Wednesday, March 28, 2012

FRPG: Setting design; the little details

I'm a fan of many little details.  For one thing, the little details actually are interesting to me.  I like hiking, for example, so I find that being out of doors in interesting scenic locations is very inspirational to me as a world-builder; I can't tell you how many times I've been in some unusual place, or seen some unusual rock feature, waterfall, natural bridge, bizarrely shaped tree, or narrow trail plunging through a deep gorge or whatever and thought to myself--"wouldn't this be a cool location for a fantasy scene?"

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings makes use of some of this too--much of the story is, of course, spent on the journey--from Hobbiton far in the northwest to Mordor far in the southeast of the mapped area--and all kinds of places in between.  Many readers don't necessarily remember all the little details--what kinds of trees he describes, the rocks and gulleys, the temperature, etc. but in reality, they go a long ways towards making the lands around Weathertop, the Misty Mountains foothills, Fangorn forest, the Dead Marshes, Ithilien, and Mordor itself really "pop" and come alive; if not for some of those details, we wouldn't even remember the story at all, in my opinion.

I'm also kind of a foodie.  I love eating (a habit, which combined with my day job sitting at a desk doesn't help with my hiking at all).  I'm not a gourmet, nor am I super cosmopolitan, but I like eating good food, I like trying new things, I like finding new regional, local or ethnic specialties, and I have managed to get around just enough to have sampled a bit.  Few things fill me with as much simple delight as discovering some quiet mom and pop place with great food, especially while on the road (although local discoveries mean I can go back, of course.)  I also love trying unusual cheese, game meats and more.  And--of course--while hiking and camping, learning to appreciate simpler, easy to pack, carry and prepare foods can be almost an artform in itself (although I tend to focus on learning to appreciate simpler things rather than learning to make more complex trail gourmet.  My focus has never really been on fancier foods anyway.)  And one of these days, I'm going to start my "Cheese of the Week" blog and go through the entire imported and fancy cheese section at the deli of my supermarket one item at a time.

I haven't seen food addressed much in fantasy--but curiously, a few details stand out to me from Eberron.  I haven't necessarily sampled Eberron more than any other fantasy setting; I have the setting book (and I've read it) as well as three or four more detailed ones, and I've read maybe a half-dozen or so novels in the setting so far.  But a few details stand out to me anyway--the fact that in Karrnath, they use lots of spicy sausage and cheese, for example, the tropical spiciness of southern Breland and Sharn, the simpler "farmer food" of northern Breland, and the fancier sauce-drenched flavors of Aundair, the bitter and pickled cuisine of Darguun, etc.  It's amazing that a few of these details really stand out.

These are a few things that I particularly like.  Things that scratch my personal interests, and therefore stick with me a bit.  There are probably other things for you.  How can these types of interests best be integrated into a fantasy campaign--and by extention, into your game?

The first note--just because you find this stuff interesting doesn't mean that your "audience" does.  If you spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the varied flavors of a meal put before your players in a tavern or inn where they're passing through, or belabor all kinds of details about the trees and rocks and streams that they see while passing through a forested stretch of your setting, most likely all you'll do is bore them and lose them.  So it's critical that these kinds of details be used in moderation, and that they be spread out, not lumped together in some big description extravaganza.  If, for whatever reason, you find that your players take an intense interest in the selection of sausages available at your Karrnathi butcher, you can indulge them a little bit (and you never know; that kind of stuff happens) but be careful; chances are that just because one or two players are having fun playing up the shopping trip, doesn't mean that the rest of your group isn't chafing to move on.  A few little details can really make your game seem to come alive with verisimilitude, but too many of them--and a sometimes surprisingly small number can be too many--and all you're doing is bogging your game down in tedious minutiae.

The other way to incorporate these kinds of details is to make them important to the game.  Craft encounters, interesting roleplaying opportunities, or even entire adventure scenarios around them.  Traveling through the mountains or desert--the kind of Western American scenery that I so love to play up, for instance--can come with all kinds of challenges.  Having to climb up (or down) a steep cliff can be a nerve-wracking experience.  Dealing with rivers swollen with snowmelt can make river crossings dangerous, and even if nobody is actually hurt, having to deal with being wet, cold, having packs (or rations!) float away downstream or get ruined, or having your food raided overnight by raccoons or bears--all of them can create interesting scenarios to deal with, not just be boring or tedious accounting details or whatever.  Food can be interesting too--if spices are important in a region, is there a spice trade?  Caravans?  Bandits?  Is game an important part of the diet?  Is it dangerous to hunt?  Is it considered poaching to hunt?  If so, what's the penalty if you're caught?

The availability of certain foods can also be a point of interest in other ways.  Are supplies making it to a town, or are they being diverted by bandits?  Is drought making crops fail (which in turn causes peasants to become bandits to support themselves, etc.)

Keep details to a colorful minimum, and as much as possible, make the details relevant to the game; have them spark potential adventure opportunities.  Do that, and you'll keep your players engaged, and have them remarking long afterwards on how "alive" the game was.

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