By the pricking of my thumbs
Something strange this way comes
Yesterday in RPGaDay2020 I looked at levers and traps in general, and how to handle them as an impartial referee GM.
Today the theme is Strange. This is one of my favourite aspects of being a GM and developing situations for a role-playing session – coming up with situations we wouldn’t get in normal life (well, certainly my life is very different from that of a fantasy character – your mileage may vary…)
If everything is mundane and there are no surprises, I almost feel there’s no point in playing – we might as well just play at real life. It’s when it gets weird and unpredictable that it gets interesting.
There are all sorts of ways things can become strange. And the delightful thing about a fantasy role-playing game is that creating something strange and wonderful doesn’t even require planning permission or finances or a search for the perfect location.
For example I could just decide that I wanted The Tower to be built up against and into the rock of Toney Hill, and then decide that there was an appropriate section of hill where it could be built which was suitably seedy. Try to do that here in Edinburgh and I’d come up against serious objections from the good people living in Ramsay Garden or the Grassmarket, even though they were the inspiration for the way it uses the rock to support so many levels (these were the first skyscrapers – 14 stories on one side, 3 stories on the other with the castle rock as the spine).
It doesn’t even need to have a proper scientific explanation – particularly given magic is available. Floating islands in the sky? A creature which is a fiery animated coat of armour? A creature which can’t be damaged by arrows or blades but can be bludgeoned to death? An animated chess set which forces the characters to move as chess pieces as well? A section of corridor where gravity works in reverse? The only limit is my imagination.
However, I do have a boundaries to the strangeness I like. I do like things to have some level of consistency. I like a world which feels like it has some rules. This is the main reason why I limit the playable races in my world to the humans and demi-humans. I even find Dragonborn, Tieflings and Drow a stretch, and you would never have the situation where a ravenoid, a catoid, and an elephantoid (Kenku, Tabaxi and Loxodon) go into a bar and no-one bats an eyelid. That just feels like strangeness for the sake of being different.
But then I play for the story, and I like to work out how everything fits together. I like the creativity which comes from working within a framework, and allowing all these different creatures feels like I might as well say “well – whatever, just make it up”. It changes it from story-telling to tournament play. Which others are free to like, but it isn’t what I come to the table for.
Similarly, I prefer an evening of Scottish Country dancing where a dance has a structure and fits within an idiom to just moving to the music on a disco dance floor – the very framework and restrictions of SCD provide more creativity and variation than “just move as you see fit.” Also I like music to have some sort of melody and harmony I can understand – “music” which sounds as if a random handful of notes have been thrown at the page or as if the composer looked at the rules and decided to see what they could break does nothing for me.
Things should be predictable to a degree, but not completely – and this is built into the rules of D&D. The combat and ability checks and everything are based around experimentation and feedback that has shown a sweet spot of a roughly 65% chance of success. Less than that and players get discouraged. Significantly greater and there’s no surprise.
So – strange, but not too strange. Unexpected, but within a framework where you can say “this is normal.” If anything could happen, nothing is significant and there’s nothing you can build on.
Come back tomorrow for Day 27, and we’ll look at Flavour, potions, and differences in approach in D&D through the years.
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