Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Cold Iron's Implied Setting

In order for an RPG to be complete, it really either needs to come with a setting, or document the assumptions of it's implied setting sufficiently that prospective GMs know what the basis is so they can adapt if necessary (or avoid the game if it totally doesn't meet their needs).

Cold Iron's implied setting is definitely derrived from D&D, but it isn't D&D's implied setting either. For one thing, Cold Iron isn't suitable to the D&D style dungeon (of course D20 is less suited to the old style dungeon than people care to admit).

To use Mike Mearl's term, core story, I would say that the core story of Cold Iron is kill things and take their treasure to gain power.

Fame might be part of that also, though the system provides little mechanical support for that (I've got a renown mechanic, but right now it's rather floaty, back in college, there was "humor level" which was a similarly floaty concept, but was also a skill that you gained XP in just like fighting and magic).

There's no attempt at "story telling" with angst driven elves and grumpy dwarves or any such sort of thing. The non-human races are basically packages of attribute range modifiers and special abilities.

PCs also realistically aren't going to become top dogs. The game provides magic items that need 11th level and up mages to create. I've certainly never run a campaign that long (though I think the system would still be playable up there, so a GM could tweak the XP rate and campaign length to let the game get there).

My campaigns tend to be a combination of wilderness travel with encounters (not really random), and small site based adventures. See the example prep for good idea of what I might prepare as a site based adventure. The adventure the PCs just completed featured three caves to explore (2 from a module - Necromancer's Glades of Death, and one drawn up on the spot) and two wilderness encounters. They were tied together, and I used some of the hooks from the module.

I'd certainly welcome pointers to games you think have done a really good job of presenting what the game is about or what the options you could play are. I don't think many games really do a good job with this. The D&D basic sets definitely did, at least originally providing a small sample dungeon, plus either dungeon geomorphs (original) or a module (later). As I recall, the example of play also tied to the sample dungeon in the book. Games with detailed settings certainly provide a lot of detail for the setting, but often don't tell you what sorts of games to play, and this may be especially true of settings divorced from a system. I remember trying to figure out what to actually do with Harn when I first got it. Of course I was also trying to figure out Cold Iron at the same time. Judge's Guild's original Wilderlands of High Fantasy actually was kind of good. It provided you with players maps that were mostly blank. It was easy to imagine that the game play would revolve around filling in those blank spots. And the wilderness was filled with ruins and lairs. And the City State of the Invincible Overlord was keyed almost like a dungeon (but I have to admit that as much as I like cities like this, I have yet to run a satisfactory campaign, or even a single adventure, in a city).

So certainly I could provide a sample dungeon (or even two or three since they're really pretty easy to write up). I certainly can create formal rules for running wilderness encounters (night and day), and those rules would benefit my game play (ok, now we know what the DC for the alterness checks is, and that for each N that you beat that by, you detect the encounter one round earlier). But how do I describe that while I don't do story arcs, I do connect things.

In the recent adventure, they found a necromancer's diary. This is a great way to introduce the next, or at least some future, adventure. Or there is one of my favorite encounters ever. The PCs had been fighting goblin bands, and after beating them, suggesting they not attack people on the roads (but saying that sure, they could defend their villages and such) and then setting them free. I read this interesting looking ambush adventure in Dungeon Magazine, and then I came up with this idea. A group of ogres had captured one of the goblin tribes the PCs had fought and the ogres set up this ambush. So the PCs suddenly find themselves fighting this overwhelming encounter of ogres and goblins. Then a round or two into it, a PC recognizes the goblins, and the goblins recognize the PCs. And the goblins turn on the ogres. And the PCs and goblins beat the ogres. And the PCs gave the goblins a share of treasure. Now I admit I'm not sure what I would have done had any part of that adventure not gone the way I was thinking, but I didn't have to force anything. And I think it was a cool way to reward the players for their stance on prisoners.

But does that even really matter? As long as the game is gamist, I think anything the GM uses to tie the campaign together would work fine. Cold Iron might also work for simulationism, though it certainly would take care to mesh Cold Iron's mechanics with the setting (unless it's a GM made up setting). So perhaps just some pointers on setting up good challenges is all that's really necessary.



Bankuei said...

I would worry about setting last if you're looking to do mostly gamism with this. Actually, all you need is an excuse for why the setting is filled with the conflict that the gamism revolves around. In this case, I believe it's combat right? So the question is, is it just combat, or combat against monsters? Which only means coloring your setting one way or another.

Probably a good way to design (or re-design) would be to take a damn good look at the Structure of Play in Dogs in the Vineyard. It lays out the general idea of what people do in the game, from both the player and the GM side, and that tells you what you need to explain for folks to play your game.

Frank said...

Ok, that makes sense. On Dogs, I'm not sure it's a game I would want to play, but from the actual play posting, I can tell that it does a damn good job of doing what it says it's going to do, and thus is definitely a good example to look at. I think I'll go ahead and purchase the PDF.

I guess where I'm the least bit sure of how to proceed is in laying out the gamist design basis as clearly as possible so that even people unfamiliar with GNS (either via the Forge, or having basically discovered it themselves) will not read the game and expect simulationism or something.

I guess given a solid gamist agenda, the GM should have an easy enough time deciding what HE and HIS group need to tie it all together (some groups might be happy with arena fighting where the GM just throws out new challenges, others may want a little bit of sim drift).

So generally all I should need is text that lays out that generally, the PCs will need two "days" of rest between serious encounters, but the GM can up the tension by forcing encounters earlier, but in doing so, should also make sure the PCs have an opportunity to find a defensive position if they want.

So a good scenario might present a cave with 2 fights. The PCs COULD choose to go straight to the second fight without attempting to rest. But it's possible for them to either lay up in part of the cave, or exit, and find a defensible location outside. And if the PCs don't rest when they should, the GM needn't feel guilty for pummelling the characters.

This is one of the things that really attracts me to Cold Iron over D&D, that a single challenging fight does a pretty good job of using up the PCs resources. If the fight is on the easy side, or they are particularly lucky, they might be able to manage a second fight pretty well, but they are going to really notice the effects. In D&D, that second fight is almost always just as easy as the first fight, and it takes 3 or 4 fights to exhaust the PCs. And all of a sudden everything breaks down, unless you build dungeons with only 3-4 fights, and rib the players hard for resting between each fight.


Bill said...

Designing a setting is half the fun for the DM. I have found that my most successful designs were working from the large to the small, even though I prefer to work from the small to the large. Because a properly done setting can significantly influence what people get to use and play with.

Now in this instance, you already have an idea what you want to do. (In fact it sounds substantially like many of my games.) You just need to hash out the rules some more first.

So, like your "everyone brings a book to the table" post, what about "farming out" elements of the setting and the rules to different players?

Frank said...

Bill - that's definitely a good expansion of my idea of each player bringing a book to the table (which of course is partly defining the setting, in that the set of classes, prestige classes, feats, races, etc. are all elements tied to setting). Of course from a broader setting point of view, many newere games including Universalis and Sorcer and Sword specifically suggest setting creation be a cooperative task.

But to avoid confusion - while these current threads have some application to my current game, what I'm really targetting here is what needs to be added to Cold Iron to make it a more complete system. In that context, the question is not how should I define the setting for my current game, but how do you effectively communicate an implied setting?

D&D comes with an implied setting, though I'm not sure how well it's communicated since it's basically the same implied setting that has been inferred for D&D from the beginning (the original 3-pamphlet D&D had very scanty information on setting - and the implied setting was passed on by word of mouth as much as game text).

Now implied setting may be just fine for Cold Iron if the expectation is that prospective players and GMs have played D&D or a similar game before (however, it's critical to point out to them that a 10 level dungeon with hundreds or thousands of rooms isn't going to work well for Cold Iron).


Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

You want the gamist agenda without the terminology? "This game is about fighting monsters and getting treasure and getting more powerful" (in more or less grammatical terms as you see fit).

Taa-daa! No problem.

As far as communicating implied setting, you can also look to Magic the Gathering and the many miniatures' games- they often include "fluff" which is the setting stuff along with the various cards/characters/rules in the games.

It's not about telling details "The kingdom of Azerlo has 10212.3 inhabitants...", but rather painting mood and attitude. Scant bits like that inspire the imagination and as long as you give enough structure for the GM to figure out how set up and run a session, and the players a clear idea of what they're supposed to do on sessions, everything else is fodder for the imagination.

A worthwhile thing to consider- D&D always has problems "getting the party together" and setting up reasons why all these folks would go on a quest together... (consider, the Simarillion and the Hobbit were the set up for the reasons to get everyone together for Fellowship of the Rings!!!).

Setting-wise, it might be good to establish why the characters are together and why they're hunting monsters and save time. Whitewolf does this by establishing "You're all Werewolves" and stuff like that. In the same sense, it'd be good to have something like, "You're monster hunters from one of the warrior orders" or whatever fits.

Frank said...

Good points Chris. Explicitly stating the core story actually goes a long way towards helping that setup. I think beyond that, my gut feel is to give relatively broad information. Things like what kinds of assumptions I make on available magic items. For my college game, I actually worked out how many high level mages were available in each city for generally buying magic items. Giving some pointers on how a GM might do that for his own campaign go a long way (D&D does this type of thing with the wealth levels for cities, though it doesn't suggest how common various size cities should be).

Of course I would fully expect any GM to look things over and make their own decisions about how much treasure they want in the game, but knowing that the game is functional with a certain treasure level is good. And having some thought conveyed on how different treasure levels would affect the game would be even better (D&D does a wonderfull job of setting an expected wealth, it doesn't help you much if you want to diverge from that - it would be cool if each monster had a listing of some of the resources the PCs are expected to have, of course that would be prohibitive because of the number of monsters, and the number of special case resources - such a thing might be easier in Cold Iron).


Bankuei said...

The two games I point people to on awesomeness of expressed setting: Dogs in the Vineyard and Polaris.

Dogs lists out in a very short way important everyday kinds of things you might want to know (what kind of clothes do these people wear, what kind of food do they eat, in town, you can find a blacksmith, a shoemaker, etc. etc.) Each of these detail things is usually a paragraph long, and really accessible.

Polaris gives a general mythology, but doesn't waste time nailing billions of details.

Between the two, you have a good example of how to give details and a good example of how to give broad color. Even if you don't end up playing them, from a writer's standpoint they're good examples.

Frank said...

I've been reading through Dogs. I like how it paints the setting. As I'm more of a visual person, were I to run Dogs, I'd consider collecting a few appropriate pictures, and either just decorate the room with them, or go a little step farther and try and use an image for each town. But the descriptions are very evocative, I can imagine myself riding that lonely trail with my handful of companions.

I need to re-read how Burning Wheel deals with setting (since it has purely an implied setting). I do recall that it references fiction. That kind of reference is less applicable to Cold Iron (I can't think of any particularly good fiction that has the same sort of setting as is implied in D&D and derivatively, Cold Iron).

I'll have to look into Polaris also.

Hmm, Savage Worlds would be good to look at as a game that probably has a high combat focus.


Bankuei said...


BW gets most of its fiction across in it's character creation- since it uses a wide variey of lifepaths and traits, you get a feel for the whole society & culture being dealt with.

For example, if "Slavemonger" is a Lifepath, you know that obviously there are slaves and slave trading going about. Sorcerer Apprentices' get traits like, "Respect your betters" which tells you that Sorcerers are probably headstrong and a bit dictator-like with their students. Etc.

This is really a more detailed version of what D&D does- for example, in D&D, you have druids who are shapechangers, and that tells you something about the D&D world. Between classes & monsters, you get a pretty decent structure to the setting.

Frank said...

Good points. The spells also do a lot. As do the equipment lists and magic items.

I guess mostly what I'm considering is what should be in the introduction. Crafting a good reasonable length introduction can go a long way towards getting people interested (but of course it can fail miserably if the game doesn't measure up to the introduction - and as we've been discussing on your blog, it's possible to put some pretty awful stuff in one's introduction).


Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

Start with the Structure of Play, first. Figure that out. Then figure out how you explain task/conflict resolution. Then figure out how you explain everything else.

Then worry about introduction last. You want to have a playable set of notes or playtest copy that people can pick up, use and give feedback on before you worry about the introduction.

Frank said...

Yea, good point. And that other stuff is where the gaping holes are. There is just the bare minimum of structure to "how to create a PC" and that's about the only place any structure exists (ok, I've written some sentences on how to make monsters and how to make PC races for some GMing structure).

I'm definitely thinking I'm going to need to bring a big notebook with me over the holidays (a laptop would be better, but I don't have my own, and don't want to risk the work one - especially after two co-workers just got theirs stolen...).

I've been doing a lot of thinking (and just finished reading Dogs - wow, of all the indie games I've spent a few hours reading, Dogs leaves me with the best understanding of how to play - as I was thinking after reading the "say yes or roll the dice" section, which suggests letting the PC get there, I was thinking, hmm, what if I want a conflict... "Oh you can't just barge through my gate" says the farmer...).