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TTRPG Settings: A Canny Valley of Playability?

Aldarc

Legend
I will not tread heavily into summarizing the well-known principle of the "uncanny valley" (as per the link) regarding the corollary relationship between an object's resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to it. But I am wondering whether Fantasy TTRPG settings operate as the inverse. This is to hypothesize that there is a general "canny valley" of psychologically acceptable play with settings for the aggregate of people between the "all too historical" and "all too ahistorical."

It is difficult for people to relate well to both the more historically accurate societies and the more utterly fantastical ones, both being "alien" or "uncanny" in some regards to cultural mindset of players of contemporary society, particularly the greater the amount of detail and depth these settings are given. On one end, the settings are perhaps too similar to the familiar, while on the other end, the settings are to dissimilar to the familiar. So settings often have the onerous task of striking the right balance between the poles of familiarity to create a "canny valley" of play. Outside of this "canny valley," players have difficulty psychologically plugging themselves into the setting and so such settings are mostly niche. Examples of possible niche settings may include settings like Hârn and Tékumel.

But it's also possible that we are not dealing with a canny valley of playable settings at all, but, rather, we are in fact dealing with an uncanny valley of unplayable/niche settings.
 

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ardoughter

Adventurer
Supporter
I do not think that it has anything to do with the "uncanny valley" which as I understand it is a visceral reaction. What I think is going on, for the most part most gamers and table are not interested. They want time together with friend where they can take time off from reality and have agency and power that they do not have in their real lives. At the other end of the range are people that what to create a story that is, or approaches a work of art.
the latter takes a lot of work from all the participants and buy in and research.

The other side is that a lot of quite entertaining stories can be made with tropes and fairly stock characters and most tables are ok with that. Given the popularity of modules and adventure paths I would say that most DMs do not have the time, energy or creative chops to build completely from scratch.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
But it's also possible that we are not dealing with a canny valley of playable settings at all, but, rather, we are in fact dealing with an uncanny valley of unplayable/niche settings.

Great thesis!

I would start by saying that I don't think that it's the same psychological effect as the uncanny valley, but it's a useful analogy.

I would extend this; one thing we often ask is why (for example) "Sci-Fi" TTRPGs aren't very popular. There are a few that are based on well-known properties (Star Wars, Star Trek) and a few others here and there, but none that have broken through to the mainstream in the same way that the fantasy one do. I think it is for the same reasons; it is difficult to work with dissimilar settings (the truly alien).

An imagined space of "fantasy," which is usually kinda like an imagined medieval/early renaissance, except with fantasy races that are usually exaggerated caricatures of various human attributes*, is much more manageable.

People are drawn to the familiar ... with tweaks.



*People argue about the complexity change between, say, "Orcs as always evil" or "Orcs as fantasy Klingons" or "Dwarves as dour miners" or "Dwarves as fighty drunk people with Scottish accents" but there is seldom effort put into a fully realized culture that is not dependent on defining itself as an exaggeration of human traits.
 

nevin

Explorer
I will not tread heavily into summarizing the well-known principle of the "uncanny valley" (as per the link) regarding the corollary relationship between an object's resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to it. But I am wondering whether Fantasy TTRPG settings operate as the inverse. This is to hypothesize that there is a general "canny valley" of psychologically acceptable play with settings for the aggregate of people between the "all too historical" and "all too ahistorical."

It is difficult for people to relate well to both the more historically accurate societies and the more utterly fantastical ones, both being "alien" or "uncanny" in some regards to cultural mindset of players of contemporary society, particularly the greater the amount of detail and depth these settings are given. On one end, the settings are perhaps too similar to the familiar, while on the other end, the settings are to dissimilar to the familiar. So settings often have the onerous task of striking the right balance between the poles of familiarity to create a "canny valley" of play. Outside of this "canny valley," players have difficulty psychologically plugging themselves into the setting and so such settings are mostly niche. Examples of possible niche settings may include settings like Hârn and Tékumel.

But it's also possible that we are not dealing with a canny valley of playable settings at all, but, rather, we are in fact dealing with an uncanny valley of unplayable/niche settings.

I've watched many great scifi games die over the years and it's always been my theory that SciFi games were close enough to reality that people just didn't like them. I never really considered the uncanny valley but maybe that's it. When people play fantasy it's definitely not real. When they play Sci Fi or low magic nitty gritty games It feels like it could really happen and that turns them off.

I do think in the west the majority of gamers are interested in Arthurian,Charlemagne style knights and or pulp fiction style Oriental samaurai and Ninja style campaigns.
 

nevin

Explorer
Great thesis!

I would start by saying that I don't think that it's the same psychological effect as the uncanny valley, but it's a useful analogy.

I would extend this; one thing we often ask is why (for example) "Sci-Fi" TTRPGs aren't very popular. There are a few that are based on well-known properties (Star Wars, Star Trek) and a few others here and there, but none that have broken through to the mainstream in the same way that the fantasy one do. I think it is for the same reasons; it is difficult to work with dissimilar settings (the truly alien).

An imagined space of "fantasy," which is usually kinda like an imagined medieval/early renaissance, except with fantasy races that are usually exaggerated caricatures of various human attributes*, is much more manageable.

People are drawn to the familiar ... with tweaks.



*People argue about the complexity change between, say, "Orcs as always evil" or "Orcs as fantasy Klingons" or "Dwarves as dour miners" or "Dwarves as fighty drunk people with Scottish accents" but there is seldom effort put into a fully realized culture that is not dependent on defining itself as an exaggeration of human traits.
I think there's something there. My wife is a great example. I can watch a cop show and no matter what kind of violence it's just part of the show. I watch something like Battle for LA and it's just not right, it's wierd. But we can watch saving Private Ryan and that's ok. My theory has always been the Scifi seems to be something that could come to be and somewhere down in the subconcious it pokes some response, But with fantasy it's definitely unreal and therefore OK. I'll have to think on the opposite you've proposed.
 

nevin

Explorer
I do not think that it has anything to do with the "uncanny valley" which as I understand it is a visceral reaction. What I think is going on, for the most part most gamers and table are not interested. They want time together with friend where they can take time off from reality and have agency and power that they do not have in their real lives. At the other end of the range are people that what to create a story that is, or approaches a work of art.
the latter takes a lot of work from all the participants and buy in and research.

The other side is that a lot of quite entertaining stories can be made with tropes and fairly stock characters and most tables are ok with that. Given the popularity of modules and adventure paths I would say that most DMs do not have the time, energy or creative chops to build completely from scratch.
i disagree. I've been playing since 1973. I agree fantasy games have a lot broader appeal. But in my experience most of the new casual gamers that i've tried to get to play things like traveller, star trek, or gamma world, even if they like books and shows along those lined don't like playing the games and can't even tell you why. a lot of them just give me totally non answers like It just isnt as fun. A friend of mine tried an experiment. We played a Gurps game where we crossed over into a world where they used technology and called it magic. The world was midevil had collapsed and lost it's history ages ago. The players loved the game till they found out that the "magic users" were just guys using tech. Game died at that point from lack of interest. It was like flipping a switch. From abilities to types of adventures etc it was identical to what we'd been doing in the "magic" universe. It's just wierd to me but people prefer "MAGIC" in thier games to "SciFi"
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But it's also possible that we are not dealing with a canny valley of playable settings at all, but, rather, we are in fact dealing with an uncanny valley of unplayable/niche settings.

So, the canny/uncanny valley is about emotional reaction - whatever technical definition may be being used, the colloqual parlance is mostly how about something in the uncanny valley stikes us not just as something we don't care for, but wrong. Often to the point of revulsion, or finding the thing to be creepy.

That's not happening here. People don't typically react to settings with outright disgust (however much they may use that word hyperbolically - folks don't pick their feet off the floor at the site of a settign book the way they do with, say, a creepy-crawly bug).

I don't think we need to invoke the canny or uncanny valley here. Simply noting accessibility should do the trick. How much new and different information do we need to absorb to work within the setting. For both highly historical and ahistorical games, perhaps there's more information to absorb than is worth the effort...
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
That's not happening here. People don't typically react to settings with outright disgust (however much they may use that word hyperbolically - folks don't pick their feet off the floor at the site of a settign book the way they do with, say, a creepy-crawly bug).
. . . don't like playing the games and can't even tell you why. a lot of them just give me totally non answers like It just isnt as fun.
If someone can't logically explain their dislike of a setting, as above, I'd call that an emotional response.

As much potential as the canny valley has - people finding comfort in a setting that isn't too close to being real (or completely false) - it could just as easily be a case of personal preference. Some people like simulation, some like madness, but most likely, they fall somewhere between. If there were a human instinct involved, I think Dragonlance would have been less popular ;)
 

Aldarc

Legend
So, the canny/uncanny valley is about emotional reaction - whatever technical definition may be being used, the colloqual parlance is mostly how about something in the uncanny valley stikes us not just as something we don't care for, but wrong. Often to the point of revulsion, or finding the thing to be creepy.

That's not happening here. People don't typically react to settings with outright disgust (however much they may use that word hyperbolically - folks don't pick their feet off the floor at the site of a settign book the way they do with, say, a creepy-crawly bug).

I don't think we need to invoke the canny or uncanny valley here. Simply noting accessibility should do the trick. How much new and different information do we need to absorb to work within the setting. For both highly historical and ahistorical games, perhaps there's more information to absorb than is worth the effort...
The use of the "uncanny valley" should be understood less literally here and more analogically, wherein we can (potentially) observe a similar valley formed between the peaks of the overly familiar settings and overly unfamiliar settings.
 

nevin

Explorer
i don't know about that. Dragonlance had Sturm the Knight, the dark wizard, the thief, cleric and warrior. It was pretty standard and even aurthurian as far as fantasy tropes go. Knights, dragons and sacrifice.
 

nevin

Explorer
now the boxed set they released of the otherside of the world was never that popular. It was a very difffernt place. Minotaur player characters and crazy tinker Gnomes, with the equivilant of the Roman empire in the middle of it.
 

I think for me it largely depends on the context and how the setting and its designers try to evoke the desired effect.

So, let's take a very unfamiliar setting. While its strangeness may make it hard to grasp, and therefore challenging to use, if the concepts are interesting enough and work well with the game to promote a fun experience, then I'd happily play in such a setting.

The same with a too familiar setting. If it's got something compelling to make playing there worthwhile....some compelling thing that matters to me more than the familiarity bothers me, then I'd be fine with that, too.

The concern in both cases would be that the compelling element.....the interesting thing that may overcome the strangeness or familiarity.....is noticeable enough to hook a person before they dismiss the setting as either too strange or too mundane.

So I do think a visceral kind of immediate reaction, akin to the one in the uncanny valley, can be a very relevant factor here.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If someone can't logically explain their dislike of a setting, as above, I'd call that an emotional response.

Without arguing that - do you think all emotional responses are created equal? I don't. "Uninterested" may be an emotional respose, but it isn't like, "Ew! That... too historical!"
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
I'm not well-versed in uncanny valley studies, but I'm sure some participants had creepy, crawly bug reactions, but most didn't.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Without arguing that - do you think all emotional responses are created equal? I don't. "Uninterested" may be an emotional respose, but it isn't like, "Ew! That... too historical!"
I do have a strange discomfort surrounding some settings that IMHO fall into the uncanny valley of faux-Europe: e.g., 7th Sea's Théah. Someone else I found has described it similarly: "Too Close to Home: 7th Sea and the Uncanny Valley."

While not uncanny valley per se, I also found a similar idea in a blog post: "Tekumel Shock Syndrome Turned up to 11". (Warning: the author does pedal a bit of RPG Pundit.)
 

pemerton

Legend
one thing we often ask is why (for example) "Sci-Fi" TTRPGs aren't very popular. There are a few that are based on well-known properties (Star Wars, Star Trek) and a few others here and there, but none that have broken through to the mainstream in the same way that the fantasy one do.
I don't think this premise is correct. In the late 70s/early 80s, the second-biggest RPG after D&D was Traveller. Then RuneQuest.

And there's at least an argument that Glorantha is a counter-example to @Aldarc's thesis, being a very detailed setting based on a close reading and engagement with realworld mythology and history, but one of the most enduringly popular of RPG settings.

So, let's take a very unfamiliar setting. While its strangeness may make it hard to grasp, and therefore challenging to use, if the concepts are interesting enough and work well with the game to promote a fun experience, then I'd happily play in such a setting.
I only know it from the accounts of others, but there's at least an argument that the BitD setting (Duskvol?) fits this description.
 

pemerton

Legend
I do have a strange discomfort surrounding some settings that IMHO fall into the uncanny valley of faux-Europe: e.g., 7th Sea's Théah.
My feeling here is that the issue is more about purpose and utility.

A Hyborean Age approach - which we see with GH, FR and many other RPG worlds - allows emulating real-world tropes while ignoring real-world timelines.

Actually playing in the real world - eg Ars Magica, Prince Valiant - allows all the benefits of the real world ie names, maps, histories etc, with the overlay of whatever fiction one is creating.

Pseudo-earth that achieves neither the flexibility of the Hyborean Age nor the utility of the real world seems kind of pointless.
 

ardoughter

Adventurer
Supporter
I don't think this premise is correct. In the late 70s/early 80s, the second-biggest RPG after D&D was Traveller. Then RuneQuest.

And there's at least an argument that Glorantha is a counter-example to @Aldarc's thesis, being a very detailed setting based on a close reading and engagement with realworld mythology and history, but one of the most enduringly popular of RPG settings.

....
I would agree with you that the premise is incorrect, but I think it has more to do with the investment of time and effort by the DM and group to make other settings successful.
D&D had a really low bar to DM, get some graph paper, draw some rooms and connecting corridors and populate with monsters, treasure and traps. They even had rules/an algorithm for it in Basic D&D and most tables would be happy.
The setting imposed no restrictions. It is Disney medieval with no effective authority. If the DM or groups wants actual Medieval social structure, go ahead, Classical world, knock yourself out.

RuneQuest is the Anti-D&D, it is for those people that took one look at D&D world building and said "that would never work" and I never played Traveller but I think that the character background stuff was a key to its success. I have made use of detail back story generators before and they can be a) great fun in their own right, and b) really add to a campaign because they tend to generate plot points, question marks in the characters background that can be used to tie the PC's in to the plot.

The other thing, the default D&D playstyle - murderhoboing, if you will, does not work with many settings. It works in D&D, the Old West - the Movie version, Certain times and locations in Traveller (If I remember the lore correctly), Post Apocalyptic. Ironically it does not work in a realistic medieval Europe - too many local authorities. Unless one of the PC is a local noble, in which case the campaign rapidly escalates to a wargame.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
I've watched many great scifi games die over the years and it's always been my theory that SciFi games were close enough to reality that people just didn't like them. I never really considered the uncanny valley but maybe that's it. When people play fantasy it's definitely not real. When they play Sci Fi or low magic nitty gritty games It feels like it could really happen and that turns them off.

I do think in the west the majority of gamers are interested in Arthurian,Charlemagne style knights and or pulp fiction style Oriental samaurai and Ninja style campaigns.

I've run far more sci-fi campaigns (50+ sessions) than I have fantasy.

The weakness of sci-fi settings is, IME, the learning curve required. Fantasy settings generally are cookie cutters, with just cosmetic differences; you can brief a new player in very few words. But sci-fi settings require players to have to absorb a lot more background information. To run sci-fi campaigns, you need mature players with a strong commitment to the hobby.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I don't think this premise is correct. In the late 70s/early 80s, the second-biggest RPG after D&D was Traveller. Then RuneQuest.

Citation to sales? I don't think it exists, but I'd love to see a source for TTRPG sales from the 70s and early 80s.

In addition, I was speaking generally over time.

It's an interesting thesis; I suggest engaging more with the author of the post to the extent you want to help the OP refine it.
 
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