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RPG setting: a variant on "maps with blanks"

pemerton

Legend
The "Draw Maps, Leave Blanks" principle from Dungeon World is fairly well known. From p 152 of the rulebook:

Dungeon World exists mostly in the imaginations of the people playing it; maps help everyone stay on the same page. You won’t always be drawing them yourself, but any time there’s a new location described make sure it gets added to a map.​
When you draw a map don’t try to make it complete. Leave room for the unknown. As you play you’ll get more ideas and the players will give you inspiration to work with. Let the maps expand and change.​

I thought I'd see what others think of the Burning Wheel approach to this, from the Adventure Burner and reprinted in the Codex. From pp 64-66 of the latter book:

A setting for Burning Wheel is broad, composed of brush strokes and vague pronouncements, punctuated by a handful of details. The items that get listed on each character sheet - traits, skills and gear - are the only setting details that truly matter. They are the most vital elements of any setting. Population, geography and culture are all secondary. . . .​
Don't fill in you setting all at once. Don't front-load. Sketch out the broad lines - some geographical, some political, some cultural - but leave the precise details to be filled in later as needed. Focus on the immediate details. Flesh out the space that's directly in the path of the players' Beliefs and relationships.​
Make some notes about possible contingencies, but I strongly urge you to refrain from "world building." . . . World building can be great fun, an exciting exercise for the imagination, but in Burning Wheel, it often creates an impediment to thoroughly and accurately challenging Beliefs. . . .​
So as you test for Circles, note the NPCs found. Build a list of contacts over time. As you explore each new place, give it a culture and a climate. Make it memorable and inspiring. . . .​
On occasion, it can be fun playing someone else's world. . . . [T]reat canon lightly. Consider all those familiar places and fascinating backstories as toys for you to play with. They're a source to draw from, but also exist to be changed.​
And finally, stay clear of "the plot."​

There's obviously room here for differences of opinion and differences of approach. I personally prefer the BW approach: I think it really encourages leaning into play, and looking to play to carry the game, rather than falling back onto pre-authored material as a "crutch" or even alternative to play here-and-now.

Of course this only works if we bring the right resources into play. The BW advice draws attention to that intimate connection between the elements of PC build, and the way setting is used in the game.
 

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Arilyn

Hero
I don't create worlds anymore. Everything is pretty much a blank except the starting point which depends on what the PCs need or want. Deities, social customs, geography, etc. fill in as needed. My inspiration comes from the fantasy stories of Peter S. Beagle. He admits to no maps and extremely sketchy world building.

It's actually pretty freeing and my fears that my campaign would seem surreal hasn't played out. My long term players would let me know!

I do use maps if playing in our world or if dipping into something that appeals to me like Ebberon.
 

I admit I have a tendency when running anything that is pretty much D&D-style fantasy to assume it is set somehow within the persistent world I've assembled over decades of play. OTOH I neither care much about 'canon', nor particularly shy away from simply devising an entirely different milieu, or letting it arise, as required.

I mean, thinking of the DW process, I think it works perfectly fine in a setting that is not entirely a blank canvas but where most questions are not supplied definitive answers by existing material. So, maybe it is pre-established that the town is a port on an island in a large inland not-Mediterranean. That's OK, what is under the waves? What is the rest of the island like? Is it near any other land, or not? Who/What lives here? These are all things that may have SOME answers that can be readily supplied, but where there is always plenty of room for more detail, and if it seems advisable to change something significant, that's fine, as long as it hasn't impacted the current fiction yet (or there's some fun reason to make things change).
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
Don't want to paint myself into a corner by detailing too many things. Happened to me a long time ago and didn't like that I was stuck with decisions made 2 years before that no longer fit my need as a GM.

Ever since for fantasy I only create small maps of about 5 days by horse in every direction from the starting location. The map is expanded by the PCs actions and the plot as it unfolds. I need a mountain, a mountain appears on the map.
 

aco175

Legend
I find that there is always room to add more detail. FR is a world with lots of stories and done a lot. Between Phandalin and Neverwinter is a road and some woods. OK, but in the new follow-on to Icespire Peak there are ocean ruins and an inn at the crossroads. Somebody was making a new dungeon and added them. Feel free to add more like a hidden abbey or small towns outside the city or just about anything.
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
For a Traveller GM perspective, worlds are the detailed level. Generate a subsector, and start the players off on one of the worlds in it, and as they go to new planets add details to those with Starports, NPCs, organisations, possibly other sites of importance in the system, and I only bother with a world map if the planet becomes important. Usually that would include the starting planet, but not necessarily. Planetary maps and local regional maps are rarely important beyond the broad strokes of a planet, although I do try to avoid "Jungle World", "Desert world" and such - most habitable planets should have multiple ecosystems.
While I agree with the idea that there shouldn't be "A Plot", that doesn't mean there shouldn't be people plotting to change the current situation in their favour and probably several someone's plans. I try to avoid making timetables for when their plots will work out, but I also try to keep track of which "missions" they're undertaking and how long those are likely to take them. If the PCs run into those, or there are competing plans from different factions, then I'll assume they adapt as necessary to success or failure.
 

To take this question literally, one of the best aspects of fantasy is the map. Fantasy maps (good ones anyway) make you want to point to location and ask "what's here?" This is then combined with our modern understanding of a map, where it is accurate, comprehensive (both spatially and in each location's history), and always can be zoomed in and explored. But anyway, I like the dungeon world articulation because it still points to the suggestive visuality of the map.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
The "Draw Maps, Leave Blanks" principle from Dungeon World is fairly well known. From p 152 of the rulebook:

Dungeon World exists mostly in the imaginations of the people playing it; maps help everyone stay on the same page. You won’t always be drawing them yourself, but any time there’s a new location described make sure it gets added to a map.​
When you draw a map don’t try to make it complete. Leave room for the unknown. As you play you’ll get more ideas and the players will give you inspiration to work with. Let the maps expand and change.​

I thought I'd see what others think of the Burning Wheel approach to this, from the Adventure Burner and reprinted in the Codex. From pp 64-66 of the latter book:

A setting for Burning Wheel is broad, composed of brush strokes and vague pronouncements, punctuated by a handful of details. The items that get listed on each character sheet - traits, skills and gear - are the only setting details that truly matter. They are the most vital elements of any setting. Population, geography and culture are all secondary. . . .​
Don't fill in you setting all at once. Don't front-load. Sketch out the broad lines - some geographical, some political, some cultural - but leave the precise details to be filled in later as needed. Focus on the immediate details. Flesh out the space that's directly in the path of the players' Beliefs and relationships.​
Make some notes about possible contingencies, but I strongly urge you to refrain from "world building." . . . World building can be great fun, an exciting exercise for the imagination, but in Burning Wheel, it often creates an impediment to thoroughly and accurately challenging Beliefs. . . .​
So as you test for Circles, note the NPCs found. Build a list of contacts over time. As you explore each new place, give it a culture and a climate. Make it memorable and inspiring. . . .​
On occasion, it can be fun playing someone else's world. . . . [T]reat canon lightly. Consider all those familiar places and fascinating backstories as toys for you to play with. They're a source to draw from, but also exist to be changed.​
And finally, stay clear of "the plot."​

There's obviously room here for differences of opinion and differences of approach. I personally prefer the BW approach: I think it really encourages leaning into play, and looking to play to carry the game, rather than falling back onto pre-authored material as a "crutch" or even alternative to play here-and-now.

Of course this only works if we bring the right resources into play. The BW advice draws attention to that intimate connection between the elements of PC build, and the way setting is used in the game.
I'm not seeing a contrast here, just more clarity of purpose in the BW example. At a high level, these are advocating the same thing. BW has more specific direction to flesh out things in front of the PC build choices, but the general thrust is very much the same. Did I miss something?
 

Puddles

Explorer
To take this question literally, one of the best aspects of fantasy is the map. Fantasy maps (good ones anyway) make you want to point to location and ask "what's here?" This is then combined with our modern understanding of a map, where it is accurate, comprehensive (both spatially and in each location's history), and always can be zoomed in and explored. But anyway, I like the dungeon world articulation because it still points to the suggestive visuality of the map.
Agreed. Maps are just downright cool and players love them so I always take the time to create maps for them. I like the DW articulation above. I think a good map should have a few “here be dragons” blanks, but also a few other tidbits to get them excited too, “wait, there’s some sort of ruined city on this map!?” :)
 

Agreed. Maps are just downright cool and players love them so I always take the time to create maps for them. I like the DW articulation above. I think a good map should have a few “here be dragons” blanks, but also a few other tidbits to get them excited too, “wait, there’s some sort of ruined city on this map!?” :)
I should have mentioned, that our modern understanding of maps is part of what makes world building so tedious. There's the assumption that, as world creator, you have perfect information, and the map is an easy medium to that information. But instead, I think the "draw maps leave blanks" suggests that the dm is also a player, and should approach the world as someone with imperfect information.

So, maybe maps that look more like this:
50991.jpg

2880px-TabulaRogeriana_upside-down.jpeg

town.jpg
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I should have mentioned, that our modern understanding of maps is part of what makes world building so tedious. There's the assumption that, as world creator, you have perfect information, and the map is an easy medium to that information. But instead, I think the "draw maps leave blanks" suggests that the dm is also a player, and should approach the world as someone with imperfect information.

So, maybe maps that look more like this:
View attachment 142105
View attachment 142104
View attachment 142103
These are all far more detailed that either of the OP's quotes suggest. "Draw maps, leave blanks," mostly means only put in the big stuff, and only if it's needed for something in the game. The idea isn't to start with the level of detail you show here, but rather to fill in that detail in play -- in response to the game's need. In other words, it isn't about "what's in this building," but rather, "hey, we're looking for a building and I think it's here."

There's nothing at all wrong with your maps, of course, and I want to be clear about that. It's a difference of creative agenda in the quotes from the OP only. Detailed maps can be great, if that's the game's agenda. The OP quotes, though, are talking about a game were we discover such things in play, not with asking the GM what's here in this village indicated on the map, but rather in a sense that no one at the table knows what's in the blank space until it's needed, and then we find out together. This approach only fills in the things needed for play, and usually features games where those things aren't really fixed places to explore, but rather character goals and motivations that need to be challenged.

Games like 5e do not do this well, because of the level of effort needed for encounter preparation. It's very hard to "wing it" well in 5e with combat stuff. Individuals can do it, but, in general, most lack the system mastery and level of experience to make a good go of it.
 
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These are all far more detailed that either of the OP's quotes suggest. "Draw maps, leave blanks," mostly means only put in the big stuff, and only if it's needed for something in the game. The idea isn't to start with the level of detail you show here, but rather to fill in that detail in play -- in response to the game's need. In other words, it isn't about "what's in this building," but rather, "hey, we're looking for a building and I think it's here."

There's nothing at all wrong with your maps, of course, and I want to be clear about that. It's a difference of creative agenda in the quotes from the OP only. Detailed maps can be great, if that's the game's agenda. The OP quotes, though, are talking about a game were we discover such things in play, not with asking the GM what's here in this village indicated on the map, but rather in a since that no one at the table knows what's in the blank space until it's needed, and then we find out together. This approach only fills in the things needed for play, and usually features games where those things aren't really fixed places to explore, but rather character goals and motivations that need to be challenged.

Games like 5e do not do this well, because of the level of effort needed for encounter preparation. It's very hard to "wing it" well in 5e with combat stuff. Individuals can do it, but, in general, most lack the system mastery and level of experience to make a good go of it.
Totally! What I meant to convey with those maps wasn't necessarily their detail but their inaccuracy and difference in perspective compared to the way we interact with real maps everyday (google maps and what not). Whereas, if we look at maps from, say, islamic or christian medieval cultures, from a modern perspective we note their inaccuracies, or the way they tried to express a cosmology (vs scientific realism), or even the fact that they were not always drawn from a top-down perspective (especially town maps). And from the point of inhabitants of local region, they may have a way of articulating direction and orientation that has nothing to do with a map ("it's three hills over"). What I'm saying is that the dm should take kind of in-world perspective when worldbuilding. Like if you imagine walking up a hill, and looking out to the horizon, that should be your perspective as a dm.

For me where it gets tricky is when it comes to an actual dungeon, or any location where time is going to be measured in turns. Theoretically, you don't need a map for this kind of situation (something I'm currently realizing running Blades in the Dark), but it is so ingrained in my dnd brain. It's exacerbated with VTTs, where you see things not as your character would but from a top-down, third person perspective.

tldr: the visuality and perspective of the map as a very distinct relationship to the type of worldbuilding you do, at least in most dnd style games
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm not seeing a contrast here, just more clarity of purpose in the BW example. At a high level, these are advocating the same thing. BW has more specific direction to flesh out things in front of the PC build choices, but the general thrust is very much the same. Did I miss something?
Maybe the contrast I was drawing is covered by your reference to more clarity of purpose?

Anyway, here are a couple of responses that I think illustrate the contrast:

I only create small maps of about 5 days by horse in every direction from the starting location. The map is expanded by the PCs actions and the plot as it unfolds. I need a mountain, a mountain appears on the map.
Maps are just downright cool and players love them so I always take the time to create maps for them. I like the DW articulation above. I think a good map should have a few “here be dragons” blanks, but also a few other tidbits to get them excited too, “wait, there’s some sort of ruined city on this map!?”
These both seem consistent with drawing maps and leaving blanks, but they also look to the map - as a piece of GM-authored fiction - as a significant contributor to play: I need a mountain; there's some sort of ruined city!?

Here's a bit more from DW, in the "First Session" chapter (pp 177, 179):

Think about fantastic worlds, strange magic, and foul beasts. Remember the games you played and the stories you told. Watch some movies, read some comics; get heroic fantasy into your brain.​
What you bring to the first session, ideas-wise, is up to you. At the very least bring your head full of ideas. That’s the bare minimum.​
If you like you can plan a little more. Maybe think of an evil plot and who’s behind it, or some monsters you’d like to use.​
If you’ve got some spare time on your hands you can even draw some maps (but remember, from your principles: leave blanks) and imagine specific locations.​
The one thing you absolutely can’t bring to the table is a planned storyline or plot. . . . You don’t know the heroes or the world before you sit down to play . . .​
If you’ve come to the table with some ideas about stuff you’d like to see in the world, share them with the players. Their characters are their responsibility and the world is yours - you’ve got a lot of say in what lives in it.​

Now I think there is some tension, if not flat-out contradiction, in this: I don't quite see how the in-advance drawing of maps and the in-setup sharing of ideas with the players, together with the world being the GM's responsibility, fits with you don't know the world before you sit down to play. These doubts of mine are reinforced by some more concrete advice given to the GM about what to bring to the first session (pp 178, 180-81):

During this entire process, especially character creation, ask questions. Look for interesting facts established by the characters’ bonds, moves, classes, and descriptions and ask about those things. Be curious! When someone mentions the demons that slaughtered their village find out more about them. After all, you don’t have anything (except maybe a dungeon) and everything they give you is fuel for future adventures. . . .​
Start the session with a group of player characters (maybe all of them) in a tense situation. Use anything that demands action: outside the entrance to a dungeon, ambushed in a fetid swamp, peeking through the crack in a door at the orc guards, or being sentenced before King Levus. Ask questions right away - “who is leading the ambush against you?” or “what did you do to make King Levus so mad?” If the situation stems directly from the characters and your questions, all the better. . . .​
The best part of the first session is you don’t have to come with anything concrete. You might have a dungeon sketched out but the players provide the real meat - use it. They’ll emerge from the darkness of that first dungeon and when they do and their eyes adjust to the light, you’ll have built up an exciting world to explore with their help. Look at their bonds, their moves, how they answer your questions and use what you find to fill in the world around the characters.​

Taken as a whole, the DW advice seems to lean more towards collaborative world-building, or GM world-building that is sensitive to cues provided implicitly or expressly by the players. In the examples of the "tense situation", I see GM authorship first (eg an ambush, a trial) and then player input in response to that (eg who are the ambushers?, why are you in trouble?) The GM will build up an exciting world with the players' help. There is express contemplation that the GM will have prepared a dungeon, at least in general outline.

In contrast, the BW advice emphasises that it is the elements that the players bring, via the stuff on their PC sheets (setting details like gear and relationships; PC orientations in the form of Beliefs; PC capabilities in the form of Circles; etc), that is at the centre of setting. Everything else relates to, and has a purpose in service of, that stuff.

There is a risk with the BW approach. Whenever I mention that risk I also mention @Campbell, because he's the poster who has articulated it most passionately. The risk is that the play of the game and the articulation of the fiction becomes "distorted" or even (to use a strong word) "corrupted" in service of player wish-fulfilment and pre-conceived character arcs. I think BW has devices to protect against this, most notably a very high incidence of failure for checks (compared to, say, any recent version of D&D). But it's still something to be aware of.

DW (like AW) has features of its action resolution process and its "framing" process that militate against the risk found in BW - intention and related notions like PC Beliefs are not considerations in resolution. But there are risks in the DW approach (moreso I think than AW, but I won't go into that in this post) which is that the core conceits and elements of the fiction become hostage to GM control and pre-authorship in a way that (as I have said) I think is already hinted at in the advice I have quoted.

That's the contrast I'm seeing.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I should have mentioned, that our modern understanding of maps is part of what makes world building so tedious. There's the assumption that, as world creator, you have perfect information, and the map is an easy medium to that information. But instead, I think the "draw maps leave blanks" suggests that the dm is also a player, and should approach the world as someone with imperfect information.
My response to your examples is a bit different from @Ovinomancer's.

The BW advice quoted in the OP refers to "brush strokes and vague pronouncements, punctuated by a handful of details" and to "Sketch[ing] out the broad lines - some geographical, some political, some cultural" while "leav[ing] the precise details to be filled in later as needed." It says that "Population, geography and culture are all secondary." What counts as a precise detail is quite contingent, or rather is quite context-specific. The context, as the BW advice indicates, is provided by stuff the players bring to the game via their PC sheets: traits, skills, gear, Beliefs, relationships and Circles.

If the players have Beliefs about exploring the wilderness, or uncovering lost cities, or similar sorts of things than maybe your maps are too front-loaded with detail. But if the players have Beliefs about finding people or avenging people or becoming Grandmaster of Assassins, then your maps seem fine to me. They sketch out the broad lines, but don't seem like they would create any "impediment to thoroughly and accurately challenging Beliefs."

In this respect, I think what is key is not imperfect information but incomplete information, so that actions can be declared and resolved without preconception that flows from outside the context that the player has brought to the game with his/her PC. An overly-detailed city map can do that, because if the player declares I look for any alley to hide in, so that the guards won't notice me, then we can find ourselves resolving that declaration not by drawing on what has been brought to the game by the player (eg Alley-wise or City-wise skills) but by looking to the pre-authored fiction of the map. Likewise, if the map is overly-detailed then the possibility and threat of guard patrols becomes determined by looking at the map, and the locations of guard-houses, and trying to estimate patrol times and cycles etc, rather than by looking to the context the player is brining (like eg a past failed Circles check that established an enmity with a city guard captain).

This post also probably helps spell out a bit my post just upthread of it, about the difference I see between the DW and the BW advice.
 

Maybe the contrast I was drawing is covered by your reference to more clarity of purpose?

Anyway, here are a couple of responses that I think illustrate the contrast:


These both seem consistent with drawing maps and leaving blanks, but they also look to the map - as a piece of GM-authored fiction - as a significant contributor to play: I need a mountain; there's some sort of ruined city!?

Here's a bit more from DW, in the "First Session" chapter (pp 177, 179):

Think about fantastic worlds, strange magic, and foul beasts. Remember the games you played and the stories you told. Watch some movies, read some comics; get heroic fantasy into your brain.​
What you bring to the first session, ideas-wise, is up to you. At the very least bring your head full of ideas. That’s the bare minimum.​
If you like you can plan a little more. Maybe think of an evil plot and who’s behind it, or some monsters you’d like to use.​
If you’ve got some spare time on your hands you can even draw some maps (but remember, from your principles: leave blanks) and imagine specific locations.​
The one thing you absolutely can’t bring to the table is a planned storyline or plot. . . . You don’t know the heroes or the world before you sit down to play . . .​
If you’ve come to the table with some ideas about stuff you’d like to see in the world, share them with the players. Their characters are their responsibility and the world is yours - you’ve got a lot of say in what lives in it.​

Now I think there is some tension, if not flat-out contradiction, in this: I don't quite see how the in-advance drawing of maps and the in-setup sharing of ideas with the players, together with the world being the GM's responsibility, fits with you don't know the world before you sit down to play. These doubts of mine are reinforced by some more concrete advice given to the GM about what to bring to the first session (pp 178, 180-81):

During this entire process, especially character creation, ask questions. Look for interesting facts established by the characters’ bonds, moves, classes, and descriptions and ask about those things. Be curious! When someone mentions the demons that slaughtered their village find out more about them. After all, you don’t have anything (except maybe a dungeon) and everything they give you is fuel for future adventures. . . .​
Start the session with a group of player characters (maybe all of them) in a tense situation. Use anything that demands action: outside the entrance to a dungeon, ambushed in a fetid swamp, peeking through the crack in a door at the orc guards, or being sentenced before King Levus. Ask questions right away - “who is leading the ambush against you?” or “what did you do to make King Levus so mad?” If the situation stems directly from the characters and your questions, all the better. . . .​
The best part of the first session is you don’t have to come with anything concrete. You might have a dungeon sketched out but the players provide the real meat - use it. They’ll emerge from the darkness of that first dungeon and when they do and their eyes adjust to the light, you’ll have built up an exciting world to explore with their help. Look at their bonds, their moves, how they answer your questions and use what you find to fill in the world around the characters.​

Taken as a whole, the DW advice seems to lean more towards collaborative world-building, or GM world-building that is sensitive to cues provided implicitly or expressly by the players. In the examples of the "tense situation", I see GM authorship first (eg an ambush, a trial) and then player input in response to that (eg who are the ambushers>, why are you in trouble?) The GM will build up an exciting world with the players' help. There is express contemplation that the GM will have prepared a dungeon, at least in general outline.

In contrast, the BW advice emphasises that it is the elements that the players bring, via the stuff on their PC sheets (setting details like gear and relationships; PC orientations in the form of Beliefs; PC capabilities in the form of Circles; etc), that is at the centre of setting. Everything else relates to, and has a purpose in service of, that stuff.

There is a risk with the BW approach. Whenever I mention that risk I also mention @Campbell, because he's the poster who has articulated it most passionately. The risk is that the play of the game and the articulation of the fiction becomes "distorted" or even (to use a strong word) "corrupted" in service of player wish-fulfilment and pre-conceived character arcs. I think BW has devices to protect against this, most notably a very high incidence of failure for checks (compared to, say, and recent version of D&D). But it's still something to be aware of.

DW (like AW) has features of its action resolution process and its "framing" process that militate against the risk found in BW - intention and related notions like PC Beliefs are not considerations in resolution. But there are risks in the DW approach (moreso I think than AW, but I won't go into that in this post) which is that the core conceits and elements of the fiction become hostage to GM control and pre-authorship in a way that (as I have said) I think is already hinted at in the advice I have quoted.

That's the contrast I'm seeing.
The thing I like about prep in blades in the dark is the advice to "provide opportunities." So I see my role as gm as a mix of providing those opportunities and basically interpreting dice rolls (as suggestions, not as definitive arbitration). We haven't played long enough to see how my dnd-accustomed players will react, but basically I want to shift completely away from skill/challenge play to narrative play, but still provide mechanics for a 'game' type experience (I've read but never actually played a pbta game and never played bw).

I wonder if a game could merge Quiet Year-like worldbuilding with then playing in that world at a smaller timescale

If you can sit through it, the person who runs the Runehammer youtube channel has been doing play reports of his OSE game where he seems to have developed a BW-like system but one that avoids player 'abuse'. But that might also be due to the social dynamics of his group.

But then what is player abuse, or corruption, or distortion? Why does that have negative connotations? Isn't player agency the goal of story now anyway?
 

pemerton

Legend
For a Traveller GM perspective, worlds are the detailed level. Generate a subsector, and start the players off on one of the worlds in it, and as they go to new planets add details to those with Starports, NPCs, organisations, possibly other sites of importance in the system, and I only bother with a world map if the planet becomes important. Usually that would include the starting planet, but not necessarily. Planetary maps and local regional maps are rarely important beyond the broad strokes of a planet, although I do try to avoid "Jungle World", "Desert world" and such - most habitable planets should have multiple ecosystems.
While I agree with the idea that there shouldn't be "A Plot", that doesn't mean there shouldn't be people plotting to change the current situation in their favour and probably several someone's plans. I try to avoid making timetables for when their plots will work out, but I also try to keep track of which "missions" they're undertaking and how long those are likely to take them. If the PCs run into those, or there are competing plans from different factions, then I'll assume they adapt as necessary to success or failure.
I think Classic Traveller is interesting because the rules - written in 1977! - hint at possible approaches to world-building that are more often associated with "modern" RPGs. (I think some of those hints were diluted in later versions, especially the GMing advice in The Traveller Book which leans hard into the standard railroading approaches that were emerging in the early-to-mid 80s.)

In my current campaign I came to the first session with three worlds already rolled up (a hostile atmosphere domed-cities world; a water world (hyrdo 9 or A); and a low-TL world with a disease-tainted atmosphere (this was pre-pandemic, should it raise any questions about my good taste!)). I rolled up a starting world after the players had rolled their PCs, and together we helped make sense of it (which is something suggested in Book 3); and then rolled a patron encounter, and related that NPC to the PCs backstories that had been worked out in the course of rolling up PCs and world, and used my pre-prepared worlds to help frame her mission for the PCs.

Over the course of about 20 sessions more worlds have been generated, and I've had to locate them all on a star map (though I don't use the canonical sector/subsector arrangement) to keep track of them. I think this is inevitable (or at least hard to avoid) in any "leave blanks" game, especially one like Traveller that places a strong emphasis on the travel/explorative element of play - over time, those blanks get filled in.

I've never used any world maps. After an unhappy initial experience with the rules for onworld exploration, which are the one area I've found Classic Traveller to underpeform, onworld exploration hasn't been a bit part of our game. The PCs mostly travel from A to B on a world via their starship or ship's boat, and as far as ATV travel is concerned I've used encounter and evasion rules to manage the pacing rather than focusing on how many miles the PCs have travelled in what precise direction.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Maybe the contrast I was drawing is covered by your reference to more clarity of purpose?

Anyway, here are a couple of responses that I think illustrate the contrast:



These both seem consistent with drawing maps and leaving blanks, but they also look to the map - as a piece of GM-authored fiction - as a significant contributor to play: I need a mountain; there's some sort of ruined city!?

Here's a bit more from DW, in the "First Session" chapter (pp 177, 179):

Think about fantastic worlds, strange magic, and foul beasts. Remember the games you played and the stories you told. Watch some movies, read some comics; get heroic fantasy into your brain.​
What you bring to the first session, ideas-wise, is up to you. At the very least bring your head full of ideas. That’s the bare minimum.​
If you like you can plan a little more. Maybe think of an evil plot and who’s behind it, or some monsters you’d like to use.​
If you’ve got some spare time on your hands you can even draw some maps (but remember, from your principles: leave blanks) and imagine specific locations.​
The one thing you absolutely can’t bring to the table is a planned storyline or plot. . . . You don’t know the heroes or the world before you sit down to play . . .​
If you’ve come to the table with some ideas about stuff you’d like to see in the world, share them with the players. Their characters are their responsibility and the world is yours - you’ve got a lot of say in what lives in it.​

Now I think there is some tension, if not flat-out contradiction, in this: I don't quite see how the in-advance drawing of maps and the in-setup sharing of ideas with the players, together with the world being the GM's responsibility, fits with you don't know the world before you sit down to play. These doubts of mine are reinforced by some more concrete advice given to the GM about what to bring to the first session (pp 178, 180-81):

During this entire process, especially character creation, ask questions. Look for interesting facts established by the characters’ bonds, moves, classes, and descriptions and ask about those things. Be curious! When someone mentions the demons that slaughtered their village find out more about them. After all, you don’t have anything (except maybe a dungeon) and everything they give you is fuel for future adventures. . . .​
Start the session with a group of player characters (maybe all of them) in a tense situation. Use anything that demands action: outside the entrance to a dungeon, ambushed in a fetid swamp, peeking through the crack in a door at the orc guards, or being sentenced before King Levus. Ask questions right away - “who is leading the ambush against you?” or “what did you do to make King Levus so mad?” If the situation stems directly from the characters and your questions, all the better. . . .​
The best part of the first session is you don’t have to come with anything concrete. You might have a dungeon sketched out but the players provide the real meat - use it. They’ll emerge from the darkness of that first dungeon and when they do and their eyes adjust to the light, you’ll have built up an exciting world to explore with their help. Look at their bonds, their moves, how they answer your questions and use what you find to fill in the world around the characters.​

Taken as a whole, the DW advice seems to lean more towards collaborative world-building, or GM world-building that is sensitive to cues provided implicitly or expressly by the players. In the examples of the "tense situation", I see GM authorship first (eg an ambush, a trial) and then player input in response to that (eg who are the ambushers?, why are you in trouble?) The GM will build up an exciting world with the players' help. There is express contemplation that the GM will have prepared a dungeon, at least in general outline.

In contrast, the BW advice emphasises that it is the elements that the players bring, via the stuff on their PC sheets (setting details like gear and relationships; PC orientations in the form of Beliefs; PC capabilities in the form of Circles; etc), that is at the centre of setting. Everything else relates to, and has a purpose in service of, that stuff.

There is a risk with the BW approach. Whenever I mention that risk I also mention @Campbell, because he's the poster who has articulated it most passionately. The risk is that the play of the game and the articulation of the fiction becomes "distorted" or even (to use a strong word) "corrupted" in service of player wish-fulfilment and pre-conceived character arcs. I think BW has devices to protect against this, most notably a very high incidence of failure for checks (compared to, say, any recent version of D&D). But it's still something to be aware of.

DW (like AW) has features of its action resolution process and its "framing" process that militate against the risk found in BW - intention and related notions like PC Beliefs are not considerations in resolution. But there are risks in the DW approach (moreso I think than AW, but I won't go into that in this post) which is that the core conceits and elements of the fiction become hostage to GM control and pre-authorship in a way that (as I have said) I think is already hinted at in the advice I have quoted.

That's the contrast I'm seeing.
Again, this feels like looking for a clean distinction to what is essentially the same advice. I'll agree that DW does a less clear job at this, but both are telling you to create fiction that interacts with the PCs on the map, but leave space around it to add. I'm not seeing a clear articulation of what you see as a defining difference aside from they use different descriptions and that DW does scatter it's advice around the book. If your point is that BW does a better job of explaining it's intent, okay, no argument.
 

pemerton

Legend
The thing I like about prep in blades in the dark is the advice to "provide opportunities." So I see my role as gm as a mix of providing those opportunities and basically interpreting dice rolls (as suggestions, not as definitive arbitration). We haven't played long enough to see how my dnd-accustomed players will react, but basically I want to shift completely away from skill/challenge play to narrative play, but still provide mechanics for a 'game' type experience (I've read but never actually played a pbta game and never played bw).
I've neither read nor played BitD (or other FitD games), but have read a lot about them! I have limited PbtA experience (DW play) but have read AW and DW very closely and engaged in a lot of discussion about them.

I think the language of "provide opportunities" can be both an invitation and a trap. (Maybe that's a bit dramatic. Hopefully my point will be clear enough nevertheless.) When what we have in mind is, say, a classic railroad module - say a DL module, or the 3E-era Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, or even the 4e module Thunderspire Labyrinth (which, as written, is basically a railroad once the players make some basic choices) - then "provide opportunities" is clearly an invitation to do something different - to open up a space of player choice.

But if what we have in mind is, say, Tomb of Horror or White Plume Mountain, or even if we focus on those parts of Thunderspire Labyrinth that do offer choices (like how the players choose to orient their PCs vis-a-vis some of the factions) then "provide opportunities" can look like simply doing more of that sort of thing: dungeons/settings that allow meaningful choices about exploration, what challenges to tackle and how, who to ally with, etc. But that would still end up being a long way from Burning Wheel play and pretty skill/challenge focused rather than "narratively" focused.

What I like about the BW advice I quoted in the OP is that it move beyond abstractions like "provide opportunities" or "leave blanks" to focus on who brings what to the table. It expressly calls out those things that are central and where they come from (ie traits, gear, relationships, Beliefs that are found on PC sheets; NPCs that flow from Circles checks that are declared by players for their PCs). This is also what I was getting at with my final comment in the OP:

pemerton said:
Of course this only works if we bring the right resources into play. The BW advice draws attention to that intimate connection between the elements of PC build, and the way setting is used in the game.

In a game in which the GM brings the content that is provided by (say) Beliefs and relationships - and there are pretty strong hints of that in (eg) the DW suggestion that the GM will first frame the PCs into an ambush, and then ask the players to help flesh out its fictional context - it's going to be harder to follow the BW advice.

But then what is player abuse, or corruption, or distortion? Why does that have negative connotations? Isn't player agency the goal of story now anyway?
I think this is a pretty important question. We could say that - in relation to player-oriented or player-driven RPGing - it sits in the same sort of space as do questions about "Monty Haul" or "Killer DMing" in relation to classic dungeoneering.

Here's my take (again, with due acknowledgement to @Campbell for pushing me hard to think about this): the more that the player gets to "front load" the arc/fate of his/her PC, and hence the conception of his/her PC, the less s/he is going to be challenged by actual play. Play becomes more like the working out in detail of something already decided.

You can see how the BW approach opens the door to this possibility: if the key setting details are coming from the PC sheet, then a lot of what happens is going to deal with or speak to those details. As I posted above, the main device that BW uses to protect against this risk is its relatively high failure rate.

Again, this feels like looking for a clean distinction to what is essentially the same advice. I'll agree that DW does a less clear job at this, but both are telling you to create fiction that interacts with the PCs on the map, but leave space around it to add. I'm not seeing a clear articulation of what you see as a defining difference aside from they use different descriptions and that DW does scatter it's advice around the book. If your point is that BW does a better job of explaining it's intent, okay, no argument.
I don't think it's just about clarity of explanation. I think it's about identifying the author, and the method of authorship, of key setting elements.

Obviously if we're comparing these games to (say) classic D&D or 5e D&D, the distinction I'm drawing might vanish from sight as we pull away to expand the horizon of our comparison. But in the OP my goal was to focus in on points of difference between the two games. Part of the reason for doing so was some other recent discussions I've been in where DW has been approached in ways that were a bit unexpected my be; that's led me to go back to the texts and look closely at what's in them.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
These are all far more detailed that either of the OP's quotes suggest. "Draw maps, leave blanks," mostly means only put in the big stuff, and only if it's needed for something in the game.
Just filling in the answers to "Before starting out as adventurers, what significant locations / places have the PCs reasonably heard of; and where are these places?" can generate quite a lot on a map.

At the barest minimum you'll need to know:

--- the immediate surroundings of where the campaign begins; e.g. if you're starting with Keep on the Borderlands you'll need the module map plus an idea of what might be just off said map should the PCs decide to go there.
--- the realm/nation/region they're in, at least by name and vague size*
--- one or two other realms/nations/regions they'll reasonably have heard of*
--- a few major cities or settlements they've heard of and-or maybe passed through on their way to the campaign-begin site*
--- a homeland or colony for each PC-playable species (i.e. where are any Elves going to be from? Dwarves? Hobbitses? Humans? etc.)**
--- somewhere that, or some reason why, a PC could have learned any exotic language it might speak**

* - this would need to be shared with the players during either session 0 or session 1.
** - ditto, except in a DW or BW system the players could come up with it just as well as the GM.

I very much like the idea of a generic, basic, and perhaps quite inaccurate map for the players to use, based on what their PCs would know of. Problem is, mapping is a bloody tedious affair*** and thus I'd rather only have to do each map once. Thus, what ends up happening is I'll do a too-accurate player-side map, copy that for the players, then just add to the original my DM-side stuff. (an easy in-fiction rationale is that any "educated" PC (i.e any Wizard, any noble, or most Clerics) would have seen such a map during their studies, and maybe even been provided a copy)

*** - the way I do it anyway; I'm fussy about maps, and a good map can take me many hours to do - and then twice as many hours to put online and clean up (sometimes pixel by pixel!), as my scanner is crap.

Edit to add: all that said, I very much subscribe to the idea of "leave blank spaces for later use and infill". :)
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I've neither read nor played BitD (or other FitD games), but have read a lot about them! I have limited PbtA experience (DW play) but have read AW and DW very closely and engaged in a lot of discussion about them.

I think the language of "provide opportunities" can be both an invitation and a trap. (Maybe that's a bit dramatic. Hopefully my point will be clear enough nevertheless.) When what we have in mind is, say, a classic railroad module - say a DL module, or the 3E-era Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, or even the 4e module Thunderspire Labyrinth (which, as written, is basically a railroad once the players make some basic choices) - then "provide opportunities" is clearly an invitation to do something different - to open up a space of player choice.

But if what we have in mind is, say, Tomb of Horror or White Plume Mountain, or even if we focus on those parts of Thunderspire Labyrinth that do offer choices (like how the players choose to orient their PCs vis-a-vis some of the factions) then "provide opportunities" can look like simply doing more of that sort of thing: dungeons/settings that allow meaningful choices about exploration, what challenges to tackle and how, who to ally with, etc. But that would still end up being a long way from Burning Wheel play and pretty skill/challenge focused rather than "narratively" focused.

What I like about the BW advice I quoted in the OP is that it move beyond abstractions like "provide opportunities" or "leave blanks" to focus on who brings what to the table. It expressly calls out those things that are central and where they come from (ie traits, gear, relationships, Beliefs that are found on PC sheets; NPCs that flow from Circles checks that are declared by players for their PCs). This is also what I was getting at with my final comment in the OP:


In a game in which the GM brings the content that is provided by (say) Beliefs and relationships - and there are pretty strong hints of that in (eg) the DW suggestion that the GM will first frame the PCs into an ambush, and then ask the players to help flesh out its fictional context - it's going to be harder to follow the BW advice.


I think this is a pretty important question. We could say that - in relation to player-oriented or player-driven RPGing - it sits in the same sort of space as do questions about "Monty Haul" or "Killer DMing" in relation to classic dungeoneering.

Here's my take (again, with due acknowledgement to @Campbell for pushing me hard to think about this): the more that the player gets to "front load" the arc/fate of his/her PC, and hence the conception of his/her PC, the less s/he is going to be challenged by actual play. Play becomes more like the working out in detail of something already decided.

You can see how the BW approach opens the door to this possibility: if the key setting details are coming from the PC sheet, then a lot of what happens is going to deal with or speak to those details. As I posted above, the main device that BW uses to protect against this risk is its relatively high failure rate.


I don't think it's just about clarity of explanation. I think it's about identifying the author, and the method of authorship, of key setting elements.

Obviously if we're comparing these games to (say) classic D&D or 5e D&D, the distinction I'm drawing might vanish from sight as we pull away to expand the horizon of our comparison. But in the OP my goal was to focus in on points of difference between the two games. Part of the reason for doing so was some other recent discussions I've been in where DW has been approached in ways that were a bit unexpected my be; that's led me to go back to the texts and look closely at what's in them.
Sure, I see that, but I think that there's context missing in the DW quotes that situates that advice more closely to BW, which happens to include a reiteration of it's play aesthtic.

That said, the way DW is written does introduce space for... misunderstanding? BW makes that harder. I can relate my experience with BW, in that I failed to grasp the paradigm shift and was left confused about how it could possibly work. I do think that had I encountered DW at that time I very well might have tried to play it like D&D.
 

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