Why me?

This post is basically about boasting. As I’m British, this doesn’t come easily to me, but since I am British, people might well wonder why I should be writing a roleplaying game about Shinto.

Let’s handle the roleplaying game part first. I have been writing professionally for roleplaying games for twenty years, and I have written all or part of dozens of published roleplaying books, for Dungeons & Dragons, the World of Darkness, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Ars Magica, among others. I have also been the Line Editor for Ars Magica for more than ten years, and I designed and wrote fifth edition, which won the Origins Award for best RPG and the Gold ENnie for Best Rules back in 2005. I should be able to do this.

So, why a game about Shinto set in Japan?

First, I live in Japan, and have done for nearly ten years. My wife is Japanese, my daughter has dual citizenship, and I speak, read, and type the language fluently. (I can’t write it, because I forget how to write the ideograms. But then, so do most Japanese people.) One reason for setting the game in contemporary Japan is simply that this is the society I know, the society I live in day-to-day. I haven’t lived in the UK long-term for almost ten years, so I’m not sure that I could convincingly set something there. That’s also why the default setting for the game will be the greater Tokyo area, as that’s where I live within Japan.

Second, I am a practitioner of Shinto. I’ve been studying it for years now, almost as long as I’ve been in Japan, and so I know a lot about it. I know considerably more than almost all of my Japanese friends, for example, and the exceptions are mostly Shinto priests. I also participate in Shinto rituals a lot; I had one performed to mark the launch of this project, for example. Shinto is much more about practice than belief, so the question of whether I believe in Shinto is a lot harder to answer. I don’t believe that the legends in the eighth century texts are literally true, but then neither does anybody else. I do believe that Shinto rituals are worth performing, but I’m agnostic on whether there is anything supernatural behind that. I do not believe that the metaphysics of Kannagara the game are true of the real world, even approximately. The supernatural elements are adapted, for gaming purposes, from Shinto legend and Japanese folklore, and I believe that, if there are supernatural elements in the real world, people have not understood them. After all, we failed to understand the sun, moon, and stars for millennia, and everyone can see them, and agree on what they see. In the case of spirits and the like, where the experience is much less shared, it seems extremely unlikely that people will have hit upon a true interpretation.

As a practitioner of Shinto, I do get irritated by its portrayal in just about any other roleplaying game. Shadowrun Fourth Edition decided to illustrate it with a picture of a BDSM prostitute, for example, and Scion had some very strange ideas about which kami were important. That includes Japanese games; I don’t particularly care for its portrayal in Tenra Bansho Zero, either. Still, I know very well the conditions under which roleplaying games are researched and produced, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say I get offended or angry. Nevertheless, my intent in this game is to produce a portrayal of Shinto that is faithful to the spirit of the religion, albeit with a rather more literal interpretation of the legends than I think is justified in reality.

I think I have the background necessary to do a good job of this game. The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating.

What Does It Mean?

In the last post, I explained “kami” and “jinja”, and I will return to “matsuri” in more detail later. However, there are two other Japanese words that should be explained. Specifically, what are “Mimusubi” and “Kannagara”?

“Mimusubi” is taken from the name of two of the first kami to arise in the creation myth found in the Kojiki, the oldest surviving record of Japanese legends. According to this text, the first three kami to appear were Amenominakanushi, Takamimusubi, and Kamumusubi. Amenominakanushi promptly disappears from the legends, but the two Musubi kami play important roles later on. Takamimusubi is very important among the kami of the heavens, and Kamumusubi is very important among the kami of the earth.

“Musubi” originally means the power of creation, development, and growth. The relevance of this to the theme of Kannagara should be obvious. It can be pronounced “musuhi”, but if you use the “musubi” pronunciation, it also means “bond”, as in a knot or a relationship. Thus, “musubi” refers directly to three of the four main themes of Kannagara. “Mi” is a Japanese prefix indicating respect, but it can also be written with the character for “kami”, and thus mean “sacred”. “Mimusubi” represents the sacred power of creation, growth, and bonds.

However, “mi” can also mean “three”. (Wordplay of this sort is extremely common in Japanese.) That is why the logo for Mimusubi is three knotted pieces of paper. The knotted pieces of paper represent letters, particularly poetic letters, as such letters were traditionally tied in that way before being sent. Thus, there is quite a specific reference to literary creation. These poetic letters were often exchanged between lovers, so there is a reference to relationships as well, and the Japanese name for this knotted paper element is “musubi”.

“Kannagara” is a word over which there is much debate, because it appears in old documents, where it is not clearly defined, and then is not used much for about a thousand years. In the phrase “Kannagara no Michi”, it forms one of the names of Shinto. “Michi” means “way”, as does the “to” in “Shinto”; it’s the same Japanese character as is used for “do” in “kendo”, the way of the sword, and so on. The “shin” character in “Shinto” means “kami”, and “kannagara” is two characters, one of which is the character for “kami”. One theory is that “kannagara” just means the same as “kami”. Another is that it means acting like kami, or as kami command. Another is that it means becoming kami.

All of these interpretations are very appropriate to the themes of the game, which makes it a good title. At the very least, it’s a good working title, and it’s important to have one of those, because they often end up being the final title.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of Shinto terms do not have good translations into English, so I plan to use the Japanese. I’ll even use the Japanese for a few words that do have good translations, because one English word in the middle of Japanese ones looks odd. I’ll discuss these Japanese words as they come up in the design.

Shinto, Jinja, and Kami

Shinto is a central element in the setting of Kannagara, but it is not well-known outside Japan. I aim to have the game itself introduce the necessary ideas in play, but for this development blog, I fear that short info dumps are unavoidable.

Shinto is the practice of performing matsuri for kami, primarily at jinja. There are no good English translations for “Shinto”, “matsuri”, “kami”, or “jinja”, so I will use the Japanese words, and explain them. There are roughly equivalent words, but if I start by using those, the explanation begins by trying to clear up the misunderstandings that the words create. It’s easier to just use the Japanese.

The most important single concept is that of “kami”. The best place to start is with a translation of the definition of “kami” offered by Motoori Norinaga, an extremely influential Shinto scholar of the eighteenth century. This is the definition that most Shinto priests would offer today if asked for one, and the definition taken as the starting point in most discussions of kami.

What do we call “kami”? The many spirits revered at jinja, starting with those we see in ancient texts, are kami. Further, — even if we do not speak of human beings — birds and beasts, trees and grasses, seas and mountains, anything, indeed, that possesses power and authority beyond the norm, every thing that inspires awe: all these are kami. (When we talk of things going beyond the norm, this is not limited to those worthy of respect, those unusually good, or those that raise society up. Things that are exceptionally evil or unnatural are also kami.)

Kami are not necessarily immaterial or immortal. The chief priest of a major shrine can write, even today (in an article published at the end of April this year) “the spirit that resided in the pool, or rather, the pool itself, was the kami”. Mount Fuji is the kami of many shrines, and in that sense my answer to the question “do you really believe that kami exist?” is “yes, I can see one from my balcony on a clear day”.

The normal concept of a kami, however, is of an undying invisible spirit that is conscious and able to respond to matsuri. Mount Fuji just as a volcano would not be a kami in this sense, and, in Kannagara, all kami are conscious beings. They are not necessarily invisible spirits, but most are. They do, however, all meet Norinaga’s definition. They are not necessarily good, or friendly, and there are limits to their power, but they all inspire awe.

The relationship between kami and people was summarised in the first article of a set of fundamental laws for Japan issued in the thirteenth century.

The kami increase their authority through the respect of the people, and the people increase their prosperity through the blessings of the kami.

That is, the kami depend on people just as much as people depend on kami. Kami are greater than most people, but they do not have absolute power, and they need to have people respecting them, primarily through the performance of matsuri. This is also something that will form part of Kannagara.

A jinja is a place where kami and people can meet, and the people perform matsuri for the kami. It is a sacred space, and, these days, normally has several buildings, but buildings are not strictly necessary. At most jinja, the kami is believed to be present at all times, in a particular location and often a particular object, which is normally hidden from view. Sometimes, the kami is believed to be present in a mountain or similar natural phenomenon, however, and those are not hidden. A jinja almost always includes a woodland or forest, and a jinja without even a single tree is very unusual.

Matsuri are very important to the game, and will get their own post a little later. The people associated with a jinja can create and perform matsuri to increase the power and authority of the kami of the jinja, convince an unhelpful kami to be more benevolent, and even become kami themselves. These are central activities in Kannagara.

Mechanical Philosophy

Kannagara is a tabletop roleplaying game, and therefore it has mechanics. Since I’ve already talked about the guiding ideas behind the game itself, I’d like to talk briefly about my approach to the mechanics.

Anyone who is familiar with my work on Ars Magica will know that I lean towards mechanical systems that are quite detailed and simulationist. That is something that will be reflected in Kannagara’s mechanics, partly as a matter of personal preference, but also for more fundamental reasons. Here, I’ll focus on the more fundamental reasons.

First, I believe that the mechanics of a game should be part of the expression of the game. If two games are supposed to have very different moods and deal with different subjects, then they really should have different mechanics. I am not, as you might guess, a big believer in generic systems. In my experience, they tend to do one genre well, and others poorly, at least until different mechanics are written to extend them to a new area. The other side of this is that, if something is important to the game, it should have mechanics. Broadly speaking, something should only be left to the creativity of the players if it is colour that does not really matter to the way the game works. (This is only true broadly speaking, and I am pretty sure that there will be exceptions in Kannagara.)

Second, I believe that restricting the choices available to players is a very important part of making a good game. This is particularly true when you are introducing a setting that is not familiar to them. The rules should present a limited set of sensible choices (three to six is the number often cited) at each point, so that players have some control over the course of the story, but aren’t drowning in options. This means that there should be a defined list of skills and such, not “write down some phrases that define your character”.

Put these two together, and you are looking at a very crunchy system. That means that you want a consistent, and simple, basic mechanic, which can be applied in lots of different situations to capture the different aspects of the game. “Roll one twenty-sided die and add something, trying to beat a target number” is a good example of a basic mechanic. That one is actually a bit too simple for what I want to do, but I do want to use the same basic mechanic at all points. (The basic mechanic will get its own post, a little later.)

I said above that restricting choice is important. This is true, but players who are familiar with the system should be able to create exactly the character they want, and do whatever they want, within the constraints of the game. (In Kannagara, the rules will not support creating a skilled fighter, because that is not what the game is about.) Pathfinder does this by starting with eight or so basic classes, but then having archetypes and prestige classes, and choices of feats and skills, which allow you to create almost anything you want. I don’t think that the way Pathfinder does it is ideal, because the player really needs to know exactly what she wants to do right at the beginning, but it’s good; the flexibility of the system is impressive. The problem with really needing to make the choice at the beginning is that the player does face dozens of options at that point.

However, allowing players to create whatever character they want is not necessarily inconsistent with restricting choice, because the restriction only applies to each choice point. If you have five options at each choice point, then twenty choice points give you 95 billion final options. It does take some effort to make sure that the available paths cover all the desirable outcomes, but that’s one of the things that game design (and playtesting) is about.

My aim, then, is to have mechanics based on a consistent core mechanic, which provide systems for all the important activities in the system (growth, relationships, creation, and discovery). At any point, both in character creation and in play, a player should face a limited number of options, but a player should be able to reach any end point that makes sense in the game by making a series of choices that seem sensible at the time.

What Is Kannagara?

Kannagara is a table-top, pen & paper roleplaying game in which players portray people associated with a Shinto sacred space, who create and perform its rituals. They build relationships with the mundane and supernatural inhabitants of the area so that the sacred space, people, and spirits flourish, mysteries are solved, and wonders are both uncovered and created.

Four elements are central to the game.

The first is personal growth. Characters get better over time, overcome their problems, and become something better than they were. This applies both to the characters controlled by the people playing the game, the personae, and to all other characters. Personae do this with each other’s help, while characters do it with the help of personae. Personae are, of course, the active driving force in the game world. Characters follow their own agendas, and do not just wait for personae to act, but major changes require the involvement of personae.

The second is building relationships. Personae try to build good relationships with characters, and with each other.

The third is discovery. Personae uncover lost truths and solve mysteries. Sometimes these are wholly mundane, such as finding out why someone seems so hostile to them, but often they are supernatural. The personae know nothing about the supernatural when the game starts out, but that situation does not last long.

The final activity is creation. A central form of creation is the creation of rituals for the sacred space, the jinja. These rituals help to build relationships with characters, and can help them to grow. In the case of kami, the supernatural spirits associated with the jinja or the surrounding area, this is quite direct, but for human characters it is generally an indirect effect.

These elements are all interdependent. Personae grow by building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths, and after growing they are better at building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths. Of course, they can also build relationships by growing and encouraging growth, creating things, and discovering truths, and so on.

Finally, the party is held together because they are all closely associated with the same sacred space, the same jinja. The success of the jinja is one way to measure the overall success of the players in the game.

There are also two important absences from the game.

First, the game is not about combat, at all. There will be no fighting, and no rules for fighting. There will, of course, be conflicts, because you need conflicts for drama, but those conflicts will not be solved by violence.

Second, Kannagara is a game of wonder, not horror. It is set in a world like the modern day, with a largely hidden and secret supernatural element, but that supernatural element is not horrifying, it is wondrous. If the game turned out to be an accurate depiction of our world, that would be a good thing. (Also, extremely surprising.)

Welcome to Kannagara

Welcome to Kannagara.

Kannagara will be a modern fantasy roleplaying game set in contemporary Japan, drawing heavily on Shinto folklore, legends, and practices. I say “will be” because it is not yet written; I will talk about the design on this blog, and hope that the readers of the blog will make comments about the design while it is in progress, so that there is some dialogue. At some point in the future, there’s likely to be Kickstarter or something similar. Consider yourselves forewarned: this is a commercial project, and eventually I will ask for money.

So, what is Kannagara?

The players portray people associated with a Shinto sacred space, who create and perform its rituals. They build relationships with the mundane and supernatural inhabitants of the area so that the sacred space, people, and spirits flourish, mysteries are solved, and wonders are both uncovered and created.

That’s the current version of the elevator pitch, but I hope to refine it as we go along. If you would like to read a really long introduction to the general setting, Kannagara is almost Tamao: The Roleplaying Game. However, Tamao was rather darker than I intend Kannagara to be, and had less of an emphasis on creation. In this post, I want to pick up and amplify a few of the important elements of my vision for Kannagara.

First, the game is not about combat, at all. There will be no fighting, and no rules for fighting. There will, of course, be conflicts, because you need conflicts for drama, but those conflicts will not be solved by violence, or, indeed, any other illegal action. (Well, I can imagine that trespassing might be involved in some plots.) There are plenty of roleplaying games that do combat very well, but it isn’t something I am particularly interested in.

Second, Kannagara is a game of wonder, not horror. It is set in a world like the modern day, with a largely hidden and secret supernatural element, but that supernatural element is not horrifying, it is wondrous. I do anticipate that maintaining that will be as hard as maintaining a sense of horror, and I don’t expect to succeed all the time, but it is the goal. In particular, I want to avoid horrific elements. If the game turned out to be an accurate depiction of our world, that would be a good thing. (Also, extremely surprising.)

So, that tells you something that the player characters don’t do, and a bit about the mood. What do they do? The game revolves around four central activities.

The first is personal growth. Characters get better over time, overcome their problems, and become something better than they were. This applies to player characters (whom I will call “personae”, following the lead of James Wallis in Alas Vegas), and non-player characters (whom I will just call “characters”). Personae do this with each other’s help, while characters do it with the help of personae. Personae are, of course, the active driving force in the game world. Characters follow their own agendas, and do not just wait for personae to act, but major changes require the involvement of personae.

The second is building relationships. Personae try to build good relationships with characters, and with each other.

The third is discovery. Personae uncover lost truths and solve mysteries. Sometimes these are wholly mundane, such as finding out why someone seems so hostile to them, but often they are supernatural. The personae know nothing about the supernatural when the game starts out, but that situation does not last long.

The final activity is creation. A central form of creation is the creation of rituals for the sacred space, the jinja. These rituals help to build relationships with characters, and can help them to grow. In the case of kami, the supernatural spirits associated with the jinja or the surrounding area, this is quite direct, but for human characters it is generally an indirect effect.

These elements are all interdependent. Personae grow by building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths, and after growing they are better at building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths. Of course, they can also build relationships by growing and encouraging growth, creating things, and discovering truths, and so on.

Finally, the party is held together because they are all closely associated with the same sacred space, the same jinja. The success of the jinja is one way to measure the overall success of the players in the game.

I am writing this game because it is a game that I really want to play. As mentioned above, I’d also like it to be a commercial project, so I rather hope that other people will also want to play it. The only way to discover that, however, is to make the game, and see.

I hope you will stay around to watch.

Mimusubi

I have a new project, and it has its own website: Mimusubi. It’s a role-playing game about creating things. Those of you with good memories may remember some work on this topic here a couple of years ago. I’ll be discussing the design on the Mimusubi website, and plan to release it commercially in some form. If you’re interested, please go and take a look.

Yes, adding Mimusubi to the Japanese blog probably does mean that this blog will be neglected even more than it has been recently. Insofar as that is possible.

Ars Magica Video Game Kickstarter

We (Atlas and I) are working with Black Chicken Studios to produce an Ars Magica video game. (I suspect that Black Chicken will be doing most of the work, being the video game people, but we will have a lot of input as well.) Black Chicken have launched a Kickstarter to fund it. Atlas has a press release about the game and Kickstarter as well.

The target for the Kickstarter is high, because it has been properly budgeted, and $290,000 is actually enough to make sure the game happens. If there isn’t enough interest to pay for the project, we won’t do it, and thus avoid losing $290,000, but we really hope there is enough interest. Is there any interest here?

Choosing the World

Although I will, of course, develop the detailed design of the game world while I’m working on the game, I do need to choose the basic type of world I want to create. Since we are focusing on things I’m personally interested in, there are four options: “classic” fantasy, modern fantasy, science fiction, and historical.

By “classic” fantasy I mean, essentially, the sort of fantasy world popularised by Tolkien and his imitators. Elves, dwarfs, orcs, swords and sorcery. That sort of thing. Yes, a lot of role-playing games have used this background, most famously Dungeons & Dragons. However, the basic aim of my game is sufficiently different from that of D&D that using a familiar background might actually be a good thing, if I’m aiming at an audience of role-players. If the background is classic fantasy, the players’ assumptions about the general ways in which the background works will be correct, which will help them get into the game, and make sensible choices from the background options available. As the basic goals of the characters are very different from those in other role-playing games, a bit of familiarity could be a big help. In addition, this is something I keep coming back to when I look at classic fantasy worlds; I really like them, no doubt in part because they were an important element in my formative years, but the games set there do not support the sorts of characters I actually want to play.

What about the other sort of fantasy, modern fantasy? If I wrote a modern fantasy game, I would probably set it in Japan. It would be something like Tamao: The RPG. Of course, that would make the background very unfamiliar to the players, apart from the handful of English-speaking role-players who live in Japan, unless I wrote it in Japanese and targeted the Japanese market. However, I suspect that’s a bit too ambitious for the moment. I could set it in the UK or the USA, but that removes one of the big advantages of putting it in Japan: I can’t use information and images that I can gather just by walking around the area where I live.

Moving away from fantasy, if I created a science fiction world it would be fairly hard science fiction, not space opera. However, since the things that characters would create would include new scientific theories, it couldn’t be hard science fiction according to the strict definition, because the characters would discover things that broke the currently-established laws of nature. (This is, however, a fundamental problem for hard science fiction; new scientific laws will be discovered in the future, so if you set something far enough in the future it’s not hard science fiction if you don’t make something up, but also not if you do. Obviously, there are ways round this, but it does make the standard definition less applicable than it might be.) I’d probably set it in a somewhat transhumanist setting, like those used in Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase, because those settings provide a lot of space for engineering creations as well as for fundamental scientific discoveries, and thus make it easier to create a setting that supports a long-running campaign. It’s a bit hard to maintain continuity, and interest, if you completely restructure the world every week.

Finally, a historical setting would probably start with a straight historical setting, without fantasy, but the actions of the player characters would quickly turn it into an alternate history setting. They might make scientific discoveries and change the technological background, or create important new works of art, or change the political structure. In any case, the aim of the game would be to enable the player characters to change history, in deep and fundamental ways. However, the first changes might be quite minor, so this would also have an educational aspect, as the players would naturally learn about the historical period while playing.

The downside of both a hard scientific setting and a historical setting is that a large amount of research would be needed to do them properly. I could probably do a historical game set in medieval England based on the research I’ve already done, and I have enough scientific background to be able to make a stab at the science fiction, but in either case I’d have to do even more research. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, because I like research, but it is another barrier to getting started on writing the actual game. I probably don’t need any other preparatory projects to waste my time on.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the modern fantasy setting. While I only need to go outside and walk around for some things, for others I really would need to find out how Japanese society works in that respect, and that might not be at all easy. Again, it’s something I want to know, but research takes me even longer in Japanese than in English (my Japanese reading speed is still not the same as my English reading speed), so it would, again, significantly delay the creation of the actual game.

Looking at all of these issues, it rather looks as though the classic fantasy setting is the best choice to start with. I can just make the background up to fit the structure of the game, which is likely to be helpful while I am still trying to get things working. More generally, I can just make bits of background up as I need them, and, as long as I keep track of them, they can’t be wrong. I might decide I want to make revisions later, and there will be time for that, but I can’t make actual, unambiguous mistakes.

The next step, then, is to start actually writing the game. This process, however, will not lend itself to regular blog posts, and virtually nobody is reading these posts anyway, so while I think I will post about it from time to time, when there is something significant to say, this will be the last of this semi-regular series.

Setting the Scene

Introducing the game world is, like character creation, a major problem for role-playing games. Most games end up with several volumes of world information, running to thousands of pages; Ars Magica is certainly no exception to that. Reading this information and discovering the game world is part of the fun for a lot of people. However, feeling that you need to read several thousand pages before you can play a game does tend to discourage casual players, and make it hard to try new games. It’s even more of a problem for my design, where I want people to be able to start playing within fifteen minutes, and to do so without a gamemaster, and thus without someone assumed to know what is going on in the game world.

A bad approach to this problem would be to provide lots of material to be read out by the players. Reading is fun, but it isn’t playing, so this also delays people getting into the game. In addition, the players are not going to remember everything that is read out to them, particularly if it’s about an entirely fictional world, or something historical or from a remote culture. Boredom and confusion are the likely result, and neither of those is fun.

On the other hand, the information does need to be contained in the scenario, because there’s nowhere else to put it. However, it is better if the information is supplied as needed, rather than in large chunks, and if the information supplied is closely involved in the action being taken. This is the “show, don’t tell” rule for writing fiction, transferred to a role-playing context.

The concrete application of this is to the description of the actions the characters take, and to the description of the characters themselves. Each individual problem needs to be described, and that description should introduce part of the world. Further, each action that the characters take should be described, and further the world’s description. Describing the problem is relatively easy; this can be a bit of text that one player reads out. It can be kept short, and it’s immediately relevant to play, so boredom and confusion can be avoided.

Character actions are a bit more difficult, because the players should have control, but don’t have the necessary knowledge. I think the best approach may be to provide two or three options for actions in each situation, with a description, and then let the player choose which one the character does.

Character features, which grant additional dice to roll, should also describe part of the background. They won’t go into detail, but they’ll start to reveal something of what the game world is like. And, if they’re chosen, they’ll be linked to the character, and thus easy to remember and important. Of course, they should continue to be important in later parts of the scenario, but that’s just a matter of careful design.

Finally, there’s the background itself. What is the world like beyond the immediate concerns of the characters? Here, I would like to introduce elements that characterise the world, and the particular location where the characters are working. One possibility is to make two elements available at each action, with a brief description of each one. Then, the player can choose to incorporate one of the available elements into the description of her character’s action. If she does so, she gets an extra die to roll, and that element is confirmed as being present in the immediate environment.

A possible development of this is to have more detailed descriptions of certain elements, which become available when a basic element is in play. Later players can choose to involve them, making the description richer, and getting extra dice for their characters’ actions.

However, there’s going to be a lot to keep track of here, and scratch paper may not be the best way to do it. Instead, I think it might be a good idea to print the descriptions on cards, around business-card size. The cards can then be placed between the players, so that they can see what elements there are in the environment, and how they are built up. The cards could also have pictures on, although, as I can’t draw, that is unlikely to happen in the first stages of development. Actually, the whole thing could be made multimedia, with images and sounds, even animations, and then run on a laptop, tablet computer, or smartphone. However, I’d have to learn to program to do that, as well as get the multimedia from somewhere, so that’s also not going to be the immediate form this takes.

Another advantage of using relatively small cards is that it limits the length of the descriptions, which is an important consideration. The elements might build up into a lengthy, detailed description, but they start small. Since adding detail means going back to an element that has already been added, that will remind the players of what is around them, and, again, makes it important that the individual elements are short. Reading over a lot of long descriptions repeatedly risks creating boredom again.

This is going to require quite a lot of work from the author of the scenario. He will have to make sure that the elements work together well, support the story of the scenario, and let the players generate interesting characters. They will also need to be structured so that it is very difficult to produce something that doesn’t make sense. Thus, each background element card will need instructions for what replaces it in the pool of available elements if it is used, or, for incompatible detailed descriptions, what has to be taken out. For character elements and elements of the thing being created, the scenario needs to specify what is available at each point, possibly depending on what was chosen earlier.

However, it is important to avoid closing off options. We must remember that the players do not know what they are doing; they should not be allowed to make choices that mean they cannot do, or be, something significant in the game world, at least not early on. For example, in a classic fantasy game, players should not be able to exclude the possibility that their character belongs to a particular race until they know enough about the races to make that choice sensibly.

Again, looking away from the scenarios, this information can also be gathered into books about the game world, so that they are available for people who like to read that sort of thing. A player could learn about the background from books, which would just mean that he knew more about how the elements introduced in a scenario connected to the rest of the world. That wouldn’t, normally, be an advantage, since the characters would be assumed to know even if the players didn’t. It would also be possible to produce packs of background elements, for use with any scenario, that introduced new features of the game world.

I’ve been very vague in this as to the nature of the background, because that’s the next thing I have to decide. In broad terms, what is going to be the setting of my game?