Sunday, July 26, 2015

Expanding on the Basic Random Terrain Generator (with Fairies), Communications in the Dark Ages (on the side) and Complexity in Game Design (because this title isn't long enough ...) Part 1

The last time I wrote about this, I was a bit vague about the different layers of history, magic and evil this generator randomly assigns to some hexes. Well, I'm now able to shed a bit more light unto that, so I thought I might share and talk about some related ideas behind all this. The post is all over the place (as if the title wouldn't give it away already)and I need to post it in two parts. This first is a little summary of the idea and some musings about complexity to get you all in the mood. The second part (which is already half done and will be posted tomorrow) will expand on the original idea and clarify some of the rules of the original Basic Random Terrain Generator (B.R.T.G.) ...

So far about the Basic Random Terrain Generator (concept)

The basic idea here is to allow every Dungeon Master to create his own random and "organic" gaming territory for the characters to explore from scratch. The themes are mostly the same from territory to territory: after the barbarian mass migration round about 500 AD, a new clan forms and settles in the randomly generated territory. Most of the new land is unexplored, most of the knowledge is so spread, you could say it is lost.

The characters are the first generation of explorers. To simulate this at the table I'll encourage DMs to NOT go with historical maps of Europe for this game, but with a completely random map that could be anywhere in a historical Europe. Believe me, the guys at the time couldn't tell you the difference anyway, as topographical maps would emerge only hundreds and hundreds of years later in this area. They really had, at most, a very alien concept of the world surrounding them.

They had stories and landmarks, basically. Borders where an idea strongly related to "There be Dragons!", "Don't go there, because ...!" or "There is no safe passage across those mountains.". So I believe there are five important factors a random generator for Lost Songs should include:
  1. The flow of the land.
  2. Enemy territory.
  3. Former Roman territory.
  4. Where Evil lurks.
  5. Where the realm of magic and faeries meets reality.

Those five form natural borders of a clan's known world. A sandbox/storybox, if you will. Before anything else, they inform a DM about the possibilities and directions a campaign might take. There'll be room for interpretation, of course, and even after telling all those rumors, nothing of this but the "flow of the land" is set into stone.

Why? Because most of the time only the core of a rumor is true. That's for the simple reason that people hadn't been there themselves, for one, and that exaggeration has the benefit of being more memorable than the truth. Look at any cheap newspaper to get an idea what I'm talking about. Or, in a more historical context, look up some research about folk tales and you'll sooner or later encounter those tales which had the sole reason of warning people about one danger or another (I recall one of Grimm's fairy tales that was a bit more obvious in this, talking about cannibals living in a particular forest, to give but one example).

Complexity in Game Design

"Why should things be easy to understand?"*

Let's agree on something first: I'd venture a guess and state that most things that are easy to understand are stripped of their complexity to allow an easy access. One is able to explain gravity to a ten year old, but only in terms that allow him to get an idea about the concept, not so much in a way that does the complexity of the subject any justice.

So the understanding of a thing is not necessarily related to it's complexity, but more to what a recipient of the related knowledge is able to grasp and connect. And since "understanding" always implies setting new information into an established context in a way that allows processing it in a useful way (a benefit, if you will), the measure between "easy" and "hard" is merely describing the difficulty of putting new information related to a thing to an useful end and NOT saying anything about the true complexity of a thing ...

In other words (and more to the point), complexity in game design is only a problem if you can't explain the result. It even doesn't mean that you are not able to explain it (since that's something that can be changed), it really means can't. Which actually bears the question if such a condition is possible: is there a rule so complex imaginable that it's impossible to explain even the most basic ideas behind it? I really don't think so. But between the complexity of a thing and the ability of the person describing it to convey a proper understanding, might, in correspondence with the individual receiving the information, arise a difficulty level.

So in theory, at least, the rule is not the "problem", the one trying to understand it is and accessibility is the difficulty. Which, when all is said and done, should encourage game designers to get as complex as they want, if it makes for a better game and worry about how to explain it at another stage.

That's how I do it right now. Start complex, constantly practice explaining it and simplify as often as possible in the process ...

The B.R.T.G. will be a complex tool (I think)

That's it for today. As you probably can tell, I had my thoughts about this little tool of mine. Is it too complex? Does it do too much? I mean, who really cares about where the weather is coming from or how and where forests develop and where savanna? Must a DM go really this far when creating his own setting? I think it's worthwhile thinking about such things and I believe I should go all the way with this idea and see where it ends up. In an ideal case I can test what works and what not to trim it down later.

But for now I have to expand on it first. So I hope to see you guys tomorrow when I give them fairies a home and allow some evil from the stars into the setting (yes, there will be tentacles after all ...).

By now you can just keep on reading Part 2 here.

Just thought this was an awesome picture worth sharing ...

* Thomas Pynchon about complexity in a Playboy interview in 1977.

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