‘Weird Worlds’ Retrospective: Marsh Ado About Nothing
A couple of weekends ago, I attended the wonderful ‘Weird Worlds’ event as a guest speaker and GM. The awesome folks over at Gamers and GMs Philippines had invited Curious Chimeras over to present a workshop, take part in a panel, and run a game for this event.
Now that I’ve rested a bit, I would like to share some of my thoughts and feelings of my experiences about this event, in a series of 3 posts. So… Here goes post number 1!
‘Weird Worlds’ Retrospective 1: Workshop Session
I designed and ran a Workshop for GMs interested in understanding and incorporating hexcrawls and exploration into their games, titled “Hexcrawling: Marsh Ado About Nothing”. My focus for this session were to discuss and examine the landforms and weather patterns common in the region of Southeast Asia – coasts, flood-plains, jungles, swamps, and rugged hills.
I framed it as an invitation to think of game structures in terms of geography and geology, rather than narrative elements and characters. What is the point of exploration? Why use hexes in your games? I have a great love for running wilderness adventures in my own games, as a GM, and when Erich from G & G invited me to host this session, I leapt (literally onto a plane) at the chance, and swooped to Manila to make this happen with him. Of course, as Wizards of the Coast had also just released their jungle adventure, ‘Tomb of Annihilation’, my swamp-laden workshop was more than a little topical; indeed, one might argue it was tropical!
In any case, I digress. Let us get our moorings back on track, lest we become too bogged down by such irrelevant puns!
The workshop took place in the well-stocked and comfortably-furnished VentureSpace. I was unsure just how many people would be interested in a discussion of gaming geography, but I was pleasantly surprised to have a full room of 6 GMs in my session (at one point, I believe we had 10 persons in attendance!) – I was glad, and remain grateful for their presence.
We started the discussion by trying to understand the point of exploration in games. Before moving on to look more specifically at landforms, I tried to begin the conversation by understanding how to use exploration in campaigns, and what was needed for hexcrawls – a consistent way of measuring visibility, weather, keying encounters, ecology charts, movement speed, etc.
Questions emerged, on what happens if somebody uses magic? What happens, if we already have a map – why do we need to explore? Why don’t we just bash a straight line through the wilderness? Several answers to those questions emerged; why must maps be accurate? or why must maps always be top-down, as we have them today? Magic helps, so let it help where it can – but be sure that we don’t make magic any more powerful than it is – many times, when we read the spell descriptions, especially the parameters of effect… it’s not really as powerful as it seems, when we take into consideration the rhythms and sheer scale of overland travel.
For example, a Fly spell in D&D 5E only lasts for up to 10 minutes; that’ll allow a short burst of speed and manoeuvrability, but when you take an 8-hour or 12-hour marching day into account, 10 minutes of flight doesn’t really change things dramatically. Yes, you may choose to fly to circumvent a river, or a rough set of hills, but then the exploration sequence makes sense; until you actually get close, you don’t see the river or hills, and thus you don’t decide to FLY over the river or hills till then, right? That means the hexcrawl is still functional; the spell doesn’t handwave everything! Also, if a spell does become powerful enough to change the exploration sequence, then let it! That is the power of the characters’ abilities; why stop them from doing what they wish to, and can legitimately, do?
The discussion became very lively, and we moved it onto looking at swamps and jungles. We examined how these landforms result from the interaction and proximity of certain environmental features and forces. We spoke a little on flora and fauna; for example, we talked about how some animals, such as bears, tend to be smaller in Southeast Asia than their counterparts in other regions, due to the presence of dense foliage, and the resulting evolutionary pressures to not grow too large, lest you hit your head on branches all the time, ketok! We started thinking about how the land itself became a character, a sort of constant presence, for the PCs to interact with and think about.
We also briefly discussed city planning and settlements; we tried to understand where, in swamps and jungles, where it would make sense for people to live? In many ways, I was hoping to invite the GMs present at my talk to look at their RPG maps no longer as things for players to explore, not as content designed for player consumption, but for a living, breathing world, that made sense to itself, and for itself. I was inviting the GMs present to create a somewhat more emotionally distant and somewhat uncaring way of understanding the land and its creatures.
Now this isn’t necessarily cruel or callous, you see; I’m not advocating a lack of appreciation of your own player-characters, but I want to invite GMs to think about narrative and game structures where we aren’t rushing to connect the players to anything, but rather to create and sustain a place, a setting that is ready to be the backdrop of many different experiences, which the players will be part of, with their hi-jinks, tragedies, and victories. It allows for culture, geography, and history to emerge and take more central positions in a game, rather focusing on the clashes and passions of individuals.
With such a approach, exploration begins to makes sense in a campaign; everything on a map is potential and possible, but player action and player experience actualizes that potential and possibility into a distinct story, of some sort, and…. that, well, becomes the campaign we have played and are playing! For me, exploration is about actual choices, and discovery of things which confound our expectations.
For players more used to being the centres of the narrative, exploration sequences may involve a lot of ‘boring’ moments of travel, because the world doesn’t care about us enough, to entertain us, or place us as the centre of existence; it’s a cliché, but the journey, in many ways, is part of its own reward. We discussed how the exploration focus could be integrated with other narrative elements; in Lord of the Rings, for example, the overland travel was part of the quest to reach Mount Doom, so the One Ring could be cast into its flames. In the Journey to the West, the overland travel was part of the quest to return to the imperial court with the holy scriptures. In the Quest for the Holy Grail, the knights sought out the Holy Grail, thus travelling across all the different corners of their world.
Thus, exploration by itself may not make for a great game or story, but it is a pacing tool and a thematic tool for setting the environment in different ways. I find it very useful for fantasy games, because the sheer pace of movement, the onerous nature of outdoor travel and wilderness survival helps to break away the players’ modern mindsets, and get more into character as low-tech wanderers; with a well-done hexcrawl and exploration system, we may stop playing fantasy games with magic as an analog for technology, and start ambiently treating the world more as a dangerous, huge space. It allows for density and depth; we can find entire universes in a continent. It’s all about pacing and places, rather than personalities and purposes. One may die without ever reaching one’s goal; but that is the pathos of the road, is that not?
We moved on as well, to a brief tangent, regarding tropical landscapes – I tried to challenge and question a dominant narrative of Orientalist exoticism about tropical landscapes; as a SEAsian gamer, it seemed to me I should go beyond imaginings of these places which are rooted in colonial depictions and yearnings, and excavate a deeper understanding of the lands and waters of my birthplace.
We also examined the juxtaposition between ‘cities’ and ‘villages’; on how villages in a lot of Asian narrative traditions (not just in SEAsian ones) are the centres of power in their remoteness, in their purity as an imagined ‘primordial settlement’ of humanity, while the cities are cruel, malicious, and rapacious places of godlessness and deception. I used that to segue into a discussion on how we can think of the settlements across our game maps, and how we portray or animate the NPC communities in villages and cities.
I guess I wanted the GMs present to think more critically about our identities as urbanites in rapidly industrializing tropical countries; we may imagine the country to be a backward place, and ourselves as the cutting edge of progress, and hence we may lose some ways to approach and understand the wilderness as a resource for our campaigns. The theme of ‘forgetting the modern’, which I’ve briefly touched upon earlier, returns here; I want to create and sustain a sense of ‘place’, a sort of ‘other-worldliness’, with the explorations of these fantasy landscapes. In many ways, I hoped to depict exploration in RPGs as being a bit of tourism and travelling; it’s fantasy trekking, it’s backpacking in the untamed vastness of our shared imaginations, and finding out who and what we are, in those virtual wilds.
The GMs present took to this overall discussion very well, and there were many excited nods and ‘Eureka’ moments, as the world-picture began to make sense, perhaps, to some of them. I am very happy to be able to invite people to think of different metaphors for running their games, and hope to do something like this again, soon. There are so many ways of playing and running RPGs, and I feel there’s something magical, that’s worth trying out, that’s worth, exploring, literally, in all our different ways of doing things. Stay Curious, everyone!