However, when you move beyond vanilla fantasy, or if you're playing with non-gamers, some work needs to be done. If the game is going to work not only do you need to establish not only the rules of the game but also the playing field. And it's this last that interests me at the moment.
The old school response to this was as follows: create a big fat rule book which includes a laughably poor introduction for non-gamers, some rules, masses of background, fiction, maps and the like which need to be understood and ingested before you play the game.
The new response is to throw most of that stuff away. If you're going to create a playing field, it's best done by all the players as part of the game. This brings involvement and ownership, you don't have to read masses of someone else's "cool" background material and you can get stuck in straight away.
There are several ways of doing this, some more involved than others. There are games like Universalis where the whole game is about creating the world, with less focus on individual characters and more on myth and history. That's not really what I'm talking about. Some of the games I've played that do this kind of thing, and do it well, are:
- Mortal Coil The characters have special powers. They might be gods, magicians, psychic cavemen, or superheroes. You decide, and then, following a checklist, you work out other salient gameworld facts that build the world. How widespread is magic? Who are the villains? What magical creatures exist? This kind of thing. Then you take these elements and create characters to interact with them. And even in play, there are rules for adding to this check list, this Theme Document which becomes a rich tapestry to background play.
- Ganakagok You play esquimaux in a starlit iceland which is about to know the dawn for the first time. That much is given but after that you use a tarot deck to inspire the creation of characters and two documents, one which has the world and its locations, the other which has the important characters and their relationships to each other. The cards are eskimo themed and so encourage making elements in keeping with the theme of the game.
- Dogs in the Vineyard As the wandering religious police in a West that Never Was, character creation is followed by a first scene in which your character shows a key moment in his past. This is not as strong as in the above games but it gets everyone on the same page. However there is a checklist for GMs on how to create a town, a place of sin, that the players must confront and sort out as they see fit.
I was inspired by MC and DitV when I wrote Tbilisi which uses a world creation checklist and Fourpenny Touch in which players create hopes for others characters and so introduce world elements. I also used a relationship map in Koenig Hospital in a very similar way to Gakanagok although didn't have it impact conflicts in quite a direct a way.
I'm pretty convinced that this is the way to go for games that want to generate quick play with more player buy-in and less prescription and I'd like to see more of it in the mainstream. That isn't to say that there is no place for auteur backgrounds, it's just that I think they work better if there's also space for player expression.