Thursday, September 19, 2019

Worldbuilding: Precision or Atmosphere?

  The Fun Lads Four (who will soon be the Fun Lads Five as the youngest is rapidly joining the nerdery) and I were going over campaign notes last night and we were discussing how very subtle shifts in tone result is massive changes in perception. We think we came up with some insights:

The following two campaigns share the same creator/DM and same players:

Seaward: Forty years old. While it has a ton of accumulated details and history-from-play it grew organically from small and local.
  I have a very simple concept of history with few details. Almost all (99%?) of the adventures occur in an area the size of Laos and even then about 90% are in an area about the size of Albania. After 40 years there is no world map.
  Player, 'Where is the city of Robias?'
  Me, 'Far to the west and south.'
  Player, 'How far?'
  Me, 'Far. Depends on the weather.'
  Player, 'Where is Yashima?'
  Me, 'Far across the Dawn Sea. Hard to say.'

Blackstone: almost 11 years old. Started 'high level' and was fully fleshed out before anyone sat down. A broad history back 30,000 years and a very detailed history of the 400 years before the campaign started. A detailed world map with dozens of regions carefully detailed. The players have had an adventure start in one area, move to an area 4,000 miles away, then conclude another 2,000 miles further on. One party circumnavigated the globe accidentally because it was most convenient at the time.

  How does this affect perceptions of the players? Their comments.

  "We simply accept it. There is a hidden hermitage of a Saint guarded by a clay golem in the dungeon? Sure. There seems to be a group of ogre magi yakuza nearby? Why not? The second moon has a city on it and it is mostly a huge favela? OK. We bumped into Baba Yaga in the woods? Well, you need to be careful!"

  "About once a (real world) year our understanding of the campaign has a Profound Realization that forces us to revamp our view of the entire world. The fire mage is *Zingaran*?! The bartender was a SPY?! WHAT IS IN OUR ATTIC?!?!?!"

Of course, this is as anecdotal as things can get, but I find the difference very interesting. Is it my attitude toward details? Is it the amount of information passed along? Is it totally unrelated?  I can't be sure, but I have a theory.

  Atmosphere- despite the amount of local information developed over years of play what I, as DM, focus on in Seaward is 'atmosphere'; a sense of the strange and wonderful. Details are added as needed, but I focus on it being weird and odd.

  Precision- In Blackstone I started with precision. I can give weather, distances, and moon phases and town size all over the world. I want things to feel sweeping, epic, and profound.

  In short, I think I am getting what I want! Any ideas or examples from others?


  1. Personally I'll take atmosphere over precision. Others probably prefer precision. I'm sure I would enjoy playing either and I may be oblivious enough not to realize the difference.

  2. Atmosphere is more important as it immediately colors play. For precision I go with the 80/20 principle - I want to know the big picture details so I can more quickly generate atmosphere. But I'm probably the only one who'll ever know most of those details, so I don't sweat perfecting them into a cohesive whole.

    But my goal is to make people around a table have a good time. I think a lot of DMs have a different goal; wowing people with their creative vision. So they sweat big droplets of effort into that. Different strokes.

  3. I'll offer a dissenting opinion: I choose precision. A simple reason is that atmosphere can arise from a precisely constructed setting, but precision cannot arise from mere atmosphere.

    The more accurate and subjective reason is that precision improves verisimilitude for me, and that is a feature that I enjoy in a game setting. I want to play in a dynamic world that couldn't care less if my character lives or dies until he affects the setting in such a way that it tries to affect him back. I want a setting that reacts in a way that is sensical, predictable even, if all the relevant facts are known. The world has weather, ecologies, economies, tides, disease, demographics, &c. The setting must also.

    What I don't want is the arbitrary creation of facts that fit the DM's sense of dramatic timing for some story that he wants to tell. I don't want to play in a movie; my character is not Truman Burbank.