Lately there has been some chatter about “special snowflake” settings in my online discussions. One question has been, is it better to have lots of setting-specific information on a setting that players can or must know to enjoy the game? Or, is it better to have a more generic and accessible setting where assumptions hold in general?
I’m already telegraphing my take on this. I think the question itself could be reframed for a more useful discussion. You can focus on whether a campaign is distinct and different, but I think a more valuable question is how much buy-in and education a campaign requires to effectively play in its bounds.
A typical game of Old School Hack has a very, very low expectation of what you need to play. The basics of your character on are on the sheet, and you help the GM make the world up as you go.
Compare that to, say, Tekumel. This site says “If you’ve never encountered Tékumel before, you’ve stumbled upon an entire world the equal of Tolkien’s Middle-earth in detail and wonder: thousands of years of history, entire languages, rich cultures, unique creatures, bloody conflicts and fascinating mysteries.”
Yeah, when I read that I get the feeling there’s no room for me to just make a human fighter and get started. I will need to marinate in the details of a culture, to get a sense of its worldview and its naming traditions and maybe a bit of its geography and neighbors before I can even play in the game. That does not appeal to me.
Both Games Workshop (Warhammer) and Jack Shear (World Between) found a middle ground. “It’s like Europe, yeah? But with a [fantasy/Gothic] spin!” So you can have a player come in and say, “We’re playing in The Empire (or Caligari) and it’s like Germany, with a few key differences.” But the player knows to go with a Germanic name, and has some stereotypes available.Even within that subset, what Jack finds to be sufficient setting detail and what I find to be sufficient setting detail differ considerably. He goes for a paragraph per country, I want a couple pages. But a couple pages for an entire country, and a handful for that part of the world–that’s not too much to absorb just to get started. And most of that is for the GM rather than being required for the player.
At my game table I have people who are eager to show up for new things to get in on the ground floor. It is harder for them to get excited about joining games in progress, especially games that have been going on for years. There’s a lot of layered history, both in what PCs have done and in what they’ve learned in their various adventures. New people have routinely had significant time in the game session with more seasoned players explaining some back story to them. Explaining why everyone who had been playing a while sat back and raised their eyebrows when a name came up, or why they’d go to this NPC for help.
What is the answer? Well… I think the answer is to have a gaming life where there are entry level games available, and also room for veterans and bold new players to go into venerable and storied games.
I like the idea of Justin Alexander’s “Open Table” gaming. I also like having long-running campaigns with their own culture. I think the main point of conflict is when players and GMs expect different things, or if players don’t have the same assumptions.
I recommend having a low-investment open-table option for when you are luring new people in, or when your veterans want a break. Then have your more refined offerings, with higher investment and expectations, for when that makes more sense. The open table is a great way to de-mystify your game table for players, and also to vet players to see who might be up for more rigorous settings. An open table helps find new blood, and having depth beyond the initial simplicity helps keep a group’s interest.
Okay, I admit it. I put the gif in this post because I think it’s hypnotic, it may or may not have direct relevance to the post.