Saturday, November 19, 2022

When to Depict, When to Elaborate

This is a post about my theory of creativity for adventure games.

In our adventure games, there are two different ways which can be employed in creating characters, items, monsters, and other gameable components. For clarity, I will use the terms "depicting" and "elaborating".

In this sense, depicting is done when a creator tries to represent an image with game concepts. If I come up with a cool ship captain with a bushy beard he uses to snare arrows and a homemade boarding mace, and I choose "this guy will probably be a level 4 fighter in my game" that's depicting. Depicting is always employed to adapt something in another story to an adventure game, as in trying to make rules for how a lightsaber would work in D&D, or deciding what spells from the magic-user spell list Merlin would cast.

This is contrasted with elaborating, which is done when a creator characterizes a game concept. If I want to put a level 4 magic-user in my game and I brainstorm what her clothing looks like and select fitting spells from the spell list, that's elaborating. Elaborating is often employed when unriddling the result of a random table or vague game text, as in deciding what the 1d4 x 10 nomads your PCs just met off an encounter roll are doing and why, or deciding how the descriptionless locked door in your module actually works.

My suspicion is that even though these processes both result in characters, items, locations, and monsters, the results are different, and applying one way when the other is more fitting can have a worse outcome.

Consider the common tip that DMs should give the magic items in their game backstory and detail, such that one +1 sword has qualitative differences from another +1 sword. This advice has the ultimate aim of making the game world feel rich and deep and concealing the "gamey" fact that most magic items are designed to be useful in the exploration/extermination activity that the rulebook supposes is the meat of the game session. Following this advice can have good results, and is probably fine when the DM is short on time or when the item in question is unimportant, but I feel that the depicting way will have stronger results than the elaborating way for using magic items to communicate a rich, deep, ungamey world.

When depicting a special weapon, you're likely to come up with something striking or compelling about it in plain, intuitive words. The image is the kernel of the idea and the rules text you come up with will be meant to support it, and if you don't have some numerical way to do so you can always resort to simply stating the image outright. If I was going to depict the sword Excalibur in a D&D game, for instance, I would give it a numerical plus to hit and damage, but I would also mention its incredible importance to Britons and define it as immaculate, the sort of weapon that is good at anything you could plausibly use a sword for. I wouldn't try to think of every situation where the wielder of Excalibur would have an easier time than the user of a normal sword, but I would relate the fact that a DM could keep in mind going forward.

A reader might rejoin that they really do write out special abilities and details like that while they engage in what I'm calling the elaborating way, and maybe they do. But I sure don't and seeing the result of many folks' attempts at adding backstory to their book-standard magic weapons makes me think it's common enough to animate people to rethink the way they engage in.

In general, one can always engage in depicting when they are nominally elaborating. With the kind of fact-suspension that humans excel at, I can say "I know I'm trying to describe in a +1 sword that came up in my hexcrawl generator, but I'm going to try to think of a striking image that I can later detail as a +1 sword or something thereabouts" and usually succeed.

Do not think I favor depicting too keenly, for yes the elaborating way can be the right creative mode too. Regard an example I introduced when defining the depicting way, deciding what spells from the magic-user spell list Merlin would cast. In fact, a lot of fictional mages don't easily fit well into the spell-slot system a D&D game uses, and if I wanted to depict Merlin I would either have to come up with a new form of magic for him to employ or fail to do him justice as I count out numerous unfitting magical abilities. In this case, I would more often be served to try to come up with a mage who truly feels at home in the spellcasting system that belongs to the same rules as the rest of the world.

Elaboration is also useful as a way to spur on creativity. If I randomly generate a monster or class, it might combine features I wouldn't have thought to add together and prompt a striking image I otherwise would not have created. Much joy is found in the oracular abilities of dice, and elaboration can clothe the randomness in sense-making and cohesiveness.

I cannot give account of when to use one way and when to use another, but I will end this initial thought with some considerations which I would find helpful:

  • In monster bestiaries, how do creatures from folklore feel different to creatures designed for the game?
  • when two mundane weapons have the same stats, when does a player choose one over the other?
  • Would an NPC who uses dramatically different rules from a character who is conceptually similar feel strange to you?
  • If an item or creature had an ability that never comes up in play, does it matter?
  • To what extent in your system of choice is a class depicting or elaboration? Is it different for each class?
(Thanks to CyberChronometerXenophon of Athens, and Liches for their help)

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