Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Theme Park Worlds

You know what would make Star Wars better?

More Star Trek.

This feels like the strange thinking behind theme park worlds. Before we begin, what is a theme park world? The best examples of these are the old Mystara D&D setting, the universe of Space Opera, the MMO World of Warcraft setting, and of course, Pathfinder's iconic Golarion setting. These are worlds that include a little bit of everything, a Gothic horror area, an Egyptian area, some place like Game of Thrones, a dungeon area, a sci-fi area, an Orc horde area, and just about any other pop-culture fantasy trope adapted for generic pen-and-paper or online gaming use.

We end up with these improbable worlds which feel like a mish-mash Vegas buffet of ideas and adventure opportunities - look, there's something for everyone! There's an old saying if you try to please everyone, you'll end up pleasing no one, and at least for me, that's how I feel about these types of worlds.

What bothers me about them? Well, some of this came up yesterday in my post about Hero Lab, and I wanted to break this down into my top seven reasons of what makes theme park worlds less compelling for me.

#1 The Escape Hatch: Tired of living under the Vampire Counts? Sure, let's go next door to the Happy Kingdom and take a break from this constant Gothic oppression. If you aren't forced to live in a dangerous world, you take it less seriously. The decisions you need to make don't feel as important, you don't take matters of survival and careful political planning as having any real consequence. Sure, if you start a game in "Gothic area" at low-level ytou get the feeling, but at high levels when the characters own a fortress in the Happy Kingdom next door, all of a sudden those scheming Vampire counts seem so distant and far away.

#2 Disneylandification: Theme parks by their nature are improbable collections of everything within walking distance. It doesn't have to make sense, it just has to cover everything and keep people moving through to see constantly changing sights and sounds. Each themed piece of the theme park needs to be less than the whole, as the entire experience is what we are here for. The 'rides' sit next to each other with no real history or reason, and they exist simply because they offer another option. Because there is this air of improbability, by its nature the overall creation is taken less seriously.

#3 Stuck in Time: Wouldn't the Orc Horde just sitting there up to the north have crushed the Happy Kingdom by now? One thing about theme parks is they don't change all that often. Oh, there may be new restaurants and rides every so often, but their purpose is to move people through and entertain the masses with similar experiences. Due to this fact, they often get stuck in time, where the Gothic Kingdom will never be crushed by the Holy Kingdom, and the Happy Kingdom will always be the same happy place it's always been.

#4 No Clear Villains: Or too-many villains in some cases. Of course Game of Thrones would be better with Lord of the Rings' Sauron somewhere in there, and also the Harry Potter Death Eaters as well. Imagine all the villainy! If you had a world where just the Vampire Counts were the big bad guys, your conflicts and enemies would be clearer and a lot more focused. If you have a Demon Scar over here, Vampires over there, Orc Hordes in this valley, Evil Fae here, the world feels like there is no clear conflict and drama. Good fiction writers tell you to simplify, and it feels like there are several worlds waiting to get out and shine on their own in here.

#5 The Mighty Averages: Because your rules has to support every option and every social structure, you can't all of a sudden say that the worship of Gods in this world is limited and persecuted by the evil powers that be.  This can be confined to an area, sure, but you may want to make story decisions with certain classes, like having all druids be a part of an ancient order of the Winter North. In a theme park world, every class has to be everywhere, and you can't make over-riding story decisions for your world anymore. You may only want one church to support the creation of paladins, but in a world where anybody can be a paladin for any reason and for any god, they feel less special and less linked to the world's story and central conflict.

#6 Does Nothing Well: People say theme park worlds give you everything, so you don't need anything else. Well, true, if you don't really care about a focused and quality experience. A focused game world on one particular subject will always be a better experience than the theme park version. Imagine a vampire count type world with detailed histories, families, biographies, lands, conflicts driven by the vampire counts, wars, magics, legends, secrets, and mysteries all in one glorious, focused tome. It will be a more dramatic and focused experience just because that's all that book does, and the creators do not have to worry about supporting other ideas.

#7 The Comic Book Effect: All we play is Vampire Counts. Look Egyptian enemies from Egypt-land! Oooh, shiny! There's two answers for this sort of a problem. Either your vampire count area wasn't compelling enough to hold their attention, or your group is suffering from a comic book effect where things have to constantly change in order for interest to remain high. I like Game of Thrones and other dramas, and those worlds don't have to get so crazy by introducing all sorts of crazy comic-book monsters and villains with all sorts of funny shapes and costumes. Humans really are all the villain you need in some game worlds, and you don't need four bestiaries full of funny shaped critters to have a great story. Less is more, and running a game that tosses in constantly changing threats gets tiring because there is no central villainous threat, and you are constantly looking for the 'next big thing' to top the threat the party just vanquished. Psionic beings from the nether-dimension? Oooh, even shiner!

Mind you, I like Pathfinder's Golarion setting, it is beautiful and offers a lot of places for adventure. However, as the game matures, I feel there is a need to break out and explore new worlds. I am craving focused, dedicated settings that just take one topic and do a hell of a good job with the source material. I am imagining a Vampire Counts world all done out with a Game of Thrones level of detail and history, with no extraneous distractions, demons, orcs, or Happy Kingdoms in the world to take the focus away from the conflicts in the world. You step into this world, the steel cage door is closed, and you have to live in it to survive.

Can you tell a story like that in a theme park world? You could, for the first few levels, but as the party's magic and travel options broaden, the escape hatch cracks open a little bit,. and the 'ooh shiny' other conflicts in the theme park world attract them with their new sights, flashing lights, and happy music. I want a world without those distractions, where Count Dracula is my world's big bad 20th level necromancer, and all the families and backstabbing vampires underneath him scheme and plot to get the upper hand. It feels difficult to run a high-level game in a theme park world with the Demon Scar sitting to one side of Dracula's castle, and the Evil Pharaoh King sitting to the other.

Sometimes, you are in the mood for a tight and focused experience, and as a game-master, you want that control. While the freedom and options provided by theme-park worlds is great, there are downsides and trade-offs should you choose one as your campaign setting. As a game-master myself? I'd rather be known as the guy who runs the cool and fascinating Vampire Counts setting, rather than someone who runs the stock world setting very well.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hero Lab: Deep Magic and Advanced Class Guide

This is one I've been waiting for, the Pathfinder Advanced Class Guide and the Deep Magic supplement have been added to Lone Wolf's Hero Lab. Check it out on the Pathfinder support page here. I think I have been waiting for the Deep Magic package for a while now, and that completes my "super collection" of Pathfinder build books and computer-assisted character design. This would consist of:

  • Pathfinder Core Rulebook
  • Ultimate Magic
  • Ultimate Combat
  • Ultimate Equipment
  • Ultimate Campaign
  • Mythic Adventures
  • Advanced Race Guide
  • Advanced Player's Guide
  • Advanced Class Guide
  • Pathfinder Bestiary 1 thru 4
  • Tome of Horrors Complete
  • Deep Magic
  • 1001 Spells
  • Secrets of Adventuring

I'd love to build a Pathfinder game world that supports all that, in fact - especially integrating the four non-official books in italics. As of mid-2014, this is the most interesting and complete group of non world specific character, setting, and monster material you can get right now.

With the above set of books I think it would be harder to do, and I would eventually settle down on one theme and pick-and-choose what I wanted. Another great point about making a focused game world is that players who are bought-in to the main Paizo campaign could always borrow your setting and drop the parts they like in.

Do I believe there's room for another Pathfinder compatible game world? Of course! There's always room outside of Paizo's main theme-park style setting of Golarion for more specific and focused experiences. The one thing about theme-park worlds is they don't force a deep and committed player buy-in of any one part of the world.

Let's say you wanted to run a game in a Vampire-count sort of Ravenloft-y world. Golarion has one of those places, but for a setting like that to work for me - there can be no escape. You can't jet over to the Elven Kingdom or your Barbarian Enclave to escape that threat, for me, having a focused 100% "this is it" type world (like Game of Thrones) is a very compelling experience. Even if my mini-world setting is not as big as the main Paizo world, if it is 100% devoted to one subject - Gothic horror, backstabbing noble families, Arthurian fantasy, Cthulhu style horror - I feel it is better focused and my players will have a great time.

For me, it is about limiting distractions and not providing safe zones for the players. Take the vampire count world idea. Without safe zones, players have to become involved in the game world, make deals with vampire counts, find places they can be safe-er in, and ally with NPCs (they think) who share their interests. Nowhere in the world is safe from the vampire lords, there is no "demon area" or "Egypt area" where the big bad guy changes and the vampires can't reach.

There is also the fun possibility of limiting areas that would be a threat to Vampires, such as divine magic. Let's say the vampire counts stamped out all worship of deities that could provide divine power to challenge them, and worship to one or two long-forgotten gods was underground and secret. This is fun, compelling content you can't get in a theme-park world since you could always go next-door to the holy kingdom, round up a bunch of paladins, and ride in like the Magnificent Seven.

Still, I think even a semi-generic alternate game world is very compelling and possible using the above list as a seeder guide. Write it for Pathfinder like Eberron was written for D&D3 - everything must exist and play together. The addition of the four other non-official books would make for an interesting world to explore indeed.