Describing the Indescribable

For many creative people, a blank space is an inspiration, a key to unlock ideas. These people can take an empty page or fresh canvas and fill it with wonders, unleashing their imaginations.

I am not one of these people. To me, a blank space is a challenge. I rely on seeds to kickstart me. (This is probably why I am a fan of what has been called “remix culture”, taking existing things and making new things out of them, often by combination with other existing things.) My creativity works more from adaptation to constraint than from limitless possibility. My gaming projects are often alterations of or expansions of existing products, such as Arcane Secrets for Michael Wolf’s Arcane Heroes, or Resolute, Adventurer & Genius. I have multiple projects on my hard drive that arose from a Game Chef-like creation contest on the RPG.net forums; these projects were detailed on my old blog, Polyhedral Dreams. I also have a retro-clone that has been creeping toward completion for a few years now.

Blanks spaces do not inspire me; they intimidate me. So it is that when confronted with the popular trope of an ever-changing landscape, a world that shifts constantly around the characters, I instantly lock up. I have a hard enough time describing landscapes as it is. Coming up with new features on a regular (or even irregular, but continual) basis is right out. The Dreaming from oWoD’s Changeling, its Exalted counterpart known as the Wyld, and the shifting lands of the Maelstrom from Maelstrom Storytelling are three example implementations of this trope. I’ve never had any success with them.

When confronted with the game ingredient “seasons occupy distinct locations” from one of the Game Fu challenges, the key was inserted into the lock and my creativity ran rampant… and for some reason immediately went right for a trope I had no personal luck with. For what became my Seasonalis world, the all-encompassing Winter was realized as an ever-changing winterscape, always cold and snow-bound but shifting from hills to forests to mountains around anyone wandering through it. This was how it was supposed to be, I realized, even though I would never be able to properly describe the continual changes. I hoped that someone else might find the setting entertaining and do what I felt I could not.

Seasonalis languished. Perhaps I would get around to writing up a full setting document, I thought. Some day. But then, a few weeks ago, as I was going through old posts looking for what I felt were my best articles, I reread what I had posted about the setting and realized I still wanted to do something with it. I have felt for a long time that Seasonalis would make a wonderful Everway campaign, but on #StargazersWorld, we had been talking about Warrior, Rogue & Mage, and I got the notion that WR&M might be a great compromise between Everway and a heavier game like D&D. I even got the idea that I would like to run the game, something I rarely do.

The Winter, however, still stood in my way. I could come up with a wonderful “island” of Spring, Summer and Autumn for the characters to live in and explore, but the true adventure in Seasonalis is in the Winter, and I would be forced to confront my weakness. I waffled. I considered using art, in the manner of Everway’s Vision Cards. But eventually, I came upon the self-referential idea of using seeds to kickstart my creativity: simple charts I could use with dice rolls.

Since WR&M only uses the d6, I wanted to keep to that. I originally considered using a “d66″ (two six-sided dice read individually, rather than added, for a total of 36 equally-likely results) chart, but in the spirit of the Wyrm system I eventually settled on a set of simple d6 charts that would give me ideas for how the Winter landscape would lie at any given moment. I’m still planning a d66 chart of “special” features, one-shot events or unique discoveries to add spice to things. The idea is to be able to rely on the charts when I need ideas, rather than trying to cover every single conceivable possibility.

The charts include a starter indicating how many different features to check for (with indications on the extreme ends that the local Winter is either relatively stable, and will change less on the next check, or unstable, and will change more) as well as charts for each of six basic “landscape” feature types (hills, forests, mountains, caves, water and ruins). The d66 “special” chart will include all manner of random little images that can be blended with the landscape features and used as inspiration for important events or little side jaunts on adventures.

The use of charts to help make decisions on the layout of the environment isn’t new, of course. The first edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide included charts for designing dungeons (a feature that really should have been carried over into every edition since). These could be consulted at any time, if the DM wanted to add something new on the fly, and could easily have been used for a game in which the environment kept changing. Mongoose’s version of Traveller includes charts for creating worlds which are also simple enough to be checked at-need. But the idea, for some reason, had never occurred to me before. The fact that the Winter in Seasonalis is constant in at least some respects makes the task a bit easier. Something like the Dreaming would involve a broader base of seed ideas, since anything is possible there, but if you’re not afraid of charts, or really want them to help out like I do, a small folio to consult would be brilliant.

Now that I’ve got the charts to help me overcome the difficulty of the Winter, I’m ready to move on with detailing a small section of that universe to play in. I’m eager to see how well they work in play.

3 thoughts on “Describing the Indescribable”

  1. It kind of reminds me of Zak from Playing D&D with Porn Star's theory that you don't need page upon page of backstory and geography to define a setting. Instead you could potentially describe the entire setting in a set of random encounter and terrain charts.

    Also one option you could do instead of a d66 chart for 36 different options, you could do a smaller d6+d6 chart that gets you 11 different options with some of them significantly more likely than others.
    My recent post Mega-Babes: The RPG

  2. That is an awesome idea… I usually LOVE to create and describe new things, but sometimes the idea well runs dry and that is awesome. Thanks!

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