This post meanders somewhat, but I found it really useful to write. It cleared my mind about how to approach Grimsbury. I hope you find it useful and/or interesting.
There’s something interesting that happens when you’re thinking about setting design and the ultimate goal of a setting. I’ve been thinking that Maybeck County will end up being a fiction platform, primarily. Maybe some tabletop game tie-ins later down the road. But in thinking about the setting that way, I’m confronted with the issue of what info to reveal and what info to leave hidden.
The best fiction experiences I’ve had are the ones where I’ve come into them with no prior knowledge of the setting, plot, etc. The reveal of information happened at the same time that I was discovering the setting. The two intertwined in ways that made me want to both know the stories of the characters I was reading, and to learn more about the world in which they lived. I’m thinking Lies of Locke Lamora, or The First Law.
When it comes to RPG settings, there can be a lot of information front-loaded. Tons of setting info, things you can really sink your teeth into. And this information can be revealed in dribs and drabs during the production of the setting. You can tell your potential audience about what the world contains, give previews, tempt and tease, all without giving information that spoils the experience.
That said, the best tabletop RPG experiences I’ve had have all come from a similar place as my fictional ones. They come from games like Apocalypse World where the world is built out collaboratively. Or they’ve come from Dogs in the Vineyard, where I didn’t know anything except that the game was highly recommended by friends.
I’m thinking through all of this while I’m typing it, because I’m trying to find a solution. My inclination with Maybeck County, Grimsbury and Oldtown, is to share information. To give previews of the setting, give the history, explain what blue rock is, who the Stickweed gang are… you see where I’m going. I want to give that information before there’s a final product or anything. But I’m worried about spoiling the experience.
Being worried about spoiling the experience for people assumes that everyone approaches fiction the same way I do. That’s a bad assumption. So let’s throw that one out the window. Just because an experience has held true for me doesn’t mean it’s going to hold true for everyone (or anyone) else.
There are also a lot of assumptions I’m making about audience with those worries. Who are the people who are going to read this content, primarily? It’s a safe guess to assume that most of them are people who support my Patreon or who follow me on Twitter. I don’t really broadcast these posts through many other channels. In the case of the Patreon supporters, I feel it’s safe to assume that they support because they want to see more information. Means I don’t need to worry about spoiling there. Same is true for Twitter followers, though to a lesser extent.
Here’s the real kicker, though: giving away setting information isn’t giving away story. In previous posts, I’d talked about questions and change being the primary drivers of story and setting building. Giving a bunch of setting information doesn’t spoil the story. It doesn’t answer the question of what someone will do when put in a specific situation. In fact, I’d argue (now, after having worked through all of this) that giving more setting information can make for a better story. It’s really easy as a writer or game designer to fall back on setting as a crutch to make things interesting.
What’s really interesting are the people and how they act.
Does giving out more setting information ahead of a final product make writing that final product potentially more complicated? I’d say yes, because then the creator is beholden to that content. You don’t want to invalidate what you’ve worked on and used to prime the pump and get people interested. At the same time, that means you have to dig deeper to get to the good story stuff. It’s like continuing a TV series. The initial episodes have fewer expectations attached to them. They get to establish the universe and characters as well as tell the story. The second season has a harder task because those characters and that universe have to be consistent. The second season also has to find different ways to be interesting.
So if I give character profiles on Fentil McBrair, Slapdash, or Leticia Carmichael, if I tell you what blue rock is, or explain the origins on the Stickweed Gang, I’m beholden to that information. Maybe few people will read it, but it does exist, out in the world. Part of the point of publishing this stuff is to build interest and generate excitement for whatever the final product(s) will be. That means I have to stay true to what I’ve set up.
That’s not a bad thing. It means I have to dig deeper to make the actual final product. I can’t rely on the easy reveal to drive a story forward. And if there’s an RPG product on the other side of this process, then I’ll have laid the groundwork for a solid setting.
I’ve got two takeaways for people who are working on their own stuff:
- Think through things like this, however you feel comfortable doing so. Knowing why you’re doing something is almost as valuable as doing it. Fewer surprises that way.
- Find whatever way works for you to move forward. For me, that’s being public, including in my working through of mental blocks.
I hope this process gives you something to think about. It’s really easy, in my experience, to get caught up in your own assumptions about how to approach creating. When I started writing this, I was locked up in a little spiral of uncertainty. Now the way forward seems much more clear. However you can clear those blocks, do it.
Look for more Grimsbury content later this week. I’ve got some setting to explore and I’m excited to share it with you.