.

Because, if you just use a shortcut and make a table with all the funny things you think possible in a specific sandbox, you might as well admit that all this is not random at all, but a random assortment of exactly all the things that could possibly happen. There is a difference.

Take for example rumours of a bear attacking wood cutters near a settlement. A good enough adventure hook, I think. But where is that bear coming from, why did he leave? A bigger predator claiming his territory, maybe? Why is he attacking people? Is it for a lack of other prey? What's with all that, then?

So you see, every event has a chain of relevant causalities (of connected events, if you will) leading to it. The results of these events (if you dare going as far as producing that much information, that is) might be random, but you have to start somewhere. And that place is so totally unimportant and insignificant for what happens at the table, with so much small and moving pieces in between, that it doesn't seem worth to even try to figure out where to start.

But if you were looking for where to start with those chains of events, cultures would be the way to go. It might seem counter-intuitive, especially with the example of the bear above, but stay with me. I'll get there.

Causality goes both ways ...

It's a good thing that causality can go both ways from an established point, if that point is well chosen. Constants and varieties are the base criteria for such an endeavor and that's exactly what the term culture enfolds. Following that link to wikipedia will only help in realizing how big a topic culture can be, this is the variety. On the other hand it shows very well how all those cultural variety is labeled, so there are your constants. That all cultures are a product of their specific surroundings is where causality comes into play. If you have a social group of sentient apes living on a shore, you'll have some fishing and legends and rituals connected to the sea, stuff like that.

So this might be a point from where an interpretation of causality easily goes both ways. The characters encounter a settlement at a shore and a DM just knows there will be forms of cultural representation regarding that fact. Going the other way would mean, if the surroundings change for the settlement (say, they were forced to leave, for instance), they will take some of their cultural achievements with them (maybe some legends and stories and names remain in their songs, stuff like that) so that at a later point it can be recognized and traced back again, etc..

As far as creating content for a role playing game is concerned, this means basically:
Every point of entry in a campaign is legit. It's either created up to the point of entry, from that point onwards or somewhere in between.
Perception of a world, the players view (an intermission).

This occurred to me some time ago and maybe it's worth a post of it's own, but for this argument I deem it important to have it at least mentioned as food for thought: the flow of information in a fantasy setting (or in every setting, if you think about it) prevents a complete and true understanding of the world surrounding a player character. All characters can know is interpretations and stories, distance being one main factor regarding the accuracy of the information gathered, culture being another one.

So even if you start a campaign with nothing but an idea for a starting area and tell the players tall stories about what the world around them is filled with, nothing of this needs to be true and might be challenged entirely in the next village. Even if a DM did do all the work to create a complete world, the only chance for the characters to know it with some kind of certainty should be by exploring it, because it's not about what's a world comprised of, but about how a culture interprets and communicates it.

So the "true" sandbox is not the world/map itself (the board, if you will) but the amount of interpretations (or stories!) of said world. And that is the amount of cultures in a setting.

It's evolution, baby (Creating a Sandbox 101)!

Let's get back to that bear again. What we like to perceive as culture is more often than not a direct result of our natural heritage. Opposing thumbs, courtship display, all that stuff. This is, again, about capabilities resulting in behaviour in accordance to its surroundings. To phrase it another way, it's easier to create a possible pattern of what a bear might do than it is to do the same for a human being, but ultimately it's the same basics. Evolution allowed for the development of cultures with the intelligent apes, for the bear not so much, which leaves him with what evolution is capable of.

This is where the relevant data is, this is where stories are developed. You'll need the lay of the land, that is true (and easy enough achieved with a degree of difficulty open to the top), but it'll mainly produce constants with almost no variety. So if that's done, you'll just have a board for all the parties involved to leave a mark on.

Layers and layers and layers of true randomness!

Next is where the DM decides how vanilla it gets. It is basically the decision how much culture a DM is willing to invent or how many memes and tropes he is willing to use.  It is a very broad spectrum, ranging from, say, the elves, dwarfs and hobbits how Tolkien described them to a complete new set of races, invented from scratch. Or a world having no moon, one moon or 5. But whatever is decided, I believe it is important for a DM to make the decision where to start consciously and up to a point where the number of former decisions, random or not, produce a pattern complex enough to carry a narrative.

This means layers and layers of decisions if he wants to have a sandbox-setting or a world-engine with a totally random, but traceable history. A huge task.

Culture, memes and the story ...

Alright, let's connect some dots and get back to the thesis at hand. I think it's conclusive that it's almost irrelevant were to start with the randomness or what kind of map is used, as long as there's enough to work with (a few encounter and reaction tables and a map worth exploring, maybe). The available cultures, on the other hand, might be what really matters when a DM creates/prepares a setting, because it is what the players get confronted with as soon as they start creating characters and in the game it's their tool to interact with the world. And it is how stories emanate.

Memes can come in handy in this in as far as if, for example, a player has a more or less clear picture of  what a dwarf is, he can easily enough play one. Some familiarity with a setting can go a long way in helping the players getting some immersion. Another argument for using memes is that to recognize variety you need to know the source. So it helps when describing a set of random cultures if the source is still recognizable.

In the end, if you want to know what the people do and why they react the way they react, you need a fair idea of the cultural context surrounding the encounter to make a story about it. If the players live in a matriarchy, for example, all the roles they know might be reversed and if those roles are inspired by a medieval society, you'll have women knights courting men in fancy dresses and so on. So everything a DM establishes for a culture helps him telling the stories the characters encounter. The more work he puts in that, the better will be the stories he's going to tell.

What next?

Those are the basics so far. Maybe it's able to start a discussion, exploring those ideas a bit further or even challenge them. Maybe not. Anyway, in future posts I'll further examine how a DM could utilize the idea of culture as a tool to carry the narrative of the game and I should give some examples, maybe a system how to randomly generate a culture. Right now I think it might be useful to have an index for a culture how obscure their idea of the world surrounding them is. Something like, the lower the index, the closer are those interpretations to reality ...

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