Monday, November 28, 2011

A Dirty, Poorly Lighted Place

By: wallyir

Location, location, location.  As it is in real estate, so it is in narrative, and ever will be in gaming.  Amen.

Recently, Noisms reflected on the tensions between story logic and logistics in role-play gaming and he touched on the weakness of the GNS typology as a theoretical framework for understanding gaming.  In the past when I have entered into such discussions on messageboards, I have advocated the superiority of what we learned about analyzing fictional elements in our school days over GNS went it comes to understanding the RPG.  Noisms' dichotomy brought to my mind a perfect example of why this is so: logistics, or the resources and goods available to the PCs, should be determined by the location.  It's not so much against story logic as it should be a part of story logic.

But, a voice cries, a game is about having fun.  What's fun about tying logistics to location?  First, as C. Kutalik has recently reminded us, "The deepest and most satisfying fantasy worlds are often rooted in a profound sense of place."  This is a truth worthy of regular reminders.  The more captivating and seemingly real the setting in which the characters enact the action, the more enjoyable is one of the key elements that our understanding of story tells us is essential.  It matters that we are much more likely to find the rare sun orchid elixir in a desert city of Thuvia, whence it originates, than in a stone giant lair in the Iron Peaks.  The more players know what they can predict to find in a place, the more they can inhabit their characters and direct them to look for certain things, and be surprised when they do find something unlikely.  Verisimilitude enables them to imagine the place in their minds is a real place, distinct from other places, and to manipulate the imaginary environment as if it were a real place subject to real characters.

For an example of an inspiring location, see /Matt of Asshat Paladins' recent post about the Majlis al-Jinn.  Following the links he gives to nourish the imagination on the images and descriptions of the place should inspire a place that is as different in the logistics as it is in feel or flavor from another imaginary location inspired by alpine villages.  If the jinn are worshiped by nomadic, superstitious halflings who call their land Ma-sheret and whose most valuable resource is water that springs in the caves controlled by the jinn and the alpine villages are built by dwarven herders, woodsmen, and mountaineers who pursue the PCs for killing a mountain ram, their totemic animal for whom the Big Horns mountain range is named, then the players will never mistake Ma-sheret for the Big Horns, even though their characters adventured in both areas and hired local short humanoids to be their guides in both.

Because of the way we relate to location and how location determines logistics, questions such as, "Why do dungeons look the way they look?" matter.  Again, in my own case, when people say, "mega-dungeon," the first thing that comes to my mind is a place almost none of you have heard of: The Maze Zorg, built by the Mag Cabal in an area of natural caverns below jungles in the world of my college DM, Orbregg.    The fact that the natural caverns were expanded by extensive mining and mechanical expertise by githzerai working for the cabal of evil wizards for specific purposes (cowing the drugged members of a cult they ran on one side and giving them a protected hiding place from the protagonists on the other) gives it a different shape and feel in my imagination than the futuristic underworld of H. G. Wells' morlocks.  It would matter which underworld I were in as a character when it came to what I would look for in terms of tools, machines, or traps.

If Tolkien is right in picking out the sub-creation of a secondary world as being the essence of mythopoesis, then we should not be surprised that location would be preeminent among elements that we must give attention in the playing of a fantasy RPG.  This is true on the meta, world level, and it is true as one begins in a clean, well-lighted tavern called The Green Dragon and ends in a dark, dirty dungeon below the ruins of the Tower of Zenopus.  As you ramble on your mythopoeic wanderings, I bid you godspeed this Monday.  And when you find a place worth marking, I hope you will raise a cairn or write a traveler's note to guide the rest of us and let us know what it was that made that site real, compelling, magical.