Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Minimalism and Maximalism (AKA 'do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Lore').

The first game setting I ever read wasn't a D&D book: it was Titan, the 1986 world-book which described the setting of the then-popular Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. As anyone who had an interest in fantasy and/or gaming during the 1980s will probably remember, Fighting Fantasy was everywhere at the time. (In retrospect, they played an obvious transitional role between the early tabletop RPGs of the 1970s, which they grew out of, and the computer RPGs of the 1990s, which ultimately supplanted them.) Early on, each FF gamebook was completely independent, with only the barest hints of any kind of shared setting. But then Titan came along, and mapped out - literally - how Firetop Mountain and Scorpion Swamp and The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom all fitted together as component parts of a single imaginary world, with its own history and gods and mythology and all the other stuff you'd expect to find in a fantasy setting.

Image result for titan fighting fantasy map
This map has held a special place in my heart ever since.

At almost exactly the same time, the same thing was happening to D&D. The Keep on the Borderlands and The Lost City and The Palace of the Silver Princess aren't really located anywhere in particular: they're just places where adventures can happen. But as time went on, the D&D adventure modules started getting welded together: first as part of something called 'the known world', and then as components of the Greyhawk and Mystara campaign settings. And then the deluge of setting information began.

I have always found this process rather fascinating. In 1994, the background of Warcraft consisted of little more than 'Orcs from orc-world are attacking humans from human-world! Now fight!' 23 years on, there's more Warcraft lore than you can shake a level 110 Blood Elf Death Knight at. Shortly before Magic: The Gathering went into production in 1993, Richard Garfield decided that just having cards called 'Dryads' or 'Dragon' or 'Warlord' sounded a bit bland, so he went through the list adding nonsense adjectives: Shanodin Dryads, Shivan Dragon, Keldon Warlord, and so on. 24 years later, there have been entire novel cycles written about the heroes of Keld and the histories of the Island of Shiv. In 2001, a couple of brothers from Cambridge coded a simple little online game called Runescape, where you could run around a fantasy village and do a few quests for the locals and fight goblins out in the woods. 16 years worth of weekly updates have turned this minimalist concept into a sprawling, baroque nightmare of false gods and dying worlds and hidden secrets. Let's not even get into what's happened to Warhammer 40,000 in the three decades since some innocent Games Workshop staff member first said: 'What if we did Warhammer, but, like, in space?'

Lore accumulates. It accumulates fast. A dungeon grows into a wilderness which grows into a campaign world. When I was 14, and I had just started a new AD&D campaign, I drew a circle in the middle of a piece of paper and said to the players: 'This is an inland sea. The dwarves live to the north-east and the elves live to the south-east and the humans live everywhere else.' By the time I was 18 I had written hundreds of pages of information on the geography and history and races and religions of the enormous fantasy world which now sprawled out in every direction from that original circle-on-a-map. To my shame, I think I can even still remember most of it. (Narsier. Utrean. Faserik. The Cathideni City-States. The Throongorm Mountains, whose foothills were home to the Blackfang goblin tribes. The Bloody Plains. The Men of the Keeps. The Forest of Whispering Trees.) The rise of the internet has made it very clear that the creation of immense imaginary worlds, complete with myths and legends and lineages of kings and whatnot, is not some rare and difficult achievement. Quite the contrary: it can be, and very often is, accomplished by anyone with a bit of spare time and a word processor.

How much lore is too much lore? Everyone has different tolerances. Some people will always prefer the most minimalistic, lightly-sketched-in version of a setting to anything that comes later: the 1977 version of Star Wars, the 1987 version of Warhammer 40,000, and so on. Others really love the sheer piling up of information for information's sake, preferring the most complex and fully-detailed versions precisely because of their detail and complexity. As far as RPGs go, though, I think the key point to bear in mind is probably that the low-lore and high-lore settings are different kinds of tools, which are useful for different kinds of games:
  • A minimalist approach presents a setting as though from an outsider's perspective, in which only the most sailent characteristics of the situation are immediately obvious, and the reasons why things are the way they are is often unclear. It thus encourages PCs to act like outsiders, engaging in activities such as exploration, crime, raiding, and the disruption of established social orders and hierarchies.  
  • A maximalist approach presents a setting as though from an insider's perspective, in which the complex web of relationships and institutions and traditions which bind different elements of the setting together are intimiately understood. It thus encourages PCs to act like insiders, engaging in activities such as trade, politics, or military service, which rely on all parties having a reciprocal understanding of their relationships with society as a whole. PCs in such settings are much more likely to join established groups and work within them, rather than just trying to rip them off or tear them down. 

A minimalist setting will feel open, mysterious, and full of possibilities, its history and geography a largely-blank canvas across which the PCs can paint their own crazy destinies. A highly-detailed setting, by contrast, will feel defined and bounded, with PCs much more likely to try to seek places for themselves within the limits defined by its existing social systems - even if it is exactly the same setting. You can describe a setting as vast and wide-open and full of mystery and adventure, but if you then go on to explain everything about it in encyclopedic detail then it will feel small and cramped and fussy, no matter how many thousand-mile wildernesses you draw on your map. (Exhibit A: the Forgotten Realms.) By the same token, even if your setting is described as crazily complex, it will feel as though it is open to freewheeling adventure as long as that complexity is communicated through broad-brush outlines and maybe a random table or two.

I've deliberately kept the level of detail and interconnectedness in ATWC very low, in order to encourage that outsider's perspective, and to ensure that everything feels suitably open. But if you wanted your PCs to feel like insiders to one part of the setting - their home khanate, for example - then one could easily detail that bit of the world in great thoroughness, presenting PCs with lists of clans for their characters to be from, famous warrior lineages they might be descended from, ancestor spirits whom they might revere, wrestling tournaments they might have taken part in, and so on. In fact, the contrast between their highly-detailed homeland and the lightly-sketched-in world outside - 'It's a city which trades in... um... goods and services? Anyway, there's lots of rich merchants about. Wanna rob one?' - might be quite a good way of emphasising the difference between their insider-perspective into their own culture, and their outsider-perspective on the huge and mysterious world outside. Their homeland is a place to live in. But the outside world is a place for adventure...

Kipchak (Cuman) Horseman:


  1. A fascinating post - particularity as someone who posts an awful lot of reheated lore!

    The minimalist position has it's advantages, it would seem - but I wonder how it corresponds to the Romantic Fantasy that has partially inspired you?

    After all, if I am to sit down with the Ruritanian ambassador to avert war, having a notion of Ruritanian cultural norms would be useful ("Never serve pork before fish; the ladies must be served before any of the gentlemen."); likewise any relevant background ("Our ancestral claim to the Jotunsberg Mountains, where several promising veins of Orichalchum have unearthed....").

    Of course, individual motivations are likely to be more complex ("Pah! An ancient superstition that I place no faith in!") and an Outsider need not be unsympathetic to those on the inside.

    1. The last point is the really crucial one. It's actually traditional for romantic protagonists to be outsiders, for precisely this reason - they're the ones who see through to the heart of the situation, rather than getting lost in all the details. So while everyone else is muttering about 'legal precedents' and 'upholding traditions' and 'maintaining social decorum' and so on, the romantic heroine just cuts through all that and says, look, these people are *suffering* and that is *not right* and I'm going to *do* something about it.

      (And across the room somewhere, the hero is like: 'Who *is* that girl, who refuses to accept what everyone else here takes for granted?' And so a thousand romance narratives are born...)

      I mean, you *can* do the insider perspective version and work to reform the system from within and all that. But the reverse is much more common. And approaching situations as a complete outsider can have a diplomatic value of its own...

    2. Hmmmm. It seems I am unlikely to ever become a Romantic Protagonist.

      Not getting caught up in ancient disputes is one thing; but it would not be good to blunder into something half-cocked and unaware. Perhaps especially so on the tabletop, when our rag-tag band of adventurers is readily outnumbered....

      My mind goes almost instantly to the 1966 A Man for All Seasons, and Sir Thomas More's speech on the Devil and the Law ( Then I remember what happened to Sir Thomas More.

  2. This is where archetypes become a really useful tool to make significant shortcuts in explaining the setting to the audience. Star Wars excells in it. There is very little exposition of any kind and pretty much anything you need to know is communicated through elements the audience already recognizes. The Empire has officers wearing Nazi uniforms and skeleton armor, and their boss is a huge guy in black armor with a skull helmet. Their ship is massive and angular, while the rebell ship is tiny with rounded shapes and red color. You don't need to be told anything about what kind of Empire the Empire is, or how well the war is going for the Rebells.
    "Don't be too proud of this pileup of lore you constructed. The ability to be truly original is insignificant next to the power of recognizable archetypes."

    1. I think that's true, and that it's a big reason why people often prefer the earliest versions of settings, where the archetypes are likely to be present in their purest forms. The Empire are Nazis. Vader is a dark knight. Obi-Wan is a wizard. Han is a cowboy. Once you start trying to explain what a 'Jedi' actually is, and how their religion works, and where it came from, and what it believes in, you inevitably lose some of the conceptual clarity, and thus some of the appeal, of the original...

    2. I feel that accessibility is a major factor in good worldbuilding and setting design. Glorantha, Harnworld, and Tekumel all sound like really cool settings from what people say about them, but at this point I feel like I am decades too late to have any possible hope of getting into it. They appear to be so big that it seems impossible to find a point of entry to start making sense of it.

      I've been working on a setting for six years now and the entire time I've been constantly shrinking it and condensing it down to essential bits as I am getting more and more of an understanding of how many popular settings are constructed.

      I think in the end clarity of vision and accessibility beat everything else. A setting doesn't become better when it gets bigger. Often I actually see the opposite happening, with the thematic core becoming increasingly blurry, the magic disappearing and being replaced by clear rational explanations, and an increasingly growing of knowledge being required to have any clue what the movers and shakers are trying to do.

      I wouldn't exactly call my own worldbuilding minimalist as I am still putting a lot of effort into giving all elements some considerable depth. But keeping the number of moving parts down and making them easy to grasp is the main objective. Which can actually be quite labor intensive as well.

    3. 'The engineer knows that he has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away...'

      I don't want to be *too* anti-maximalist. There are some kinds of games you can only really have if the setting is sufficiently nuanced and concrete for the PCs to really get stuck into the details of how their world works. But I do think that minimalism is usually going to be more useful in actual play!

  3. i guess early in gaming more ppl made own settings and advntures - i found in my club i had loyal gamers but most original settings seemed a turn off.

    I cant play a setting where players have read every novel. I don't like overly mapped out settings. Some like rq3 glorantha and mutant epoch leave blank areas amongst hyper detailed settings for GM creations. Im going through boxes of old settings and maps of mine and hope t0 publish some on my blog. Historical settings have comparable issues but at least i dont feel like im wasting my life reading history rather than a poor fantasy setting.

    1. Well, the thing about history is that you can go as minimalist or as maximalist as you like. You can go super-vague (e.g. 'The setting is the Roman empire, there are centurions and gladiators and shit, let's go'), or super-specific (e.g. 'The setting is Roman-occupied Dacia in 68 AD, you're playing auxilliaries in a legion loyal to Vespasian, here's your preliminary reading list'), but they're likely to be very different sorts of games!

      Like you, I've always found over-developed settings stifling. It's one reason I've never tried to run a game set within my actual period of academic expertise...

    2. Campaign settings have quite different requirements than worlds for vast series of fiction. A campaign setting has to be first and foremost give GMs the ability to run their own adventures in it. Metaplot and timeline advances are in direct conflict with that. It makes both players and GMs an audience to the writers, but in an RPG it's the GM who is supposed to be in charge.

  4. Belatedly, I think a good illustration of the gap between designer intent and what the tool lends itself to with maximalist setting design is the difference between how developers talk about Exalted (big empty spaces on the map! make your own!) and how the fandom usually ends up talking about it (fixated on the parts detailed in books).

    1. Oh, wow, Exalted was an amazingly extreme example of the minimalism to maximalism transition. It went from a wide-open world where anything seemed possible to feeling tight and cramped and desperately over-defined in about five years, which might actually be some kind of record...

  5. An inspirational read, thanks! Coming at the right time, too, because I need to kick off something new next Tuesday and am asking myself these questions...