Sunday, 31 January 2016

Making a Fantasy Sandbox: Part I

This series will show my step-by-step creation of a fantasy world using Rob Conley's How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox. Aside from following the guide for the fun of it, I want to create a detailed world for the purpose of running a little experiment.

Part II
Part III

Step one, from Rob's guide:
1. Using one page sketch a world or continent map
I actually started with a concept phase before step one. My main source of inspiration for this campaign setting is Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album.

I like the arctic setting and the weird, desolate fantasy the album evokes for me. Based on that, I decided on a northern continent for my map.

Next, I gathered some reference material. I want to create a realistic northern medieval setting, so I chose two history books: The Middle Ages and Viking Age. I also chose some Norse mythology books, and for mapping, Jared Blando's How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps.

You don't need to go to this level of research, but I find drawing from actual history and myth gives me a ton of ideas that I would never come up with myself. There are all sorts of little details you can steal from history books.

For my continent map, I got a vague sense of where I should place mountains and things from Rob's guide, then just started drawing. All you need for this map is to place in coasts, islands, mountains, hills, forests, rivers, and lakes. I spent a lot more time on it than I needed to, but the more beautiful I can make my campaign map, the more inspired I'll feel about running the campaign.

I think I'll call this icy setting Rimeland.

Next up, Part II: labelling important regions and inventing some history.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Immersive Roleplay, or The Mystery Box and Your Imagination

I've grown up on D&D and like many, it's been my number one game and has served me well. Even still, after running so many games with various levels of preparedness, from almost fully improvised to thoroughly plotted out, I'd become disenchanted with it. On top of the issues I was having with some group dynamics, I felt the rules were somehow getting in the way of what I was subconsciously trying to achieve. Frustrated, I decided to give up on roleplaying for a while.

It wasn't until a few days later that I found the old spark again, the one that drew me to the hobby in the first place, and this time, it lit a flame.

I was reading The Knight by Gene Wolfe, and that old sense of wonder started to fill me. That feeling that there's a whole other world just behind the pages, filled with fantastic possibility. I caught myself wondering what exactly caused that feeling. The answer I came up with was the Mystery Box.

The Mystery Box is an idea J. J. Abrams presents in his TED Talk. The Mystery Box is a question, one that entices the audience to keep watching because they're so curious about what's in the box. It hit me that it was because I didn't know what else was out there in the world of The Knight that created that sense of wonder. There was such realism in what was presented that my imagination was able to create the sensation that there was a ton of stuff that wasn't presented but which existed. This is the power of allusion and illusion, and this is what creates wonder. Not knowing things is the key to immersion.

I knew right away I wanted to make this happen in an RPG, that it was what I'd been looking for. I started thinking about experiences I'd had in the past that were immersive, that created that sensation of fantastic possibility. Books, of course, are on the list. I thought about the immersive video games I've played and I realized that the best one don't give you a set of rules you need to learn before playing the game. You just go into the world. 

You can't see the rule set in a world. You don't walk around seeing lines of codes like Neo or something. You make choices based on what you perceive to be true about the world with your senses. That got me thinking about MUDs (text-based roleplaying games if you don't know), which really combine the best of both video games and books: the sensation of fantastic possibility, and choice. The rules are hidden from the player in books, immersive video games, and many MUDs. Just like the rules are hidden from us in the real world. Therefore:

The rules are the Mystery Box.

The Experiment

In order to create the Mystery Box, the players can't know the rules. After realizing this, I decided I needed to do away with an abstract rules interface like D&D if I was going to achieve total immersion. Having no rules or playing a narrative or storytelling game wasn't going to work because the realism, the sense that unchanging laws govern the world, would be missing. I decided I'd have to keep the rules behind the screen so the players would be aware that there were a set of laws governing this world, they just couldn't see it.

The system I'm choosing to use is Fudge because of its simplicity, customizable complexity, and simulative nature. Using Fudge, I'll create a custom rule set and keep it hidden from the players, making all rolls for them and me behind the screen. That's the Mystery Box taken care of.

In order to create the sensation of fantastic possibility, I'll need to use a deeply realistic setting. To achieve that, I think it will need to be a sandbox. I'll be following Rob Conley's How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox, which is a rather large 32-step endeavour which Rob claims should take about 24 hours. I'm pretty sure it's going to take me a lot longer than that, but I think it's necessary for the experiment. Besides, I'm a GM: I love worldbuilding. I toyed with the idea of using Hรขrnworld, but I think it's just as much work to learn and internalize someone else's setting as it is to create your own.

Now I'm ready for step one: creating the campaign map.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Roleplaying Advice: Moving the Energy

So I've been GMing a lot of 5th edition D&D lately, and I mean a lot. Three games a week has given me a chance to put a plethora of GMing tips and tricks to the test. After burning out on my hobby worse than ever before, despite feeling like my GMing skills are greater than ever before, I've come to two conclusions: 1) The single most important ingredient to a fun gaming group is the players; 2) What I want out of the hobby is immersion.

To the first point: the players and the group dynamic are so important to getting the fun of a game. Make sure you like the people you play with, that they like each other, and that everyone is able to pick up on and react to the subtle creativity that players give off during a session. Everyone at the table should encourage each other creatively and feed energy into each other, just like in a stage play. The exchange of energy is vital to the success of a group and its game.

Roleplaying is a kind of performance art, and like any performance art, doing it well requires skill gained through practice. Most roleplaying advice is aimed at game masters, who take on the brunt of the work, but the players must also develop and hone their craft. This does not mean memorizing rules and presenting the GM with reams of detailed backstory, though player creativity should always be encouraged. What it means is developing sensitivity to the energy being passed around at the table and helping move that energy when and where it needs to go. Roleplaying is a collaborative art.

You may be wondering how exactly to move energy around a table. The techniques are the same as those used by actors in the theatre: focusing on the speaker, and reacting. 

Focusing moves energy, and reacting creates it. When a player is performing, whether speaking in character, describing an action, making a tough decision, taking a combat turn, or rolling the dice, you can move the energy to that player by actively paying attention to him or her. When something happens to a player, you can create energy by physically or vocally reacting. These two techniques are simple, and if everybody at the table uses them, I guarantee the energy will keep moving.

Most important rule for players: Pay attention, and share the stage.