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May 16th, 2006


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06:32 pm - Positions on RPG Culture
I am still overwhelmed at the amount of posting on my last two posts ("RPG Culture Wars" and "RPG Culture Wars in Action"). Sorry about the issues with LiveJournal threading, folks. (I like having threading in general, but they should be more distinct.)

As for my motivation here: I think it's good to sit back and reflect on one's own positions. This is a clash of at least two identities for me. I do identify with both the Forge, but I also identify as a traditional tabletop role-playing gamer -- I have been playing published RPGs for 25 years, and enjoy and approve of this as a hobby. There is clearly conflict here, as seen in the comments, but too often it has been expressed as exaggerated rants and snide in-house comments rather than open discussion. Thankfully, commenters have been largely civil with no moderation from me. (I haven't had time to comment in the flood.)

So, what's the core of the conflict here? i.e. Not the details over who said what, but the true differences in position. I think there are genuine differences here centered on the judgment of traditional games. Troy Costisick makes a stab at a definition in his blog post, "What is a Traditional Game?", but really I think we all have a decent idea: i.e. AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Vampire are traditional -- as are games similar to them. Personally, I have different problems with each of these, but I don't have a core problem with the setup. For example, I am a fan of both Champions and James Bond 007, which are thoroughly traditional. As discussed in the comments, Troy wrote about traditional games:
"The thing that traditional games tend to do is empower the GM and suppress the players. They encourage, sometimes implicitly sometimes explicitly, the idea that the GM is the one who creates the story, the characters just add their voice and color."
I disagree with this as a generalization. Short form: "GM controls world" does not mean "GM writes story". In games, the choices and actions of the PCs make a difference.

Now, there are a subset of traditional games which do advise the GM to at least prepare a linear sequence of scenes for the game to follow -- most notably Torg and Deadlands. However, it is far from universal, and even in those, I think the players have significant input. Notably, D&D dungeons are not linear stories. I've used the example before of a DM running players through G1 "Steading of the Hill Giant Chief". This is about as traditional as you get, in my opinion. Here, the DM is little more than an accountant who reads off descriptions of the rooms as the players choose where to go. The players create dynamic characters, define where they go, and set the pace of the game.

Now, obviously, I don't think that traditional tabletop RPGs are for everyone. As a whole, they narrowly focus on fantasy/sci-fi action, for example. There are many cases of sloppy design and over-complexity. I dislike the typical handling of women and minorities. So I can understand general avoidance of them to play something else. Many of the people I play with these days are much more rules-light than me, and would run screaming from Champions. But that doesn't mean that for those who play it, the standard is "twenty minutes of fun in four hours". If you like Champions, playing it is fairly continuous fun.

The topic of GM advice has also come up. For example, in comments to my previous posts, benlehman wrote:
Here's a stab at what I think that passage actually means: "A lot of the 80s-90s era gaming texts have really confusing messages about social relationships amongst the group and mechanics. This has left a lot of gamers confused, adrift, and often believing that they have to put up with social crap because 'it's in the book.' When they figure out a better way, they tend to cling strongly to that one way, because the rest of their experience sits in sharp contrast."
I'd be interested in discussing more specific examples. Offhand, I don't agree with this reading. I don't like most GMing advice. However, in my experience, tabletop role-players are rarely by-the-book types. They'll freely edit, kitbash, mangle, and even rewrite from scratch the games they're playing. For example, Gary Gygax's appeals to play D&D exactly as written were met with resounding derision. Also, Gary Alan Fine's sociological study seems to support that the social hierarchy was independent of the rules. As he found it, the social hierarchy in gaming generally followed the underlying social hierarchy regardless of the game played. The dominant people usually game-mastered, but if they played PCs, they would still walk over the GM. This matches my experience. While this might sound negative, I don't feel that interactions are any worse than other social scenes -- like high school, bar-hopping, PTA meetings, or sports leagues.

Still, I'd be interested to hear opposing views of traditional role-playing.

(27 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:eyebeams
Date:May 17th, 2006 02:55 am (UTC)
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I pretty much agree with you. Roleplaying games follow pretty conventional social dynamics. The thing is that, as performance disciplines teach us, performance within that set of dynamics is a skill. It requires time and practice.

A conventional game is, in the end, a locus for negotiation between all participants. It creates situations and circumstances that everyone has to confront and take opportunities from. That means that the GM might fudge dice, but for the most part, he has to fudge them in reaction to the result the dice implies.

Games do not create "agreement," because that's really a function of how the group interacts and in many cases, is never full resolved. Players can have divergent personal descriptions of what happened in a perfectly entertaining and functional game. If you're looking for immersion, this is one of the things you look for. That other persona (or its simulation) should interact with everyone else in a different way than the player's normal situation.

Honestly, I think a lot of the impulse to describe traditional games as GM tyrranies come from experiences within a social hierarchy that wasn't that healthy to begin with. In this situation, the GM is something of a cat-herder and needs to use brute social force, or the GM already dominates the social situation in an unhealthy way.

I suspect that part of the problem is also that the core social relationships in gaming are moving away from what many games were designed for, because there are fewer gamers and more groups of people who do not know each other well (or don't even like each other) playing. I think the first big example of this kind of dissonance was in MET LARP, where the rules set was at odds with groups of people who weren't really friends with all participants in most games.

So yeah: Traditional games were designed as ways to fool with the social interactions between friends, but have been asked to regulate the social interactions between bare acquiantances and strangers.

Where the element of player skill occurs is when group members are conscious of the social relationship and have the skills to play with it in the process of negotiation.
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From:cpxbrex
Date:May 17th, 2006 03:55 am (UTC)
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I don't think that an exacting definition of a "traditional gamer" is actually possible. It seems to me the people asking for a precise tradition are doing so merely to punch holes in it, and muddy the various cultural issues involved. Rather than discuss the issues, they'd rather discuss the definition and thus never have to address the issue. Still, I guess I have a few comments on the subject, hehe:

Normally in such situations, the answer I'd give, by the way, is a person who identifies with and is identified by the group in question as belonging to that group. One of the issues here is, certainly, that the overwhelming majority of gamers are wholly unaware of a schism at all! Most gamers play their games only tangentially aware of Internet discussions such as this. I suspect that if anyone qualifies as a traditional gamer it's them: the great mass of gamers to whom all this mess is irrelevant.

I'd also question role-playing games as being the place where groups of people define their social relationship. I mean, if a social group that games together works as a social group, nothing said in a gaming book about how to organize their gaming group will really matter. They'll do it themselves. Likewise, if a social group is dysfunctional, then all the gaming advice in the world out of a gaming book is very unlikely to make anything better at all. And for gaming clubs and tournaments, there the reality of those situations is also so different and diverse that the social rules should be set locally. It just seems to me to try to bundle social advice in a role-playing game . . . well, it strikes me as being a trifle weird. And creepy.

My experience with traditional games was that most of the players did not see the GM as a tyrant. They saw the GM as a friend who worked pretty hard to give the players a fun experience. And even if the GM does do a very linear game, well, many players don't mind this (like everyone in the world who plays a first person shooter or a computer RPG -- things are extremely linear, but none of those millions seem to much mind). I think most traditional players appreciate the effort their GM goes through to make an interesting game.
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From:bruceb
Date:May 17th, 2006 04:39 am (UTC)
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Cpbxrex touches on something I think is important, and gives me a chance to show off. :) When I develop a book, I include some advice for GMs and players, and if I'm not writing it myself, I tell the author that our target audience is people of good will, doing their part, but either just not getting something or running into a problem they don't see how to solve. We are not trying to do anything to the folks who have their happy groove, and we aren't trying to save the hopelessly lost. It's the in-between people, mostly having fun but stuck at the moment, that we can and (IMHO) should try to help.
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From:cpxbrex
Date:May 17th, 2006 01:26 pm (UTC)
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I would also say that there are huge amounts of difference between a game that tries to give concrete advise about gaming and games that try to define the social bond of the game. Huge amounts of difference. ;)

I'm all for games trying to make the game more fun by improving the gaming skills of the gamers, but trying to improve the gamers themselves, by trying to improve the socializing of the group. Weird. And sorta creepy when I think about it, hehe.
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From:gbsteve
Date:May 17th, 2006 10:53 am (UTC)
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"The thing that traditional games tend to do is empower the GM and suppress the players. They encourage, sometimes implicitly sometimes explicitly, the idea that the GM is the one who creates the story, the characters just add their voice and color."

I agree with the basis of the sentence but not what I interpret as the sentiment. The sentiment seems to be Traditional Games = Bad which is as pointless as it is inflammatory which is see as reinforced by the expressions that I've put in bold.

On the other hand, I would say that there is in traditional games an agreement, usually tacit, that the players create within the framework, often quite tight, as defined by the GM. If you took what the GM has written before it is played, then you'd usually be able to give the gross points of the story. And in that sense what the players do is add detail and colour and in effect do not write the story. Just pick up any Call of Cthulhu or AD&D scenario and grosso modo you'll be able to say what happens.

Depending on the GM and players, there is more or less scope for the players to break out of the confines of the GM's framework and make the story/plot more of a dialogue between players and GM. This is easier if you're happy with an improvisational GMing style but this may not suit players who can see this as working against their power to make tactical decisions, given that improv tends to move the goalposts to suit the changes in the game. Some players, notably Brian Gleichman for those who remember him, want the GM to deliver what it says on the paper. This kind of player is often pilloried, and wrongly so in my opinion.

That's not to say that non-traditional games don't have a framework. I've found that the ones that work best have quite tight frameworks too.

In My Life with Master, PCs rebel and kill the Master. They will attempt to bunk off from service to increase their connections with the villagers.

In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM has specified up front what the issue is and the PCs will have a moral dialogue between themselves to resolve it (actually Dogs is probably quite a traditional game but with a focus on personal morality instead of external issues).

Polaris has quite a strongly defined feel that gives the players clear pointers on the direction of travel.

octaNe on the other hand appears to be so free that it's sometimes hard to engage players who need to do quite a bit of work to define what they want to address in the game. This is primarily done at character creation but if you're coming from traditional games you don't necessarily realise this. But in fact it's not very different from the choice of feats at 1st level D&D.

I think the big strength in traditional games is giving players support by developing the areas of the game that they have little interest in doing so themselves, such as plot/story. I think non-traditional games are strong because they support players in developing these very same areas and I like both.
From:marcochacon
Date:May 17th, 2006 11:48 am (UTC)
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I agree with a lot of this.

Exactly: the bolded words make it clear how the author feels. If you want to talk about framework vs. action (GM creates the framework, players take action) then, depending on how we define those terms, I think that's fair.

(and the collary, as you point out is: Game designer creates the framework, players take action)

Unless people can drop the language, the discussion can't really take place. There's no real way for me to engage with someone saying "traditional games encourage players to just add voice and color" beyond the basic "No, I don't think that's true" phase of discussion.

-Marco
From:the_tall_man
Date:May 17th, 2006 12:00 pm (UTC)
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I think the big strength in traditional games is giving players support by developing the areas of the game that they have little interest in doing so themselves, such as plot/story. I think non-traditional games are strong because they support players in developing these very same areas and I like both.

Now, there's a phrasing of it that I can get completely behind.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 17th, 2006 02:09 pm (UTC)
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Heya,

I'm fully on board with this too. If my exact wording cause hurt in people, I do appologize. Hurting people's feelings is not what I'm about. And as for necessarily thinking Trad Games = Bad or Unfun, I do not. In fact, I own just about every DnD3e sup that's come out along with CoC and Rolemaster. And I play them quite often. But enough of being defensive. I really do like what you wrote.

Peace,

-Troy
From:marcochacon
Date:May 17th, 2006 02:13 pm (UTC)
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Your wording didn't "cause hurt in people"*--it caused people to not want to help you in achieving your own goals. There's a big difference. Your choice of words hurts you.

-Marco
* Or maybe it did--but I'm unaware of any cases of that.
From:losrpg
Date:May 17th, 2006 09:24 pm (UTC)
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I'd like to second Marco's words here. I have long assumed that the tenor of discourse on the Forge + diaspora was intentionally offputting, and that this was done because other perspectives simply weren't wanted. If other perspectives are wanted, then the tenor of the conversation needs to change.

From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 18th, 2006 05:26 pm (UTC)
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That's the pot calling the kettle black! Losr, you've done nothing but bait people time after time on this live journal and all over. Your words are hollow. They are empty of any substance. You seek only to start arguments, not resolve them. Cause problems, not eliminate them. Your dispicable agenda is laid bare in everyone's eyes. Go spout off someplace else.

=CJ James
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:May 18th, 2006 05:43 pm (UTC)
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Troy is not all of the Forge, and he apologized for his tone of traditional=bad. Shouldn't you acknowledge that? That's part of the tenor of the conversation. I didn't like many of the rants on the Forge, but here Troy is trying to be open and even apologized for his prior tone.
From:losrpg
Date:May 18th, 2006 05:51 pm (UTC)
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Well, that comment wasn't directed solely at Troy, but at any member of the Forge who happens to read it -- because I think Marco's words might usefully be directed at the Forge as a whole. Obviously, I failed to make that clear.

Even rereading my post, though, I don't see any criticism in it. Simply a statement of how best to move forward, and a statement of how I have perceived the atmosphere at the Forge (ie, what I think the problem is). Oh, well, I'll chalk it up to the fact that tone doesn't always carry well on the internet.
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From:gbsteve
Date:May 17th, 2006 02:44 pm (UTC)
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No foul. That's why I tried to separate the apparent sentiment from what I thought you were trying to say.

Cheers,
Steve
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:May 17th, 2006 05:08 pm (UTC)
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gbsteve wrote: On the other hand, I would say that there is in traditional games an agreement, usually tacit, that the players create within the framework, often quite tight, as defined by the GM. If you took what the GM has written before it is played, then you'd usually be able to give the gross points of the story. And in that sense what the players do is add detail and colour and in effect do not write the story. Just pick up any Call of Cthulhu or AD&D scenario and grosso modo you'll be able to say what happens.

This is probably a difference in emphasis, but I don't find this to be true. That is, suppose a typical gamer talks to me about what happened in their last gaming session, and I have read the published module that the GM is using. I can't tell very much about the story they will tell. The story will usually revolve around stuff which they did -- how Jim's paladin nearly died protecting the others from the shambling mound, or how Ian pissed off the anarch leader, etc.

Reading a module tells you nothing about the central characters -- only the background and antagonists. To me, a story is about the protagonists: who they are and what they do. So the story of Die Hard isn't "fighting 12 terrorists in the upper stories of an office building". That accurately describes the framework within which the story is told, but it isn't the story itself. Mind you, I'm not saying that the stories of a typical gaming session are particularly good. (Then again, if you asked for the same people to deliberately write stories, they wouldn't be much better.) But the story that is there, to them, is to a large degree about the characters.
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From:eruditus
Date:May 17th, 2006 06:54 pm (UTC)
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No doubt many, many games blur the lines. A couple years ago I ran a D&D3e game about children caught in the Underdark. I created a mechanic (not unlike Void points from L5R d20) that not only allowed the players to effect the game mechanically but also to add story elements - NPC relationships, known structures, plot points, etc. So although I generally ran the show they had their own inclusions into the game. Those that were interested in sharing in the creation and narrative process did so while those that did not got minor mechanical advantages.
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From:chgriffen
Date:May 17th, 2006 08:48 pm (UTC)
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I've always found that thing really hard, as a GM. I guess it's what the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast relates to. I'm preparing and setting things up, and the players go off in a completely different direction. Not wanting to take away their choices (which would deprotagonize them), I'm left floundering and trying to come up with new stuff, but the game we played (DSA) required a good amount of prep, so... that was often frustrating.
From:losrpg
Date:May 17th, 2006 09:41 pm (UTC)
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Oddly, I've always found that really easy, as GM. What I find hard to deal with are players who don't want to help direct the game. I think this has a lot to do with the kind of prep I do (and isn't much related to the amount of prep). I don't script scenes in advance, what I do is to detail the NPCs and their motivations and then lay out what will happen if the PCs don't intervene. I'm also pretty proactive about asking the players in advance of the game session what their characters will be doing. Overall, I think there are a bunch of techniques that can really help manage this problem...but in the end, you do have to be prepared to improvise if the players decide to do something that you haven't prepped, and some GMs are more temperamentally suited to doing that. I do think that any GM gets better at it with practice, though.


[User Picture]
From:chgriffen
Date:May 17th, 2006 09:45 pm (UTC)
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Well, I haven't GMed for a long time now, and I've learned a lot of new things, so I would definitely do things differently now. But I also wouldn't run modules anymore.
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From:ewilen
Date:May 17th, 2006 10:33 pm (UTC)
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Yet another instance of culture clash, or coming from different experiences. Almost none of my gaming experience comes from playing modules. The main exceptions were: a train wreck from the get-go, and the very tightly-focused, very fun, get-to-the-combat paragraph-driven adventures from TFT, which were all essentially "dungeons".
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:May 18th, 2006 12:16 am (UTC)
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Ah. Not very familiar with DSA -- is there a core story and/or adventure structure? In general, it's good to limit the scope. Dungeons do this, but so do many other setups -- like Champions' villains, Paranoia's missions, or Dogs' towns. Particularly in a high-prep game, you are going to have to limit their choices but give them flexibility within those limits.
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From:chgriffen
Date:May 18th, 2006 11:31 pm (UTC)
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I can only speak for 2nd edition DSA (I think they're on 4th now or so). It's very much an attempt to create this authentic world, relatively low on magic, with lots of NPCs and detailed realms, with an official newsletter that tells you of political and cultural developments. Big Things only happened in modules (or the newsletter); in fact, it seems like module play was strongly encouraged, but I don't have my books anymore, so I can't check on that. Basically, you could do small local things as long as you didn't touch the political and social structures too much, or else you'd risk messing up future module play.

So there was no core story, but not much flexibility to create grand adventures on your own (unless you completely abandoned canon). And you know, we had lots of fun with it overall, despite it being frustrating at times.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 19th, 2006 06:12 pm (UTC)
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Huh... I design my adventure modules the opposite way - keeping them small and self contained - though extensible - so they don't tread on the big things the players want to do. Like losrpg and Marco, I'm a situational GM - I set things up with background, physical description, and NPC motivations, bring in an initial situation, and let the players do what they want - and that's the way I write adventures. I never prep very far in advance because I have no clue what the players will think is important. I try to keep a jump or two ahead of the players is all. Marco knows... :D

BTW, thanks for mentioning me last (column? post? week? I'm not a blog reader...) John! I'm in some excellent company, there. :D

-clash bowley
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From:chgriffen
Date:May 20th, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
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Well, I didn't design most of the modules, I bought them, because I was a beginner and this is what the core books suggested :)

Nowadays, sure, I'd set up a situation rife with conflicting interests and drop the PCs right in there. But back then, I hadn't been exposed to that kind of play. I thought it was all about presenting stuff to the players and running them from a beginning to an end, with them fleshing out the middle (and having the chance to determine a couple of different endings).
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:May 20th, 2006 12:39 am (UTC)
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I'd second Clashes comment here. It's interesting that the modules are spanning -- that's sounds similar to what I saw in Torg's modules. The newsletter including world developments also sounds like a similar model. Torg's modules were often globe-spanning quests, which made it impossible to prepare the background elements.

The contrasting approach is for modules to be, well, modular -- tightly constrained to only specify within a given area and time. A classic dungeon is an example of this, but also a town module or many other approaches. This is the appraoch of Harn and much of D&D. (Harn also has a policy to put great detail into the world up to a given year, but everything after that is undefined.)

I think the broad module approach is a problem unless you're willing and able to prescript the plot to some degree.
From:marcochacon
Date:May 18th, 2006 12:13 pm (UTC)
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The thing to do here is to get buy-in before the game starts. If I tell the Players "I have this cool idea for a sea-going adventure to pirate infested waters seeking to recover a lost magical artifact" and they say "yeah, cool!" it's a lot less likely that on day one of the game they'll head to the desert.

Someone said expectations are nothing more than pre-meditated resentments and I think there's a good deal of truth to that. Expecting/demanding that the characters do what you want without having any kind of discussion with the players isn't, IMO, really fair (and notably, a lot of games solve that problem by making their scope very limited so the communication happens when we sit down to play: DitV, MLWM, D&D ...).

-Marco
From:losrpg
Date:May 20th, 2006 03:36 pm (UTC)
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The thing to do here is to get buy-in before the game starts. If I tell the Players "I have this cool idea for a sea-going adventure to pirate infested waters seeking to recover a lost magical artifact" and they say "yeah, cool!" it's a lot less likely that on day one of the game they'll head to the desert.

Exactly. The key is to make sure that everyone has the same understanding of the game concept -- you might say "14th century renegade Templar pirates" and one player might key in on renegade Templars and be thinking the game will be about religious/political manipulation and another player might be thinking the game is about flying the Jolly Roger with cannons and stuff (even though ships didn't have cannon then). I've been bitten by this before.



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