structure then content

When I design a game one of the things I want to pin down early is structure. A lot of people start with a story to tell and then attempt to realize it. I’m not that person. There might be a kernel of an idea or a theme (like, say, the theme of lost legitimacy in The King Machine) but the detail doesn’t come next. Structure does. The reason for this is that detail eventually demands structure but doesn’t easily imply it. Structure, however, demands and directs detail.

So let’s look at an example here. I started this morning thinking “what happens with occupations?” So you family are all fisherfolk (this is a common fantasy theme for me and I have no idea why — I don’t fish or row boats or make nets) but what does this tell us about you? How would this affect your character? And I don’t want to talk mechanism yet because I don’t know what’s happening with this at all. It could fit into something else, it could be its own game, it could be destined for the bin. Dunno yet.

So as with most things I start with a list. A few minutes and I have:

  • Fisherfolk
  • Merchants
  • Bandits
  • Warriors
  • Leaders
  • Famers
  • Herders
  • Wizards
  • Assassins
  • Entertainers
  • Harvesters
  • Beekeepers
  • Mystics
  • Sailors
  • Shippers
  • Dockworkers
  • Clerks
  • Sages
  • Bakers
  • Engineers

Not exhaustive, not even representative, but enough data to start thinking about structure. And bullets are good because they imply more bullets and indentation: we are already going to have a hierarchical structure and relationships. You could mind map this if you think that way. Same thing, different visuals.

So let’s grab fisherfolk. Since I’ve already decided on a hierarchical structure the question is how to subdivide fisherfolk? There are a million possibilities and each choice will take us in a different (maybe very different direction). I choose to break it down by types of water to fish in. Subdivide and detail:

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.

The little blurb of detail invites me to further subdivide but now I’m thinking about re-usability and regularity. While these subdivisions are dependent on the top level item (Fisherfolk) I think I want the next level to be the same for every occupation. I vaguely have fantasy in my head so I decide that each of these should be divided into a Supernatural power and an Expertise (natural but exceptional) power. This way a character can decide a path that’s magical or mundane but still awesome. I’m already wondering how to turn this into a life path system, maybe randomized, maybe point buy, maybe something else. Patterns from other games are intruding.

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
      • Supernatural: you can make nets that can catch other, more specialized things. Not necessarily fish.
      • Expertise: you can hold your breath for ridiculous amounts of time and dive very deep indeed.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
      • Supernatural: you can calm bad weather and control the direction of the wind.
      • Expertise: you have the equipment and skills to lure and catch and kill even the largest things in the ocean.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.
      • Supernatural: there is always a river path to wherever you want to go as long as you start at a river or lake. Or whenever.
      • Expertise: you can befriend any animal come to drink at the shores of lake or river.

I’m just riffing here but a world is emerging. Time travelling river folk. Spirit trappers. Geomancy.

This is the way I work: I invent tools through structure to order data which in turn inspires new data which in turn starts to define an imagined space. It’s not the only way I work and it’s not the best way to work but it does get words on the page.

Now there’s nothing new here — this is just outlining or mind-mapping or whatever the mot du jour is for hierarchical data presentation. But there’s a reason it works. Well, reasons. It organizes and constrains, which creates regularity. And it invites detail. For example, I never planned to have supernatural blacksmiths, but now when I get there I will be inventing them because I made a data structure decision that all of these things have a supernatural and and expertise element. Similarly I never thought about the mundane aspects of wizards, but now I need to.

As for the specifics, a lot of this comes back to world building we did many years ago (and played insufficiently in) with a lizard species that managed to defy their bloodlust (their uncontrollable animal nature to kill and eat mammals and sometimes each other) by taking up fishing. Their bloodlust was satisfied by fish and though they were sickly (fish being insufficient) and unhappy (fish tasting bad) they were able to coordinate with humans and each other long enough to stay literate and build a civilization that could be communicated and reproduced. And have a history. These fishing lizards and their sacrifice to their own future are always in my head.

mystery flesh pits

No it’s not a sex thing.

I want to talk about this creation of graphic artist Trevor Roberts because it’s wildly diverse in content, it’s off-the-scales for weird, it’s brilliantly executed, and it’s under-appreciated. And, if that’s not enough for you, it’s gameable. In fact it kind of demands a presence in your game somewhere.

First things first: Trevor has a Patreon and you should toss him a few dollars to keep creating. It’s worth it.

fleshpit1The mystery flesh pit is an anomalous geological region that is organic. In fact it’s a giant vein of meat and organs. And it seems to be alive. If the first thing you thought of was the “Pit of Sarlacc” you’re not alone, but also you have the scale wrong. You are thinking way way too small.

And of course with the discovery of such a strange and horrifying and dangerous place comes commercial opportunity! The Mystery Flesh Pits are also a tourist attraction! And so Trevor has not just created the concept and a few pretty images, but also the commercial material related to the concept. In fact he has fake government reports (read the one about the regurgitation disaster and wonder about the redacted bits, because man is there some gaming in there somewhere). He also speculates about the equipment of the park rangers there (which is of course highly specialized). And the things that live in the guts of the pit. And the things it does to local wildlife (and sometimes people), which is extra weird.

fleshpit2We’re not really talking about a riff on Star Wars here. In fact if anything, this has a closer relationship to the Strugatsky brothersRoadside Picnic than it does to Star Wars. There’s something so weird here that while we can find superficial utility, we cannot come close to really understanding it. And our superficial utility is, of course, commercial. In fact the parallel is rich enough that you might want to try wedging it in to the RPG Stalker. Or (my personal favourite of course) Soft Horizon.

Roberts’ genius lies in contextualizing images. While his Patreon (and yes I linked it again because, I must repeat, you should throw a few bucks his way to keep this mythology alive and growing) has concept art that is delicious, it’s all in a wild context of articles, reports, snapshots of newscasts, corporate content, brochures, safety standards, academic articles, and on and on. And this wealth of context is what makes me say its rife for gaming: this is really world building happening here, and it’s a strange and dangerous world thankfully contained in a well-defined pocket of weird.

You might have run into one of these images before and laughed and moved on. I encourage you to dig deeper and see the opportunities here for more and more fiction. Deeply fucked up fiction, mind you, but that’s one of my favourite places.