Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Shrine for the Sandbox-Saint?

Telecanter recently said something that really helped put some things into perspective for me as I am working on the various maps and more of the background for Riskail.  His excellent blog is here, and the post in particular, from which I lifted this quote (with his kind permission) is here.  The quote is this:

"I think like much of old school philosophy the secret to success lies in how we utilize randomness to our advantage but without fetishizing it. So maybe, as long as using some randomness lets me loosen up and actually create a world without needing to know every single detail in advance, that's a good thing. But it also doesn't mean I have to go completely random, with things falling onto the map without rhyme or reason."

I much prefer to establish a setting using broad strokes at first, blocking in the big areas of shadow and light, then adjusting it as I add colors and details, much as one paints with oils.  I am a big fan of the technique of chiaroscuro, but then I tend to approach my writing and my gaming from an artist's perspective first and as anything else that I might be or bring to the table second.  I distrust agendas, thus I have had a great deal of fun converting the Academia of Riskail into a medieval hierarchy of competing, often duelling rivals that combines the fun and naughtiest bits from Dangerous Liaisons with a dash of Carravaggio's escapades and the ever-enticing notion of a massive edifice of learning (a sort of Alexandria on crack and steroids simultaneously), where someone like George Washington Carver and/or Nikola Tesla could be found working beneath the Borgias, or something like that, only with more in-fighting (with all too real knives and swords), and back-stabbing that goes way too far more often than not, resulting in long-running academic feuds that have cost the world a great many brilliant minds that the Necrosophics diligently attempt to salvage from obscurity when they can.  Then combine that all with a long-running committee-approved and periodically censored form of revisionist history that has institutionalized the (admittedly daft) notion that the certified, educated and approved intelligentsia of the present know the past far better and far more completely than those who lived it because today's scholars possess much more cogent and well-thought-out perspectives on things than those caught up in the sturm-und-drang of then-current events.  That is Academia in Riskail, and it is also why the Fighter (or Fighting Men if you belong to the Cult of the Emperor-Wyrm of Herbertia, or some such irregular Cult, be it Blue or even if it smelleth of sacred oysters in the spiced brine of the Free Saints themselves.) Class has been rolled into the Scholar.  Everyone has some capacity for violence, all the Classes (standard or base-line or whatever) can engage in fighting, and all of those who seek to fight have to first learn the ways, means and drills of how to fight--and learning implies students or recruits, and thus by a leap of the warped logic that prevails in Riskail, Scholars are the base-level fighters, mostly because they have to defend their theses and their dissertations by force of arms as much as through their wits.  It isn't for everyone, but that's the point.  This ain't intended to be a one-size-fits-all sort of setting, nor am I at all interested in generic fantasy.  Old School is characterized by DMs/GMs developing their own settings and taking the OD&D rules as a spring-board and a tool-set to go off the deep end and see what they can do with it like mad scientists in a garage full of spare parts culled from everything they've ever read before, heard on the radio (pre-internet), or saw in the pages of a popular magazine aimed at your average teen.  (With sincere apologies to Billy Joel there, and yes that was a sarcastic reference to Dragon from back in the hey-day.  I thought it was funny.)

Lights and shadow, paint splattering onto canvas and dripping onto my shoes.  I can get messy when I get going.  Most guys do, even the ones who can't cook or don't paint, but that's another pointless digression.  I am working on the maps for Riskail.  The Solar System schematic is pretty-much completed and I plan on uploading it to our Zazzle-shop later, when I take a break from some of the other stuff that is just pouring out of my fingers like blood from the fists of a guy who just punched a vampire in the mouth.  (A less than wise choice in case you were wondering.)  As I work out the painted layers of the world and the more detailed version of the Great Rift, and the even more detailed sectional maps of Devukarsha (the primary city of the setting), I have been really contemplating the whole Sandbox approach that the Old School games advocate, and that I personally really and truly love with a passion that borders on madness and obsession.  Or is that nachos and beer?  I forget.  I am getting old you know.

Building a Sandbox setting is great fun, and I have learned and re-learned a great deal of the underlying details of my previous campaigns, settings and attempts at fiction through this process.  I have also found myself inspired by some of the Masters of the Art like Telecanter who is quoted above and the absolutely amazing Rob Conley over at Bat In The Attic.  His series on Fantasy Sandbox Design is as close to required reading for anyone interested in setting design as you can get, be it for gaming or for fiction--his wisdom applies equally well to both pursuits.  Both of them might just become Saints along the Avenue of Eidolons, if they were to ever approve of such a thing.  (I'm not in a hurry to piss off EVERYONE, just the ones that feel the sting of truth wherever it might find them.)

Randomness, as quoted above, is a powerful force for informing, supporting and enhancing the creative process--when handled like any other power tool and not used like a hammer to solve every problem.  I have a ton of tables that I've developed over the years and as I convert them over or take inspiration from them for things to plug into Riskail, I am keeping in mind the very helpful insight about not fetishizing randomness unduly.  So I pay my respects to randomness, offer up some Guiness to Dame Fate, and get back to work.  And as I get back to detailing this feature or that function, drawing out the roads and canals, outlining the different sections, districts and precincts of Devukarsha and its immediate surroundings on Riskail, I am trying to loosen up and create a world that I myself do not need to know every detail of, nor have documented every minute detail down to the geneaologies of every blade of grass for the last sixteen millennia.  That way lieth madness, and not the fun-cool Van Gogh sort of thing that gets you impressive paintings, but the clunky, perturbed and self-destructive stuff that just isn't any fun for anyone.  You can be too exotic.  Weirdness needs to be balanced, tempered with some humor and a touch of the known and knowable. Jorune and such settings have been criticised for being too incomprehensible, too unpronounceable, too clunky to play, etc.  Tekumel remains the gold standard, for my money, of a rich, vibrant and exotic setting par excellence--though it too suffers from the unpronounceable-names syndrome and it demands a vocabulary cognate with reading Clark Ashton Smith or Samuel R. Delaney.  Maybe that is more a failing of the DMs/players, which I have heard bandied about from time to time, but I do not accept that as a fact.  I think that Gygax and Arneson got it right the first time: a setting needs to be accessible, with enough of the familiar about it so as to allow a player to get up to speed, to buy into the setting, and to immerse themselves in it like fish getting their gills tangled-up in a net.  A setting needs to be more than exotic, it needs to be compelling and playable.  Just like a good Sandbox is filled with loads of opportunities for adventure and adapts itself to the interests of the players even as it expresses and plays off of the interests of its creator.  One of my favorite examples of a setting/creator that really works and is a joy to read about is Planet Algol.  Blair really gets it right just like Gygax and Arneson did all those years ago.  I really like how the Black Ziggurat all of a sudden showed up across the blogosphere at his instigation.  There are  examples of other equally good efforts, and I am sure that everyone else has their own opinions on the matter, and I will plug some of the others down the road, but for today, for right now I'm plugging Planet Algol as one of the Truly Weird settings that, in my humble opinion, and for whatever it is worth, just seems to be getting things right in a big way.


  1. I'm happy you liked that post, don't think I deserve that level of praise, but I can't think of a better fate than to be immortalized by having thieves cart of your sacred statue ;)


  2. When I write up the adventure for a group of thieves on the Avenue of Eidolon's neglected section that runs out to the Eastern Reaches, I will include your name in the manifest of sacred statues that are included in their cart. Might make for a memorable encounter as well...


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