Down the Rabbit Hole: Prep and Lonely Fun

I kind of anticipated that I’d need/want to do a little research to prep for my Burning Wheel scenario at Dreamation next month. But holy shit have I fallen down the research rabbit hole.

I feel like I’m in 6th grade again, when I pored over detailed village maps and exploded views of castles while I learn how to D&D. Kind of wish I knew how to leverage that excitement for learning in a more focused way. Like…okay, 750AD in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, absolutely fascinating place. Total cultural and military clusterfuck, lots of unrevealed history, nothing specific and major happens that year but lots of specific and major things happen leading up to 750AD, very flexible setting. I don’t think I’ll never need to know anything about the year 750AD again after this scenario.

So now I’ve got this early medieval region with lots of neat geography, an apocalyptic series of clashes that have left the place depopulated and crawling with refugees, a trade and cultural crossroad, a frontier really, and it’s so long ago that there are huge swaths of history nobody knows shit about. It feels extravagant and wasteful, too, to have poured so much time into what will be a one-shot. Then again, I don’t know that it’s really a healthy impulse to want to try and turn that research into anything more than fun for friends. Not every brain cycle needs to be rationalized and monetized and justified.

Also: werewolves. You didn’t think the Ummayads rolled over that easy for Charles Martel, did you?

EDIT: This is the final product if you’d like to see it.

0 thoughts on “Down the Rabbit Hole: Prep and Lonely Fun”

  1. I think, given how little of that sort of deep research will actually impact play, that it’s best thought of as just a fun side activity, loosely-related to your game. It insulates you from bringing it to the table (especially at a con) and just having the players set the whole thing on fire and doing whatever they would have done even if you hadn’t made a beautiful diorama.

  2. Oh yeah for sure.

    I know that whenever I did this as a lad it was for immmmmerrrrrsion. Getting all the little details just so. Making the players feel like they’re there.

    Today there’s also a defensive quality to it. I can feel that impulse in my head somewhere! Like,I just know some Aquitaine nerd is going to well actually me at the table like we’re debating whether lightsaber crystals actually matter or not.

  3. The player who couldn’t make it to the last of our burning session on Saturday stopped by yesterday to finish his character. He’s a RPG newbie, so he was curious how I could possibly improv the whole thing; I would have to come up with a scenario beforehand, right?

    I reassured him I could do it – it would just require some creativity on my part. Regardless, there is a part of me that wants to do the same thing: we’re taking part in alt-history, so my old D&D self says I should research the region they’re in, look up names, check out the history, etc.. New me is all like: “None of that is going to come into play, you know better.”


  4. I tend to think that educating oneself about these sorts of things will make it easier to think of game-able situations, as well make improvising within the context easier, as well as enable one to drop enjoyable color.

    E.g., I started re-reading the Great Wolf life paths and am now thinking I really need to read up on wolves… and now Paul has me thinking I need to read up on real-world wolf habitats and the people they might contain, i.e., I need to set a wolf game in the midst of .

  5. Mark Delsing that’s a really good point. I’ve never regretted the prep I did for my ill-fated game inspired by the Age of Religious Wars/30 Years War D&D game because even though that game was consigned to the ashes of bad-game history, I still have those themes and sparks to draw on for other settings and other games.

  6. I also know I often have a really hard time coming up with scenario ideas, because I largely expect them to spring from my head fully-formed like Athena, and when they don’t, I feel stupid. But then I actually do some reading on a given subject and all of a sudden actual ideas are sparked.

    I.e., I often work better with a collaborator, a most often that collaborator is a big pile of books (or Google).

  7. One theme that’s been slowly building for me for a few years now, in particular after I started this Collection, is the idea of consciously reclaiming the best parts of roleplaying traditions (as contrasted by “traditional roleplaying”). I think a lot of good stuff got tossed during the overheated revolutionary fervor of the whole Forge and post-forge scene. Stuff like “nobody uses all this prep (therefore improvising everything is the best solution)”.

    Certainly it was necessary fervor. I’m not regretting the birth pains of the new school. But there’s a lot of good stuff to be recovered now that the new school isn’t a helpless baby in need of relentless defense.

    Reading and dreaming and speculating all add to our toolbox. I think a lot of that has been lost, especially to the generation of players who started up way-deep into the current roleplaying fashion. Or it’s wrongheadedly lumped into playing games with scripted plot lines for tribal, not practical, reasons.

  8. Yes! I’d love to read some good essays about how to transform research into inspiration smoothly at the table; the drawing out of themes, rather than discrete events; the effective use of historical settings and characters; that sort of thing.

    Seems like a certain writer of games about Soviet Airwomen and Southern-Born Union Soldiers might have some things to say…

  9. Paul Beakley …”idea of consciously reclaiming the best parts of roleplaying traditions (as contrasted by “traditional roleplaying”)…”

    Yes! I’ve been thinking about this as well, and sort of touched on ti when I was posting last week about all the trad games I still wanted to play. I want to approach them with fresh eyes, because I feel there is value there if one can set aside the baggage (which is something I feel like the Forge helped us do).

  10. Adam D I’ll be writing those upcoming posts entirely in Basque.

    Mark Delsing​ it’s funny…This is kind of what I thought the OSR was going for when I first started reading about it. They went a different direction.

    I really do feel like there’s a whole other direction to be taken, a fusion of story-driven, even avant garde play, and lots of techniques that disappeared during the Purges. Prep best practices are probably as good a place to start as any. Also at the top of my mind: engaging setting design (my “problem with trad games” thread from a few weeks ago), long term campaign management, etc.

  11. I recently finished reading Engine Publishing’s Odyssey,a  book about campaign management. Like some of their other books, part of me thinks some of the advice is out-of-date, or at least, for “trad play”. But then I try to be open-minded. “Well, people do play games this way and people do deal with these issues… who am I to easy this advice is useless?”

  12. Mark Delsing well…If their audience is trad gamers and their perspective is an unexploded traditional view, they probably have nothing of interest for us.

    I mean I don’t know Engine Publishing specifically. Just saying that what I have in mind specifically has to originate from a more indie/story/modern play place.

    I have no interest at all in indulging nostalgia.

  13. Paul Beakley Their books are kind of a melange; the authors have played indie games, but I don’t know that it’s the bulk of their experience. One of their books, Unframed has a bunch of idle contributors, though.

    I’d be curious to see what you think of them.

  14. I recall an almost-reversal of this notion: Luke checking an obstacle for Great Wolf tracking, and going “Wait, that’s only Ob 2? That seems fake and impossible… But I remember I did a ton of research for this stuff, so we’ll trust Past Luke.”

    In that case, the details did come up in play, but the research was no longer there. Still worked out just fine, and in a sense that research did inform the game.

  15. Wow, brain twins. 

    1) Today on the way home from work I literally thought “you know, I think I’d like to talk to some people about how we deal with character background post-Forge. Because while there was a lot of good done there, I think we threw some babies out with the bath water.” 

    This obviously applies to setting as well. 

    2) As long as we’re only playing in Basque and/or Occitan, I will play in this game. If you introduce Arabic and old Frankish I’ll accept it as long as anyone speaking them gets a +1 Ob to all tests. Latin is an edge case. English is right out. 

    3) Part of this is inspired by the Samurai World long con I’ll be running at Dreamation with James Mendez Hodes and the three history texts I’m reading in prep. How can I possibly know who deserves a +1 forward on their Courtier roll unless I know how the Easterner/Westerner conflict of the Joseon lead to the invasion after Hidetsugu’s succession to kampaku?

  16. Paul Beakley plus, funniest to me, I’ve had discussions with people who are like “never write a background for your character” but when I larp with them will read a 4 page character background written by someone else without blinking, and work hard to internalize it and play to the authorial vision.

  17. Haha, I hear ya. I spent two weeks creating an eight-page booklet describing a starport in great detail for a Traveller one-shot I ran last year, and I didn’t even crack it open. For me, prepping for a one-shot is all about immersing myself to such a degree that I can describe the setting from the perspective of a native, not a foreigner.

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