That’s all I need. That’s what runs a whole session and maybe a whole campaign. Give me one good image.
It doesn’t need to be a photograph or a painting or a drawing. In fact usually it’s not — usually it’s not even the right image but rather maybe a misreading of a passage in a book. So it’s half mine. And sometimes it’s nine-tenths mine and I can’t even place the kernel of it, the source seed that I used to grow it into mine.
A jet airliner, broken, the fuselage bridging two mountain peaks, a crevasse below. Whirling snow, shrieking through the hollow cabin. And ghosts. A woman in leather and sheepskins and brass walks through the relative quiet of the cabin turning the tiny handle on a not-music box. And the ghosts enter the box one by one. She collects them.
A hundred kilometer tall column constructed by who knows what and who knows when fell to the desert floor here a hundred thousand years ago, now forming a startlingly regular mountain range that the geology does not demand. Water condensing at altitude runs down from it in the meter-deep channels carved into it. If you could stand in just the right place you could make out the decorations for what they were. Drawings? Writing? Abstractions? Is the permanently lost secret valuable. Will the builders be back?
A literal water world. 5,000 kilometers to the core.
A pyramid on the moon.
A city built into the skull of demon, still warm a thousand years after it died.
A bustling marketplace of stone and silk suddenly filled with violence, generations of peace ruptured in a moment.
That’s basically the minimum I need to launch a game. Armed with that image I’m ready to expose it to the players and their creativity and let them wonder out loud, explore, and otherwise elaborate for me. This is improvisational jazz with the image as the theme we return to again and again, but extend and inspect. When I start this off I usually have no idea what is going to develop. Or I have an idea but I am prepared to surrender it if the players build something more beautiful or more compelling.
So games that require mechanical preparation–stat blocks, rooms that connect to rooms, and so on–are a liability here. They are fun but they are not this. I need my map to be largely blank with an improbable note here and there. Gnoll pirates here. A keep facing empty desert. A hole in the ocean.
So what do you need? What’s the minimum you need to start a game running? What do you need to keep it running?