Author Topic: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture  (Read 621 times)

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Offline tanis

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Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« on: April 13, 2018, 09:40:11 PM »
I just finished watching a video from one of the many YouTube channels that I subscribe to regarding medieval history and material culture, and I thought some of you guys might like it.

As a corollary, I was curious as to what your thoughts are regarding historicity and taking direct inspiration from history, especially as regards the actual tools and material culture of a particular society. Obviously, most RPGs are fundamentally, and historically, drawn from the Western fantasy tradition going back to the Victorian era, with notable influence from science fiction and horror, but I've noticed that there are, in a sense, two fundamental paradigms towards D&D and similar games: the first I'll call "pure fantasy", and the second I'll call "verisimilitude".

As I see it, in the "pure fantasy" paradigm, the goal is to revel in the exotic/fantastic aspects of the world, more or less totally unmoored from concerns about realism, and players' enjoyment seems to stem mostly from power fantasy and exploration of an alien world. These are the superhero-type campaigns where crazy things happen that couldn't possibly exist; one that comes to mind is a campaign I read about where one player rolled a terrible cavalier, but an incredibly high-stat steed, and eventually the steed actually became the central character of the campaign, even getting character classes, while the rider died shortly into the campaign (I might try to find the link to the story at some point, it's worth a few laughs).

On the other hand, you have what I'd call the "verisimilitude" paradigm: these people don't necessarily care that what they're doing perfectly corresponds to reality, but their ability to buy into and enjoy the world is heavily affected by a degree of plausibility, and the more sophisticated and granular the worldbuilding is, the more they enjoy the game. For these people, a human having more HP than a monster, mechanical abstractions notwithstanding, is a serious issue, and their primary enjoyment is in exploring and inhabiting a believable world, and playing a role that fits in that world in an interesting way. These are the people playing a gritty military campaign with a heavy tactical focus, or a sword and sorcery campaign where the evil wizard will absolutely crush the party with magic if they try to fight head on.

Now, obviously these aren't mutually exclusive, and you can play a really high fantasy game where the bits and pieces are believable, or a Conan-esque old school dungeon delve where no one worries about encumbrance or a support corps of hirelings, and the same person can enjoy both playstyles, but from what I've seen, there is a very real difference between players' expectations and concerns between these two ways of playing, and I'd be interested to hear y'all's thoughts on this.

Especially because it seems to me that so many systems, even those like 3.5 or Pathfinder which are ostensibly so heavily focused on tactical play and mechanical support for everything imaginable (sometimes at the expense of playability, even), really fail to capture that sense of verisimilitude, especially in regards to material culture, and that more recent editions have begun to swing more in the direction of the "pure fantasy" paradigm, whether to grow the player base or because of a shift in what players are looking for from RPGs, which seems to be leaving a gap between what experiences tabletop gaming can support and what people might want from tabletop RPGs.

Like I said, I don't think either is better, or anything, so much as it seems to me like heretofore RPGs have left something to be desired with certain types of play, and I'm curious to hear what you guys think. Can RPGs provide the sort of verisimilitude I'm talking about in a way that things like D&D sometimes fail to do? Is that even a worthwhile pursuit given the type of game in question? Is it simply an issue of player/game developer focus, and if someone wanted to make that game, they'd just need to design a system to support that sort of play? What do you guys think?

Here's the video, it's just over 15 minutes, so give it a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVuu34zOy2Q
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Offline Drul Morbok

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #1 on: April 15, 2018, 03:13:42 PM »
These are the people playing a gritty military campaign with a heavy tactical focus

I've come to call this the "stochastic" type of game: If you repeat the random experiments often enough, the outcome will diverge towards a "fair" game system, i.e. a system that offers you choices that influence your chances in a different way  where a "good" player is good at figuring probabilities.
If you perform each random experiment just once, nothing is "fair".

From what I know, D&D started from a strategy game named "chainmail", so it seems natural to me that it started as the "stochastic" kind of game.
However I think that such a system works best for "versus" situation, with opposing players, so if you play D&D in a "narrative" style that is not about the players overcoming a GM that wants to destroy them, but about a good story, you have to go away from the strategy, whether you admit it or not.

Let me give you an example:
Back at university, a fellow student was fond of the warhammer game, and he like to tell about a battle where a minor artillery hit combined with very poor moral rolls resulted in half of the skaven army running away from battle. I can easily imagine the players involved laughing their donkey of when this happened at the table...if you play skaven, such things can happen, and it's what I called a "versus" game, and also a "stochastic" game meaning that that chances of such an event are balanced against all other numbers.
So while I never played warhammer myself, I can easily imagine that this part of what makes the game fun to play.

However I can rarely imagine a modern D&D party telling a story like "do you remember when we all rolled a natural 1 and our whole party was cloudkilled? Boy, that was fun".
In a video game, it would be a "load save game" situation, and video games might have influenced RPG systems so that they now have such things as "fate points" you can use to re-roll a terrible result and therefore have your players survive bad luck. Either that, or the GM "cheats" dice rolls, introduces some "deus ex machina" intervention that solves a situation that would mean instand defeat, or stops using things like cloudkill alltogether.

So my personal conclusion is that I either want to play consequently stochastic, which I think is also called "rogue-like" (where a cloudkilled party is a realistic part of the game)...or use a system that uses dice to decide how the story will go on, but does not even pretend to decide if it will go on (i.e. a system without hit points and the like). I recently discovered "Fate" as such a system, but didn't play t yet.

Hmm, reading all over things again, I think I haved somewhat moved from your original question. But I do not want to delete what I wrote, but will come back to your points soon.
And I will also whatch your video ;-)

Offline tanis

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #2 on: April 16, 2018, 03:40:58 AM »
No problem, Drul. I'm as interested in starting a discussion as I am in reaching "an answer" (assuming this sort of question even, properly speaking, has an answer).

As to your point regarding narrative, I think that's got a bit to do with one's paradigm. I can easily imagine a group getting heavily invested in roleplaying "tactical" characters in that military campaign, and trying to forge an interesting narrative, but letting the tactical considerations guide how their narrative's structure develops over time. So for me, it doesn't necessarily have to be essentially adversarial, any more than the Player/DM relationship is always slightly adversarial given that the DM occasionally takes on the role of the party's enemies in the course of normal play (though, this is of course far less adversarial than the stereotypical "rocks fall, everyone dies" sort of Player/DM relationship).

But, while I do agree that this sort of roleplaying is subtly different from the sort of roleplaying that more deliberately narrative-focused games tend to lead to, one of the things I'm curious about, as a corollary to everything else, is what everyone's attitudes not towards "tactical versus roleplaying", but rather "pseudo-realism (especially in terms of mechanics and lore) versus a lack of concern for realism", and how these different modes lead to different ways of roleplaying characters, designing campaigns, etc.

For example, Superman isn't a very realistic character, which is fine, because he's intended to be an allegorical figure, rather than a human figure. On the contrary, while still a "superhero" in some sense, Kick Ass (from the film of the same name) is a much more realistic character, and his story is no less believable for the slightly wacky situation he finds himself in. Both characters are larger-than-life, and both are well-suited to dramatic storytelling, but the sorts of stories that are interesting to tell about the two characters are very different, and the enjoyment one gets from telling or being told those stories rely on different artistic principles and rhetorical devices.

PS: I should probably clarify that I'm interested in people's thoughts on the "verisimilitude" style of play in general in this context, so primarily tactical games are just as valid in this discussion as the sorts of narrative-focused games in that style that I've alluded to above.
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Offline Drul Morbok

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #3 on: April 17, 2018, 12:08:17 AM »
OK, next try ;-)

I'd say I'm very much into verisimilitude, at least when sitting in front of pen and paper. In a video game like Diablo, I don't mind opening a dungeon door to a room full of monsters unable to open doors. At the gaming table, this would be a no-go.
Beyond such obvious blunder, I tend not to like story and adventure hooks where the players get their jobs from figures of feudal authority, like the king or a prince. Or rather, such scenarios fail to convince me of why such an important figure would trust the PCs.
And what I mentioned in another thread about modern values in medieval settings could also be considered an issue of verisimilitude.
I also tend to invent races and names especially for my game world. I think it could be also considered an aspect of "pure fantasy" if players enjoy defeating Medusas or snarling at Wotan's wrath. Keeping out common names and concepts like Medusa and Wotan also can lead to more verisimilitude, because since you already start spending time on creativity, you might as well put some thoughts in background and therefore consistency (but this does not necessarily have to be so).

That said, my strife for verisimilitude and for fantasy rarely conflict. Khoras for example has a very high degree of verisimilitude, and still you might find a demon lord escaping from an inter dimensional prison.
The more you move away from Earth-based assumptions and implications, the more effort has to be put into verisimilitude (as a general rule), but I think it's always worth it.

Edit: I just wanted to add that I think that verisimilitude depends a lot more on how you play and a lot less on what you play. Let's take the terrible cavalier with an incredibly high-stat steed. I think this is mainly a.problem in what I called "stochastic" gameplay where you essentially bring your stats into position. I can easily imagine some "reluctant hero" scenario, where the rider isn't a noble heroic cavalier at all, but everyone assumes he is, a bit like like Rincewind on Discworld..maybe a coward thief that stole the steed and now is bond to it and has to play his role ...now I'm getting ideas for NPCs...

About Superman: Yes, he's a superhero, but nobody would care about the story if all he did was using superpowers. Not sure if this qualifies as verisimilitude, but I think the important thing is his double identity, and the contrast between larger-than-life and quite ordinary.

And one final thought: I think its hard to talk about roleplaying as we know it without talking about Tolkien.
Not sure if there are many D&D fans that do not stand in awe before the Silmarilion. But I wouldn't attribute much verisimilitude to LOTR. It's a great story, but it's driven by the fact that the author wants it to happen, rather than being resolved by action of the protagonists.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2018, 10:55:22 AM by Drul Morbok »

Offline tanis

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #4 on: April 17, 2018, 12:52:10 PM »
You make several good points.

As for your mention of the Silmarillion, I would say that it's kind of a weird case (I was actually discussing this quite recently with my friends at my alma mater's philosophy club), because on the one hand, it's modern mythos, drawn from Tolkien's love of Germanic mythology and strong feelings about the loss of an "authentic" Anglo-Saxon identity in the wake of the Norman Conquest, but on the other hand, it's very much in the spirit of traditional epic poems, especially Beowulf and the Iliad, and while both have fantastic and mythical aspects, the people composing those poems had a visceral understanding of traditional warfare and the associated material culture that modern authors lack, and Tolkien's fiction is informed by his historical knowledge as well as his time in the trenches of World War I.

Obviously, Tolkien's fiction is fantasy, and there are many things that happen that are mythopoetic or allegorical, especially regarding the values and worldview of medieval Catholicism and recently (relatively speaking) converted Germanic pagans, but when I read the Silmarillion, knowing what I know as a scholar of that era's military history, I personally found it quite grounded in that older, more "realistic" style of description, which probably adds to that story's distinct feeling of being unlike a "normal" novel (though I don't really consider the Silmarillion to be a novel so much as a prose-poetic epic) that causes it to be so divisive among readers.
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Offline Drul Morbok

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #5 on: April 18, 2018, 02:24:41 PM »
I totally agree that the Silmarillion is more properly compared with epos than with novels.
Also the Silmarillion made me think of a way to classify the term "verisimilitude":

To me it seems that a central aspect of it is the fact that notable deeds can not be repeated. The whole story wouldn't make sense if it was possible to create the next set of Silmarills, or to plant the next Trees of Valinor. There is no general need to assume things work that way - on the contrary, modern science might be paraphrased as "if it happens once, it will happen again, given time", and industrialisation seems to be based on the concept that if you can build it once, you can build it all over again. So I think that that principle that things will not work the same way twice is part of the "intrinsic" verisimilitude of the Silmarillion. It is a consistent factor within the story, and the story probably wouldn't even work without it, but from the outside, it is not needed.

The law of conservation of energy, on the other hand, would be an aspect of "extrinsic" verisimilitude when applied to magic. To put it slightly inaccurate: If a mage casts a fireball, will the rest of the world get colder? If not, why would magic not lead to a kind of industrialization that dwarves the impact the steam engine had in our world?
The Silmarillion avoids having to answer this question by restricting magic to entities beyond human way of thinking, but any system that allows for magic users as generic classes would have to cope with those questions for me to attribute verisimilitude to them
I'm not saying I only like fantasy scenarios that include a sophisticated answer to questions about the law of conservation of energy, or some equivalent thereof. I'm just giving an example for what I'd classify as extrinsic verisimilitude.

Also I' not trying to make a binary distinction...it's more like two ways of looking at the same thing.

So those are my thoughts when asked about what I think abut verisimilitude  ;D
I always strive for it, but don't find it easy to say what it exactly is.
« Last Edit: April 18, 2018, 02:26:37 PM by Drul Morbok »

Offline David Roomes

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #6 on: April 23, 2018, 08:07:30 PM »
My apologies for a very late response. It's been a couple of busy weeks.

To go back to the original idea, I agree that... very broadly speaking, gamers tend to fall into one of two camps... those who like and strive for verisimilitude and like it and are bothered by a lack of it... and those who don't care at all about realism and just want an epic story and adventure or whatever. From here on out, I'm going to use the term "realism" because it's easier to type. :)  The first group want realism because, without it, immersion and suspension of disbelief are compromised. The second group often doesn't care about realism and actually find that it can interfere with their enjoyment.

This extends far beyond role playing games... this same difference can be found with how people react to video games, books, movies and so on.

Khoras has a high degree of verisimilitude. That's because I am very much a member of the first group. I like realism. I like things to make sense. I like there to be a solid REASON for why things happen in a movie, why characters do what they do in a book and so forth. I also like internal consistency in worlds and games and I like it when things generally follow the rules of physics and science. That's just my preference. That's one reason why I love "The Expanse" (sci fi show on the Syfy channel). That show really goes out of its way to get the physics right.

I have played Diablo. I have kicked in a door in that game only to find a room full of monsters that never seem to leave that room and only exist for me to kill them. I tend not to play games like that any more. These days I prefer games like Skyrim that are (or at least attempt to be) more realistic. Shopkeepers and other NPCS go on living their lives, running their shops and so forth even when the main PC isn't around. Skyrim is pretty cool that way. I expect games in the future will take this much further, becoming more like reality simulators in which stories play out and you can really immerse yourself in another world. I look forward to that.

I have tried to build Khoras up to be a fairly realistic world. Yes, magic works here, so it does require some suspension of disbelief. But for the most part, I try make it as real as possible... as if Khoras were a real world that had just developed differently from Earth. So, while there may be cultural and social differences, most of the world still functions like Earth does, based on science and physics.

I think of other planes as merely "parallel universes", which some science suggests might be possible. If a demon lord escapes into Khoras, he may have powerful magic, but he's still flesh and blood. He can be killed. Within my own games, I have thrown out the concept of souls (and everything that goes along with that such as silver threads connecting soul to body, reincarnation, resurrection, souls wandering around Elysium and that sort of thing). If science can't prove it (or at least suggest it's possible) then I generally don't include it in my games. I've even done away with the gods. Khoras has religions a plenty, but that's a lot different from having actual living gods.

I also tend to make magic more physics based. Like some undiscovered branch of science, magic works consistently and it could be studied and manipulated and understood. A fireball behaves the same way every time. It's true that magic would and could profoundly affect the way a society functions. As Drul said, magic could dwarf the impact the steam engine had in our world.

However, I counter that by having magic be rare and difficult. Really powerful wizards are exceptionally rare. A very ingenious wizard could combine magic spells with mechanics and industry to create something truly marvelous. Steam powered clockwork golems? Why not. But it would probably be just in his own little corner of the world... perhaps just in his very own castle. It would not be something he could mass produce. He could not start a cottage industry of steam powered clockwork golems. Simply because it would take so much effort and resources to make one of them.

Sometimes magic can be have a profound impact on a large scale, but requires immense resources. I've worked some of these ideas into Khoras. For instance, the Thullian Empire was building a massive network of teleport gates during the Great War. They lost the war and the empire crumbled before it was finished, but several of the towers still exist, partially functioning, in ruins around Ithria. Had this network been fully completed, it could have shifted the outcome of the war.

Another example... the Padashan Empire owes a great deal of its early expansion and power to a single tremendously powerful magic item.

Anyway, I've rambled on long enough. That's the way I tend to run my games and think about Khoras. Just my personal preference. I get that that's not everyone's cup of tea. To each their own. :)


David M. Roomes
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Offline tanis

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #7 on: April 23, 2018, 10:40:00 PM »
I know how it is with busy weeks, man. No worries.

I agree with you that Khoras strives for believability, which is one of the things I love about it. It manages to be a fairly "high magic" setting insofar as what the limits are, while feeling grounded in the way that low magic "sword and sorcery" worlds tend to do, and things generally don't feel as arbitrary as, say, a Forgotten Realms, which, as much as I like it, due to over a decade of playing cRPGs set there, has some serious issues as far as feeling organic. It often feels like the various aspects of the setting exist purely to provide areas to play in a particular way, without regard for the societies in question to function sensibly, e.g. the cities of the Sword Coast, which don't seem to have any good reason not to be confederated or SOMETHING, especially given how close rival power centers like Amn and Menzoberranzan are to cities like Waterdeep and Neverwinter.

I would like to hear your thoughts regarding material culture, though. I mean, it you've obviously thought about it some, with regions having different levels of technology, different building materials, etc., but a lot of what stands out is more to do with big things like the physical laws, magical laws, general ecology, etc. What about swords? Baskets? Food utensils?

It seems like you have thoughts about these things, and I'm interested in hearing them.

PS: Has anybody actually watched the video? If so, what did you think? Did you find it interesting/valuable as a resource?
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Offline David Roomes

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #8 on: April 24, 2018, 09:07:47 PM »
I did watch the video. Very nice, historically accurate, re-enactment of a specific time and place. Lots of good details. I love stuff like that. I enjoy historical bits like that because they often show me ways to improve cultures in Khoras. It's common for me to tweak something in Khoras whenever I learn some interesting historical tidbit. I don't want to say "historically accurate" because I'm not creating 12th century Earth. But I am creating a world that's like 12th century Earth, so it's definitely going to have similar ideas, technologies and cultural developments.

Ok, so "material culture" (as far as I know) refers to all of the stuff a specific culture has or makes. Buildings, ships, tools, weapons, clothing, etc. Those are the juicy details that really differentiate one culture from another. I love that stuff. I try to work that into Khoras as much as I can. You can find a lot of details about the material culture on each race under the Races section - food procurement, clothing, tools, weapons, architecture. That sort of information is all under the Races section. But the individual nations often have additional detail specific to them.

I think a region's natural resources form the foundation upon which everything else is built. The resources a culture has available determines what they build or make or trade away to other nations. It explains why a culture builds with wood rather than stone or wears wool rather than silk or cotton. And what they have available and what they end up crafting influences everything else - diet, culture, clothing, buildings, language, religion, even idioms and expressions - everything's connected.

I've noticed that some players think that all of these little details are unnecessary or a waste of time. But I think these details are worth it and serve a twofold purpose. First of all, they make a world feel more real. They give wonderful texture to the background. Second, you can work these details into plot and story - not just as context, but as actual plot points or clues. I have had whole sections of plot hinge on the tiniest cultural detail. Sometimes the solutions to puzzles and riddles rely on specific knowledge of the local culture. It's more effort to weave such details into the fabric of the plot of an adventure, but it's really worth it when it actually works.

Material culture is something that I'm constantly adding to and refining as the world grows. It's a never ending process and I have a long way to go. There are a lot of areas in Khoras that could be improved in this regard. But it's definitely something I try to do.

David M. Roomes
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Offline tanis

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #9 on: April 27, 2018, 08:47:52 PM »
Great points, Dave.

I definitely agree with you that the value added by putting in that extra amount of work to use tiny details to stitch the narrative into the fabric of the world, so that it doesn't feel like the story could be transplanted to any other setting is well worth the effort required to do so, and I love that you've taken the time to do that with Khoras, because I think it's one of the reasons that Khoras never seemed flimsy in the way that many online campaign settings that I've since come across can.

As to how it adds to worldbuilding, you just reminded me, I've just started reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (it's been a personal goal of mine for a long time, so I'm excited). Are you familiar with the book? It's certainly the sort of thing you'd find interesting, I suspect.
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Offline David Roomes

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #10 on: May 02, 2018, 08:25:42 PM »
I have definitely heard of that book. I've been meaning to get around to reading it. Heard good things about it. Just haven't done it yet. I need to add it to my "to read" list.

David M. Roomes
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Offline tanis

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Re: Gaming Inspiration from Material Culture
« Reply #11 on: May 04, 2018, 03:46:11 AM »
Yeah, it goes into detail about how geography has affected human societies, going all the way back to early humans. I'm already quite enjoying it. And the other, like, five books I'm currently juggling, lol.
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.