Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"Will there be rabbits George?"

Haha! And you thought this blog was dead! You fools! It only rises again and again, stronger and stronger! (Or other Greyjoy words to that effect) I guess recently I've had more free mental time what with the school year winding down at all, and also more intellectual stimuli, so there are a few blog entries incoming, but today I want to talk about settings and setting the scenes in RPGs. That's of course a huge and nebulous topic, but I just want to throw out a couple of recent observations. Having recently taught Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" I remembered how much I love Steinbeck, much more so than Fitzgerald or Hemingway. There is real pathos, real emotion, and well - real reality, in his words. He is also adept at making a fictional setting as real as it can be in relatively few words, and there are a few lessons that Game Masters running a RPG can take away.

First of these is to not worry so much about verisimilitude when setting a game in a real-world location. What Steinbeck demonstrates so powerfully is that what matters is not getting every single tree, stone, and brook right, but getting the sense of the place right. Is Soledad Valley real? Yes. Is the ranch from "Of Mice and Men" real? No, but it might as well be because it is so believable and it fits with what knowledge and preconceptions we might have about ranches in southern California in 1920s and 1930s.

Secondly there are the descriptions in pre-made adventures. Normally I like pre-made adventures; they make my life easier by reducing prep time, they give me ideas, maps, and ready-made characters to use in other games. Most of them, however, commit the cardinal sin of poor descriptions. They are either extremely verbose in attempting to explain to the players not only what the scene looks like, but also where everything and everyone is in relation to players; or they are too sparse. I think the primary use of a scene description should be to establish the feel of the scene and the most evocative and important details and then get out of the way. If you need to explain to the players where specific details are in relation to them, use a map or wait for them to ask specific questions. Steinbeck does occasionally take a page to describe a place, but these are exceptions. He can establish a character's presence or the imagery of the scene in but a short paragraph, because Steinbeck realizes that he doesn't need to be Dickens.

Lastly, do not be afraid to use literary cliches to describe a scene. This is not to say that everything that comes out of GM's mouth should be a cliche (God knows I'm guilty of that often enough), but that cliches are cliches because they work. They act on our minds, evoking certain understanding and imagery that has been ingrained in our memory by media, literature, art, etc. They also work because cliches can quickly summarize an understanding that would otherwise take far more words to achieve. This applies to characters as well as settings and scenes obviously.