Monday, June 11, 2012

A DM Looks Back pt. 2: Space Pens, Artisanal Pencil Sharpening, and Using the Tools We Have

Who knows when to start/stop building?  I look into the concept of Campaign Investment in Players and DMs.

We all love the worlds we build.  We make them with loving care, we spend days, months, even years before the first PC ever picks up pen and paper and rolls those dice that will determine their life and death in our creations...

But what is the net gain for your players?  There are 66 'notable' published settings in the Fantasy Campaign section of the List of Campaign Settings alone.  We're not counting all of the Horror, Science Fiction, and Historical settings we see on a daily basis.  A player who loves Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Uresia has invested a long period of time (and possibly a goodly sum of money) into their chosen poison, and they aren't willing to let up.

I was once of the opinion that a setting is the end game and that creating something immersive required a hundred-page treatise.  As we discussed in our previous article this can be a dangerous proposition.  So what can we do to make this a bit easier?

Well, it is all about the Investment the players will make.

The whole concept of player Investment can easily be summed up by this apocryphal discussion of the  US/USSR Space Race and the creation of the Space Pen (quoted here from a hoax email on the topic cited here:

When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 million developing a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300C.

When confronted with the same problem, the Russians used a pencil.

I do not wish to bring up old wounds... I know that some of my readers are former Wolverines, and I thank you for your service against the Red Menace.
But the reasoning is sound.  In this urban legend the US Space agency (NASA) spends a significant amount of resources on something that has the same basic function as one of the oldest tools in the business.  
But what if we spend those resources on additional points, to flesh out the rest of the world?
As I was readying this article I was going to refer to Underwater Basket Weaving.  That old chestnut of the 'useless tasks', and a canard that just doesn't fit in with the rest of my narrative.

And then, from the wonderful world of Cyberspace came my savior, on the wings of a burred sharpener and  tongue-in-cheek discussions of 'artisanal' crafts and the overblown wonders of the slow world model.

Shameless Plug for APS Inserted
I speak, of course, of Artisanal Pencil Sharpening.  The brilliant little conceptual piece generated by David Rees of Get Your War On fame.  As a guy who uses stock art to his advantage I understand the wonders of  GYWO and other works, but I feel that Rees has topped himself for providing me the perfect metaphor for my piece.  The tipping point of APS Worldbuilding is where the setting (homebrew or commercial) begins to expend more time, money, and sanity to make it useful than the system is necessarily worth.

And this, my friends, is a completely sliding scale.  While I personally love a deep, immersive setting creation process I know that 80% of players will not read my manifesto on my cause d'jour if it isn't presented in a nice easy-to-read glossy format, with pictures and wonderment.  It is not the fault of the players nor the builder but the fault that new settings are incredibly boring.

That doesn't mean the setting is boring to you, or even all of your player base.  I love delving in to a new setting, where I get to poke around and feel the flavorful writing.  But that comes from me being a DM first and a player second (by force, not choice).  I would not, for example, spend the time to read every Forgotten Realms setting book to gain knowledge of the intricacies of Faerun if I am not personally invested.

And there's the rub.  Sharpen your pencils all you want; the players just want to use their leads to draw out a whole new world.  They may even miss some of your own subtleties, the attention you have put into the detailing of X,Y or Z on first encounter.  But those things may need to be there in case the players go down that route.  Or you can create a whole new, interesting take when it comes to that time and you're seeking out that new tidbit.

Seriously.  Check out Obsidian Portal for your
next game.
The use of campaign Wikis for online and real-life games is a great system.  A hyperlink encyclopedia, allowing the player to get to 'the meat' of their needs, invest as little or as much time and effort into learning things as possible... And allowing you to fill in to your heart's content. I would have loved to have such tools while working on campaign settings of the past because the y provide the player with a searchable database of every nook and cranny.  You want to create something that is above and beyond the available?  Then use the system... Or, of course, you can file the serial numbers off of the vast array of available settings, sweeten and salt to taste, and build a masterpiece of text manipulation that the players will feel right at home in.

So, in the long haul, what are we to learn from this ramble?  Well, we must learn that investment of the player in the setting is based on the net gain in enjoyment of the player.  Spending a thousand hours of your time to create your masterpiece may be futile if the players just want to roll with a simple backdrop that they may use to create their own stories without the weight of a setting on their shoulders.  And, while a campaign setting may be created, there is always a strange point that will arise where the investment of your personal time as a player or DM becomes moot, and actually adversely affects the enjoyment of the game.

I hope you learned something, and if you're not scratching your head too much feel free to comment or email me at

As Always

Good Gaming.