Sunday, December 12, 2010

Open World Play and Shared Fantasy

Just started re-reading this morning Gary Fine's Shared Fantasy and one chapter in I have already found three different but related examples of the open world play I posted about yesterday.

(I recommend picking this book up too if you are looking for a serious sociological study of role-playing games at their high water mark circa 1980. Especially interesting is his chapter long description of Empire of the Petal Throne sessions with M.A.R. Barker, then his colleague at the University of Minnesota.)

Fine's first example is in a section describing the Golden Brigade gaming club in the Twin Cities that jives with yesterday's recollections (and the observations of several of you in comments about how common “non-persistent” worlds were back then). Check out his description of what the weekly sessions played in the community room of a local police station where like back then:
“On a typical Friday evening fifteen to forty gamers participated in one to five games. At approximately 7:00 P.M. they begin to arrive, and shortly after several individuals announce (or are pressured into announcing) that they will referee that evening...Once an individual announces that he will referee a particular game, a group players joins him at one of the tables set up in the community room...Players then roll up their character (or use ones created in previous weeks), the referee explains the scenario he has constructed for the evening, and the players organize their characters into a party and begin adventuring. Frequently these games last until 2:00 A.M. Saturday morning. On occasion games last until dawn and are ended by breakfast...If a game is dull, or if other characters are central focus of the adventure, players may temporarily abandon their group and wander around to see how other games progressing.”
As Netherwerks commented yesterday, there must be something in the water up there in Minneapolis indeed!

Several pages later Fine looks at cross-over play between persistent campaign worlds—or at least persistent mega-dungeons--in different real world cities with an apparent re-telling of an attempt by Black Lotus Society players in David Hargrave's campaign to knock over an L.A. campaign dungeon (the anecdote that Fight On! recounted):
“Information about the major dungeons is now sufficiently diffused that players in one dungeon campaign may adventure in another. For example, gamers in San Francisco whose characters belong to an evil society planned to attack and take control of a dungeon in Los Angeles. These plans were thwarted by Bay Area gamers who had played in the L.A. dungeon at a convention.”
I am again amazed about how cool of an idea this is, almost enough that the pragmatic GM in my head will ignore the obvious question of how the hell would you make that work at the table. “Deanna, just calling you up to let you know that my players now control your dungeon. Can you send over all your maps before our next session this Sunday? Thanks, you're a doll.”

The last example is taken from Fine's interview notes with Barker about his facilitating role in the network of EPT campaigns:
“I'm sort of the center of the network and everybody comes to me ... I get lengthy reports from players in other campaigns who will say "I did this and I did that and I have now become Lord Such and Such, is this OK?" ...Usually if it's possible, I'll say "OK, that's fine with me...I'll work you into my campaign in that capacity." Somebody says "OK, I have become high priest of Thumis [Lord of Wisdom] in Paya Gupa [a border city in western Tsolyanu]" or something, and I say "all right." And when my players go to Paya Gupa they meet him.”
In other words there was even space in the supposedly closed-off, top-down environs of Tekumel for co-creation in a shared world. 

How cool is that?


  1. It's very cool. I'd love to run that sort of persisant world. When I started as kid playing T&T then Moldvay Basic in 1980 that type of gamer culture just didn't exist amongst us and our peers in the UK, even amongst the older brothers and players who introduced us.

    But I used to read and re-read the T&T rules, GM dungeons, and solo stuff and from them I used to get these glimpses, little hints, of what the gaming scene in Pheonix was like and it seemed to me they treated their games like the worlds actually existed and that a single sessions gaming could make permant changes to the game world which I always thought was cool.

  2. "an attempt by Black Lotus Society players in David Hargrave's campaign to knock over an L.A. campaign dungeon"

    Sounds like an early version of what the kids today would refer to as a "guild raid" in one of those massive online games.

  3. A return to this is possible, and welcomed. The recent activity with Mini-Cons and get togethers reflects this.

    It represents, perhaps, a chance to take the major milieus (Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Mystara, etc.) and perhaps put them into a 'meta-framework' of sorts... the internet could allow this kind of persistence for the hobbyist without 'corporate' influence or rent seeking.

    This is why I take issue with a lot of existing 'canon' in the campaigns that seems to stand in the way of this concept of fluidity. I'd rather have a meta-campaign that allowed parallelism (or a literary device that enabled all adventures using the same content to be equally significant).

  4. @redwald
    Just remember those remarks when Desert Scribe and the other HC players come marauding in Saxon-ish Rædwald haha. Seriously it is a great vision of how to expand gameplay.

  5. @scottsz
    With how interconnected and hyper-communicative this little end of the hobby is I think it is totally doable it just needs more consensus that it would be fun and desirable.

    What were you thinking in terms of literary devices? Gates?

  6. Not necessarily a need for gates, as in an SG-1-type glowing portal, or to overthink how a party gets to another person's setting. Instead, a storm-tossed ship, Ravenloftian fog, magic carpet, cursed scroll, or even a hand-waved overland journey could all serve as literary devices to get a group of characters from one campaign to another.

  7. @ckutalik: If the position, control, and arrangment of empty space and material matters, perhaps all those dungeons are part of a vocabulary of stone.

    I like some parts of different pieces of folklore - don't step within a circle of stones...

    As much as I liked the Planescape setting, it just didn't go far enough with paranoia and fear, but it offered the fluid and fuzzy areas of the Outlands, where the events on the outer planes could actually affect the landscape. Back then, it really added additional burdens to a DM, but this could be where technology could assist.

    I'll be having more posts along these lines over at OSJ in the coming weeks, but I think it's along this line of inquiry. Although my preference is for more serious adventures, I think an overarching multiverse framework should have just as much room for Gonzo play as Epic play.

    Some days you're a paladin heading to hell, and some days you can be Bill and Ted. For such an idea to be successful, it would enable and assist DM's pushing at all the boundaries but allowing all of their adventures to interact.

    Anything can be a gate. We have, even in 2010, our own symbolic glitches regarding 'other places'.

    Somewhere in your house there is a mirror.

    When was the last time you touched it?

  8. @Desert Scribe: I think the subtle devices are the best. Kudos!

    Rod Serling, anyone?

  9. Wow. Tekumel has struck me as a good example of the potential for a managed and structured semi-open world arrangement. Without the Prof. sitting at the center of the web, it would have devolved into anarchy almost instantly.

    Funny how the MMORPG crowd think that they invented all this stuff. They didn't. They have refined the technology but people like Barker, Gygax, Hargrave and numerous others have all explored and tinkered with variations on this shared-world/crossover/omniverse approach to interlocking universes. It's a damn fine idea and one that was present very early-on in the hobby. We mustn't let corporatization obscure or occlude this fact, and perhaps we can see more fo this thing going onwards--like how Blair has spin-off Planet Algol campaigns. That's very Old School.

    This is something that the OSR could really sink its collective teeth into and run with like never before. We ahve tools and technology that the originators of our hobby never had access to or even dreams would be possible. Why not use it?

  10. @NetherWerks: which MMORPG crowd? ;)
    An old-style MUD wizard might well have a laugh at how /closed/ play is in the likes of WoW, for example. Pretty graphics are not always a reliable indicator of gameworld depth.

    > They have refined the technology but people like Barker, Gygax, Hargrave and numerous others have all explored and tinkered with variations on this shared-world/crossover/omniverse approach to interlocking universes.

    Hmm... Gary was somewhat too busy to be running games as much as is credited but do have a dig around and check to see how that "semi-open world arrangement" worked around Lake Geneva way back then. :)