Friday, December 18, 2009

Worldbuilding & HERO #1: Brass tacks

Vast open expanses?
Worldbuilding- AKA. subcreation, is an essential feature of roleplaying; a creative endeavour in which many players- GM or otherwise, love to indulge. As readers will be well aware, this places roleplaying games squarely in a cultural trend the 20th century great grandaddy of which is J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. (Map via: geektyrant.)

The history of subcreation in our own culture of the fantastic is not my subject here, but I cannot pass by without mentioning Greg Stafford's Glorantha. Best known as the setting of the RPGs Runequest and HeroQuest, Glorantha is unusual among RPG settings in that it wasn't a gaming setting at all when it was first created; unusual, but not unique- M. A. R. Barker's Tékumel was the same. The only adventure gaming settings I can think of which might rival these extraordinary creations in their subcreationist breadth and depth are GW's Warhammer Old World and 40K Dark Millenium.

"Less is more!"I touched on this notion when I wrote about James Ellroy, that modern master of the pared-down narrative. Double-checking the inevitable Wiki via google led me to The Phrase Finder, which confirms (circularly or independently? -: I don't know) that this meme of minimalist design was coined in Robert Browning's 1855 poetic dramatic monologue 'Andrea del Sarto'; and that it entered the vernacular as an aphorism of the 20th century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Less is more. I find the conjunction of poetry and minimalist architecture in the history of this phrase strangely apt:
  • Poetry: roleplaying description in its written form is typically prose to be sure, but the oral form aims at the evocative and vibrant immediacy of poetic performance.
  • Architecture: simply an apt metaphor for the interweaving of setting and system that is the structure of most RPG's.
That's all very well you might be saying, but where does worldbuilding and HERO come into this? The answer to that lies in 2 minor subsystems of character creation in HERO:
  • Everyman skills: HERO's treatment of the familiar RPG notion of learned attributes that anyone of a given time and place can do; AKA. default skills.
  • Package deals (now Templates): off-the-shelf sets of attributes- innate and/or learned, which define species, social backgrounds, careers and so on; again widely used in other RPGs.
Both these systems offer worldbuilding GMs more than just points of defintion of PC/NPCs; they also offer a simple framework which can be used to define the species and social variegation of the different peoples in the roleplaying settings.

Starting small
The works of Tolkien, Stafford and Barker exemplify the crucial pitfall facing the unwary worldbuilding GM: overdoing it. Where subcreationists of their magisterial ilk can devote serial volumes to their worlds because exposition of such richness is precisely the point, roleplaying GMs labour under tighter constraints: their materials must above all be accessible- players' appetites for reading background material before character creation is limited; and functional- it should contribute to character creation. So far so obvious I guess.

My approach here was inspired by a truism we used to pass around during the heady days of the early 80's when- filled with the twin enthusiasms of youth and of the sheer novelty of our little games, we discussed this new narrative form at great length, subjecting it to detailed dissection and minute analysis. That truism was that all you need to start a roleplaying campaign is an inn and a dark and stormy night.

A practical example: Fantasy/Medieval Everyman
To move from generalities towards something accessible and functional, here is an example I worked up for Donald's long awaited outlaw campaign. Below is a routine Everyman list appropriate to a bog standard Fantasy/Medieval setting:
  • Native tongue 4
  • Professional Skill: Specify F11-
  • Area Knowledge: Homeland F
  • Acting F
  • Climbing F
  • Concealment F
  • Conversation F
  • Deduction F
  • Healing F
  • Persuasion F
  • Shadowing F
  • Stealth F
  • Transport Familiarity: Specify
  • Weapon Familiarity: Clubs
  • WF: Fist loads
  • WF: Thrown rocks
"F" stands for 'Familiarity'. In HERO, Familiarities are 3d6/8- rolls (that's rolling 3d6 aiming for 8 or less) which cost 1pt each, as opposed to the 3d6/11- rolls costing 3pts which are the average skill in HERO (NB. the Professional Skill F11- is an exception to the 8- rule). Everyman Familiarities are also 'virtual'. That is to say: you get the dice roll for nothing but not the points, which you still have to pay if you want to improve the skill.

So, I have expanded this single list into Fantasy/Medieval Everyman, which gives different Everyman lists for the key social classes in this classic fantasy genre setting. As I noted above, these Everyman lists are useful to GMs and players both, providing as they do:
  • An immediate and concise summary of the setting's social structure.
  • Plug-and-play templates to speed NPC creation; a task made all the easier with today's software.
  • Minor variations sufficient to encourage players to start to think about the decisions character creation entails in the points-build system that is HERO.
This system material could be finished off with short paragraphs of colour text to evoke the social standing of each class: their typical livelihoods, relationships with other classes, and so on. Pictures too would be nice; finding them is trivial in this internet age.

Last words
All the foregoing aside, I like the Everyman rules for another reason: the way they give the power levels of HERO-driven roleplaying campaigns a recognisable foundation in the everyday. This is because of the way skill Familiarities work. Crucial here are the rulings that neither Skill Levels nor complementary skills can be used to aid Familiarity skill checks. Typically then, HERO NPCs equivalent to the old AD&D 0-level NPCs must take extra time to be averagely competent at pretty much anything. I've always thought there's a certain systemic elegance in that. ;)
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