Sunday, August 21, 2016

Talking to myself: Culture vs. the Sandbox (June 2014)

Still quite busy and the blog has to take a hit for it. But I'm not or out of ideas. Just busy. Anyway, I had an idea that might be a fun exercise, doesn't mean much work (I hope) and will result in something that requires a cup of coffee and a bit of muse: I'll re-examine a two year old post of mine and add what my thoughts are about it now. Maybe it even starts a discussion. We'll see. The basic premise:
"A lack of story in a game is always derived from a lack of culture represented in a sandbox/setting/gaming world ..."
I'll c/p the original content here and write my current thoughts about it in between, marked as [Today: ...]. This being a post from two years ago should mean that most of my current readers might not be aware of it or totally forgot about it. That's a plus, I think :) Well, here we go:

Yggdrasil 1: Classic interpretation [source]
I've tried, you know [Today: Still trying ...]

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.
[Today: Yeah, Tyranny of Randomness, here we go. Main reason for this being so intimidating at the time had been that the tools I used back then were not ideal for what I was doing. You see, the classic D&D game (I used a heavily modified D&D Rules Cyclopedia at the time) completely relied on the DM being somehow prepared or using an official product, so it never intended to produce a random chain of events and instead a random chain of turns ...]
Take for example rumors 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.
[Today: Funny, right now I'd say you have to go with stories instead. That being said, I'd like to stress that the way we tell stories is indeed derived from culture. So the bonus content here would be that if you try to emulate a certain culture, you should learn how they told their stories and use that in your game ... But on with the text.]
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 onward or somewhere in between.
[Today: What I'm saying here is that you can start wherever you want to create random content, as long as you keep straight what's established as fact and what is just known by the characters. As long as the construct you are ending up with retains credibility, it'll hold in a campaign. That's causality derived from constants and variety ... ] 
Yggdrasil 2: Esoteric interpretation [source]
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.
[Today: This really should be a post of its own. And I really can't exaggerate this enough: Nothing we tell our players needs to be true. It just needs to be connected. As they explore their surroundings they'll update their knowledge with what they think is the truth and so on. It's the classic "No one goes into this forest, there are demons in there!" and then it's just some creative savages or a curse with a tragic story. Or both and the players just find one aspect. The relation between what is known and what the story says is happening just needs to be nourished constantly. Stuff like "You thought that it was dark magic, but it just had been ..." or "The elders had been wrong about that foreign land to the east and that sea they talked about had just been a giant lake after all ...". As long as you are able to establish meaning and connections, it'll keep credibility. We rely far to much on the maps we use as being true and base our games on them, but that's a very young idea in history and an illusion on its own.]
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 behavior 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.
[Today: It actually makes me a bit happy to read this, as I really managed to build something like this two times since I wrote it. The first is a Random Territory Generator I use for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, the second is a Mission Generator for The Grind ... both produce very specific results for the stories they want to tell, just as described above.]
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.
[Today: There are two things happening here. For one, it's important that the decisions a player has in a game are informed by what the setting needs and by that it will enter the story. It's an idea I incorporated (for instance) into the character generation for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and I can say with some confidence right now that it does indeed work. The second part is how cultures manifest in a setting and how that informs NPC decisions. I still need to do this and it had been the main reason to read this old post to begin with.]
Yggrasil 3: Marvel interpretation [source]
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 ...
[Today: Well, I thought I'd agree less with something I wrote 2 years ago. What changed from then to now, though, is that I believe I found (almost) all the tools I need to make this work for me. The last piece in this puzzle, at least for LSotN, would be the Random Story Seed Generator I wrote about a few months ago. I'm right now working at an updated version (which will be posted soon, I hope), but it already works great as it is. I'm still missing a culture generator that'll help me bringing the Dark Ages to life in the game. And that's it. I hope you guys enjoyed this little re-post and maybe we get to start a discussion here or you'd like to share some of your ideas about randomness with us. Comments are, as always, very welcome.]


  1. very interesting, thanks for the read. looking forward to your culture generator!

    1. You are very welcome. I aim to tackle this beast some time this year, I think, as I'd really like to use it for the Lost Songs play tests. So it's going to happen relatively soon :)

  2. It is funny, those of us with blogs can actually track our personal improvement as we seek to actually master our roles. A few years ago, I didn't want anything random in my adventures, I wasn't at a spot yet where I could use it as the tool that it is. Today I love it when I get bizarre and seemingly contradictory results, it is fun to attempt to make it work in an aesthetically pleasing way.

    Today I use random encounters, but they are still generated during the prep stage of the adventure. I prefer the detailed kind, but I do use the other as well, as long as it makes sense. In my mind, if a random encounter is detected by the players as what it is, then I've failed. My goal is to make them seem organic and more complex than they really are. Naturally, the larger the portion of the map is, the harder this becomes, but not impossible. While my last campaign idea ended in failure, the methods that I had adapted to prep a large area was a tremendously useful experience. I knew roughly what was going on in all general areas of the map, which ended up making travel and wilderness exploration more enjoyable than the scenes that I had wrote in detail. We played with that map for a long time and it never got old!

    My story was a simple one, that of invasion. I can see the benefits of a generation tool which quickly suggests a large scale idea of what is going on in a given area which is independent of the characters, however I also notice some pitfalls as I could see this tool potentially limiting play, not that every tool that we have in our arsenal is ever perfect, and a good DM knows when and when not to use random generation. I would still be interested in seeing what you could come up with.

    1. Thanks, Ripper! I try to solve everything as random as possible, but often enough it begins with asking the right questions. Like, I ask at the beginning of a session what the weather is like and roll a d20. Later I'll roll the same die, but not to see what the weather is right now, but how it changed ... So it's mostly about interpreting the results you get, but with continuity in mind. And I totally agree that random results feel more organic and complex. Good call on Random Encounters, btw! That's how I like it, too :) And it usually makes for a good story to find the explanation for a weird result! As far as the story development goes, I'll always go with the picaresque before anything else. Weird and random results all over the place and somehow it all merges into one coherent entity over time. Beautiful, but hard work :)

      I think everything that could be somehow measured in a game could just as well be random, but I know that's just as much a matter of taste. So if it works for me, it doesn't have to work for everyone else. And even with me it might change from game to game (still would take the Monster Reaction Table into every game ... it's really hard to find or make a substitute for that!). Never without, though. It's the main reason why I think "light rules" are somewhat suspect, IMO, because most of the time the DM tools are among the first things that get cut out.

      I work on something like that right now and hope I'll get it done soon. It'll illustrate some of the points I made here, I hope :)


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