Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Map is not the Territory - Part 4 (procedural moving)

Alright, let's finish this series. I want to get this done properly, but I also want to write a couple of other things (yeah, there's more to come, maybe even this month), so we'll take one more dive into the subject, talking about maps I think are great for the game, a bit about how I like to do it and why, and finally about what else we can do for gaming maps.

Disclaimer 2: I like pretty maps, I really do, but using them in my games has always been a problem for me and that's why we are talking about this here. Not that it is going to change a thing, mind you. Nonetheless, the process had me thinking about the subject in depth and the discussions that followed changed some of my opinions on aspects of this. And old school dungeons are fun! Going a little board-gamey never hurt the experience ... When all is said and done, you do you want and I do the same. It's always about what works for you, right?

Part 1 is all over the place and should maybe be Part 0 instead (or Part 3, not sure yet), but Part 2 will bring you up to speed about the topic and my approach towards it. Part 3 talks a bit about how movement in RPGs is connected to numbers and not to maps. It also takes a look at maps computer games. The D&D RC has a guest appearance, too (because I like what they did).

There's also (always) stuff others wrote to consider. So we have +Vb Wyrde with two articles about maps worth checking out here and here. +Brian Murphy wrote a nice blog as a response to an aspect of part 2. It's a defense of the Tolkien map and fantasy maps in general. Also very much worth reading (adding some great maps to boot) and you can do so here. I'm sure there's more like this around.

You can read all that (which is a lot, I guess) or you just go in cold right here. Whatever floats your boat.

Good shit!

Let's make this a quick one: I love, love, love the walkthrough maps of classic RPG modules done by Jason Thompson:

Check the source for all the beautiful detail -> [source]
What a great way to introduce a DM to a module! It connects all the dots while highlighting some crucial points. Sure, it's just one interpretation how any given adventure could go down, but I always thought it should be mandatory with huge location-based adventures to give an overview like this. It's not done often, but when it's done, it's a great tool for a DM to get the basics before the main work is done.

The only problem I see with this is that it's also a great tool for players to get an overview of a module (that is, actually, one of the points against maps we didn't get into yet: cheating players and player expectations because of maps).

A variant of this are detailed but uncommented location maps. Something to show the players to give them the idea what a location looks like. But they are very specific most of the time and there's always a chance you don't get to use a map like this because the players don't show up. Anyway, a great example of this is yet another Temple of Elemental Evil handout:

That's what I want from bought RPG material [source]
It's easily something the characters could see from some vantage point and the chances that the moat-house will see some action when playing this are very high. Plus: it doesn't give away one thing about the location, but works well enough as a map (bonus: you can compare it to the pic posted above!).

Imagine a SF setting done like that! [source]
The beauty of those maps is that they are unreliable and that's the only kind of map you can share with players. It tells the players what the characters might kow about a world and inspires exploration and a vague sense of place, but doesn't interfere with how the world manifests through the DMs imagination (shout out to +trey causey, his blog is where I've seen the map above first). The whole point-crawl concept is based on this approach. I like it a lot.

The last one (I can come up with right now) is the classic treasure map, very much for the same reason stated above: it's unreliable and players can use it to interact with the world in a way where they check how the map connects to the setting, not the other way around. Also (as all of the above, actually) it's a great way to give a game some atmosphere:

The problem is that maps like that aren't done at all. It's such a great opportunity, but it's also just not done by drawing a map with a dotted line leading to an "x", it needs clues and riddles and some tight rules for exploration to make this happening. But wouldn't it make for a fun game? Searching a location for some hidden treasure?

It's sad, but that's the best I could find ... [source]
Wonder why it's never done. I bet you, if you take any decent treasure in a module you own and make a scavenger hunt map for the group to get there through the dungeon, it'd be a blast ... Actually, if you know an adventure or module that does that, point me in that direction. I'd appreciate it.

And that's that. Usability is key, the more the matter. This is not about accuracy or completeness (even when depicting dungeons, as I already alluded to in Part 2), it's about supporting immersion without interfering with the DMs idea of a place.

That's especially true for sold products. If it's DIY, the sky is the limit and the only thing that matters is focus. That's another aspect of maps that got a bit neglected in this series so far: how to draw and what to draw or if to draw at all. It is rare to find advice about this in most rpg books ...

Here's what works for me: the DIY sandbox

I'm all for DIY. I know, you have to take time of your day to make it happen, but the results will always speak for themselves when you get down to it, I feel. Of course we talk individual solutions here, but who cares if you can make it sing, right?

Anyway, I talk a lot about this stuff here on the blog and I was looking for a long time before I reached some satisfying solutions (if you want to explore where I'm at with this, you could read this post and get back to me about it). As I said before, what follows is a very individual approach.

The material I'll use here is from Monkey Business, the module I wrote (no affiliate link, btw). It's different to what I have seen so far in that it allows a DM to create his own jungle crawl. That way, the module has almost no spoilers, just ideas and tools that help manifesting the setting as the players explore it. Here goes.

You'll start with a hex-map, of sorts. I made the decision early on that the main information I want for a hex-field is the height compared to the sea-level and it's complexity. That's a 2d10 roll per hex with the sea-level being at 4. That way you can create all kinds of terrain with just two numbers. You can see where rivers flow and where you get lakes, you can see where trees grow and where mountains are or how weather moves. Just like that.

One thing that really got important to make this work was something I called "cheat sheets". It's not that different to character sheets, but it's for the DM to get an overview for his creation. In MB it looks like this:
The module not only has a result noted for every one of the 100 possible results, it also features a Resource Level to go with the results (where the fertile ground is and all that), which leads to another random generator to fill this with all the available factions (which you'll note on the second and the following pages). An early version of this method can be found here on the blog, for those interested. Here's another example (a hack of the system for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs)
Example with borders, with the arrows indicating the flow of the land ...
As you'll note, I do not care that much about where something in a hex is, and instead more about what it is and how much of it. All this is expressed in numbers, signs and some words. For the module all of this is navigated through the random encounter table or whatever the players can come up with (by asking the way, for instance).

It'll also generate vistas and a DM should get a sense what characters will see when they climb a tree or are on a mountain top and look around. As they explore the area, they'll collect hints or stumble across ruins and so on and so forth (all of which with tools for random creation). Just like with the D&D RC (as discussed in Part 3), the map manifests as the characters explore. Before that it's just numbers.

However, as already pointed out, it doesn't stop with this basic map and annotations, it goes further. There's a random generator for Cannibal Villages that looks like this:

It'll give you a map and lots of numbers and aspects to work with: how many live here, are they friendly or not, hungry, at war ... There's a lot you can generate with little (one roll of dice on that piece of paper and writing down the results).

Again, characters move in numbers, so numbers is what you need for a meaningful interaction with a world also described in numbers. The map this generates is a by-product of the process (still, a map it is). If you want to see the whole thing, I posted the village generator with all the tables here.

There's also a ruin generator that basically produces a mind map for a random location, but it's a bit more complex than what is shown here and a post of its own to go into, but you get the idea (and you can always get Monkey Business for free to play around with this).

It takes a good afternoon to create a huge jungle location with this and it will generate an indefinite number of them, if you want to. You can also go beyond that, if you have the means and the skills to do so and generate those vistas, for instance, make treasure maps to navigate the jungle towards a certain goal (the random treasure generator in there will also produce quest items, for instance).

A DM can go as deep as he wants with this, which includes creating maps for the jungle he already has in numbers. It's all I'd want for a game, really, and I use a huge part of this for my home campaign (as I said, it's an individual approach).

In the End: The Map is not the Territory

We need to ask ourselves how role-playing games really get to benefit from maps, respectively what kind of effort we should expect from publishers in that area. A simple map of an area does not cut it, in my opinion, there's room to evolve here (see some of the examples above).

The main issue I came to realize when writing this here post is that there are no treasure maps out there. None I could find with a couple of Google searches, anyway. But still, why is that?

The next big thing is that DMs need help in that area. Many (many!) role playing games fail to explain DM procedures in general and some philosophy about what maps are needed and why and to what extent (although the D&D Rules Cyclopedia does that, which comes highly recommended, of course). It's a sad affair.

So, the map is not the territory in role playing games, it's the other way around: once you have a territory, you can draw a map of it. My solution is to have all that in numbers, symbols and words before I start drawing anything (or have the players draw something!).

Okay, I'm all out of words for today. I hope this series had something for everyone. Comments and suggestions are, as always, very welcome. If you happen to know a great treasure map, I'd love to hear about it. While we are at it, I'd love to see examples of maps you guys like, so please, share away :)


Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Map is not the Territory - Part 3 (guest starring: the D&D RC)

Here we go, Part 3. In a timely fashion, no less. Anyway, things got a little interesting the last two times around. No hostilities, but under observation. Because maps are a staple in role-playing games, right? And lots of people make a decent buck drawing them, so I guess I start this post by pointing out that I'm not against maps or map making. Well, you might say I'm against lazy map making, especially for something that is sold. But who isn't?! Okay, that being out of the way, I'd say we talk some maps. There will be a Part 4, though. Sorry.

DISCLAIMER: I couldn't draw a nice picture to save my life and I have only a passing knowledge of all things maps. What I know, though, is games and I'm coming at this from the perspective of a game design enthusiast, hoping that I can add an interesting perspective to a fringe discipline of gaming that could benefit a bit from a more procedural approach every now and then.

Part 1 is all over the place and should maybe be Part 0 instead (or Part 3, not sure yet), but Part 2 will bring you up to speed about the topic and my approach towards it. Or you just go in cold. Works for most.

Characters move in numbers ...

Not as in "many of them". Everything we know about our characters' strengths and weaknesses is expressed in numbers (and words, but numbers distinguish characters a bit more). We know how fast or how strong or how clever our character is only by those numbers and how they compare to other numbers.

You want to know if your character is able to do something? You make a roll of the dice (or some other system of resolving chance, but mostly dice) and compare the overall result to ... other numbers. Then there is some form of abstract interpretation of how the result manifests in the game and the figments of our imagination just moved a little bit. Rinse and repeat. Numbers talking to each other.
The world in numbers, right? [source]
Now, all that considered, how figure maps in there? Maybe just a bit more than a character portrait would?

I know, heresy, but think about it: you know the terrain the characters are moving in and their moving speed and you know the direction they are walking in (or think they are walking in). Everything else can be determined by chance (random encounters go a long way here).

You want an example? Check the D&D Rules Cyclopedia! For starters, maps are not factored into wilderness travel (that is: the characters owning or using maps). Without a road or a guide, you'd need a character with the skill Navigation or Knowledge (Area) to get around without getting lost (having skill checks, though). If you don't have any of that, there's a freaking 1-3 chance (in d6) that the group gets lost in the woods without realizing it (see p. 89 in the D&D RC).

More fun facts: players are expected to draw their own wilderness map, using hex-maps with the DM giving the scale (p. 87, D&D RC). You also have movement rates for different terrains and different encumbrance rates, with the simple rule that the slowest character determines the overall travel-rate. It's a numbers game and short of knowing where you are going or finding out by asking around, the players have no chance to get anywhere.

What kind of maps a DM would use is a bit vague in the RC, but it shows at least one approach how a DM is supposed to do this:
"Sketch the terrain in pencil first, so you can make changes; draw the one most noteworthy feature of a one-hex area in that hex. (For example, if there is a mighty city in that hex, use a symbol for a city; if the hex is predominantly forest, use a symbol for forest.) Though you only mark one terrain type in each map hex, many features are assumed to be present in each hex and each type of terrain. For example, a jungle contains clearings, hills, valleys, swamps, and so forth—all represented on the map by a palm tree.
Make up terrain descriptions as needed during games, but don't try to make notes on everything you say. The players should keep records if they want details on wilderness areas. Keep only the information you need to remember for the campaign—cities, castles, important monster lairs, and so forth." (D&D RC, p. 257)
See, that's the most basic map you can have: a hex with a scale and a symbol for the main feature. The DM is not even supposed to have or make notes for everything, it's what the players do! That's it, the rest is notes and "common sense" (actual advice from the RC). Works fine, too. If you play wilderness travel RAW with the RC, you will not lack anything without using any other maps but the basic ones the DM prepared and the ones the players made.

And really, it's just a simplification that allows all involved to give the setting a sense of place. which is (incidentally) the best argument anyone could make about maps: they visualize a setting or aspects of it.

Anyway, player maps!

A short word on this, since we already brushed the subject. The only thing players know about a setting is the notes and maps they did themselves. Sure, it's possible to give them maps as playing aids, which is cool as hell (as all kinds of props are if you are not scared of the effort or cost).

There is an argument to be made, that the word is more powerful to conjure a picture in a mind than a picture would be. I stand by that. Pictures can capture moments and even alter our perception with certain moods and styles. It most certainly can enrich the experience. But so can language and I'd argue this is our main tool when playing role-playing games. Everything else is dressing and preparation. I think we should never forget that.

Another argument for the DIY approach is that it's easy to feel an achievement that way. A player-drawn (dungeon) map (or, really, any extra effort a player is willing to bring into the game) is a beautiful thing to behold and players will hold it dear. Premade material somewhat lessens that experience to something you can buy and own and that changes the way we treat those gaming artifacts. Am I wrong?

A hand-drawn map from Zork 1, made 1981 ... beautiful! [source]

We are not talking computer games, folks

All this stands in brutal conflict with what we have come to expect from computer games, where everything is visual first and words just to a very, very small extent. And more so every year, I think. Nowadays you don't even need to be able to read to play most games and talking is sparse most of the time, too.

This is where maps have always been great tools adding to the experience, especially early on, when the visualizing part wasn't as evolved as it is today. Some of the oldest adventure and role-playing games would have printed maps as part of the package (even Morrowind had that and it was a great way to navigate the game!).

The thing is that computer games always have been (and still are today to some extent) way more restricted than classic pen and paper role-playing games. Words being more powerful and all that, but also the need to be visually specific and the pressure to add more and more detail (down to individual blades of grass and how they move in the wind ... the illusion that it is possible to recreate reality in its entirety and all the problems that come with that).

However, while maps add a huge deal to computer games, they do not work the same way for role-playing games. Actually, many of the problems I see with maps and how they are used derive from computer game culture (as one can say for many problems we see in our hobby, especially regarding expectations and usage ... but that's for another post, maybe).

It's simple, the traditional mode of "travel" in computer games is by clicking a point on some map. Or walking there (Mario-style). It's not that those are real options or that you could stray from a given path. Even today, in computer games you traveling from one point to the next means nothing else but a short intermission giving a sense of place between the more detailed gaming locations.

A place you won't explore ... [source]
I can see how that could work for certain analog role-playing games. Yeah, why not. However, if you simulate it all without the shortcuts, if you go the full monty, in other words, if you play for the complete experience, as (for instance) the D&D Rules Cyclopedia offers, then maps have to work differently. They simply fulfill a different purpose than they do in computer games.

Still, not quite there yet ...

... but we are getting there. It just ended up being a longer post than expected. Maps are an interesting topic and I think I'm warming up to it ... There are some curiosa to talk about (I'm thinking about checking HackMaster 4e for some tidbits ... they have a monster called the Mapsnatcher if I remember correctly ... maps are a thing there).

However, the main thing for Part 4 will be the procedural generation of setting content and the kind of maps I think useful for our (my?) games. We'll see what's out there and stuff I came up with over the years. Maybe I manage to throw a list of dos and don'ts. We'll see. Soon, when we finally talk about why the map is not the territory.

For now, I'd like to collect ideas and impressions. What are you people doing out there? Someone working without any maps? DIY or buying? Did anyone prepare a campaign with the Rules Cyclopedia RAW? Which other systems out there give good advice about the subject? Are there any at all? Please, share your thoughts if you are so inclined.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Map is not the Territory - Part 2 (map trivia)

Yes, already the second post. I need to get my jive back and for that, it helps to work this keyboard as hard as possible ... Anyway, Part 1 left lots of question marks and some of that needs to be resolved. Not sure if a third post will become necessary (yes, it will). For now, we take a deep dive into maps and what they do. 
Clarifications for Part 1

If you haven't read that, this will get you up to speed. I'll start by quoting something I wrote on g+ to illustrate part of the idea:
"... imagine yourself in the middle of a forest without a map. What are your options, what is it you can do to get around, etc., etc. ... Now imagine yourself with a map. What would change? What is it you can do now? How does the map relate to what is surrounding you? Your options change, but not as much as one would actually think. As a matter of fact, if you don't know where you are or how to work a map, it might end up being useless to have a map, right? And now imagine the players having a map without the characters having one ... that's the discrepancy I'm talking about."
I'm not talking about how maps lead you from point A to point B. What I'm talking about is what maps do for the game, what they should do for the game and what they can do for it.

There's a little detour in the post about how damage can be handled way more abstract than it is done in D&D by leaving the notion behind that every aspect of a creature needs to be quantifiable. The principle is the same as with maps: you can cut the fat by answering the question which aspects of a creature you really need to allow a meaningful interaction with the characters.

Contrary to common practice I believe that you can get away with scratching the notion of hit points (among other things). The reason for this is the same reason why we are talking about maps here, it's about how the system translates the interactions with the narrative environment surrounding the characters. There is a lot to this, but the basic idea is that characters more or less are expected to experience the world around them as we do ours. That's how we relate to what they experience and that's what we base our decisions on what they can do or what their chances are to succeed.

So, characters in a forest would mostly see what's directly surrounding them. They may have a notion where they are or where North is or how to find that out. However, since the narrative environment is not so much a virtual space as it is an emerging pattern, we can get away with just creating enough content to create a credible sphere of continuity (that is: basically being ahead of the players at least a couple of steps).

Which means, in a way, that a monster having hit points is equivalent to having an idea where all the trees are in a forest, while all we might need is the idea that the hit points/the trees are there and how that interacts with the characters. The idea is to show that while maps are useful and have their place, there's also a divide between maps depicting spaces and role-playing games creating patterns.

This is where Part 2 starts ...

Problematic Maps

There's a great article over at Tor about how problematic Tolkien's maps of Middle Earth are and it is an interesting read for that alone, so check it out. The main take away here (for this post, at least) is that Tolkien would have been better off without the map. Why? Because the story doesn't need it and the internal logic of the map (or lack thereof) actually hurts the story (or will after you've read that article ...).

As a matter of fact, if Tolkien had left it at just describing the journey of the fellowship of the ring, it would have produced a huge range of maps made by publishers, artists or fans and some of them are bound to get it right while staying true to the source. As it is, the map that does nothing for the story but codifies what Middle Earth looks like, warts and all.
See the problem? [source]
It's not a problem, I hear you thinking. Well, role playing has it's very own and very similar problems with maps. Although somewhat reversed. Check out, for instance, the 3e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. Or rather, every published D&D setting from AD&D 2e onwards, to be honest, but let's look at the Realms. The short of it is, it's full.

So full, in fact, that there's almost no room left for a DMs own stuff. Of course, that's also (and to a huge degree) due to the texts accompanying those maps: cultures, sigils, names, seasons, religions, stories, non-player characters, politics, world events ... lots and lots and lots of stuff there, ready for the taking. Or taking away creative wiggle room.

Just like with Tolkien above, though, it's the maps that make it worse. They codify the texts while creating the illusion of completeness and putting all of the described locations into context. It creates a restricted space where just the texts would have left enough room for interpretation for all using it.

The thing with maps is, they try to fill the gaps and the empty spaces and while resorting to generalizations out of sheer necessity, it still occupies everything. Text alone doesn't do that.

Maps vs. Reality

Maps just don't do reality. Full stop. They heighten certain aspects of an area. It's more of an interpretation cut towards certain needs, but never the complete thing. Can't be. If a map would depict every aspect of reality ... it would be reality. Maps are the tip of the iceberg or the proverbial tail of the elephant. They show aspects of reality, sure enough, just not the whole. I can't stress enough how crucial this is when talking about fictional maps. Because if maps never show the real thing, what does that mean if all you have is the map?

Keep that question in mind, I will come back to it.

Examples. I wrote a post a couple of years back after I had visited a real-life dungeon in Oppenheim and you can read it here. The main takeaways are: it's chaotic and multilayered with small tunnels for messenger dogs, with underground weather and sealed tunnels. There is not one straight tunnel. As far as maps go, it is impossible to map. Here, have a picture:

This is a very small portion of the dungeon under Oppenheim.
This place grew all over the place, like a fungus. That's how dungeons are more often than not. It's not how dungeons are usually depicted in role-playing games ... Which offers a nice transition to how problematic maps get if they are too concrete in what they depict. There are some beautiful 3d maps out there and if you get a chance to use them at the table, it'll add a lot to the gaming experience

And that's already where the problem is. The random nature of the game does not guaranty that the group will end up in a specific location at any given time (unless you force it ...). It's (again) the problem of fixed space versus emerging pattern.

You want a little bit more crass example? There's another post I wrote as a follow-up to the Oppenheim post where I tackle spelunking (it's here) and it's coming to some very similar conclusions about caves: they are chaotic and very difficult to navigate, even more difficult to map. Here is a picture of what a map for a real-life cave looks like:

Open in new tab and check the post for more details on that one ...
It's the closest you can get and (I think) a great example of what maps can do respectively what the limitations are. Here is another dimension to this: it has no purpose other than depicting what is there in a way that makes it possible to navigate it.

In other words, no one thinks "I need a place for my Ogre to live ..." or, to circle back to Tolkien, "We need mountain ranges around Mordor ...". It shows there's always nature before purpose, random before potential. It needs a lot of chaos before a pattern can emerge from it. Check the names they gave the areas they found in that cave map above. Meaning after the fact.

If nothing else, considering all this can give games and maps authenticity.

Finally: the map is not the territory?

No, well, yes! But we are not quite there yet. I think I managed to circle the problem this time around though: maps are always about what they depict and never the full picture. Where gaming material is (often) lacking, is when the map lacks context on the one hand, while occupying too much space on the other.

Maps offer great chances but are not an end unto themselves.

Where to go from that? Well, I guess we need to talk about procedural creation and player maps for a bit. Maybe an excursion to computer games is in order as well. The third (and final, I'm pretty sure) part of this series will conclude with an example how we can produce that abundance of material in our games that is needed to give maps authenticity and depth.

As always, comments, questions, and ideas are very welcome. You can also read on in Part 3!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Map is not the Territory - Part 1 (basic thoughts)

Time to post. Turned out to be a long one. Actually, long enough to warrant a second post (which might end up being just as long). I'll try something difficult here: the idea is to formulate a theory how fictional realities (our gaming worlds) need a different approach to mapping for DMs and how understanding why things work as they do helps forming new concepts for your own games. I'll be slaughtering some holy cows here, so let's get to it.

This post was partly inspired by the post The formless Wilderness by +Gabor Lux.

It's also very much about the thoughts behind the design for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (just in case anyone way wondering ...)

What you see is not what you get ...

Here is the problem: it is impossible to simulate reality in every detail. And even if it were possible, it's also impossible to experience reality in its entirety. In our games, it's the interplay between the illusion of detail and the shared belief of interconnectedness that make the magic happen. Reality is what we agree upon, as are the rules we use.

Following that train of thought further, we'll come to the conclusion that one goal of proper game-design is to offer a compromise in rules that produces something exceptional beyond the sum of its parts. We tend to forget that the individual group always is the factor x in every game. I think we tend to forget this because when we talk rules, we all talk about the same offer, not so much about the compromise that ends up being the individual game. Nonetheless, the compromise is what you get.

There's almost my punchline for the introduction. However, let's push harder. The sum of its parts, suspension of disbelief, all that gets you only so far in explaining how to do your job as a DM or how to write rules yourself. There are, of course, always the rules that are established and are known to work. The "tried and true" type of rules. But what is very often lacking with those type of rules is the explanation why they work. And this is a big problem, in my opinion.

We are told to take these things at face value, without being able to look "under the hood" and see the machinations or how they connect to the game. Rulebooks more often than not explain to you how a game works, but not why it works and if you don't know why it works, you cannot make informed decisions when doing it yourself. Or transcend beyond that, making something new, maybe something better.

Maps are a good and easy example for that, as they are a collection of signifiers for an area that are more on the interpreting side than the reproducing side. It always needs points of reference to make maps useful. Hence, maps need something to be mapped, to begin with, and their usefulness is only in reference to what they depict. So, what you see on a map is not what you get in the game. However, if you just have the map, what, actually, do you end up with in the game? And what should DM-maps look like if they are derived from a gaming environment?

GPS fail, because maps are not always reliable [source]
A roll is a roll is a roll ...

However we decide to determine chance in our games, the most common denominator will be that they are all oracles. Easy as that. You ask what's going to happen, chance tells you how it's going down. However, while the extent of complexity we end up using in our games is totally up to taste, the one thing you'll find in all those systems is that they aim for credibility. The results should genuinely mirror our interpretation of possible results (or at least something we can agree upon), maybe even expand our horizon in that regard.

In a way, the oracle you choose is the method with which the players explore and experience the world surrounding their characters. It helps them mapping what they discover. And that is important, as it informs their decisions. Each feedback they get offers information about the possibilities of their next decisions.

It's why games need to be "balanced" because we want to be able to extrapolate what will happen from what happened or learn from our mistakes, which is only possible if the results of the oracles are relatable. In that sense, balance doesn't mean that all encounters are "fair" challenges but rather that players will (should) be able to assess the chances their characters have facing a certain challenge, at least over time.

Right? [source]
The way I see it, the rules work as sensors for the players, their ten-foot pole, and the more leeway the rules give them, the better are the decisions they end up with. It's easy to see how that can be true for players. With DMs, it's a bit harder to see. However, if we stay with the idea of the system-as-oracle, we can come to the conclusion that systems or rules can provide context beyond the scope of a DMs individual capability. Here's a quote from the Wikipedia article about divination that brings some of that home for me:
"Divination can be seen as a systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facets of existence such that they provide insight into a problem at hand."
In a way, the DM also asks the rules how the world manifests as the characters explore it. Sure, you can decide if it is a rainy day or not instead of leaving it to chance, especially if it seems convenient (and although it's something we frown upon when players do it!). However, I found that using a form of divination for decisions is not only liberating, it also offers outcomes beyond what I could come up with on my own.

The famous D&D Random Encounter Reaction Table is a great example here. The chance that a monster is happy to encounter the group is as high as outright hatred. But happens if that orc is happy to see you? It changes the flow of the game significantly. It has merit. What's more, it also offers a spectrum players in turn can rely on: not all encounters need to be hostile and depending on how characters approach encounters, they might, for instance, be able to reason with a monster. Or trick it.

While the Random Encounter Reaction Table forces a DM to find reason in the behaviour of a monster, it also offers reason for the players to work with. The monster that wants to kill you instead of fleeing or parleying, must have reason to do so. It's a pattern fixed in the rules and players may draw conclusions from that about their surroundings.

Your basic Random Encounter Table works like that, too, in that it not only gives you a random encounter, but also shows the entirety of all common encounters for a certain area. It's a relatable pattern. However, it's important to know why it works to utilize it properly.

Threat assessment and reliable information ... [source]
Priorities and observation

If rules are sensors for players than they meet half way with the DMs imagination what the world looks and works like. Combat is an easy example here, as it (usually) takes a close look at what happens in a fight and what the consequences are. Most role playing games will not only offer (more or less) complex combat sub-systems, but also a shit-load of stuff associated with that, like monster manuals and what not.

And yet, while most systems will get along just fine, you'll also see the limits of those systems fairly easy: characters are very often so much more complex than their monster counterparts, and very much for the reasons stated above. It's mostly based on the misconception that it is not only possible but also necessary to simulate the gaming environment with an aspiration towards realism. The idea is, I think, rooted in the believe that for cause and effect to be reliable, they need to be fully realised.

That is, for a monster to be hurt it needs to have (some sort of) hit points to begin with. The strange thing is that while it still renders an incomplete picture of that fictionl environment the characters interact with, it still, in a way, gives too much of the world away.

Much like with maps, what good does it a DM or player to know how much hit points exactly a monster has? While you think there might be an obvious answer to that question (that is: to know when it's dead), I'd like to challenge the reasoning here. Think about it, all the characters know is that they damaged the opponent to some degree, and all the DM needs to know is how the opposition reacts to that damage. The idea that something has points that need depleting to come to an result has led (as we all well know) to lots of games ending up being slaughter fests.

What it seems vs. what it is ... [source]
I'd say it should be enough to know how tough an enemy is in the different stages of mutilation and how that manifests in an reaction during the fight. For obvious reasons it's still a good idea to have some sort of health system for characters. But that's just it: priorities and observation. What is important in the game and what will be observated (as in: what manifests and why).

It's the same way with maps. They give a wrong sense of completion and give too much away while being incomplete. It's misleading, just like the hit points for monsters are.

So, the map is not the territory?

I'm not against nice maps or monster manuals. It's good inspiration and most games actually rely on monster manuals to give DMs options. They work, they are fun, I'm all for it. I also think we cn push a little harder in our designs and see where it gets us. This includes the games we play as well as the games we write. For that we need a proper understanding what the hell we are actually doing when playing role playing games. But how to achieve that?

Experience and trial and error. We do not have the luxury of a billion dollar industry with the pocket money to finance research like the computer gaming industry has, so this comes down to enthusiasts doing their thing. The thing is, it costs time and it might not work. Nonetheless, it's work that needs doing (I think). This is such an attempt and if you check this blog on a regular basis, you'll know that it isn't the first time my ideas wander in directions like this. IHere's me hoping that I'm going somewhere with this and not just re-formulate old ideas ...

Anyway, so much for part 1. Part 2 will tackle concrete forms of mapping as they are used in gaming, some concepts that are used for maps outside of gaming and some ideas what can be done (or has been done and what I was thinking ...).

Holy cow up for slaughter next time: dungeon levels ...

No promises, but I try to be better with the blog updates in the future. It's just that (other than work draining the life out of me, as usual), well, it's just that I feel like when you do this long enough, topics seem to broaden, getting more and more complex to a point where writing a blog doesn't do it anymore. Or you keep repeating yourself. Or you reduce blogging to shouting personal opinions into the own echo chamber. Or (worst case scenario) you think people care enough about your personality to get away with politics ... Anyway, I'll post when I think I got something to share and that might be less often.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

How to keep people engaged in your games for years ...

Not what I imagined my second post in 2018 to be, but I take material where I can get it. Saw a post yesterday on the interwebz about how to keep players engaged in your campaigns engaged for years (here) and while I respect the authors opinion (especially if he can make it work for himself and his group ...) I also disagree to a point where I think that taking his advice as generally applicable does a disservice to the DMs out there and to the hobby in general. Here's me adding to this in the hopes that it opens some productive dialogue and maybe a different, less (for lack of a better word) desperate collection of ideas how to keep people engaged.

First of all: we are not inventing the wheel here!

In other words, do the fucking research, goddammit. If you google "how to keep people engaged", you'll get a shitload of business articles how to do so. Just by surveying the first two entries, I found only advice completely contradicting the points in the post linked above. Why? Because if you want to keep people engaged, you have to take them seriously and you have to involve them. It's on the DM to offer, not to decide how the offer is to be taken.

Of course we have to distinct a bit between players and employees, but the relations DM-Players and Boss-Employees are similar enough in many regards to get some great pointers from the research done in management and business studies. What's more, they actually do that research (compared to, say, our hobby). It's not just opinions.

Anyway, let's take the same research linked above and go to "pictures". Usually you'll not only find lots of words about social topics but there's also a very good chance that someone took the time to visualize what you are looking for (if you are aware of that need is optional, btw, I found great stuff by just prowling). Like this, for instance (from an article found here):

Highly applicable for rpgs. Open in new tab for details ... [source]
Note that we are already talking about communities at large here, so we are circling in on where we want to be. They say you'll want to get to the intrinsic motivation part for your group and I agree. Key words are COMPETENCE (the game system, the character, the story and there is even a social dimension to this in our games), AUTONOMY (this one's a bit more tricky, but sandbox play does that for you and I believe that characters getting more and more powerful over time might factor here in as well ... at least it does for me) and RELATEDNESS (completely a social dimension, which our games of course have ... it's usually connected to the argument that that's why playing with friends is so beneficial since it brings a greater sense of connection to the table than just the game; however, I think there is (can be?) more to it).

It'd lead too far to explore the picture above in its entirety (we are just doing the research here, for now), but it's save to say that it not only shows how keeping people engaged works, it also shows why it applies to some degree in that post linked above while also pointing out why those 6 ways can lead to participation but not engagement.

Alright, let's see if we can find something gaming specific. The closest thing we can get is looking at research done about computer gaming. TED talks are always a good way to start (for instance this one about 7 ways games reward the brain), but I'll go with one example that seems a bit off course and still brings the point across I want to make. Follow this link and check out a post about computer game design and how to make difficult games fun.

Here's the synopsis for those not having the time to read the whole thing: if you want to keep people engaged, you raise the challenge as they get more and more competent in what they do and give it a clear reward structure to allow them to assess their own success.

There is, as I said, tons of material out there talking about this subject, with several degrees of research and science put into it and yet more material to go from there. What we have is plenty to make a somewhat informed list of tips how to keep people engaged in our games. If you read along and followed the bread crumbs you should already have more than enough general ideas.

One last thing, though. We should take a look what's already written about it in D&D circles (as using D&D will have the most traction as a search term). There are, of course, several hits. The first two are most on point here, with the main take away after a short superficial look is that people need to get rid of their mobile devices during the game. There is more, but it is also all over the place and addressing several connected issues somewhere between very general and very specific.

You could also do yourself a favor and check what the game supplement of your choice has to say about this subject (as I believe rule books should address that issue as well). It'd go too far in the context of this post, but I'll take a quick look into the Rules Cyclopedia and see if I can find something ...

[runs away to read ... gets back to the computer]

Alright, there's advice all over the place, some vague, some outdated and some very useful. Here's a good piece I could find by checking for campaign advice real quick:
"The campaign and the adventures within it are very similar to a series of fantasy novels. The characters are the heroes and heroines in these novels; focus the action on them. A campaign is only useful when it fulfills the purpose of the game: Fun. An inexperienced DM can easily become caught up in the creation of a gloriously detailed medieval empire, only to find that the players want something simple. You should talk with your players about their interests and create a fantasy world that entertains and satisfies both you and your players."
There is A LOT to be said about this piece of advice alone, but it boils down to a very common theme already established here: our hobby is about people. People need to communicate and find common grounds to get along. There are thousands of rule books out there and if my experience is any kind of indication, a search for valuable advice might vary to a huge degree (which is a problem, of course, but nothing I will go further into in this post).

Enough with the research.

How to keep people engaged, then?

Well, how explicit is the advice we can give? It's all wildly individual and if you can make it work, all power to you, regardless how you managed to do it. From a more general point of view, I see several aspects one could consider to use in his or her own role playing games. This will be hugely colored by my own opinion (if that hasn't been clear), so YMMV. However, all of this can be found in or concluded from the research linked above.

1. Take the people you play with seriously:
Warts and all. We are all individuals with different quirks and flaws and limitations and idiosyncrasies and preferences. Embrace that, if you can. Compromise and choice are what make relationships work properly. A player might tag along because he likes to roll dice, another one is there for the story or her character ... you know what I mean. They don't need to share your vision to participate in a meaningful way in the fun of the endeavor. Getting along is key, seek those people.

2. That said, be able to work a crowd:
Acknowledging that people are different leads to needing the means for uniting all the moving parts of the group into one cohesive entity. It means doing what's necessary to make the game happen in the best possible way. This can go from finding a great place to play to determining a seat order for the players for better synergy. It can mean formulating rules to get along (like banning mobile devices or politics from the table). Communicate the game on a regular basis, but don't forget that people have lives. Have a BBQ every once in a while (or similar group activities ... basic team building stuff). Showing interest and consideration can go a long way. If you take care, people will stay.

3. Allow growth:
This has several dimensions. It goes for the DM as well as for the players, but it also goes for the group dynamic and how people see themselves in it. It also goes for the assumed powers and dependencies that exists in a group. In short, look for healthy relationships on the table. They form the fertile grounds for personal growth.  It's all connected to 1. and 2., of course, but it deserves a point in itself since it highlights a very important role a DM has in his group. It's also something one should be able to assert quite easily, as we could argue that the amount of fun a group has is directly connected to this. Pointers are, if the players take the game seriously, do they learn the rules, do they know the story, do they have goals within the game they try to follow up on regularly ... and are you aware of those things? People tend to keep doing something if they think (consciously or not) they get something out of it. Ideally that means growth in some form or another and it is on the DM to offer (for instance) a healthy environment for personal growth.

Too much? Idk, I lie it :) [by Josephine Wall, source]
4. Choose your tools wisely:
This takes some practice, but you need to know what you want and what game will fit that bill best. You want a campaign lasting for years? Look for a game that allows for the right level of complexity and range to support something like that (example: the D&D RC with characters going through up to 36 levels with the option for immortality, adding several cycles of characters to that ... it also has a mid-level and end game). You want one shots? You'll want games that allow for short narrative loops and don't necessarily need level progression. It'll also most likely draw a different crowd ... Experiment and read, ask people what they liked and why. After that, get good at that game. Skill will always convince people that it's a good idea to stay in a group.

5. Fluctuation is Continuity:
If there is any continuity in life than it is change. We know that. Clinging to something to a point where we start giving up ourselves beyond compromise is always a sign that we are not willing enough to let go. A general assertion, but consider it a touchstone for anything related gaming. You keep checking for the same rules all the time? Let it go and find an alternative. A player you love starts developing other interests and keeping him in the game gets more and more difficult? Let him go (or her). A campaign doesn't click with the group and they keep trying to get away from it ... you get the picture. Embrace change, but offer continuity as good as you can. Make it work, keep a rhythm for gaming nights, recruit new players and see what sticks. Something always does.

That's all I can come up with for now. I think the beauty of our hobby is that we never need to stop exploring it in all its facets. In many ways this is the major draw for most of us, I imagine. Play, write, design, grow ... It'll keep you busy for years. A good pizza delivery doesn't hurt along the way (says the girlfriend), but that goes without saying :) Feel free to add to this in the comments or wherever I can see it.

One final thing: I know lots of people rely on some sort of online variant for getting their rpg itch scratched and it can help with that. However, I have yet to hear from a person that says it is the superior way to play and for me personally it could never substitute for the "real thing" (although I really appreciate the opportunity to play with people all over the world!). There are always people out there willing to play. If it works or not is something we need to engage to find out.

Get out there and talk people into it. Even if they just play once and have a great time, you have managed something spectacular and who knows, maybe they'll pick up the game themselves and play with someone else because of it. What I'm saying is, it's all worth it. I hope this contributes to the discussion. Here, have a funny give at the end:

Harmony in dance ...[source]

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 in Review - yeah, I do that too ...

Not much to look at, tough. It's been a slow year here on the blog. 30 posts ... not an all time low, but way too close to be comfortable. Life's just too damn crazy right now to allow for more. I hope this changes a bit in 2018. I have plans, of course, but as they say: a plan is a list of things that do not happen. Anyway, let's look back at 2017! I'll try and make it interesting.

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (the elephant in the room)

It's been a good year. Mostly due to very enthusiastic play-testers in the f2f games and in virtual space. One of my players in the local group even agreed to DM the game a bit and gave me a chance to play a character for a change. I died. Fast. Good times :) I did not heed my own advice. Lost Songs has cooperation deeply ingrained into the combat system. Fighting alone is a game of luck you'll most likely lose in the long run ...

I also finally managed to write a magic system that holds up in play-testing! Two years of hard brain work right there. It needs to connect a bit more with the system, but it's all there and just needs to be done. Here, have a peek:
Open in new tab for details ... There'll be a post
explaining it all in the near future.
There's still lots of work to do with the game, but I feel confident that it will eventually happen. Couldn't say when, though. Those things take the time they take and that's a good thing. Other construction sites I need to tackle are (in no particular order):

  • The seasonal aspect of the game. I talked about this a couple of years ago. Still needs to happen. The concept I'm working on includes some sort of rune oracle attached to the Narrative Generator.
  • Another thing I'll need happening is the tribe generator I've also been talking about a couple of years ago (see here). I have a clearer picture now what I'll need and how it connects to the game. And the sandbox needs it, so it'll happen soon.
  • The third big construction site is how non-player characters, monsters and combat work on the DM side of the screen. I've talked about this a lot recently and you can see some of this on the magic grid posted above. Most likely the next thing I'm working on, as it connects too many things in the game to get ignored any longer.

All of those are partially done to one degree or another. It'll need testing, of course, and after that the game needs another revision where all that stuff gets connected properly. That's the finishing line and it is in sight. Still, could be another 2 years before Lost Songs will be that complete. We are getting there, though :)

The Blog in 2017

I know, it's not much to look at count-wise. Content-wise that might be another story. I've written some looooong posts this year, chewing on some ideas and concepts of gaming like a dog on a bone. Some of this got read, some of it got received well and there's always people out there who are willing to read and comment on my thoughts. I appreciate you all!

It's hard to gauge what works best for the blog and what tanks. Walls of text certainly don't help the traffic, it needs time and dedication from the reader, which is a lot to begin with. However, if I get feedback, it is always from those who actually sat down and read it all, so it's always worth to sit down and write it all. That said, it's the design philosophy posts that get the most traffic (which is good, as I don't intent to stop writing them ...), D&D always draws a crowd (need to write some more Oddities posts in 2018, I suppose) and the Lost Songs stuff comes after that (seems that there are a couple of people interested in seeing where it goes).

What I didn't get to do often last year was writing reviews. Not that I lacked material, but when I started having less and less time, something had to give. Didn't have the time or the energy. I hope that'll change in 2018. Another thing that fell a bit short last year were community projects and cross-blog chatter. The blog is over 5 years now and I've been lurking for much longer. If I look around today I see it all changed. Many, many blogs I loved to read and share content with are gone some way or another.

I'm sure there's lots of new great stuff out there, but lack of time lets me only find some of it every now and then. Doesn't help that I'm really not interested in 5e. Just won't play it. I generally think I have reached a point of saturation (tried to capture my thoughts on this in a post here, if you are interested).

All the shit storms didn't help. There seems to be trend in which people online try to compensate a lack of content with what they believe to be "personality" and "opinions". Fuck that noise. I'm here to talk elf games and DIY and history and philosophy of the hobby. If I have nothing to say about those topics, I'd rather write nothing than wasting my and other people's time with bullshit politics. YMMV, of course, and I agree that it can be entertaining to watch in moderate doses. However, if that's ALL that's happening in a sad attempt to sell stuff or gain followers, it gets old fast.

It's actually one of the biggest changes here on the blog: I ignore those people now. My blog-roll is somewhat shorter for it and the OSR banner is down. I'm still "old school", I just don't think the OSR is heading into a good or healthy direction. Compare what's happening now to what was going on, say, 6 years ago on OSR blog-rolls and you'll know what I mean.

What else? Projects! (there's a free game in it, too)

There's of course a couple of project developing here on the ranger. I guess it's something that happens when you blog long enough. There is, of course, Lost Songs of the Nibelungs as the main project, but I'm also still collecting material for The Grind (card-based action rpg in a steampunk-setting) and the Goblin-Tribe Simulator is not forgotten (if neglected, but I can't change that for now).

However, nothing of that got finished in 2017. What I did get done, though, is publishing my very own first module. Took me only the biggest part of 2016 and a good chunk of 2017 to get there, but Monkey Business saw the light of day on the 1st of May 25017. There was some positive reception about it and I know for sure that's there are people out there who enjoyed it for what it is. That alone makes the effort worthwhile, but it also was great fun writing it. Expect more of the same soon (see below).

I did not manage to make a print version available, though. Time just wouldn't allow it. That it'll happen is all I can say right now.

Another thing I did and didn't talk about that much here on the blog, was a editing and layout job for one of +Mark Van Vlack's games: Phase Abandon. It's a fantastic little DM-less and rules-lite game. The layout and editing was merely an exercise, a fun side-project and a present for a friend. However, Mark decided to make it accessible on drivethru and there you can get it for free (just follow the link on the name of the game ...)! Check it out, it's a great game.

That pic had been in the public domain without any
kind of attribution & I love it for so many reasons ...
if anyone knows the artist, give me a shout!
And that's about it. Considering how busy I had been last year, this is plenty.

What 2018 might bring ...

More of the same, I guess. I'll try and review a couple of things I read and liked last year. More free stuff, if I can find it! I'll also try and position myself away from the OSR, maybe as some sort of branch (?). I'm thinking about labeling my publications
"OSG" for: Old School Gonzo
(or Gamers / Geeks / Goodness / Glory / Grognards / Groove .... there's plenty of good words starting with "g"). I'll whip something up in that direction. Maybe as soon as for my next publication. The blog needs a new banner, too, so ...

Next up projects will be a modern day supplement for Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future called
"be1967 - A Game of Extraordinary Splatter"
(the "be" stands for Basic Edition - it's not a new game, though, just a collection of rules to make it work with LL/MF). It's something I needed to write for the next weird adventure module I'm working on called:
The Rise of Robo-Hitler -
A Grindhouse-Splatter Extravaganza
A module following the simple credo that Hitler can't be killed often enough ... More about this soon. The supplement already saw its first play-test (with a group of ten people, 5 of them being newbies to rpgs in general ... it's been crazy) and it is fun to write. I'll aim to publish it in 4 months. Let's see if this works out. Probably not :) But it's happening this year, I can tell you that much. be1967 might see a first publication here on the blog as early as this month.

I've also been asked to do some editing for +Jay Murphy's
USR Sword & Sorcery Deluxe Edition
(check out his blog here). It sounds like a great project and I'm looking forward to work with Jay. Interesting times, I'd say.

Here's to the next year!

Turned out to be a long one again. Ah, well. I'll keep writing them as long as you guys keep reading them. 2018 already shapes up great and I hope it'll be a little bit more productive than the last one. What I wouldn't change is my readers, the g+ crowd and the commentators here actually engaging in dialogue about my scribblings and (of course) the people I had the pleasure to game with (special shout-out to +Van Noa and the A&A group!). You guys are awesome and I hope we get to exchange as much thoughts and ideas as we did the years before. Good show, folks, good show!

2018, here we come!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A very different take on Monster Stats - Part 2 (about complexity, emergence & encounters in LSotN)

I know it's somewhat silent on the blog right now, but it's quite busy behind the scenes, actually. I started writing another module (more on that later this year), made some progress on that other game I started writing (The Grind, maybe some of you remember) and I even got some progress in developing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (magic is finally working! - also worth another post). One part of Lost Songs I'm eager to write is the new concept for how encounters work. So while I started writing this post about how to improvise puzzles in role playing games, I stumbled across something closely related, yet totally different: the underlying assumptions behind the system I'm in the process of writing (you can read Part 1 here, if you like, but it's not necessary to read the post below ... unless you want to know how I intent to apply the ideas formulated below). Maybe there'll be a part 3 soon. We'll see.

Willing to wing it ...

Most games will carry a DM places he didn't (couldn't!) anticipate. Some try their hardest to stay with the script, some go with the flow and see where it's all headed. Now, this is no debate about which one of those styles is "better" because I honestly believe that the two don't really compare that way. They are part of a development, a learning curve we all go through when learning the trade to be a DM.

That said, I also believe that the ability to "wing it" is at the higher end of that spectrum. It's where we embrace and brave the wild nature of the game. There is much to be talked about in this area, of course, as a lot of this is about playing the game beyond what rules tend to offer. However, for today I'll just tackle one of the hurdles we have to master to get away from "scripted" or prepared role playing and that is to improvise continuity to a degree that it feels as genuinely complex as a prepared game would.

"Complexity" is the key word here. Really, do yourself a favor and google that word or follow the link I put in the previous sentence. It's for instance interesting in that you can trust chaos to produce discernible patterns eventually. This may seem like I'm far off topic here, but hear me out on this. Because clever monkeys that we are, we are very able to not only recognize patterns, we are even more capable of giving meaning to those patterns. Not necessarily truth, mind you, but meaning. And while this ability decides about a lot of crucial things in day to day life, it is also a great tool to utilize in gaming.
Title of the pic is complexity_small_version ... [source]
Take any written language as example: you got a couple of easy symbols that connect to somewhat more complex words that connect to sentences which can connect to all kinds of texts, contexts, subtexts and all kind of complex shenanigans. Just imagine someone unable to read the page you are looking at right now and compare it to how meaning emerges with deciphering it bit by bit. Take that and change it to graffiti or all kinds of artsy endeavors using language as a jumping point ... you get my drift. Complexity is all around us and we learn to recognize it.

Another crucial aspect of complex systems is that everything is somehow connected, although often beyond our scope of perception. Or maybe that's just seeing it from another perspective, because context describes the very ability about recognizing the patterns I described above. We just need to see part of a pattern to recognize its origin, sometimes we are even able to pinpoint the general or precise position of an element in the context of the bigger system. You might recognize a language by looking at a sentence or part of a mathematical formula, music, a taste ... stuff like that.

The right amount of complexity?

All of the above is true in a general sense, but it'd be wrong to assume that everyone is a specialist in everything. So when we design puzzles traps or riddles, we should avoid all but the most basic common denominator and go from there. Like, while we cannot all be meteorologists, most of us will be able to come to some right conclusions if the necessary knowledge is part of the emerging pattern.

Emergence, then, deals with the idea that the sum of parts can lead to something else. And while you'll usually find this discussed by going from the results backwards, as this is how we learn to repeat patterns, it most certainly has merit to release chaos and see what pattern emerges from it. Both are extremely useful in gaming.

Says it all ... [source, by Leo Cullu]
Actually, both are two sides of the same coin in that they (generally) describe what the DM knows in context with how that knowledge emerges for the players and how their interactions with that in turn impacts and informs what the DM had established and so on. It's a information based feedback loop between players and DM in which the DM had a pattern prepared and the players explore pieces of it, make sense of it where they can while changing more than they are aware of as the DM puts the new information into context.

Basically, the DM knows the big bad of an area is a lich and what impact that has on all the aspects the setting. That lich is the sum of the parts, so to say, and as the characters explore the setting, a pattern emerges (all the parts separately) for the players to piece it together. A map would be another good example for this: the DM knows and describes it, the players try to recreate it. When they try to draw conclusions about the whole map we have exactly what I'm describing here.

Let's say the players manage to kill the lich. Following the above, it'd end in chaos (the power vacuum) with a new pattern forming (the vacuum is filled somehow). Again, player actions inform the greater pattern for the DM, which then is looped back to the players (civil war breaks out because the reign of the lich ended and the characters are in the middle of it, for instance). And so on ...

The question now is if the lich had to be there to begin with to have the impact in the game that it should have. Where do we measure the right amount of complexity? On the player side or on the DM side? Fact is that players (because: pattern recognizing monkeys, see above) will sooner or later recognize if it's all just made up on the spot, which will have them believe that their insights have no meaning at all. And that sucks. Experience furthermore tells me that it is way more satisfying to have something prepared to riff off of ...

That's the conundrum I was talking about in the beginning while adding another dimension to it: It's not only about how much you have to prepare, it's also about how you communicate that knowledge. Encoding, decoding, if you will. In that regard you can prepare too much or too little or it doesn't matter because you can't let the pattern emerge properly. However, at it's core it's about how the pattern emerges for the players and how much meaning the complex system carries.

Mosaic pictures are a good example for emergence, I guess.
Check the source for details on the pic [source
So ... it's not about how big your campaign binder is?

It can be, but the important thing is it doesn't have to be. I would say that a DM is on the same side as long as he is far enough ahead of the players that their decisions and guesses can impact it. That's what ultimately resonates with them. And don't forget how the rules of the game form another, more immediate pattern that helps carrying a game with yet another system. Or is it?

I made the argument in an earlier post (or was it a comment? not sure ...) that a campaign setting is nothing else but another set of rules (T├ękumel was the example I raised for a very strong setting that works like that, if I remember correctly). If true, it would most certainly challenge our perception of what a complete set of rules should or could do.

There's also some room to explore between the rules that have an immediate impact on the game and the rules implications a setting might bring. It's exactly in this room where we can find out how much complexity the game needs to emerge with plausible coherence.

In other words, let's see this from the player side for a moment. The first time they are made aware about the lich's power is by encountering some of the suffering his minions cause or some stories in that regard. It's like the outer rim of influence the creature has. At this point they might not be aware of the lich at all, not even that the encounter connects to it. The DM knows, though, but the only thing important at in this moment is to know that there is a connection to something bigger and how big that something is.

It's important here to see that all information the players can glean at this point goes beyond finding out that there is more to the encounter than thought at first. A simple set of possible decisions at this point would be to follow up on it or ignore it. Nothing is gained from the DM knowing that the lich is behind it.

In other words: there needs to be no lich at this point.

As long as the DM knows how deep this goes and keeps track of the emergence, it should all be good to go. A system supporting this should be aware of how those things emerge. I imagine it to be something like an onion where randomly, layer by layer, is determined how it fits to the pattern, making it more an more concrete with every relevant encounter.

And again, you don't need to know how an encounter is connected before it happens, just as it happens is totally enough. Like, if you roll up the encounter and the evil entity comes up, everything else will fall into place right then and there (because all you have to work with is what is already established in connection with what is about to be revealed).

See as the story unfolds ... [source]
Well, what's an encounter, then?

First of all, since this is about a game with a lot of talking, encounters are merely information or hints how to interact with a changing narrated world. It's where what is happening at the table changes direction. Going from there, encounters can be measured by the scale they have or how they resonate with the setting. It's all random at this point, but is it just something happening momentarily or maybe locally? Are there wider implications to consider?

Remember, it makes (or should make) no difference to the players, as the emergence is still ensured. The only thing that changes is how far the DM has to plan ahead. The way I see it, he has to trust the chaos to form patterns as he feeds it while interacting with the players.

Go one further: if it's all about a never ending feed of information, why, then, do we need monster stats? What are we keeping track of? The figment of the idea of a creature? In the end it's a matter of consequence. Of scale. You don't need the stats of monsters, you just need to know what happens if a creature is interacted with and that's just more information waiting to happen. Or maps, for that matter? Why have them if the players are going to draw their own as they explore a setting?

I know, I know, the numbers game is one of the tropes of our hobby. Every monster needs its stats and maps are pretty, right? It's also something deeply rooted in the war games history of the hobby where different units and accurate maps are necessary. Is the same true for role playing games? I'd at least like to challenge that assumption for my own game. 

But where do you go from there? Well, I go into part of that in Part 1. Basically you'll need depth, kind and scale of a character. Something like: "12 (scale) epic level (depth) Roman soldiers (kind)" and some other elements that elevate an encounter from circumstantial to immediate (attacks, damage capability, saves, stuff like that - Lost Songs will use runes here ... easy to draw and loaded with meaning). The thing is that encounters are entities within a certain, measurable sphere and not (necessarily) single entities.

It's a top-down thing in that you get one value for, say the influence the lich has on its surroundings (say 10.000 points) and every time the characters interact with this sphere, they leave marks on it. Reducing the point value results in xp, but it can not only be done by weapons, it could also be done by spreading rumors or whatever else the characters can come up with to reduce this sphere ...

But that's something I have to go into in Part 3, when the actual thing is written and ready for testing.

What's to take from this?

The reason for all this is that I'm really lazy with the bookkeeping in my games and if I can come up with a way to make all this happen with just a couple of numbers and signs, than I'll do just that. Funny thing about it is that I don't mind the work up front to get there.

Complexity always starts small and builds from there, either as you explore it or as it emerges from somewhere. And that's how you build everything in the game. That's really something to keep in mind when DMing: regardless of the amount of preparation you put into something, you can only transmit it one word of information after another and more often than not it's indistinguishable on the receiving end if it's something just invented or planned long ahead as long as its emergence is coherent and allows meaningful interaction.

Also remember: there's always a pattern to be found in chaos. Trust the chaos :)

More on the whole deal when I finish my first draft of the system I'm working on to actually use all this in Lost Songs.

This is originally about management skills, but dammit, it's all there ... [source]