Theory and Practice

I’ve been working on An Echo,  Resounding lately. It’s a supplementary book for Labyrinth Lord focused on creating sandbox adventure regions, managing domains and political polities that PCs or locals might have there, and running mass combat in a way that integrates with the whole. While I’ve been sweating over the specific mechanics and resource tables of the book, it’s left me thinking about theories.

Theories are beautiful things. I’ve got lots of them about game design and building optimal sandboxes, and in many ways Sine Nomine itself is just a convenient rubric for me to use in expressing these theories. I think sandbox gaming provides a remarkable set of possibilities to a GM and players, and I think the design space hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves over the past ten or twenty years. Given the opportunity, I’d talk your ear off about all the things that sandboxes can give to a group that other gaming styles can’t provide so easily. Those other styles each have their own strong points and advantages, certainly, but the special virtues of a sandbox are experienced all too rarely these days. I have my theories about why that’s the case.

But GMs and players don’t need theories in a published product. They need tools. One of my pet peeves about a lot of RPG books aimed at GMs and worldbuilders is the studied vagueness of the contents, the preference for giving sweeping advice and broad generalities over specific guidelines. The author will explain why a particular technique or goal is a good one and leave it to the reader to actually implement the directive. I’m not sure whether the authors honestly believe this is the best way to go about things or whether they’re perhaps paralyzed by the sheer scope of material they’re dealing with. Perhaps they fear to put down anything specific because they can easily imagine a case where any particular offering would be wrong or useless. I don’t think they’re doing their readers any favors this way. Why? Well, here’s a theory:

It’s easier to take a working process and generalize it than it is to focus a theory into a working process. Take an early D&D combat system, for example, and the concept of hit points. You have a system that allows multiple actors to conduct physical conflict that eventually reduces one side to death or incapacity. But what if a character gets hit with live steam from an underground mudpot? You generalize the combat system and say that it hurts him just as if he’d been hit by an enemy- you subtract hit points. The same with hostile sorcery, corrosive toxins, falls, or even heat exhaustion- you just tick it off the hit point tally, because the system already works to describe a character’s progress from “fit and hale” to “dead”.

On the other hand, what if you started from a theory about how combat should work? The designer might advise that combat should be resolved fairly quickly, that it shouldn’t involve a death spiral of gradual incapacitation, that an entity should go pretty much from “fighting at full strength” to “pushing up daisies” when that phase transition happens, and in all other ways plot out for the reader a theoretical plan for how combat should function in a game. Maybe the reader can come up with a system easily enough, but do they know that system works? Do they have the time to playtest it and run its numbers to make entirely certain that the results are in line with the theory? Maybe they do, but it would’ve been a great deal kinder for the designer to have handed them a working system in the first place and leave it for them to tweak and warp as they required.

For An Echo, Resounding, the point is not simply to tell you all my wonderful theories for region creation and domain management. It might be necessary to give a few pages to those ideas simply to put the following systems in context, but the actual value of nebulous guidelines is minimal. What such a book needs to offer is something specific, some precise set of steps that a GM can follow that will produce an adventure-laden region embedded with the local power sources and details necessary to seamlessly transition to domain-level concerns and politicking when the players decide to do so. For region creation, I tell you to take this many Cities and this many Towns and this many Lairs, and where to put each, and how to establish the interesting traits of all of them. I give you a list of obstacles to thwart rulers and tallies of valuable resources and traits to make a place worth conquering. I give you specific details on how to relate that work to later domain-level adventures, so that when the PCs heroically rescue the town of Yellow Toad Well and receive the grateful allegiance of the town elders, you know exactly what that means in terms of military, economic, and social power and don’t need to scramble for a plausible result.

Will these guidelines fit every world? No, they won’t. They’re written for the Red Tide campaign setting, though they’re easily generalized to most any fantasy world. But in each case, turning the Tide Cults into diabolical worshipers appropriate to your own world or tweaking the Eirengarder pikemen into some doughty spearmen that fit your creation is infinitely easier than taking fine theories of how religious groups or pike blocks should work and translating them into specific game terms. Ultimately, I try to make books that are usable immediately- books that require only an hour of time and fistful of dice to produce a result you can use at your gaming table that same day. I’m confident that anyone with the creative chops to enjoy being a GM has all the talent required to adjust and shim in parts suitable for their own creations. As the month and the playtesting progresses, I’ll be showing more details of how An Echo, Resounding handles some of these issues, and how I try to provide practical specifics to go with the pleasures of easy theory.